In the summer of 1869, Gettysburg attorney David McConaughy, president of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, invited former Confederate commander Robert E. Lee to participate in a reunion of officers in Gettysburg for the purpose of interpreting and memorializing the battlefield. Inviting Lee was an obvious choice for McConaughy. The general, however, was clearly reluctant to attend the event or indulge in Civil War remembrance. In fact, the public attention he received often made him uncomfortable and he became more reticent in divulging his side of the story. At face value, his desire to not “keep open the sores of war” appears to be a magnanimous gesture meant to suppress the ill will engendered by remembrance of the War’s bitter sectional animosities. That Robert E. Lee politely refused to attend a public event celebrating his most famous defeat is understandable. Lee was a reserved individual who rarely betrayed his innermost feelings. For example, Lee delegated the task of writing his famed and emotional farewell address to the Army of Northern Virginia to his aide, Colonel Charles Marshall. However, a look at Lee’s own words and actions in the years following his surrender at Appomattox offers further insight into why the Civil War remained a painful topic of discussion for Lee.
Of all the veterans McConaughy sought to bring to the battlefield the former commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, guaranteed the greatest amount of publicity for McConaughy’s project. After his surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia in April 1865, Lee became the embodiment of both reconstruction and reconciliation for the beleaguered South. Lee’s public persona was that of a defeated yet dignified elder statesman whose grace offered dejected Southerners a model of behavior to emulate.
Did Lee purposefully work to cultivate this image? An incident in June 1865 at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, enhances the image of Lee as the champion of peaceful cohabitation between sections and races. That Sunday at St. Paul’s, the minister delivered the invitation for the congregation to come forward and receive the consecrated bread and wine. The first man to approach the rail was a well-dressed black parishioner. The rest of the congregation remained in their pews, too mortified by the sight of a supposedly inferior black man who openly flaunted what he felt was his emancipation from white domination. In the midst of watching their world being turned upside down, the congregation saw an elderly white man slowly make his way to the chancel rail. There, the man they recognized as General Robert E. Lee knelt down beside the black man and received communion. His example prompted the other white parishioners to follow his lead despite the awkwardness many of them felt.
Another account of Lee’s magnanimous nature comes from a young Southern woman named Christina Bond. Ms. Bond was at White Sulphur Springs with Lee when a group of Northern vacationers entered. They were supposedly ignored by the bitter Southerners. Lee, desiring to introduce himself to the group, asked if anyone would accompany him. Ms. Bond volunteered, but she also asked, “But, General Lee, did you never feel resentment towards the North?” Lee thoughtfully replied: “I believe I may say, looking into my own heart, and speaking as in the presence of my God, that I have never known one moment of bitterness or resentment.”
These stories of Robert E. Lee as a reconciliationist who strived to heal the wounds of the Civil War and dampen the animosity between the black and white races engendered by centuries of slavery afford a convenient escape from the harsh reality that accompanied reconstruction and emancipation in the postwar South. Regardless of Lee’s public stance in favor of the peaceful cohabitation of the races, in truth Lee was very much a product of his Southern heritage and held many of the biases and prejudices as his kinsmen.
This point is exemplified by his appearance before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction of the Congress on February 17, 1866. There, Lee was asked pointed questions by the Congressmen about white Southerners’ loyalty to the Union and commitment to respecting the rights of formerly enslaved blacks. His response to a question concerning the freedmen and their capabilities is especially telling: “I do not think that he [African American] is as capable of acquiring knowledge as the white man is.” He further opined that “[African Americans] are an amiable, social race. They like their ease and comfort, and, I think, look more to the present-time than to the future.” On the matter of black suffrage Lee did not mince words, “at this time, [African Americans] cannot vote intelligently.”
And while Lee did not like to publicly revisit the war, he took care to safeguard the image of his Army of Northern Virginia and the cause of Southern secession. Lee talked of molding “the opinion which posterity may form of the motives which governed the South in their late struggle for the maintenance of the principles of the Constitution.” He also balked at the assertion of one of his former soldiers who studied at Washington College during Lee’s tenure as president of the school that his hard work was his way of making up “for time [he] lost in the army.” Lee chided, “Mr. Humphreys! However long you live and whatever you accomplish, you will find that the time you spent in the Confederate army was the most profitably spent portion of your life. Never again speak of having lost time in the army.”
Lee was evidently haunted by the specter of the war for the remainder of his life. Though Lee greeted the remnants of Pickett’s division after their bloody repulse at Gettysburg on July 3 by proclaiming “it’s all my fault,” he was quick to assign blame for the failed invasion of Pennsylvania to subordinates who were tardy in arrival or indecisive in attacking the enemy. While Lee explained that his attempts at writing a memoir were abandoned due to a lack of writing time, documentation, he also had the self-realization that he “was too interested and might be biased” in his recollections.
All of this returns us to Lee’s 1869 response to McConaughy, and the question of why did the general decline an invitation to return to Gettysburg? Did he truly believe that no good could come from sharing memories of the war? Would memorializing the battle really “keep open the sores” of the conflict? Or was a return to Gettysburg likely to evoke old memories and biases that Lee was unwilling to revisit?
To see other letters pertaining to the GBMA reunion at the Musselman Library, visit Special Collections’ Civil War Era collection.
For further reading on Lee’s post-war career and attitudes, see Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through his Personal Letters, (Viking, 2007).