(November 2, 2017) Most students of the Civil War will catch many errors in this Voice of America article about White House Chief-of-Staff John Kelly’s characterization of Robert E. Lee as an “honorable man.”
Before itemizing them, I wish readers to know that Voice of America “is a U.S. government-funded international news source that serves as the United States federal government’s official institution for non-military external broadcasting.” Now, to the errors:
- The article falsely states that the “Confederacy originally consisted of Lee’s home state of Virginia and six other states.” In truth, Virginia did not join the Confederacy until after President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer troops to coerce the original seven Confederate states back into the Union.
- VOA erroneously identifies Lee as the “Commander of the Confederate States of America.” Although Lee was promoted to become Commander in Chief of the Confederate armies near the end of the war, the President of the Confederacy from start-to-finish was Jefferson Davis, not Lee.
- VOA conflates one reason for secession with the reason for the war. If the Northern states wanted the USA to be free of slavery they could have simply let the seceding states leave in peace. Moreover, neither Lincoln—or any mainstream Northern leaders—chose to invade the South in order to end slavery. The Confederate states were coerced back into the Union because the Northern states wanted to avoid the economic consequences of disunion to themselves.
- The article falsely implies that Lee owned slaves when Virginia seceded. In truth, Lee inherited some slaves when his mother died 32 years before the Civil War started, but did not own any himself when it began in 1861. During the first 20 months of the 48-month war he was executor of his father-in-law’s estate, which included slaves bequeathed to Lee’s wife in 1858. In compliance with his father-in-law’s will, however, Lee set the slaves free 28 months before the war ended.
- The article erroneously represents as fact a disputed charge that Lee “sometimes” severely punished his slaves. The statement refers to a charge by a runaway slave owned by his wife as a result of the temporary inheritance noted above. Lee denied the runaway’s accusation. VOA should clarify that the incident is an unverified allegation, not an indisputable fact.
- The article also implies that the Southern states did not support the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. In truth, all of the former Confederate states except Mississippi promptly supported the Amendment after the war ended. Eight of the eleven were among those voting to ratify it before it was ratified by the nation at large in December 1865. That happened nearly three years before blacks generally had the right to vote in the region and three years before the tyrannical carpetbagger regimes took control of the South. Mississippi outlawed slavery in its own state constitution only months after the war ended.
- VOA dubiously states that Lee never spoke-out against slavery. But he did, in fact, label it an “evil” years before the war started. Moreover, in January 1865 he asked the Confederate Congress to permit slaves to enlist in the Rebel armies and added that he favored giving them freedom in exchange for volunteering.
Since the Voice of America is taxpayer funded and some of the errors are inexcusably glaring, readers may want to contact VOA management, if not their congressional representatives. Click here to contact the VOA by email. It would be even better, however, to send a respectful postal letter to the VOA Director at the address below:
Ms. Amanda Bennett
Voice of America
330 Independence Avenue
Washington, D. C. 20237