Guest Post: a Current Officer’s Thoughts on Robert E. Lee

By Butters’ Bars

In the aftermath of the abhorrent racism and bigotry put on display in Charlottesville, Virginia three weeks ago, it is easy to lose sight of the root cause of this violent outburst. The question at the center of Charlottesville is whether or not General Robert E. Lee, most famous for his role as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War, deserves to be honored by a statue at the home of the University of Virginia. From the perspective of an Army Officer, or any Service Member at any rank in the United States Military for that fact, Confederate General Robert E. Lee is not a man to be emulated or honored with a statue.

The question of whether Americans should honor Robert E. Lee, as all things with the Civil War, begins with slavery. Any rejection of Lee rests on the assumption that the Confederacy for which he fought separated from the United States in order to preserve the peculiar institution of slavery. If you are struggling with this assumption, I suggest watching this video:

Simply put, the election of Abraham Lincoln on the Republican anti-slavery platform in 1860 proved to the south that they could no longer influence politics at the national level and therefore could no longer constitutionally protect slavery (see: the Missouri Compromise, Compromise of 1850, Kansas-Nebraska act etc). Thus the Confederacy seceded to protect slavery.

So what of Lee, who in 1860 was one of few senior Colonels in the US Army? After the secession of the Confederate States, he was faced with a choice—remain in the service of his country or reject the United States of America to take up arms in the defense of slavery.

Today every Officer takes an oath “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.” According to an Army oath from 1830 (Lee commissioned in 1829), the Officers of the time swore “that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever” ( Lee took a solemn oath to defend his country against all “enemies or opposers,” not to defend the rights of his home state of Virginia to continue the institution of chattel slavery. But instead of taking a field command in the US Army, one that he was offered by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, Lee left to offer his services to the Confederacy, eventually taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

When faced with a domestic enemy, Lee rejected the oath Officers hold so dear. The oath that informs the ethos of our profession. The thought of any Senior Officer betraying their oath after 30 years of service should disturb every Officer in the Army today.

But Lee did just that in 1861. He not only rejected his oath, he turned against it. Thus, from 1861-1865, in a small geographic area bounded by Richmond, Virginia to the south; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to the north; the Shenandoah Valley to the west; and the Chesapeake and the Atlantic to the east, General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia gave many a Union General fits, killing thousands of Union Soldiers in the process.

Lee’s Army killed or wounded 1,100 Union Soldiers during the 7 Days Battle, Lee’s first as the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. From there, the Union suffered over 1,600 casualties at Second Manassas, 11,100 (2,100 killed) at Antietam, 12,600 casualties at Fredericksburg, 17,000 casualties at Chancellorsville, 23,049 (3,155 killed) at Gettysburg, and the list goes on through the 1864 campaigns against General Ulysses S. Grant, the siege of Petersburg (4,200 losses estimated), and Lee’s final surrender at Appomattox. (See: McPherson, James and James Hogue, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction.)

Of course you cannot place the blame for all of these Union losses solely on Lee. He commanded successful subordinate leaders such as Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart that can also be held responsible for a number of Union losses. Inept Union commanders must also bear the blame for such high losses. However, the point remains that Confederate General Robert E. Lee can be held responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans who fought to preserve the American Union.

Making things worse is Lee’s apparent lack of remorse in the aftermath of the Civil War. Sure, Lee took steps to ensure the defeated south did not break out into an insurgency, but that was the bare minimum. Grant characterized Lee in the aftermath of his surrender as, “setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to be hardly realized.”

So should Lee’s statue be removed? The simple removal of a statue does not equate to destroying our common American history. It simply sends the message that Americans will not tolerate the honoring of such an intolerant man who was responsible for the deaths of so many Americans. A statue is not “history” in and of itself, but simply a reflection of how we Americans remember our past. Those who see this as a removal of history may be surprised to discover books, perhaps a better means of learning history than a statue.

Furthermore, from the modern Officer’s point of view, the simple fact that alt-right, white supremacist, and neo-Nazi groups came out to defend the statue should be a sign that opposing the removal of Lee’s statue puts one on the wrong side of history. These groups do not share the Army’s values and their platform flies right in the face of official military Equal Opportunity policy. These groups do not seek to treat all people with dignity and respect. Every Officer should reject this world view as all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff already have. 

Now, in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, every Service Member must ask themselves if Confederate General Robert E. Lee is a man worth honoring with a statue. We must remind ourselves of the oath they took to support and defend the constitution of the United States. Is Lee, a man who took to the battlefield in rebellion against the United States, is really a man to be honored or emulated? Do we sympathize with the opinions of angry bigots and madmen who drive their cars into crowds of innocent people?

In the words of Col. Ty Seidule, Head of the Department of History at West Point, “As a Soldier, I am proud that the United States Army, my Army, defeated the Confederates… destroyed chattel slavery, freed 4 million men, women, and children from human bondage, and saved the United States of America.” As Officers, we should not forget Colonel Seidule’s sentiment, nor General Lee’s crimes, when judging what happened in Charlottesville.

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About the Author: Butters’ Bars understands that no one cares about his opinion as 2LT and as a Millennial, but he enjoys sharing it anyways. In his free time he enjoys reading, hiking, and wishing the history channel would go back to actually being about history. 

Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.


11 Replies to “Guest Post: a Current Officer’s Thoughts on Robert E. Lee”

  1. The author should review the work for historical relativism. I’m not sure if the South considered themselves the enemies of the Constitution. The common rhetoric (that formed the South’s perception) at the time was that Lincoln’s government did not promote States’ rights as delineated in the Constitution, and slavery happened to be the issue that the Federal and State government clashed.

    In other words, it is possible that more than a few generals in the South may have considered themselves on the side of the Constitution, against the evil tyranny of the Northern government. It’s easy for us to look back and say that the turned their back on their Oath of Office; but, I think there are elements at the time that led them to believe that they’re defending the country.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I realize the point you’re making, however there is no historical evidence that Lee fought for the Confederacy because he believed he was defending the Constitution. Winfield Scott’s 1861 interview with Lee, in which Scott offered Lee the command of US forces is well documented by both Scott and Lee. At no time did Lee state he was defending the Constitution. Rather, Lee saw himself as a Virginian first and an American second. Lee is documented in multiple historic documents (both pre- and post-war) stating that secession was illegal and un-Constitutional; but as a Virginian he was going to follow his state.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. What a great essay! As a homeschooling parent, I’m excited to share this piece with my teen…these weeks since Charlottesville have been a lot to break down and your essay help with facts/context.
    Thank you.


  3. From one butter bar to another I must say I disagree with you. I honor LEE as a good general and leader of men. I honor him for his successful performance on the battlefield, though he also had questionable. I also honor leaders like Rommel, a man that fought against the allies in two world wars. I honor Caesar who was not always the nicest individual, though Roman standards are different from ours. I honor Hannibal for his marching over the Alps. The point is honor someone for their deeds, especially when it comes to soldiers. If they perform wonderfully on the battlefield they at least deserve an applause.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t mean to be semantic, and argue the definition of honor. Though I’ve not met you, you strike me as an intelligent, deep-thinking Army Officer. You don’t seem to have an emotional attachment to Lee. Rather, I get the impression that you are studying Lee’s career, and his strategic decisions, in a professional manner to learn how his decision making processes can be applied in your career as a soldier. To me, that is more akin to how a historian mines the data, and less like honoring. The presence (or absence) of a statue doesn’t change history at all.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Did not Lee resign his commission? If so, how did an oath as a commissioned officer bind his actions after he ceased to be a commissioned officer?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lee, like others, had the right to resign. That did not give them the right to take up arms against their civil government.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonder by Grant told President Johnson he would tender his resignation if Lee were tried for treason?
    The prevailing wind these days is that Lee was a traitor. Obviously Grant was of a different opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Grant went to bat for Lee and all of the officers and enlisted who surrendered at Appomattox because he wanted the Civil War to remain over. Lincoln had approved the terms of the surrender, including the “parole” of the CSA in order to buy a lasting peace, rather than a permanent occupation. The fact that Grant and Lincoln were both pragmatic about the possibility of an endless guerrilla war in the South and were merciful towards their fellow citizens does not mean that they, in any way, approved of the rebellion or considered Lee or any other rebel not to be traitors. They were traitors. Moreover, they were traitors for an especially odious reason: they fought to preserve, perpetuate and expand the institution of chattel slavery. But, in Grant’s view and in fact, both Grant and the government had given their words that they would not be molested after the end of the war, and he was a man of his word.

      Liked by 2 people

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