Jump to content

Was Robert E. Lee Morally Straight?

Recommended Posts

In the classic alternative history by Robert Sobel, For Want of a Nail, George Washington merits a single footnote, being mentioned as one of the ringleaders of the traitors who were hanged in London after the unplaesantness in the colonies was brought under control.


I highly recommend this deeply thoughtful work on American 'history'. See

http://www.changingthetimes.co.uk/bookreviews/for_want_of_a_nail.htm, or http://www.alternatehistory.com/gateway/reviews/FWOAN-review.html

or other reviews.

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • Replies 67
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

Presentism rears its ugly head.


It was not considered traitorous to decline a position in the Army circa 1860.


It was not until after the War Between the States that the concept of the federal government really developed.


R.E. Lee was being loyal to his state which had the full legal right at the time to leave the union. He comported himself with the grace of his day.


Had the South employed a system of labor similar to that in the North (wherein people were not enslaved per se, but were effectively kept in servitude with wages that did not cover their basic needs...) the same problem would have occurred. The North was forcing the South to accept duties and such that were destroying the economy of the South. This was the root cause, not slavery. Today we recognize slavery as an abhorent practice, but to suggest that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War shows a elementary school understanding and ignorance of the details surrounding the actions of the Southern states.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Actually, torveaux, what you wrote IS very close to what I was taught in elementary school. There were some other 'truths' taught as well: slaves were better off than if they had their freedom, white people HAD to continue the 'peculiar institution' of the South because it was the white man's burden, in most cases slaves actually WANTED to be slaves, etc., etc.

Anyone want to champion THOSE claims publicly? H'mmm?


Yes, I know the apologists' revisions quite well and their self-deceptions are many. Keep in mind that 'the North' and 'the South' that you refer to regarding the tariffs were regions that were long-before defined by the legal existence of....slavery.


So, I'll just quote some of many authorities on the subject, "Had there been no slavery, there would have been no war. Had there been no moral condemnation of slavery, there would have been no war." (from Sydney E. Ahlstrome, in a comprehensive study of religion in America: 'A Religious History of the American People', Yale University Press,1972, p. 649)


Also, for the webaholic this site advertises itself as a fair-and-balanced treatment of the quesion:



it's punch-line? I quote, "So-was the war about slavery? Absolutely. If there had been no disagreement over the issue of slavery, the South would probably not have discerned a threat to its culture and the southern politicians would have been much less likely to seek "their right to secede." But was it only about slavery? No. It was also about the constitutional argument over whether or not a state had a right to leave the Union, and--of primary concern to most southern soldiers--the continuation of antebellum southern culture. Although the majority of Southerners had little interest in slaves, slavery was a primary interest of Southern politicians--and consequently the underlying cause of the South's desire to seek independence and state rights."


For those who read books, I refer you to Kenneth Stamp's 'Causes of the Civil War' for the same conclusion.


Or read what Southerners said about it themselves at the time. For example, Arthur Hayne in his letter to President Buchanan said, "Slavery with us is no abstraction - but a great and vital fact. Without it our every comfort would be taken from us...Nothing short of separation from the Union can save us."


Or read the actual declarations of secession. I have done this. They are explicit about the reasons for secession. Guess what? Slavery.


Or read Walter Edgar's 'South Carolina, a History' for a less-direct path to the same conclusion.

I quote from page 352, about mid-way in the book,

"South Carolinians left the Union in order to preserve, protect, and defend themselves, their families, their homes, and the good order and harmony of their community from the horrors they feared a Republican administration and abolition would bring: race war, economic disaster, political subjugation, and social equality. With freedom, the state's black majority would turn on its former masters and butcher them, as had occurred in Haiti. Not only would South Carolinians' capital investments in slaves be lost, but without slavery blacks would not be an effective labor force; therefore, the value of agricultural land, buildings, and machinery would decline. If black Carolinians were given the right to vote, their numbers would overwhelm the white minority in two-thirds of the state's thirty districts. Any statewide elections would be controlled by the black majority. Social equality would bring with it the possibility of racial amalgamation."

I admire his willingness not to mince words. This book is a masterpiece of history and readability.


The seeds of the conflict leading to the Civil War were sown prior to the Revolution, indeed back to the earliest days of the formation of the southern colonies and the colonization of the Caribbean. To understand the 'cause', one must understand the history long before the event itself. One must read some, though.

Edited part: Oops, I meant to add that Torveaux is right on one thing, my opinion of Lee is, after all, only my opinion and I am painfully aware of how small a minority I join in that view.

(This message has been edited by packsaddle)

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 2 years later...

I find it interesting that THAT other thread about McCain's VP selection degenerated into a re-fight of the civil war and ESPECIALLY that self-described history buffs who hijacked it have not done the research to take their arguments to the old threads that have already covered much of this ground.

I am reminded of Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And in this case it's the history buffs who are not remembering the past...another one of those delicious ironies.

Just for fun, I also resurrected another old thread where this issue was discussed even before this one.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Lee is something of a hero to modern Army officers. He's an example of someone who held to his personal and professional ethics. He, along with all but one US Army officer who went to the Confederacy, was fastidious to a fault in settling his affairs with the United States before offering his sword to Virginia.


No one can stand up to the scrutiny of history without error, except the Christus. Historians learn to judge based on what the character was at the time... unless they are revisionist in nature.

Link to post
Share on other sites

VERY interesting discussion. Moral Relativism and Moral Presentism are both rearing their heads, and looking around for something to eat from the Dutch Oven.


In my mind Lee's only issue is the keeping of slaves. The abolitionist movement had been going on for long enough that he can not have been ignorant of the issue. He would have only kept slaves to prevent losing all of his money and land. By the time of the Civil War, many plantation owners were making more net income from the sale of slaves than from growing crops. The import of slaves had ended, so only those that had slaves had sufficient breeding stock (as slaves were seen to be) to be able to provide more slaves to others. Lee chose to stay in that business, and that was his moral failing. He was not unique in this, so I do not judge him any more harshly than I judge any other person of his era. Hanging on the wall of my living room is a portrait of slave owner (who sold her slaves and moved to Iowa before the war - she saw the writing on the wall), and the portrait of a Union veteran.


State level citizenship was more important than National level citizenship at that time, so his loyalty to Virginia was at a higher level. I see no moral failing there either.


The most interesting bit, is that some here have defended Lee in that Slavery was legal. Well, in some states (and churches) same-sex marriage is now legal. Shall those states Councils now allow Scout leaders who are gay? If you are defending Lee's standing as "Morally Straight" based on the laws of the time, then do you also alter our current definition of "Morally Straight" based on the changing laws of ours?

Link to post
Share on other sites

Slavery was a moral issue for only a few at that time. Abolitionism was around and held but a small percentage of people. Most people both north and south were either not too concerned about it or didn't care at all. Of course moderns have projected a lot more on this than was actually there. As a matter of fact, Abe Lincoln ("The Great Emancipator") was not that keen on the idea of freeing slaves and for the first half of the war was still willing to retain slavery if the south would cease the rebellion.


Slavery was legal and the south was worried more about a slave rebellion than an actual act of Congress that would overturn the legality of slavery. That wasn't going to happen in any of their lifetimes anyway. In order to get the 3/4th' states to outnumber the slave states, for a constitutional amendment, slavery would have continued up until and maybe including the 20th Century. Even with the great "moral" debate going on, Lincoln's solution was to pack up the slaves and send them back to Africa.


So where's the moral issue? Lincoln was elected with 39% of the popular vote, a percentage that would have had a very difficult time forcing it's morality agenda on 61% of the US population. Remove the politics, remove the ethics (Bible supports slavery), and remove prejudice (didn't happen until 1960's and then maybe one could make a case for the moral issue of slavery.


Remember, once a nation was conquered by another the long standing tradition for the conquered was 1) slavery or 2) extermination. Letting the enemy go to fight again tomorrow was not an option until modern times and it's only caused us 2 world wars and a long term cold war in the process. Where's the morality in that process?


Study up your history and you will find morality and ethics play but a very small part on the stage of real life. One can be outraged and indignant all they want, but all it's going to do is raise one's blood pressure and keep one awake at night.


Was Lee morally straight? Yep, and as a religious man could quote the Bible as proof.



Link to post
Share on other sites





I think Im one of those self-described history buffs you are referring to on the other thread.


Ill admit to perhaps not having the depth of knowledge on this subject as some and I tried to substantiate my position by on line research and books, but it never occurred to me to search the Scouter Forums for the causes of the American Civil War. How to remove a scoutmaster or where to put the Universal Emblem, yes, but not the causes of the Civil War.


At a minimum at least I can say I profited from the exchange of viewpoints.


I really need to stay out of Issues and Politics. As somebody said, it just raises the blood pressure.





Link to post
Share on other sites

May I mention the name John Woolman (1720-1772). Went so far in his distaste for slavery that he would only wear undyed clothing. Seems the usual dye in those days were made by slave labor in the Caribean. His "Journal" is good, if slow going, reading.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Business took me by Fairview, KY yesterday. Had to stop and see the Jefferson Davis monument erected on his birthplace. Its an obelisk, the second tallest in the United States after Gen. Washingtons. Very out of place in a tiny rural Kentucky town of 900 people.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I was born in 1962 & raised in Ohio. I moved to the NC coast in 2004, where I still live.

Last year I went to Richmond, VA, where I discovered & visited the Museum of the Confederacy & Jefferson Davis' home. In 1 of those 2 I read that in early 1864 a Confederate General whose first name was Patrick (I don't remember his last name) suggested to Pres. Davis & his Chiefs of Staff that slaves should be offered freedom if they would enlist in the CSA Army. He believed that sacrificing slavery like so would allow them to at least win & preserve Southern Independence.


Most officers were outraged at the thought of serving with Negroes & Davis himself told Gen. Patrick to STFU. Around March 1865 Davis changed his mind & was willing to try it, but it was too late.

Link to post
Share on other sites

And what was even more remarkable was a large number of free Negroes from New Orleans at their own expense raised enough money to completely furnish and man a complete battery of light artillery. They then offered their services to the Confederacy. When the Confederacy rejected their offer because they were Negroes, they went to the Federals and made the same offer. They received the same rejection. Why? Because the issue wasn't slavery, these were free Negroes, it was bigotry and both sides had their share. And after the Emancipation Proclamation what does one do with all those freed slaves? Let the government feed them, enlist them in the army and whereas all white regiments elected their officers from amongst their own, the Negroes had to have white officers picked to command them. This practice continued on well beyond the Civil War.


Kinda makes one wonder why we are worried about R. E. Lee being morally straight when we have enough of our own issues to deal with.


Ever wonder why we only hear about the 5th and 7th Cavalry in all the Hollywood movies? Need I say more?



Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...