Saturday, February 25, 2012

Robert E. Lee and Slavery (Part Deux)

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The question of Robert E. Lee's thoughts concerning the peculiar institution deserve more than one post. Last week, I spoke of the oft-quoted letter to Mrs. Lee, written in 1856, that has suggested to many that Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery. I concluded that while he may have been uncomfortable with the institution in the abstract, he was perfectly comfortable with it in practice - and thought it the best relationship that could possibly exist between the two races. Slavery - the course of it anyway - was in God's hands.

I include the "relationship" letter below in full. Written to Virginia state legislator Andrew Hunter on Jan 11, 1865, the whole letter discusses the arming of slaves for use in the Confederate ranks.

Headquarters  Army of Northern Virginia
January 11, 1865

Hon. Andrew Hunter

Richmond Va.:

Dear Sir:

I have received your letter of the 7th instant, and without confining myself to the order of your interrogatories, will endeavor to answer them by a statement of my views on the subject.  I shall be most happy if I can contribute to the solution of a question in which I feel an interest commensurate with my desire for the welfare and happiness of our people.

Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.  I should therefore prefer to rely upon our white population to preserve the ratio between our forces and those of the enemy, which experience has shown to be safe.  But in view of the preparations of our enemies, it is our duty to provide for continued war and not for a battle or a campaign, and I fear that we cannot accomplish this without overtaxing the capacity of our white population.

Should the war continue under the existing circumstances, the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population.  It is his avowed policy to convert the able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to emancipate all.  The success of the Federal arms in the South was followed by a proclamation of President Lincoln for 280,000 men, the effect of which will be to stimulate the Northern States to procure as substitutes for their own people negroes thus brought within their reach.  Many have already been obtained in Virginia, and should the fortune of war expose more of her territory, the enemy would gain a large accession to his strength.  His progress will thus add to his numbers, and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people.  Their negroes will be used to hold them in subjection, leaving the remaining force of the enemy free to extend his conquest.  Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this.  If it end in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races.  I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which must be produced upon our social institutions.  My opinion is that we should employ them without delay.  I believe that with proper regulations they can be made efficient soldiers.  They possess the physical qualifications in an eminent degree.  Long habits of obedience and subordination, coupled with the moral influence which in our country the white man possesses over the black, furnish an excellent foundation for that discipline which is the best guaranty of military efficiency.  Our chief aim should be to secure their fidelity.

There have been formidable armies composed of men having no interest in the cause for which they fought beyond their pay or the hope of plunder.  But it is certain that the surest foundation upon which the fidelity of an army can rest, especially in a service which imposes peculiar hardships and privations, is the personal interest of the soldier in the issue of the contest.  Such an interest we can give our negroes by giving immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully (whether they survive or not), together with the privilege of residing at the South.  To this might be added a bounty for faithful service.

We should not expect slaves to fight for prospective freedom when they can secure it at once by going to the enemy, in whose service they will incur no greater risk than in ours.  The reasons that induce me to recommend the employment of negro troops at all render the effect of the measures I have suggested upon slavery immaterial, and in my opinion the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.  As that will be the result of the continuance of the war, and will certainly occur if the enemy succeed, it seems to me most advisable to adopt it at once, and thereby obtain all the benefits that will accrue to our cause.

The employment of negro troops under regulations similar in principle to those above indicated would, in my opinion, greatly increase our military strength and enable us to relieve our white population to some extent.  I think we could dispense with the reserve forces except in cases of necessity.

It would disappoint the hopes which our enemies base upon our exhaustion, deprive them in a great measure of the aid they now derive from black troops, and thus throw the burden of the war upon their own people.  In addition to the great political advantages that would result to our cause from the adoption of a system of emancipation, it would exercise a salutary influence upon our whole negro population, by rendering more secure the fidelity of those who become soldiers, and diminishing the inducements to the rest to abscond.

I can only say in conclusion that whatever measures are to be adopted should be adopted at once.  Every day's delay increases the difficulty.  Much time will be required to organize and discipline the men, and action may be deferred until it is too late.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R.E. Lee,

While he discusses limited emancipation, and thus gives even more support to those who think Lee was actively engaged in his opposition to slavery, he is actually looking to use some slaves in an effort to preserve the Confederacy and its institutions. He knew that the United States armies fielded former slaves - would the people of the Confederacy be better off using slaves to defend their cause...rather than have the United States use them to destroy it? Lee certainly thought so.




  1. The letter does not show Lee as an emancipationist, but i it does show him to be more of a realist than most Confederate congressmen. In spite of his praise of slavery at the beginning of the letter, he clearly understands that no black man wanted to be a slave and understood that regiments of slave Confederates had grave insurrectionary potential. So behind the precatory language is a hardheaded analysis that slavery is odious to blacks.

    Patrick Cleburne's fate after making a slightly more radical proposal was known to Lee, yet he still made it.

  2. I agree entirely - yet strangely, Lee traditionalists often point to Lee's interest in arming blacks as evidence that he favored emancipation. I find this odd to say the least.

  3. Lee traditionalists often point to Lee’s interest in arming blacks as evidence that he favored emancipation.Lee did argue for emancipation of those who volunteered -- whether immediately upon enlistment or after their service was ended, I don't recall. But even that, Pat suggests, was too much for the Confederate congress, that eventually passed a law authorizing the enlistment of slaves (less than three weeks before the fall of Richmond), but explicitly stated that such enlistment would not alter their enslaved status.

    I think I just made H. K. Edgerton cry.

  4. Yes...I think you did.