General Robert E. Lee

Don’t Believe the Neo-Confederates: Lee Demanded All-Out War to Protect Slavery from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863

In the course of the Confederate flag controversy, some apologists for the southern Confederacy have asserted that the leading rebel general Robert E. Lee was an opponent of the institution of slavery. This erroneous view is largely based on Lee’s letter to his wife of December 20, 1856, where he writes: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” This is a highly abstract and theoretical statement, and Lee never did anything to hasten the end of slavery. In modern terms it is a throw-away line of self-consoling rhetoric. Lee was a slave owner who ordered escaped slaves energetically whipped when they were recaptured.

But for Lee, the real test came when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Lee’s response was to write nine days later, on January 10, 1863, to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon that he needed more troops to defend the Confederacy against the “savage and brutal policy [Lincoln] has proclaimed” – wording which makes clear that Lee wanted to defend the southern oligarchic social order based on slavery (“our social system”) against the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation by the Union army. Lee wrote:

“In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. Lee, General.” [1]

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was in any case the mainstay of the institution of chattel slavery in North America, and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox spelled the doom of the odious Peculiar Institution.

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[1Last Chance For Victory: Robert E. Lee And The Gettysburg Campaign, by Scott Bowden & Bill Ward, Da Capo Press (2003).