Understanding Lee

with Allen Guelzo,
hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II

Hello, and welcome to Liberty Law Talk. I’m your host Richard Reinsch. Liberty Law Talk is featured at the online journal, Law & Liberty, which is available at lawliberty.org.

Richard Reinsch (00:19):

Welcome to Liberty Law Talk today, I’m talking with Allen Guelzo about his new book, Robert E. Lee: A Life. Allen Guelzo is one of our great American historians of the Civil War, of Abraham Lincoln, of slavery, of reconstruction. It’s an honor for him to join us today. I mentioned the subjects he’s published on. He’s published numerous books in those areas, also books that are award-winning, including Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, which spent eight weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list, won the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History, the Fletcher Pratt Award of the New York City Roundtable, and the Richard Harwell Award of the Atlanta Civil War Roundtable. Recently published a book, Redeeming the Great Emancipator with Harvard University Press, and Reconstruction: A Concise History with Oxford University Press. Allen, we’re glad to have you on the program and we’re thankful also for the contributions you’ve made to Law & Liberty over the years.

Allen Guelzo (01:20):

Richard, thank you for the invitation. I’m glad to be here, glad to be able to speak to the Law & Liberty audience, and especially be able to talk about this new book on what is really something, I guess, of an unusual subject for me to be handling.

Richard Reinsch (01:34):

Yeah, and I mentioned to our audience, I couldn’t go through all of your publication achievements, because there’s so many, but as I said, they include Lincoln. They include slavery, the Civil War, and you are not shy about the side that you take. And I think about you, Allen, I think about not only your historical work, but I think of you as a man firmly dedicated to natural rights, to the Declaration of Independence, and firmly to the American Constitutional Project. And so that leads me to ask you this question. What got you interested in writing about Robert E. Lee?

Allen Guelzo (02:13):

It might have been a certain perverseness or at least the perverseness of curiosity. I have spent a lot of time writing about the Civil War. I spent a lot of time writing about Abraham Lincoln, in particular. And you might say that in 2013, after I’d finished work on the Gettysburg book, the question that came to my mind was, what next, and the thought that came in accompaniment with that was, what would it be like to look at this Civil War from the other end of the telescope? Now, I’m a Yankee from Yankee land, no question about it. And I was always raised at my grandmother’s knee with a sense of the righteousness of the Union cause. She had been a school girl in Philadelphia at the turn of the last century. And at that time there were still old union veterans who would make a point of coming to her school, the George Clymer School on what they then called Decoration day. We call it Memorial Day. And they would come and they would talk about the real meaning of the war and the real meaning of the war was not what those horrible, treasonous Johnny Rebs were telling people way down below the Mason Dixon line. So she imbibed early on the Union cause, and I learned that from her and that for me was the default position.

So that it was always a curiosity for me growing up to find people who would display the Confederate flag. What are you doing that for? That sets the flag of the enemies of the country. And people who glorified Robert E. Lee, I’d go, wait a minute, the man committed treason. So I thought in 2013 and into 2014, what would it be like if I was on the other end of the telescope, what would the Civil War look like? And in particular, I was intrigued by a question I just sort of barely alluded to. And that is, how do you write the biography of someone who commits treason? That’s an interesting point of view because it’s easy to write biography of people you can admire. If not entirely without any qualification, I don’t think you can do that for anyone. But certainly, to write about people whose basic achievements are things that we admire today and take strength and take consolation from, Robert E. Lee is different because he did commit treason and I don’t use the word lightly either.

Some people throw that around as a negative term that they would hang on someone like said, you are ugly. Treason has a very specific meaning for me. My father was a career army officer. He took the oath that all army officers take. My son is, United States Army and he took the oath. I took the oath when I became a member of the National Council of the Humanities when I was appointed there by President Bush in 2006, and I take that seriously. It was an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And Lee fought against that oath. He turned his back on an oath he had sworn and he raised his hand against the flag and the Constitution that I and my family had taken an oath to defend. So when I looked at the man, my most general sense was, I am looking at a face of a man who committed treason. How do you write the biography of someone like that? That’s a challenge. And the challenge, well, the challenge appealed to me, I guess in the same way that Mount Everest appealed to Mallory. When people ask him, why do you want to climb Mount Everest? And you know, he responded “because it’s there.” So to Robert E. Lee I went, and what we have now is the result of seven years worth of work on Robert E Lee.

Richard Reinsch (06:19):

Trying to think about the treason point, trying to walk in Lee’s shoes and think about the world as he did as best we can do that, just for even trying to do that on this treason point. And you can probably reproduce the quote word for word. It’s something like “I’m a citizen of America, but I’m a citizen of Virginia first.” Why didn’t he think he was committing treason?

Allen Guelzo (06:45):

He wouldn’t even talk in terms quite that specific. When he makes his decision in April of 1861, it’s really a series of decisions. It’s a decision first to turn down an offer that comes to him from Abraham Lincoln through an intermediary, the old Washington political hands, Francis Preston Blair. And Blair and Lee meet at the home of Blair’s son, Montgomery, on Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s Blair House, literally, that’s where they met. And there, Lee declines the offer that is made to him to take command of any federal forces that are going to be used to suppress the Southern rebellion. He then goes and resigns his commission in the United States Army. He was at that moment, colonel of the First United States Cavalry, resigns that commission, then he goes back home to Arlington and he makes a third decision. And that is to leave for Richmond and to accept an invitation from the governor of Virginia to take charge of Virginia’s state forces. That’s really three decisions that happen in sequence, but they are decisions that take him, each one of them, a step further and further away from his original allegiance. And the one thing which runs as a common thread through all of those decisions is this insistence, I cannot, I cannot draw my sword against my native state. Now, people have interpreted that as saying, well, this is because in Lee’s day, people understood their citizenship in their states to be on an equal plane with, or maybe even superior to that of their citizenship in the nation. I think that’s questionable. I think that’s questionable in 1861.

So what exactly is he referring to when he says I can’t draw my sword against my native state? I think what he is really talking about is this vast network of kin. And I think he’s also talking about protecting the property that he was charged with passing on to his children, and especially the property that today we identify as Arlington.

Richard Reinsch (08:42):


Allen Guelzo (08:43):

Yes, there was some constitutional uncertainty that’s not actually clarified finally and utterly until the 14th amendment, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot in the way of Lee’s decision making that was bound up with technicalities like that. I think for him, when he says he can’t draw his sword against Virginia, what he’s really talking about is the vast network of his kin folk and his family.

Richard Reinsch (09:07):


Allen Guelzo (09:08):

Because many of the members of that family are people who came to the rescue of Robert E. Lee and his siblings and his mother when they were pretty well left on their own in Alexandria before Lee went off to West Point and he was thinking about the debts and the obligations he owed to this vast network of kin. And that was an important consideration for him.

Richard Reinsch (09:32):

So as I listen to you and I want to talk about that Lee in Virginia too, because that is new to me, this difficult childhood he had and being abandoned by his father, his father being “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, a famous man.

Allen Guelzo (09:47):

Oh yes.

Richard Reinsch (09:49):

And so one question, and maybe you’ve answered that. Lee is a political thinker. You don’t at all think perhaps what was in the air was the compact theory of union, of Calhoun, other Southern thinkers that had become certainly part of the discourse, that somehow that legitimated what he did. To me, I listen to you and I think, well, this is home and men just don’t turn against their home.

Allen Guelzo (10:18):

For Lee, the notion of the union as being a compact theory was nonsense. And he said as much in letters that he wrote during the secession crisis. For Lee, the United States as a nation had the primary authority. And he dismissed argument in favor of secession as being nothing but revolution. And we might say, well, what’s the difference between secession and revolution? Actually, there’s a big difference. secession is, technically speaking, a peaceable process of separation. It involves legal and constitutional niceties, but it’s the kind of things that happen when two particular groups of people within a single nation state decide that they really, for a variety of reasons, want to go their separate ways. And you had secessions like this take place within Lee’s lifetime.

For instance, Belgium is a secession from the Netherlands. And then later on after the of the 20th century, Norway. Norway as an independent nation is a secession from what had been the dual kingdom of Norway and Sweden. That’s a secession, but a revolution is different. A revolution is when you cut the ties, you create discontinuity, you do what we did in our American Revolution. That’s why we call it the American Revolution or revolution.

We didn’t secede from the British Empire, we had a revolution because we not only cut our ties to Great Britain, we actually got rid of the entire notion of monarchy, hierarchy, British law, everything that connected us in any real way to the British past. All of those things were thrown overboard and we created an entirely new nation, a Republic, based on entirely different principles than the British Empire had been built upon. That’s a revolution.

Lee looked at what Southerners were trying to do, and he was scornful when they tried to use the term, secession. He says, this is not a secession. This is a revolution. And if you take him on those terms, then you scratch your head and you wonder, well, if he understood what all this argument about secession and compact theory and so on like that was just a massive donkey’s kidneys, then you wonder why did he do what he did. And I think the answer is bound up with questions about family and questions about family property. After all, Lee, although Lee is born in Virginia in 1807 at Stratford Hall on the Northern Neck, he actually does not live most of his life in Virginia.

When his mother decides that they’re going to pick up from Stratford and move to Alexandria when Lee is less than 10 years old, Alexandria was not part of Virginia then. Alexandria was then part of the District of Columbia. Alexandria and that part of Virginia on the Potomac shore is not retro-ceded to Virginia until the 1830s when Lee is long gone. So Lee grows up in the District of Columbia, not Virginia. Then he goes to school at West Point in New York. His first assignment as a graduate of West Point is to Georgia. He works on saving the waterfront at St. Louis in Missouri. He has a brief assignment at Fortress Monroe that does take him back to Virginia, but then he is assigned to Fort Hamilton in New York. He serves a spell as Superintendent of West Point, again, New York. And he’s assigned to coastal fortification construction in Baltimore Harbor. Look, you take all that together, the man actually spent more consistent time living in the state of New York than he did in the state of Virginia.

So what exactly is he referring to when he says I can’t draw my sword against my native state? I think what he is really talking about is this vast network of kin. And I think he’s also talking about protecting the property that he was charged with passing on to his children, and especially the property that today we identify as Arlington. We think of it as Arlington National Cemetery, but before it became a national cemetery, Arlington was the estate of Lee’s father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. And Lee felt a particular responsibility as the executor of Custis’s will to make sure that that property got passed on appropriately to Lee’s own children. When Lee talks about his native state, I think he’s very largely talking about protecting family and protecting family property more than anything else.

Richard Reinsch (15:02):

It’s almost like a deep, very deep Burkean sense of social responsibility, family responsibility.

Allen Guelzo (15:10):

Yes, but it’s also connected because I don’t think he would’ve, if we had quoted Edmund Burke to him, I don’t think he would’ve even necessarily recognize who we were quoting. I think what it really goes back to is the experience of his own father. Light-Horse Harry Lee was a great hero of the American Revolution. He had come into the Revolution as a young man, fresh out of college. He shows a remarkable talent right away for command of horse soldiers. And he becomes part of that circle of young men whom Washington virtually adopts as his surrogate sons, people like Alexander Hamilton, people like John Lawrence, people like Marquis de Lafayette. And Light-Horse Harry, he acquired that big name from his talent at command of cavalry. He becomes part of that circle and he’s very successful during the Revolution.

The problem is that after the Revolution, that was when the success dried up. Like many veterans of the Continental Army, he looked to make a fortune in investing in Western land, lands of the upper end of the Potomac River, lands in Western Virginia, which they hoped would be developed with a view towards establishing a water connection between the Potomac estuary and the Ohio River. And beyond that, of course, the Mississippi. That never ever practically panned out. And Light-Horse Harry Lee lost money, hand over fist.

He married his cousin, Matilda Lee, that made him the master of Stratford Hall, but he burned through her cash. When she died, he remarried, this time to her Virginia Carter and he burned through her cash too, so much so that he ends up in debtor prison. And not only does he make one catastrophic economic decision after another, he makes catastrophic political decisions. In Jeffersonian Virginia, he identifies as a Federalist and in the early months of the War of 1812 finds himself mobbed by a pro-war of 1812 mob in Baltimore and is beaten within an inch of his life. And after that, he decides it’s time to go someplace else. So he decamps for the West Indies. And although he makes a brief effort to return to the United States, he makes landfall on Cumberland Islands on the Georgia coast, he’s dying of cancer and he dies two weeks after making that landfall, never makes it back to Virginia, never sees his son Robert again. Robert, the last time Robert saw his father, he was six years old.

Richard Reinsch (18:03):


Allen Guelzo (18:04):

And that meant that effectively Robert grew up fatherless and the trauma that inflects on children who are standing somewhere shy of the door of adolescence, that is one of the severest of all human hurts. And I think Lee carries that with him all his life. He carries with him the embarrassments of his father’s actions and his father’s shortcomings. And he carries with him the pain of his father’s desertion for a good 40 years of Robert E Lee’s life. He’s always being introduced to people as the son of Light-Horse Harry Lee, yet Lee himself, only one time in all of his voluminous personal correspondence, and this is a man who’s a compulsive letter writer, he writes something like six to 8,000 letters in his lifetime. In only one letter, does he ever refer to his father, and that’s his application letter to West Point when he really needed to be able to cite the old man’s authority. Apart from that, no reference to his father. In fact, he does not even visit his father’s grave in Georgia until December of 1861 when he’s finally coming into his own as the great General Lee.

So at the outbreak of the Civil War, people would’ve scratched their heads a bit and said, why should Robert E. Lee be given major command of anything? And I think the reason lies in the fact that Winfield Scott thought so highly of him, praised him so highly, pushed him forward first to Lincoln’s attention. But the other person who was interested in him was Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, because Davis had been the Secretary of War during the years when Lee was the superintendent at West Point. Davis was very impressed with Lee.

Richard Reinsch (19:32):


Allen Guelzo (19:33):

That is a remarkable omission. And I think it says a lot about how Robert E. Lee felt, that he was responsible for redeeming the losses inflicted by his father and I think that governs a great many of the decisions that he in life.

Richard Reinsch (19:52):

Now, Lee at West Point is a success as a cadet, as a student.

Allen Guelzo (19:57):

Oh, absolutely

Richard Reinsch (19:58):

Remarkable success. You are right, he’s able to join what was considered the very prestigious civil engineering corps in the United States Army because of that great success at West Point. And he’s in the military at that point. And what I thought was interesting is, civil engineering wouldn’t exactly be battlefield command. I mean, he’s like building fortifications and diverting water, things like that. How does he go from civil engineering to great battlefield commander? And maybe that’s a sub-question, was he a great battlefield commander?

Allen Guelzo (20:33):

It doesn’t happen naturally, let’s put it that way. Robert E. Lee has this wonderful record at West Point, he graduates second in the class of 1829. And by the way, whoever remembers who graduated first? I’ll tell you, it is a man named Charles Mason, who later became a judge out in Iowa. Robert E. Lee graduates second. That’s good enough to get him a commission in the Corp of Engineers, which is the elite technocracy, shall we say, of the United States Army in those days.

But the Corps of Engineers was devoted entirely to constructing things, constructing roads, helping to build canals and especially constructing fortifications, which, in the American context, really falls under the category of what we call coastal engineering. That’s the way he spends most of his Army career. And the only exception to that is the Mexican War from 1846 to 1848.

When the Mexican War breaks out, he is assigned as an engineering officer to general John Wool in Texas. From there, he’s moved over to serve on the staff of Winfield Scott. Winfield Scott is launching one of the most ambitious expeditions of the 19th century. He lands at Vera Cruz on the Mexican coast, captures Vera Cruz and then marches inland to the capture of Mexico City. Scott had a sharp eye for military talent and that eye comes to rest on Robert E. Lee. He makes Lee into more than just an engineering officer. He makes Lee into almost his chief aide. It’s Lee who does the reconnaissance for him. It’s Lee who carries the messages and the orders. And Scott would say in years later that all the laurels he won in the Mexican War were really due to Robert E. Lee. But that’s really the first time the man has any connection with active combat operations of the Army, and even then he’s not commanding them. And when the Mexican War is over, he goes back to constructing fortifications, first in Baltimore, and then he takes charge of West Point.

After his superintendency at West Point, he’s had really enough of the lack of promotion that you sustain in the Corps of Engineers and he accepts a transfer into the Second Cavalry, which takes him off to Texas. But even there, even what he is really doing is, is kind of frontier policing duties. It’s sort of the Texan equivalent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And even then, he never fires a shot in anger. The very first time in Robert E. Lee’s life that he ever commands soldiers in action under fire is in 1859 when he is called upon to take charge of suppressing John Brown’s Insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, which he does very successfully, very neatly, very cleanly, very responsibly, but it takes until 1859. He’s been in the army for 30 years before he’s ever really in charge of people who are initiating combat operation. And even then, it only involves two companies of US Marines.

So at the outbreak of the Civil War, people would’ve scratched their heads a bit and said, why should Robert E. Lee be given major command of anything? And I think the reason lies in the fact that Winfield Scott thought so highly of him, praised him so highly, pushed him forward first to Lincoln’s attention. But the other person who was interested in him was Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, because Davis had been the Secretary of War during the years when Lee was the superintendent at West Point. Davis was very impressed with Lee. Almost everybody who met Lee was impressed by the man, but Davis, in particular. And so Davis undertakes to have Lee put in charge of major aspects of the Confederate War effort in 1861. So there we find ourselves by this very crooked path with General Robert E. Lee, a man who, as far as 1861 goes, his sole combat experience was dealing with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. It’s a very unpredictable, and I think the word really is, surprising development.

Richard Reinsch (25:03):

So you and I were talking offline about Lee, the legend. And you mentioned just now everyone that, virtually everyone, that meets him is impressed with him. So maybe let’s just talk about that. Is the legend real or what were his personal qualities that so esteemed him in people’s eyes?

Allen Guelzo (25:24):

Well, the legend is, it’s as real as legends can be real because nearly everybody who laid eyes on Robert E. Lee was tremendously impressed by the man’s bearing, by his dignity. And yet at the same time, as people are impressed by their dignity, there’s also a certain coldness, a certain off-puttingness about Robert E. Lee.

On the road to Appomattox, he’s ready to come to the point where he is going to surrender his army. He says to one of his, in fact, he says to more than one of his aides, this is how I knew it was always going to end. I knew it was going to happen like this. Why, because southerners just weren’t up to the task. So he’s willing, even at the end of the war, to point the finger at the behavior of his army, at the behavior of the Confederate people, themselves. They, in a sense you might say, they failed him. There’s the perfectionist at work.

The famous South Carolina diarist, Mary Chestnut. Her husband was a Confederate senator. She kept one of the great diaries of the Civil War era. She met Robert Lee just before the outbreak of the war at the White Sulfur Springs in Western Virginia, because that was where Lee took his wife, Mary, because Mary Lee at that point was plagued by rheumatoid arthritis. And so they went to benefit from the hot springs there. Mary Chestnut writes in her diary that a man riding a beautiful horse joined us with a hat that somehow had a military look to it. And she said, he sat his horse so gracefully. He was so distinguished in all points. She regretted not actually getting his name. So she went around and asking afterwards, who was he? And the answer came back, Robert E. Lee. Chestnut marveled everything about him. She said, what’s so fine, and the word that came to her mind was, perfection. You couldn’t find a fault in the man if you hunted for one. And yet even Mary Chestnut, when she says that is not really enchanted by him. She said that she actually liked his older brother, Sidney Smith Lee better because Smith Lee was so affable and so friendly. One of these hail-fellow-well-met types. Chestnut wrote, I know Smith Lee well. And then she added, can anybody really say they know his brother? I doubt it because Robert Lee, she said, looks so cold and quiet and grand.

A cadet at West Point when Lee was the superintendent there wrote to his mother and described Lee as the marble model. And even Ulysses Grant at Appomattox, they’re there in the McClain Parlor conducting surrender negotiations, and Grant, in his memoirs writes about how small he felt compared to Robert Lee who was sitting there dressed in this beautiful uniform, everything perfect. And here it was Grant and this muddy old uniform and his muddy boots. And it was almost the case where you had this sense, that Grant felt almost in the edge of apologizing for how he looked. Lee impressed people over and over again with that demeanor of the perfect man. But you see it was a perfection that arises out of this deep need for redemption. He is going to redeem the reputation of the Lee family destroyed by his father, and not only by his father, but by an older half brother who committed even worse offense and became known as Black-Horse Harry Lee.

Richard Reinsch (28:48):


Allen Guelzo (28:48):

But Robert Lee is going to redeem the Lee reputation. And I think that that determination, that passion to redeem is what drives the perfection of his behavior. He’s going to show that he is not Light-Horse Harry.

Richard Reinsch (29:05):

So if we think about that, what are his faults? What leads him astray?

Allen Guelzo (29:12):

The perfection leads him to demand of people things that ordinary human beings are not really capable of doing. He’s very demanding of his army. His adjutant, Walter Taylor, wrote in letters that Taylor sent to his fiancee during the war, General Lee is so unappreciative. I work for him and I do this for him. I do that for him. And there’s never a word of thanks. Now, this didn’t mean that Taylor didn’t admire Lee, but he had to admire Lee from distance. Lee demanded much from himself and he demanded much from others. And so those who didn’t live up to his expectations, he could be very, very hard on them.

He once erupted at another aide who had permitted someone to come in to his tent and argue with Lee. Lee came out afterwards and he upbraided his staffer. Why did you let that man come in and make me lose my temper? And he’s particularly hard on other subordinates. At the end of the Battle of Chancellorsville, he really expected that his brigade commanders were going to close in and push the Army of the Potomac right up against the Rappahannock River and destroy it. And they don’t, they allow Joe Hooker and the Army of the Potomac to escape across the fords of the Rappahannock River. And Lee goes on the tirade denouncing, well, he fixes on General Dorsey Pender, and he said, General Pender, how could you let those people get away? That is what you young men always do. I can never get my orders carried out.

After the battle of Antietam, he writes a letter to his two principal subordinates, James Longstreet and the famous Stonewall Jackson upbraiding them for the lack of discipline in the Confederate Army. And he lays out in this severe, scorching letter, how the Army has to completely restructure how its officers behave. We have to have an end to this. We have to have punishment. There has to be enforcement. We need brigade guards to force stragglers to rejoin their unit. It goes on and on and on. And I have this picture of Longstreet and Jackson reading this letter and looking at each other, rolling their eyes and saying, what is the old man want from us?

Richard Reinsch (31:43):

This is the Battle of Antietam, one of the worst battles in the war. It’s incredible.

Allen Guelzo (31:48):

Yeah. This is after Antietam. Yeah. So he’s extremely demanding of people. And probably the people he’s the most demanding of are the Confederate politicians. He goes all through the war doing nothing to complain about how ineffective of the Confederate politicians are. He complains to his son, he complains about the Confederate Congress. He says, all they do is chew peanuts and spit tobacco. They take no action of any worth or any reckoning themselves. And even on the road to Appomattox, he’s ready to come to the point where he is going to surrender his army. He says to one of his, in fact, he says to more than one of his aides, this is how I knew it was always going to end. I knew it was going to happen like this. Why, because southerners just weren’t up to the task. So he’s willing, even at the end of the war, to point the finger at the behavior of his army, at the behavior of the Confederate people, themselves. They, in a sense you might say, they failed him. There’s the perfectionist at work.

Richard Reinsch (32:56):

That’s incredible. Another question that comes to mind, which I’m sure our readers would, would love to hear more about. Robert Lee and slavery. How does he approach?

Allen Guelzo (33:06):

Oh yes.

Richard Reinsch (33:07):

How does he approach this?

Allen Guelzo (33:08):

The best image I can sum up for people in explaining this is a zigzag. On the one hand, Robert E. Lee never was personally closely wrapped up in the institution of slavery. He inherited one slave family from his mother’s estate, but emancipated them in December of 1862. So on the one hand, you might say, well, he’s only tangentially connected to slavery. Yeah, but he marries Mary Anna Randolph Custis. And by marrying into the Custis’s, he is marrying a family that not only owns Arlington, but owns 190 slaves. That means even though Robert E. Lee doesn’t own slaves in his own name, he still benefits from most of his life through the labor and the services that those slaves provide to his wife and to his children. So yes, he is involved in the slave system.

At the same time, the Custis’ had a very dicey connection to slavery. Both of them, both old George Washington Parke Custis and his wife, Mary Fitzhugh Custis were great supporters of colonization talk. I mean, Custis himself talks about slavery as a vulture, which is devouring the innards of the south. And in his will, he actually provides, mandates the emancipation of the Custis slaves within five years of his death. And Robert E. Lee is the executor of that estate, and Robert E. Lee is charged with that. And Lee, in fact, does go ahead after the period of five years to emancipate the Custis slaves, according to the will. He does that in December of 1862, and when you think about it in December of 1862, if Robert E. Lee had gone into any Confederate court in Virginia and said, oh, look, we’re not going to go through with this. We’re not going to emancipate slaves. Well, the Confederacy is fighting to keep people in slavery. Why should we emancipate slaves? If Lee had gone into a court and done that, I have a hard time imagining a Confederate judge objecting. Nevertheless, Lee insists. He signs up his son, Custis, in Richmond to make sure all the papers are done right. He ignores people who are suggesting that he should wait until the end of the war. He marches ahead to that emancipation. And as I say, also emancipates the one slave family he owns in his own name.

There were many things about Lee that I learned that I had not taken account of earlier. I had not fully understood the impact of his father’s departure and the trauma that, that inflected on him. I had not fully understood the yearning that Robert E. Lee had for independence. He wanted to be able to stand on his own two feet. He knew what it was like to be dependent, and he disliked it intensely.

Beyond that, he is hectoring Jefferson Davis during the war, telling Davis that slavery is a millstone around the Confederacy’s neck, that the Confederacy has to move to emancipation. And then finally in the spring of 1865, the early spring, he is the most vocal of Confederate leaders advocating the recruitment of blacks for the Confederate Army, with emancipation as a reward for themselves and for their family for service in the Confederate armies. That catches him a lot of criticism. When he goes public with that, the Charleston Mercury simply goes berserk with rage. It denounces … this is a Confederate newspaper. They denounce Robert E. Lee as a sell-out, as just another old time Federalist, who was never with us from the start. And you know, there’s one interesting footnote to this too.

During the war, of course, Arlington ends up being occupied by the Union forces. And that meant that the Custis slaves, many of the Custis slaves at Arlington just simply drifted away, across the river into the District of Columbia. And when they were there, a number of them were emancipated under the District of Columbia emancipation bill of April 1862. One of them was interviewed in the process by the emancipation officers and it turned out it was Philip Meredith who had served as Lee’s valet. Well, this caused quite a ruffle of interest because here was General Lee’s valet, and he’s applying for emancipation in the District, so they interview him. And he says, well, you know, General Lee never liked slavery. General Lee always told me that he wished that I could be free and that there would be no slaves. And yet here’s the zigzag. Richard, here’s the zigzag. Lee will say things like that. He’ll even write in a letter to his wife, slavery is a moral and political evil in any country, yet he will never actually do anything about it himself. He will emancipate the Custis slaves, but that’s because he’s the executor of the estate. He could have done it right away instead of waiting five years, but he doesn’t. He knows that slavery is wrong. He says that slavery is wrong. And yet he looks at that and then he looks away.

Richard Reinsch (38:17):

Well, that sounds like Thomas Jefferson.

Allen Guelzo (38:19):

Yeah. Well, in that respect, yes, he is like Jefferson. He does not have the profundity of a Thomas Jefferson. He doesn’t reflect on the inconsistency of what he’s doing the way that Jefferson did when Jefferson talked about having a wolf by the ears.

Richard Reinsch (38:35):


Allen Guelzo (38:36):

Lee looks at slavery and then he looks away. And if there is a tragedy in the personal character of Robert E. Lee, it is that defect that he could look at what was wrong, know what was wrong, know that it was a violation of natural right and natural law, and nevertheless, look away from it and do nothing.

Richard Reinsch (38:59):

Yeah. I hear you. That also sounds like human nature to me.

Allen Guelzo (39:03):

Yes, it does.

Richard Reinsch (39:06):

It sounds like the way of the world.

Allen Guelzo (39:06):

It is very much the defect of human nature. Of course, we have the privilege 150 odd years later of being able to sit in judgment on that and saying, well, he should have known better. He should have done this. He should have done that.

Richard Reinsch (39:18):


Allen Guelzo (39:19):

Well, yes, he should have. And as a historian, it’s my job to make judgements like that. And I do make that judgment about Robert E. Lee. On the other hand, I hope that in making that judgment about Robert E. Lee, I cause myself and all the rest of us to reflect on kinds of inconsistencies that we perform ourselves on an everyday basis so that when we find ourselves pointing the finger at Robert E. Lee, we recognize that we also ourselves stand under that kind of judgment. That’s what brings me to a kind of Lincolnian view of the entire landscape of writing about Robert E. Lee.

Richard Reinsch (39:59):

And I wonder maybe that’s sort of an answer to my next question. In the course of this project. And, of course, we set forward at the beginning, the history that you’ve done, Lincoln, slavery, reconstruction, Civil War. In the course of all your research and writing, what did you learn that surprised you? Anything cause you to rethink past convictions, past judgements, or did new thoughts and ideas form in your mind about America?

Allen Guelzo (40:30):

That is a difficult question to answer because every time you plunge into a subject this way, you find yourself dealing with so many aspects and so many details. There were many things about Lee that I learned that I had not taken account of earlier. I had not fully understood the impact of his father’s departure and the trauma that, that inflected on him. I had not fully understood the yearning that Robert E. Lee had for independence. He wanted to be able to stand on his own two feet. He knew what it was like to be dependent, and he disliked it intensely. He had had to grow up dependent on the goodwill, and sometimes the handouts, of his Carter relatives and his Fitzhugh relatives and other Lee relatives. And like any person with a modicum of talent and understanding of his own gifts, he accepted that because he had to, but he also learned to resent it and to yearn for independence. And that’s a theme that runs through Robert E. Lee all through his life.

The other thing that you learn in working through Lee’s material and reading his letters is how much he yearned for security as well. He was not what you would call a poor man. Part of Anne Carter Lee’s estate involved lands and money that today we would reckon as being fairly substantial. When he makes out his will, before he goes to the Mexican War, he makes out a will. And in it he has to itemize what his property is. And when you add all of that up, his estate at that point amounted to about $32,000. And so translate that into 2021 dollars and we’re talking about something in between one and $2 million. The man was not poor. And yet all through his life, he does nothing but cry a poor mouth. He is one of those people who is perpetually convinced that he’s about to go broke, that he’s about to go to the poor house. And he puts all kinds of constraints on his wife and on his children this way. He writes a letter, advice for one of his sons through his wife. And he says to Mary, tell him to be just before he is generous, and to be wise before he is liberal. In other words, wise, before he is open handed. Don’t give money away to people. He doesn’t have the avarice of the get, but he really does have the avarice of the keep. And when you put that beside the fact that he really was fairly well off, that’s just such a surprising juxtaposition. He just did not feel secure in that. And he’s constantly, through his life in search of security.

And the curious thing is that I think that he finally, in the last five years of his life, he finally takes those three threads, that passion for perfection, that yearning for independence, that searching for security. He finally is able to take those threads and twist them together in a rope that really works for him, that he can really climb. And that’s because after the war, he accepts this very strange invitation that comes to him to become the president of Washington College, in the upper Shenandoah Valley.

Now, Washington College was this very small college. It was not much more than a classical Latin and Greek academy for the Scots-Irish gentry of the upper valley. And it was almost wiped out by the war. He accepts the presidency to the surprise of almost everyone. And when he does, when Robert E. Lee takes over Washington College, he takes it over like he took over the army of Northern Virginia. He revamps the curriculum completely. He raises the endowment to a quarter of a million dollars. A lot of it from Northern donors. And he builds the student body up to over 400 students when it started out with just 12. He really makes Washington College into an educational powerhouse and a really, in educational terms, a progressive powerhouse, because he shoves to the margins, the classical education curriculum, and brings in majors in business in journalism, in engineering. I think that finally at Washington College, he’s able to draw together all those yearnings for security, for independence, for perfection. He’s finally able to call his own shots in life. And not surprisingly, he tells a student at Washington College, this is a real shocker. He tells the student, my greatest mistake in life was taking a military education. That point you think-

Richard Reinsch (45:49):


Allen Guelzo (45:49):

Maybe he should have yielded to his older brother Carter’s blandishments to go into real estate development, or maybe he should have just retired from the Army years before and lived at Arlington as a country gentleman, or maybe he should have just, at the outbreak of the Civil War, declared neutrality. He could have done all those things. But finally, he gets a measure of resolution in those last five years of his life and I think it’s in those last five years as president of Washington College, that he finally gets a quotient of what we can call happiness.

Richard Reinsch (46:27):

Well, perhaps Professor Guelzo, we should end on that. Thank you so much for coming on to discuss your new biography, Robert E. Lee: A Life. Thank you. This is Richard Reinsch. You’ve been listening to another episode of Liberty Law talk available at lawliberty.org.