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Robert E. Lee


"They say you had to see him to believe that a man so fine could exist. He was handsome. He was clever. He was brave. He was gentle. He was generous and charming, noble and modest, admired and beloved. He had never failed at anything in his upright soldier's life. He was born a winner, this Robert E. Lee. Except for once. In the greatest contest of his life, in a war between the South and the North, Robert E. Lee lost" (Redmond). Through his life, Robert E. Lee would prove to be always noble, always a gentleman, and always capable of overcoming the challenge lying before him.

Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807 (Compton's). He was born into one of Virginia's most respected families. The Lee family had moved to America during the mid 1600's. Some genealogist can trace the Lee's roots back to William the Conqueror. Two members of the Lee family had signed the Declaration of Independence, Richard Lee and Francis Lightfoot. Charles Lee had served as attorney General under the Washington administration while Richard Bland Lee, had become one of Virginia's leading Federalists. Needless to say, the Lees were an American Political dynasty (Nash 242). Lee's father was General Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. He had been a heroic cavalry leader in the American Revolution. He married his cousin Matilda. They had four children, but Matilda died in 1790. On her death bed she added insult to injury upon Henry Lee by leaving her estate to her children. She feared Henry would squander the family fortune. He was well known for poor investments and schemes that had depleted his own family's fortune (Connelly 5).

Henry Lee solved his financial problems by marrying Robert's mother Anne Carter, daughter of one of Virginia's wealthiest men (Nash 242). Henry Lee eventually spent his family into debt. Their stately mansion, Stratford Hall, was turned over to Robert's half brother. Anne Lee moved with her children to a simple brick house in Alexandria. Light Horse Harry was seldom around. Finally, in 1813 he moved to the West Indies. His self-exile became permanent, and he was never seen again by his family (Thomas).

Young Robert had other family problems. His mother became very ill. At the age of twelve he had to shoulder the load of not only being the family's provider, but also his mother's nurse. When time came for Robert to attend college, it was obvious his mother could not support him financially. She was already supporting his older brother at Harvard and three other children in school. In 1824 he accepted an appointment to the United States Military Academy. During his time at West Point Lee distinguished himself as a soldier and a student. Lee graduated with honors in 1829 (Nash 245).

His graduation was dampened by a call to the bedside of his ailing mother. When he arrived home he found his fifty-four year old mother close to death. A death caused by struggles and illnesses of her difficult life. Robert was always close to his mother. He again attended to her needs until her death. On July 10, 1829, Anne Lee died with Robert, her closest son, at her side. Forty years later Robert would stand in the same room and say, "It seems but yesterday" that his beloved mother died (Connelly 6).

While awaiting his first assignment, Lee frequently visited Arlington, the estate of George Washington Parke Custis. Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington and the adopted son of George Washington. After Martha's death Custis left Mount Vernon and used his inheritance to build Arlington in 1778. Arlington was set on a hill over looking the Potomac river and Washington D.C. (NPS Arlington House). Custis had only one daughter, Mary Anna Randolph. Mary had been pampered and petted throughout her life. Lee's Courtship with Mary soon turned serious, before long they were thinking of marriage. However, before Robert could propose he was assigned to Cockspur Island, Georgia.

Robert returned to Arlington in 1830. He and Mary decided to get married. The two were married on June 30, 1831(Nash 248). Shortly there after the Lees went to Fort Monroe. Mary was never happy here. She soon went back to Arlington. Mary hated army life. She would, for the most part, stay at Arlington throughout the rest of Robert's time in the United States Army. The fact that he was separated from his family, and that he was slow to move up in rank, left Lee feeling quite depressed a great deal of the time. Over the next decade Robert became very frustrated by his career and life. Lee's life had become a mosaic of dull post assignments, long absences from family, and slow promotion. Lee began to regard himself as a failure (Nash 248). Lee was on the verge of resigning from the army all together, when on May 13, 1946, word came that the United States had declared war on Mexico.

The outbreak of war with Mexico provided Lee his first real chance at field service. In January of 1847 he was selected by General Winfield Scott to serve with other young promising officers. These officers included: P.G.T. Beauregard and George McClellan on his personal staff (Connelly 8). During the Mexican War Lee won the praise and respect of Scott as well as many other young officers that he would serve with and against later.

As the years passed Mary Lee was left at Arlington. She was left to manage her fathers grand estate, plantation really, by herself. Time had taken its toll on Mary Lee. She had become an ageing woman, crippled with arthritis, and left alone by her career Army officer's duty assignments elsewhere (Kelly 39). At the news of his father-in-laws death, Lee was able to take official leave and hurry home. Upon his arrival he was shocked by the state of his wife's health. As she herself had written to a friend, "I almost dread his seeing my crippled state"(Kelly 39). Lee was able to extend his leave indefinitely. He became, in essence, a farmer. He was still able to some duties in the army. These usually involved dull service such as a seat on a court-martial. However, there was one such duty that proved to be much more important. In October of 1859 he was sent to quell John Brown's bloody raid at Harpers Ferry (Grimsley). In the nations capital, setting just below Arlington, there were heated debates over states' rights union verses disunion, and slavery. All the salons of Congress and in the salons and saloons of the politically charged capital city, there was debate (Kelly 40).

After three years at home, Lee finally had to return to full time Army duty. He was posted in Texas. While Lee was in Texas the controversy over states' rights grew worse. On January 21, 1861 five Southern Senate members announced before a packed audience in the Senate galleries that their respective states had seceded. With that, each gathered their things and departed. Soon Texas seceded too, and Lee was ordered home to Washington, to report to the Army's ranking officer, General Winfield Scott. Lee arrived at Arlington on March 1st. He now faced a very momentous personal decision. After the firing on of Fort Sumpter, the first shots of the Civil War, Lee was offered command of the Federal Army by Abraham Lincoln. Lee was offered command of an army that was charged with the duty of invading the South. A south that included Virginia, a Virginia that Lee truly loved. On the morning of April 19th, Lee returned from nearby Alexandria with news that Virginia to had seceded. The Lees had their supper together. Lee then went, alone, to his upstairs bedroom. Below, Mary listened as he paced the floor above, then heard a mild thump as he fell to his knees in prayer. Below, she also prayed (Kelly 41).

Hours later he showed her two letters he had written. In one he resigned his commission in the United States Army. In the other, he expressed personal thoughts to General Scott. Later, his wife would write: "My husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his State" (Kelley 41).

Only two days after his resignation from the United States Army, Lee travelled to Richmond to accept his commission as a General in the Confederate army J. Davis-Papers). Lee's impact was felt immediately on the confederacy. As a seasoned military strategist, he brought the most comprehensive, technologically advanced knowledge of warfare to bear against his own former army (Nash 257).

General Lee's first campaign in what was to become West Virginia was not a great success. Command of the Eastern Army was divided between the hero of Fort Sumpter, P.G.T. Beauragard, and Joseph Johnston who together won the first big battle of the East, Bull Run. Thus Joseph Johnston was in command when George B. McClellan started his march on Richmond. When Johnston went down with wounds it was easy for Davis to replace him with General Lee. Lee immediately took charge and attacked, trying to make up for his numbers with audacity. He drove the Union army back about 25 miles, but was unable to destroy it in a series of continuous battles known as the Seven Days Battle.

In September of 1862, McClellan attacked Lee at the Battle of Antietam. McClellan attacked Lee but failed to break his lines. Lee, realising that he was in a dangerous position and far from his supplies, retreated and took up a defensive position behind the Rappangonnock River in northern Virginia. Here General Ambrose E. Burnside, who succeeded McClellan, attacked Lee in December at the Battle of Fredricksburg and met a bloody repulse. As the year of 1862 closed, Lee had given the Confederacy its greatest victories and had become an idol of the Southern people (Comptons).

Lee's Greatest victory was the Battle of Chancelorsville in May of 1863. Lee was faced with a larger army led by fighting Joe Hooker. Lee and his most trusted lieutenant, General "Stonewall" Jackson, divided their forces and through a forced march around General Hooker fell on his exposed flank, rolling it up, and defeating the Union forces yet again (Brinkley 404). After Chancellorsville, Lee started an offensive movement he hoped would win the war, an invasion of Pennsylvania. This led to the greatest land battle in the Western Hemisphere, Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia led by Lee, and the Army of the Potomac led by General George Meade, hammered each other for three days. On the 3rd day of battle General Lee hoping to end the war ordered the great frontal assault popularly known as Pickett's Charge. The attack was a huge failure (Brinkley 405). Lee blamed only himself.

For the next two years, Lee commanded an Army that was poorly supplied and getting increasingly smaller. Lee had to go on the defensive. He inflicted heavy losses on Grant at the battles of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor (Brasington).

By April 9th 1865 Lee had no choice but to surrender to Grant. Lee met Grant at Appomatox Courthouse. As Grant walked in the meeting room, wearing a dusty privates uniform, he must have been humbled by the man who rose to greet him. Lee was wearing a noble grey uniform with a polished sword at his side. Grant and Lee then decided on the terms of the surrender. Lee asked Grant if his soldiers could keep their horses. Grant answered, "I insist upon it." As Lee rode back to his camp, Confederate troops surrounded him saying, "General are we surrendered? They vowed to go on fighting (Nash).

After the war many men came to Lee and said: "Let's not accept this result as final. Let's keep the anger alive." Lee answered by saying, "Make your sons Americans." When the war was lost Robert E. Lee took a job as president of Washington College, a College of forty students and four professors. Over his time he had trained thousands of men to be soldiers, and had seen many of those thousands killed in battle. Now he wanted to prepare forty of them for the duties of peace (Redmond).


Works Citied


Brasington, Larry, The American Revolution-an HTML project. Http://, 11/23/97.

Brinkley, Alan, American History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia. Computer Software. Compton's NewMedia, Inc,1994.

Connelly, Thomas L. The Marble Man. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Davis, Jefffers, The Papers.http://www.ruf .edu/~pjdavis/lee/htm, 11/6/97.

Grimsley, Wayne. "The Differences Deepen." Starkville, MS, 11 Nov. 1997. (Class lecture delivered at Mississippi State University.)

Kelly, Brian. Best Little Stories From The Civil War. Charlottesville, VA: Montpelier Publishing, 1996.

Nash, Roderick, and Graves, Gregory. From These Beginnings. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

National Park Service. Http://, 11/6/97.

Redmond, Louis. He Lost a War and Won Immortality. Http:// nva.html, 11/6/97.

Thomas, Emory. Robert E. Lee. Http://, 11/17/97.


Robert E. Lee:
The Engineer

By Andrew Price

Robert E. Lee's military genius and battlefield success are renowned. Over the years, scholars have analyzed these aspects and drawn conclusions about Lee ranging from a brilliant general to one who lost the war for the South. Lee's fatherless childhood and excellent West Point education have also been considered as overriding factors in his success as a military commander. However, little or no attention has been paid to the general's engineering career. From the time he decided to pursue a West Point education and an engineering career, Lee focused on absorbing every detail associated with military engineering. Although many factors of Lee's life have been cited as reasons for his leadership style and military actions, Robert E. Lee's engineering background and education ultimately determined his military leadership style.

Robert's engineering education began with West Point. Due to his love of practical sciences and his need for a steady income, Robert had always leaned toward a career in military science (Long 27). In February of 1824, Robert and his family decided to throw their collective weight into attaining an appointment for him as a cadet (Thomas 42). After much lobbying, Robert received an appointment to West Point from John C. Calhoun. Over a year later, in July 1825, Robert was finally admitted to the college (Thomas 43). Before entering West Point to pursue military science, Robert attended a preparatory school in the winter of 1824-25 to refresh his studies (Long 27). Robert's schoolmaster Hallowell rewarded him with a glowing report for his promptness and attention to detail (Thomas 43-44). Throughout Robert's difficult courses at West Point, he continued to receive seamless reviews concerning his flawless student conduct. During his four years, Robert narrowed his focus and studies to become a military engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers. Among his final classes were field fortification, permanent fortification, artillery, grand tactics, and civil and military architecture (Thomas 51). These courses would not only assist him in his future engineering projects, but ultimately provide him with specific battlefield knowledge he would use during both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. After four years at West Point, Robert graduated second overall in the class of 1829, without receiving a single demerit, and with a remarkable balance of $103.58 (Thomas 52-54). Due to the cadets' low allowance, any positive balance after four years at West Point was rare. However, Robert's frugality allowed him to not only stay out of debt, but to make money during his time there. Although he now had money, the engineering career awaiting him was less profitable, financially.

The next chapter of Robert E. Lee's life is perhaps the most tedious; however, Lee's numerous projects for the Army Corps of Engineers provided the experience-based knowledge he needed to supplement his extensive factual education. These projects spanned from 1829 to 1855, during which he slowly climbed the ladder in rank (Did You Know?). Upon entering the Corps, Lee became brevet second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers due to his outstanding performance during college (Thomas 54). His first assignment dealt with fortification work on Cockspur Island in Savannah, Georgia (Thomas, Macmillan, 320). Here he worked as an assistant engineer under Major Babcock, who, after overriding Lee's plan for the wharf's location, failed to return for the second year of construction. After surveying what damage the summer off-season had dealt the first year's construction, Lee realized that his plan for locating the wharf would have succeeded, despite the older engineer's opinion. Then, just as Lee finished preparing the site for reconstruction according to his plans, the Army Corps of Engineers sent Lieutenant Joseph K. F. Mansfield, and later Captain Richard Delafield, to replace the absent Babcock. They soon devised their own plan for the fortifications, and Lee was once again overruled by his senior engineers (Thomas 57-63). Following this shift in engineers, the Corps quickly realized their overstaffing of the project and relocated Lee to Fort Monroe, Virginia. During his stay at Fort Monroe, Lee managed his first project on his own. Though the tasks were not particularly challenging, they did require constant attention. Moreover, his simultaneous management of all affairs and projects at Fort Monroe began to show the Army his leadership potential. Subsequently, they made Lee a bona fide second lieutenant. However, perhaps because of the routine nature of the work, Lee wrote his brother, "I suppose I must continue to work out my youth for little profit and less credit & when old be laid on the shelf" (Thomas 67-69). After only three years in the service, Lee was already expressing his frustration with the slow promotion within the senior dominated Army Corps of Engineers, during peacetime operations.

As the monotonous work continued, Lee requested a reassignment, something closer to Arlington. He was granted an office job in Washington, which he readily accepted (Thomas 75). This job did little to improve Lee's engineering abilities, besides organization. It mainly served only as a window through which he saw the inherent problems associated with the Army Corps' Washington connection. At first, he relished being the lobbyist for the Corps of Engineers; however, the meticulous job of accounting and record keeping soon depleted his initial enthusiasm (Thomas 81). In the spring of 1835, Lee's repetitive daily cycle was broken when he was assigned to accompany his old-time superior and friend Andrew Talcott on a surveying mission. Apparently, a border dispute had erupted between Ohio and the Michigan territory. The Corps of Engineers was to dispense an engineering team to survey the line and quickly end the dispute (Freeman 1: 133). Though Lee's time trekking the northern woods is often considered simply a relief from his desk, this summer trek undoubtedly prepared him for future scouting work, and sharpened his ability to accurately judge and analyze the lay of the land. Moreover, Lee's ability to succeed in yet another project finally caught the attention of his superiors. This prompted Lee's promotion to a job that would truly test his abilities.

At the pinnacle of Lee's engineering career, he headed surveying and redirection of the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Upon arrival, Lee was presented with several challenges: survey the Rock Island Rapids, make plans of recommendation for their improved navigability, analyze the Mississippi's change in course away from the city, and create a plan to redirect the Mississippi River and restore the city's harbor (Thomas 86-87). Lee and his assistant Second Lieutenant Meigs first surveyed and drew up plans for the Rock Island Rapids before directing their efforts toward the St. Louis harbor. After surveying the harbor, Lee devised an ingenious plan to use the Mississippi to reestablish a deep-water harbor and permanently redirect the river (Freeman 1: 146-147). Funds were approved and construction of the first dyke commenced. Within a year, the project's fruits were such that boats could once again reach the harbor (Freeman 1: 152). Subsequently, a dispute in the city arose over the continuation of funding to finish Lee's plan (Sanborn 82). Once tempers cooled, funding was restored for the 1839 construction year. Lee continued construction until an Illinois injunction against the Army forced Lee to halt work. He then arranged for the city of St. Louis to use government equipment to continue construction (Freeman 1: 44). Although Lee abstained from voicing an opinion during the two conflicts, they only proved to further his dislike and frustration with politics and their control over his time sensitive work (Sanborn 82-83). Lee joined Lieutenant Horace Bliss at the rapids to finish preliminary rock removal, ending the work season of 1839 (Sanborn 88). The injunction was lifted at the beginning of 1840; however, citing the apparent success of the project, both the municipal city government and Congress failed to appropriate additional funding to finish Lee's plans (Thomas 97). Subsequently, Lee was forced to return to St. Louis, survey and assess the progress of the unfinished project, close company accounts, and sell all the machinery. Though Lee met the discontinuation of his project with great sadness, his system of dikes and plans for the rapids were eventually seen through and are still used today to control the Mississippi around St. Louis (Sanborn 93). Concerning Lee's four years of labor on the rapids and St. Louis project, Mayor Darby wrote:

By his rich gift of genius and scientific knowledge, Lieut. Lee brought the Father of Waters under control.... I made known to Robert E. Lee, in appropriate terms, the great obligations the authorities and citizens generally were under to him, for his skill and labor in preserving the harbor... One of the most gifted and cultivated minds I ever met... The labors of Robert E. Lee can speak for themselves (Freeman 1: 182-183).

Indeed, Lee seemed to have such an effect on all those with which he worked; he returned home "an engineer of recognized reputation" (Freeman 1: 182). Perhaps the greatest quality Lee took from the four years on the St. Louis project was the ability to deal with public opinion. The next six years of Lee's life consisted, professionally, of routine inspections of forts and filing reports for repairs on each (Thomas 101). During which, Lee was never able to surpass his labors performed in Saint Louis. More immediately, "the fact remained: the opportunities that were to come to him in Mexico were created at Saint Louis" (Freeman 1: 182). Lee's opportunities, both in being assigned to and successful in Mexico, originated from his tedious labors during his years of service in the Army Corps of Engineers.

During Lee's service in the Mexican War, he gained additional battlefield experience and used his collective knowledge to impress his commanding officers. Once war broke out in Mexico and troops left for action, Lee found that his chance for success and promotion lay in Mexico. On August 19, 1846, Lee was ordered to turn his work at Fort Hamilton over to Major Richard Delafield and report to Brigadier General John E. Wool for service as a field engineer in Mexico (Freeman 1: 202). After preparing bridges and roads for the initial advance of Wool's troops across the Rio Grande, Lee remained idle for three months as Wool awaited orders. Lee was then transferred to Brazos Santiago where he joined General Winfield Scott (Sanborn 108-112). The Army had made this transfer in order to use Lee's talents to assist Scott in the Vera Cruz expedition. However, Lee needed such an opportunity to prove his abilities for praise and promotion from his superiors. "Although he didn't know it, he had started up the ladder of fame" (Freeman 1: 219). The first rung of this ladder would be climbed as Lee transferred his engineering, and all other, services to assist General Scott in a quick and decisive war victory.

From Brazos Santiago, Lee traveled with his commanding officers and fellow engineers to Vera Cruz where, under Lee's direction, batteries were set up to lay siege on the city (Sanborn 113-115). Throughout this first engineering task conducted under fire, Lee displayed resilience as he ordered disgruntled sailors to continue digging the batteries (Freeman 1: 230). Though Lee received little praise for his direction in the successful siege, he undoubtedly found his resolve during the battle self-gratifying. From the Mexican armaments at the conquered Vera Cruz, Scott's troops refitted and moved inland toward Mexico City (Freeman 1: 233-234). Here they found the road blocked by Santa Anna's army, which was positioned in a series of defensive lines. While the expedition set up camp two miles from the Mexican lines, Lee was charged with finding a weakness in the enemy's position (Thomas 125). Along the National Road lay the Mexican batteries. To their right was a cliff which was, according to Lee, "unscalable by man or beast" (qtd. in Sanborn 117). Noting this, Lee turned his attention to the impassable ravines to the left of the Mexican lines. After a day of reconnaissance, mostly spent hiding under a log from Mexican soldiers, Lee confirmed that the ravines could be navigated by an army (Thomas 125-126). From his scouting, General Scott formulated a plan to flank the Mexican lines from the ravines while simultaneously launching a frontal assault, thus pinning the Mexican forces against the river. This plan proved so effective that Santa Anna himself barely escaped; moreover, he left behind official papers, topographical maps, and letters addressed to members of Scott's army (Thomas 127). Lee would later use these papers and topographical maps to base future battle strategies (Thomas 128). The Battle of Cerro Gordo truly enhanced Lee's standing as an engineering officer. From it he received three glowing reports from General David E. Twiggs, Colonel Bennett Riley, and General Winfield Scott concerning Lee's valuable performances during the expedition (Freeman 1: 247). Eventually, more praise would resound from Lee's superiors, as more doors of opportunity would open for him, throughout the war.

As the war progressed, Lee's amazing feats of reconnaissance proved to further his superiors' view of him as a capable soldier (Freeman 1: 271-272). In fact, the greatest loss of life during the entire campaign came upon an attack of fortifications lying on the plane leading up to Mexico City. Here Lee had taken no part in tactical decisions; furthermore, a lack of reconnaissance was cited as the key failure in preventing heavy casualties during the battle (Freeman 1: 275, 297). Though Lee served alongside many officers with or against whom he would fight in the coming Civil War, his greatest profit was the twenty months he had spent learning realistic battlefield tactics, army leadership organization, the importance of reconnaissance, and audacity (Freeman 1: 296, 297). These basic military skills he had learned from the renowned military leader General Winfield Scott, and had combined and compared them with the theoretical information acquired at West Point to put together a solid military beginning (Freeman 1: 250). However, the much larger scale operations of the Civil War would force Lee to draw from his every experience and ounce of knowledge to create a military leadership style unlike any other, one capable of defending Virginia through duty and compassion for its people.

From the time he organized the volunteer Army of Northern Virginia, to his surrender at Appomattox, Lee used his former education and experience to make his decisions on the battlefield. While others inherited armies, Lee built one (Bradford 190). After resigning from the United States Army, Lee accepted the Virginian offer of major general on April 23, 1861. Then on August 31, 1861, Lee was appointed to Confederate generalship under Samuel Cooper and Albert Sidney Johnston (Gallagher 1154). Due to a wound Joseph E. Johnston received on the first day of the Seven Days Battle, Confederate President Davis appointed Lee to lead the Army of Northern Virginia (Gallagher 1155). After a year of desk jobs organizing and creating defenses for the Confederacy, Lee finally got his army; the one he had built (Bradford 100).

Lee went about commanding his army with the care he had employed as an engineer supervising his work crews. In the fatherly care he had for his troops, Lee often gave his own food to the infirmary (Sanborn 366). In addition to this, he was often down among the soldiers shaking hands and giving words of hope (Sanborn 261). This was all just as Lee had done with his workers on his previous engineering jobs, where he would go to the work site and even eat lunch side by side with them. Both on the battlefield and on the job site, his goal was to get a feel for their work and assist them in any way possible. Likewise, Lee organized his army as he had his engineering teams, compact and efficient. All officers who were not fulfilling orders were removed and reassigned (Thomas 256). Militarily, this may not have been the best decision, due to the possibility an irreplaceable officer could be killed in combat; however, this was Lee's method. As Lee had done in every project and military battle, he would gather all details for analysis. Then, before making plans concerning any situation, Lee considered all factors, including: topography, condition of men, weather, time of year, etc. In addition to details, Lee formulated complicated plans that depended heavily on his subordinates to carry through (Freeman 2: 241). On engineering projects, Lee was able to closely monitor such subordinates and correct their errors. However, on the battlefield, failures to carry out all parts of Lee's plans often resulted in the loss of a battle. Defending Lee as a general, General Gordon once said, "Lee could not be beaten! Overpowered, foiled in his efforts, he might be, but never defeated until the props which supported him gave away..." (qtd. in Bradford 175). Lee's attention to detail enabled him to formulate plans that, when properly executed, would prevail against any traditional military tactic, even in the face of staggering odds.

Although many factors have been cited as reasons for Robert E. Lee's leadership style and military actions, his engineering background combined with his education and experience ultimately determined his military leadership style. Lee's methods and strategies were not necessarily traditional, but his wealth of experience and knowledge combined with his military genius allowed him to devise successful plans for his poorly equipped army. Throughout his life, Lee made such decisions as to allow doors of opportunity open along the way, and he surely made the most of these, as he had originally only wanted to be an engineer.

Works Cited

Bradford, Gamaliel. Lee the American. Boston: Houghton, 1912.

Did You Know? No. 33. Office of History, US Army Corps of Engineers. 11 November 2004 <

Freeman, Douglas Southall. R. E. Lee: A Biography. 4 vols. New York: Scribner's, 1934-35.

Gallagher, Gary W. "Robert E. Lee." Encyclopedia of the American Civil War. Ed. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000.

Long, A. L. Memoirs of Robert E. Lee. 1886. Secaucus, NJ: The Blue and Grey Press, 1983.

Sanborn, Margaret. Robert E. Lee A Portrait. 1966. Moose, WY: Homestead Publishing, 1996.

Thomas, Emory M. "Robert E. Lee." Macmillan Information Now Encyclopedia: The Confederacy. Ed. Richard N. Current, et al. New York: Simon, 1993.
- - - . Robert E. Lee: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1995.


Lee: The Educator

            For the current generation of Americans, as the sectional controversies of the Civil War are all but obliterated, the name General Robert E. Lee summons the image of the venerated vanquished war hero, idolized as a noble symbol for the Lost Cause. Yet it is often said that our true characters are most unambiguously revealed when we teach others. Although Lee is one of the most celebrated generals in American history, it is his postwar career as the President of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) and his achievement as an amazingly worthy educator that illustrate his true character. As a man, Lee’s profound Christian faith allowed him to develop a personal moral code focused on duty, kindness, diligence, and self-denial. His military experience, both as a war commander and as a brilliant student at West Point, ingrained in him the importance of duty – obedience and self-denial for the greater good. Uniting the moral concepts he derived throughout his life, Lee transformed Washington College into an experience that attempted to educate students as well as elevate their moral standards; in other words, Lee’s actions as President of the college tried to develop the students’ intellectual and moral potential to allow them to become gentlemen. Through these achievements, Lee showed his own moral standards by setting a personal example for his students and by attempting to reconcile sectional differences with the North and rebuild the ravaged South.

Lee’s fascination with education can be traced from his years as superintendent of West Point Military Academy in the early 1850s. However, it was at Washington College that Lee showed his aptitude as a great educator and made groundbreaking changes in the academic programs in an effort to revitalize the decrepit college and revolutionize outdated antebellum systems. Lee could see, even as a commander in battle, that the utmost postwar priority was to educate young Southerners appropriately for the needs of the next few decades. Instead of coercing students into predetermined curricula, Lee changed to an elective system that would allow students to learn from a wide variety of applied subjects, including engineering, mining, chemistry, accounting, business law, photography, and journalism. Lee’s innovative elective system was one of the first established in the country, and his school of journalism was the first of its kind in the world.[1] Lee had concocted a defined plan which he administered very efficiently to improve the various departments and teaching quality at the school, “to establish and perfect an institution which should meet the highest needs of education in every department… Under his advice, new chairs were created, and professors called to fill them… before the end of the first year the faculty was doubled… a completed system of ‘schools’ was established and brought into full operation.”[2] Yet even though Lee was a fervent advocate for technical education necessary for the South’s Reconstruction projects, he often expressed deep regret at not having completed a proper classical, liberal arts education before attending West Point. An Aristotelian at heart, Lee believed in a balanced coalescence of the “scientific” and the “professional studies.” [3]

Fully conscious that intellectual abilities must be explored to full potential by a practical and diverse curriculum, Lee aimed to create such a college where every student could find his proper calling. In fact, his efforts were so successful that Professor Joynes claimed in the college’s University Monthly, shortly after Lee’s death, that “the standards of scholarship were [so high that] soon the graduates of Washington College were the acknowledged equals of those from the best institutions elsewhere, and were eagerly sought after for the highest positions as teachers in the best schools.”[4] In fact, Lee’s meticulousness in monitoring the intellectual development of students was so great that he “watched the progress of every class, attended all the examinations, and strove constantly to stimulate both professors and students to the highest.”[5] He actively interacted with all departments and insisted on staying through semester examinations with the students, often testing them on their knowledge. During his tenure, Lee scrupulously administered and supervised the academic cultivation of young minds at the college, never relenting in his emphasis on pragmatist education for the “rising generation” that would be responsible for “the restoration of the country.”[6] Here, Lee set an example by underscoring intellectuality and practical learning for his students.

            Nevertheless, Lee’s achievements in the intellectual sector of the Washing College were only the basis upon which he built an infrastructure of moral learning. As a progressive educator, Lee only rarely used presidential authority as a means for educating. Rather than brute enforcement like he experienced in his military education, Lee tried to impress upon his “boys” moral principles through experience and example. For instance, he once told a young teacher that “as a general principle… you should not force young men to do their duty, but let them do it voluntarily and thereby develop their characters. The great mistake of my life was taking a military education.”[7] To an entering student, Lee wrote that there was only one rule at his college: “that every student must be a gentleman.”[8] Lee incorporated the insights he had gained from his own life into moral principles that he inculcated into his charges. According to Freeman, a prominent Lee biographer, Lee’s own Christian values extended into his moral precepts to make kindness, humility, duty, and self-denial and control the most significant aspects of his character. Although General Lee never lectured his young men about these moral principles, he tried to teach them these gentlemanly virtues through example. Lee’s actions as President of Washington College demonstrate a high awareness and strict observance of these principles.

            First, Lee showed considerable kindness in his interactions with the nearly 400 students at the college. Although not impervious to the use of authority, Lee was far from the stern, removed administrator. He personally welcomed every new student in his office and always managed to remember all of his students by name and even “write to the parents of each boy a letter, sometimes in his own handwriting, about once a year, concerning the young man’s conduct,” according to Graham Robinson, a former student.[9] Another anecdote also seems to substantiate the claim of Lee’s amazing memory for student names and records. Captain Rob Lee, Jr., General Lee’s son, recalls that his father heard an unfamiliar name during a faculty meeting and reproached himself for having forgotten the student because he thought he knew every one in college. However, further investigation showed that the student had only recently enrolled while Lee was absent and that Lee had never seen the new student.[10] Yet only knowing the students by name and individual characters was not enough. Lee allegedly knew everything about every student, reviewing their weekly grades and discussing with the students their strengths and weaknesses. His ultimate goal was to help: “If a student needed a place to study, the president let him use a little office near his own. If he had personal problems, he knew where to find a sympathetic listener.”[11] Lee appeared “almost motherly” to his students because of his kindness towards each individual student and willingness to help.

            Secondly, humility was another value that Lee demonstrated with his actions at Washington College. A member of his faculty, Colonel William Preston Johnston, fondly recalls that when interacting with the faculty, Lee was “courteous, kind… We all thought he deferred entirely too much to the expression of opinion on the part of the faculty.”[12] Lee never presumed to impress his opinions on others; in fact, he rarely made speeches before the faculty members and rather preferred to listen. According to Fishwick, Lee was at once a pupil and a president and showed, “day by day, the humility which was his true strength… an office [was] a battlefield [where] he had to conquer not opposing armies, but himself.”[13] For many, Lee’s success as educator was a greater triumph than Lee’s achievements as military warrior because of the great humility that he exemplified.

            Thirdly, Lee’s sense of duty guided him throughout his career as President. Though his heart condition had been exacerbating continually since 1863, weakening his physical condition, Lee worked incessantly and painstakingly during his tenure.[14] Lee tried to convey the importance of work ethics and diligence to the students by rewarding those who worked uncommonly hard and reprimanding indolence. “My only object is to endeavour to make them see their true interest, to teach them to labour diligently for their improvement, and to prepare themselves for the great work of life,” said Lee, who believed that individuals had the capacity to master evil and implement with moral code with honor and diligence.[15] With duty also came self-discipline. One of Lee’s favorite sayings was “Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character,” indicating his belief for the importance of maintaining discipline as part of duty.[16] Although Lee was kind in his interaction with students, when they transgressed this moral code and were derelict in duty and discipline, his enforcement of the rules was ruthless and unrelenting. Towards students who did not exert their best efforts and did not observe their duties, Lee was firm in their punishment. [17] Personally, Lee believed in “a true glory and a true honor: the glory of duty done – the honor of the integrity of principle,” a principle that he tried to instill in the morality of his boys.[18]

            Lastly, Lee’s self-denial and control was perhaps one of the most important values he tried to pass on to his students. As president, his own behavior exemplified self-control, with an attitude that combined “dignity, decorum, and grace… No matter how long or fatiguing a faculty meeting might be.”[19] Many faculty members expressed a certain feeling of awe for Lee because of this astonishing self-control. To the students, Lee constantly cautioned them against the dangers of alcohol, waging war on liquor because he had perceived its detrimental effects in his army. Lee followed his own advice at social price (though in his case it was small); in regards to sexuality, Lee’s caveat was to “hold on to your purity and virtue.”[20] Lee’s belief in good conduct as well as self-control compelled him to look to the greater good of the South and help defend law and order. In the various heated and violent breakouts in Lexington against the newly freed African-Americans, whatever his own private position was, Lee always cooperated with local authorities to maintain law and order at his college. Lee often appealed to young men’s sense of honor and self-respect to mitigate tension and appease ruffled students during political riots. In one case, when a twelve-year-old verbally abused a black man, Johnston, in Lexington and was shot to death by him, some Washington College students’ turned to violence and threatened Johnston. The leader of the students, Gordon, was arrested and immediately dismissed from the college. Lee’s anger at this upheaval was great, for he believed that “only men of degraded character could commit such violent political crimes.”[21] These kinds of uncontrolled actions were the anathema to the ideal of the gentleman and morality that Lee advocated, which propelled him to take firm disciplinary actions against them. Even though Lee, like his fellow Southerners, echoed the prevailing abhorrence for the military occupation of the South, he showed remarkable self-control in cooperating with the authorities in each of these cases to defend the law and order, even if it meant working with the occupation forces.[22] Though personally opposed to Reconstruction, Lee never succumbed to cries for lynching that permeated in the South and hoped to remain an educator that would set an acceptable example for his students. Even though a significant part of Washington College students were opposites of the gentleman ideal that Lee urged, these “hot little southerners” could not abuse power at his college, thus allowing Lee to become a symbol of nobility of spirit in the white South.[23] Throughout his career as President, Lee exercised great discretion and prudence in his conduct and set an example of morality, exemplified in kindness, humility, duty, and self-denial and control, making him a very praiseworthy educator.

            Yet Lee was not the perfect educator. As much as he advocated his cardinal rule of educating his students to behave like gentleman fit for their station, Lee did not believe that every youngster had the potential. He selected his students mainly from the Southern gentry class to which he belonged. In 1865, Lee lucidly states these intentions in a letter to John B. Baldwin, Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, proclaiming that young gentlemen ought to study “the most elevated branches of science and literature. But this character of instruction is required by the few; men of high capacity… not for the many; nor is it needed for the industrial classes, who have neither the time nor opportunity for acquiring it.”[24] The student body consisted primarily of young gentlemen from Lee’s class, who could be refined and improved to become leaders in the New South. Although Washington College was non-denominational, Lee’s insistence on Christian values made educating these young men without Protestant Christian influence ineluctable. According to Fellman, “Washington College was to be another expression of the kind of ecumenical, institutionalized Protestant piety that Lee had sought to apply to his army and to the Confederacy.”[25] Although Lee promoted reconciliation efforts and consistently avoided any political association in public to overlook sectional differences during the Civil War and work on rebuilding the South, his deep-rooted habits and beliefs could not be eradicated – he continued to believe in white supremacy, along with many others in the South and in the entire nation, and the inferiority of classes below his own.

            However, it would be foolish to deny Lee’s achievements as an outstanding educator. Lee brought new life to the failing Washington College, which now bears his name as a tribute for his contributions to the college. Lee’s efforts to reform education to unite practicality with theory, his own strict adherence to the ideal gentleman’s moral code, his moral influence on the college, and his conscious efforts to work toward reconciliation and reconstruction of the South can all be seen clearly through his work as the President of Washington College. As one of the most enigmatic figures in American history, Lee’s life has been retold as a tapestry interwoven with controversy. Yet as an educator, Lee’s contributions to educating the new generation are undeniable.  Whatever his own pretensions or beliefs, Lee was able to overlook those sectional disputes and worked actively toward reconciliation through education. The advice he gave to a Confederate widow effectively sums up his philosophy as an educator:  “Do not train up your children in hostility to the government of the United States. Remember, we are all one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring them up to be Americans.”[26]


 Selected Bibliography

 Primary Sources


Lee, Robert E., Jr. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1991.



Gallagher, Gary W., ed. Lee: The Soldier. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska Press, 1996.


Secondary Sources


Connelly, Thomas L. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society. New York: Knopf, 1977.



Fellman, Michael. The Making of Robert E. Lee. New York: Random House, 2000.



Fishwick, Marshall W. Lee: After the War. Westport, CT: Greewood Press, 1963.



Flood, Charles Bracelen. Lee: The Last Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.



Freeman, Douglas Southall. Lee of Virginia. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958.



Freeman, Douglas Southall. R.E. Lee. Abr. by Richard Harwell. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961.



Nolan, Alan T. Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. Chapel Hill, NC: U of NC Press, 1991.


“Robert E. Lee,” Historic World Leaders, available from Gale Research (2005) [journal online];; Document K1616000355; Farmington Hills, MI.: Thomson Gale.



“Robert E. Lee: 1807-1870,” Encyclopedias of the Confederacy, 4 vols. Simon & Schuster, 1993.  Reproduced in Gale Research (2005) [database online];; Document BT2335100766; Farmington Hils, MI: Gale Group.

Works Citied

[1] Albert Marrin, Virginia’s General: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War (New York: Athenum, 1994), 193.

[2] Edward S. Joynes from University Monthly quoted in Robert E. Lee, Jr., Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1992), 280-81.

[3] Marshall W. Fishwick, Lee: After the War (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1963), 136.

[4] Joynes, quoted in Marrin, 281.

[5] Joynes, quoted in Marrin, 301.

[6] Robert E. Lee, personal letter (3 Mar 1868), quoted in Fishwick, 137.

[7] Lee, quoted in Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee of Virginia (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 219.

[8] Lee, quoted in Freeman (1958), 219.

[9] Robinson, quoted in Fishwick, 141.

[10] Lee, 295.

[11] Marrin, 194.

[12] Johnston, quoted in Lee, 315.

[13] Fishwick, 145.

[14] Douglas Southall Freeman, R.E. Lee. Abr. by Richard Harwell (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), 538.

[15] Lee, quoted in Michael Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee (New York: Random House, 2000), 250.

[16] Lee, quoted in Freeman (1961), 530.

[17] Fellman, 251.

[18] Lee, quoted in Freeman (1961), 587.

[19] Johnston, quoted in Lee, 315.

[20] Lee, quoted in Fellman, 253.

[21] Fellman, 260.

[22] Fellman, 262.

[23] Fellman, 262.

[24] Lee, quoted in Fellman, 251.

[25] Fellman, 252.

[26] Lee, quoted in Charles Bracelen Flood, Lee: The Last Years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 152.

The Unvanquished General Lee

by Joe Scotchie

The year 2007 promises to be like no other. For it represents the bicentennial of Robert E. Lee. I won’t bore you with tales of political correctness. We all know the days are evil. We are all subjects of an ideological regime: Not surprisingly, Lee, along with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, is a main target of the evildoers. To others, Lee is not so malevolent. Rather, he remains a strange figure, a man out of place in American history. He is forever the Man in Gray, a figure who achieved glory in defeat, all in a nation defined by Progress Unlimited. Defeat, occupation, poverty – Americans would rather not think about it.

Lee is not forgotten – at least to those who look hard enough. There are Lee Counties in 10 Southern states. (The "Lee Counties" in both Georgia and Virginia are for his father, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, the famed Revolutionary War cavalryman.) There are 80-plus schools – and not all of them in the South – that bear his name, not to mention those streets, boulevards, parkways, plus the numerous monuments in his likeness, especially Stone Mountain, the largest outdoor sculpture in the Western Hemisphere. A previous generation was nostalgic for life "befoah de wah." Me, I’ll take life before the Interstate, when the Old Lee Highway, the Jeff Davis Highway, and the Dixie Highway were the main byways running through the Southland. For the Old South, Lee was an icon on which folks could nurse their wounded pride. The South lost – but look at what men it produced. In that age, from 1876 to 1941, the first great bulk of Lee scholarship was being produced. Starting in modern times, around the 1930s, Lee became a puzzlement to some. Biographers, novelists, poets, and historians have all struggled to "get Lee right." Robert Penn Warren thought that Lee was too smooth, too refined a character to ever be a subject for fiction. Warren’s fellow Agrarian, Allen Tate, quit a planned biography of Lee in frustration: He thought Lee was too image conscious (to borrow a modern term) to gather much sympathy. For decades, restless historians have sought to upend Douglas Southall Freeman’s contention that unlocking Lee’s true nature – specifically his ceaseless devotion to Christian morality – involved no great mystery.

Is understanding Lee that hard? Lee was stoic like the Roman, but that was the way of the gentleman. Still, he was human, plenty human. Lee’s life was marked by great ambition, legendary victories, only to face enormous frustration and finally, defeat. He was, in his own words, a man "always wanting something."

Lee was reared in Alexandria, Virginia, at a time when the legacy of George Washington dominated the local culture. Lee’s father, now sent into exile for failing to meet his debts, was a friend and contemporary of Washington. Lee grew up idolizing Washington. As fate would have it, Washington’s adopted granddaughter also lived in Alexandria. The families were acquainted with each other. And you just knew that Lee would marry Mary Custis. One can imagine the young Lee laying eyes on Mary and resolving right there to marry her. You’d almost like to be a fly on the wall for that courtship.

In his youth, Lee also cared for his mother. He burned equally to redeem the family name. At West Point, Lee would become the only cadet to graduate without receiving a single demerit – an astounding achievement that stands to this day. After West Point, Lee began his life on the road. The coming decades would see Lee stationed at among other places, Savannah, St. Louis, Brooklyn, New York, and West Texas. Ambition followed by frustration. Lee disliked being away from his family, even though he had no real home. Arlington, the mansion where his children were reared, was in fact the home of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. In between West Point and Fort Sumter, there was the Mexican War, in which Lee served with great valor and vigor. His performance caught the eye of General Winfield Scott, who now declared Lee the finest soldier in the entire U.S. Army.

Lee, of course, opposed secession, even labeling it as a "rebellion." "The only song I long to hear is ‘Old Columbia,’" he exclaimed as the Deep South seceded. However, wearing the blue and invading Virginia was asking too much. You had to wonder what the boys in Washington were thinking. "Having plowed her fields, he had a new sense of oneness with her," wrote the perceptive Freeman of Lee’s special attachment to Old Dominion. In addition, Lee, during the war, became convinced of the South’s rightness in not just moral terms, but constitutional ones as well.

And so, came Lee’s greatest challenge, greatest glory, and greatest frustration. I am not a military historian. Lee excelled through those lighting quick offensive operations, the ones with Jeb Stuart conducting cavalry rides around the opposition, Stonewall Jackson striking the first blow, and James Longstreet’s forces delivering the decisive follow-ups. After Jackson fell at Chanceslorsville, Lee still took the offensive at Gettysburg. After that epic battle, Lee assumed a more defensive posture, one that kept Ulysses S. Grant’s mighty forces at bay all throughout 1864. I would only add that the Western theater was important, too. Jefferson Davis’s decision to relieve Joe Johnston in Atlanta with John Bell Hood was as significant as the loss of Jackson. Hood abandoned Johnston’s successful defense of Atlanta for an heroic, but ill-conceived assault on Nashville. The Army of Tennessee was lost at a time when Lee’s men were still in the field. Plus, there is the story of Nathan Bedford Forrest and all the missed opportunities.

So why Lee? There is that constant fascination with the underdog, with Lost Causes, with how the losing side manages to endure. There also was Lee’s conduct, both during and after the war. He did win great battles against enormous odds. Plus, Lee was magnanimous in victory. He did not gloat or brag when a major battle was won. He knew the odds his army struggled under and the cruel reality of war – thousands of young men robbed of life at an early age. He referred to Federal forces as "those people" and even at times, "our friends." Finally, in defeat, Lee was regal. At Appomattox, he dressed in his full general’s uniform while Grant showed up late, chomping on his ever-present cigar and wearing only a colonel’s outfit. One can only recall James R. Robertson’s unforgettable description of that scene: "[It] was one of those rare moments in history when the vanquished commanded more attention than the victor."

After the war, Lee’s demeanor changed little. There was anger in private, the conciliatory stand in public. "How that great heart suffered," his son Robert Junior also observed. There was more, however, to his postwar life than melancholy. At Sulphur Springs, Virginia, Lee confided to Fletcher I. Stockdale, a former governor from Texas, that if he had foreseen the ravages of Reconstruction, he would not have surrendered, but instead died with his men right there at Appomattox.

Indeed, at Washington College, where Lee served as president, he truly was a man without a country. The descendant of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, the son of a governor of Virginia, the husband of the adopted granddaughter of George Washington, Lee was now a mere spectator to the tyranny of Reconstruction and all the graft and corruption in Washington City. It couldn’t have been easy.

In all, I’d say such pro-Lee scribes as Dr. Freeman and the Rev. J. William Jones read the man correctly. Rev. Jones might not have been an academic, but he was an intimate of Lee during the Lexington years. Self-denial and duty were the cornerstones of Lee’s life. He loved the latter word, declaring it to be "the most sublimest word in the language. Always do your duty. Never do less."

"Teach him he must deny himself," the elderly Lee told the mother of a young child. Here again, is the code Lee strived to live by: Self-denial, the determination to live for others. That does lead to frustration. At Washington College, Lee posted only one rule: All students must behave as Christian gentlemen. Lee fell short, as do all who take up the cross. The effort, however, is important. In that sense, Lee is hardly a failure. His life remains a fascination to millions around the world. Two hundred years later, the controversies, the adulation, and the debates rage on. Every year, the books tumble out of the presses. General Lee lives.

Joe Scotchie [send him mail] is a regular contributor to various conservative publications and the author of several books, including Revolt From The Heartland: The Struggle for An Authentic Conservatism (Transaction) and Street Corner Conservative: Patrick J. Buchanan and His Times (Alexander Books).

Copyright © 2006


Robert E. Lee’s moment of leadership

Howie Tune


It was a beautiful Sunday morning in late June 1865 in Richmond, Va. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was nearly full as many local residents sought solace for their troubles. The Civil War had been lost, many chairs were empty at family dining room tables, and the South was being occupied by blue-coated Federal troops. Adding insult to injury, to regain the rights of citizenship one needed to apply for parole, a process that required a person to take an oath that repudiated the Confederacy. Southerners found it a bitter pill to swallow; most remained defiant.

The congregation listened intently to the sermon given by the rector, Dr. Charles Minnigerode. They were unaware that on this warm June morning, something symbolic of the efforts at Reconstruction was about to happen. The service progressed to the point where Minnigerode offered communion to all who came forward.

Just at that moment, a tall, well-dressed African-American man rose and walked quickly up to the altar rail, knelt and awaited communion. Minnigerode stood frozen, unsure of what to do. No one in the congregation moved.

The treatment of African-Americans by white churches in the southern states during this time varied widely. In some, blacks were allowed their own separate service, while in others, they were refused admission entirely. Considering the restrictions, most kept to their own places of worship. St. Paul’s had a section of the upstairs gallery that was reserved for blacks. If they wished to receive communion, they could do so only after the last white parishioner had returned to his or her pew.

Before and during the war, a black person attempting to take communion alongside whites could expect trouble. Typically, the offender would have been hustled from the church, jailed for disturbing the peace, and — quite possibly — whipped for indiscretion. Now, with the city under martial law, the congregation remained in their pews and the minister stood dumbfounded. The congregants looked at each other and perhaps whispered that something had to be done. But by whom?

At that moment, an older man in a gray suit stood up in his pew. Many realized that what he wore was his former Confederate Army uniform, with all insignia removed per Federal military decree. This was Gen. Robert E. Lee, who at the end of the war had commanded all the armies of the Confederacy. Although he considered himself a failure for losing the war, he was universally respected and loved across the South. The congregation no doubt looked at him as just the person to “fix” this uncomfortable situation; Lee was used to people obeying his orders. Without a word he stepped out of his pew and walked toward the black man kneeling at the altar rail.

Following his surrender of the Confederate Army on April 9, 1865, Lee had returned to Richmond, where his family was staying in a rented house. Arlington, the large estate owned by the family, had been seized by the Federal government and turned into a cemetery (now Arlington National Cemetery). The Lees had some other farms, but they had not been worked for years and were sacked during the war. Lee had no job and little income. He had reason to fear arrest at any moment.

During his journey to Richmond, soldiers Lee had formerly commanded approached him and whispered that he needed only to give the word and the war would start anew. Their former general’s answer was always the same: The word would not be given; go home, regain your citizenship and become an asset to the country.

One day a former Confederate captain came to Lee and asked him what he should do. Lee gently urged him to take the oath and apply for a pardon. The captain’s father was Henry Wise, a former Virginia governor, Southern general and a firebrand of the Confederacy. When he told his father he had applied for a pardon, the senior Wise raged and declared that the boy had disgraced the family. But when the boy replied that General Lee had suggested it, the senior Wise calmed down and said: “Oh, that alters the case. Whatever General Lee says is all right, I don’t care what it is.”

So now the devout Robert E. Lee was looked to by his fellow congregants to set the example of how they should react to an African-American who believed he was the equal of a white person in the eyes of God. Robert E. Lee knew exactly what he had to do.

He walked with a purpose up to the communion rail; all eyes in the congregation watched to see what he would do next. Without a word, Lee knelt down not far from the black man, looked straight ahead and also awaited communion. Following the lead of the most beloved figure in the post-Civil War South, the proud people of Richmond quietly came to the rail and knelt on either side of the two men already there. Minnigerode immediately began giving communion to everyone at the rail.

Sources: “Lee: The Last Years” by Charles Flood “Duty Faithfully Performed” by John Taylor.

Copyright © 2007 The Reno Gazette-Journal

Rebels in Rome:
The Catholic Church and the Confederacy in Civil War America

Philip Gerard Johnson


“There are few...who will not acknowledge that slavery

as an institution is a moral and political evil.” ...Robert E. Lee



Introduction by Michael J. Matt

(POSTED 01/09/07  Over the past few decades the number of mainstream historians who have begun taking a more sophisticated look at what really transpired before, during and after the War Between the States has been on the rise. This is welcome news since in the case of the so-called Civil War (in reality, it was no such thing!), the victors certainly were allowed to write the history books. Fourteen decades after General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865, many Americans still think of Confederates as little more than an obstreperous band of racist hillbillies… hardly surprising since American school children ever since have been dutifully taught that the bloody conflict, which exacted over 1 million American casualties, was all about one thing—ending the gross injustice of Slavery. But if this is so, why is it that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 applied only to the Southern States and not the North where there were, in fact, a number of slaves still hard at it?

Hardly a principled act of moral reform, the “freeing of the slaves” was President Lincoln’s attempt to level an economic sanction against the South. Thus the Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves residing in territory “in rebellion” against the federal government. It did not apply to slaves in states fighting on the Union side or to slaves in southern areas already under Union control.

At the time, Abraham Lincoln himself insisted that Slavery was not the issue which motivated him first to refuse to negotiate with the Confederacy and later to invade the South. In an August 22, 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, Lincoln writes: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.” 

Aside from being a lifelong advocate of colonization—an initiative whereby all blacks would have been shipped back to Africa and Haiti—Lincoln was a separatist as well, declaring on July 17, 1858, that what “I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races.”

These comments must be taken within the context of the day and age in which they were made, of course, but so must the societal attitude towards the institution of Slavery itself, which had become so commonplace in America that even to this day no real stigma is attached to the heroes of our own Revolution who were, like it or not, slave owners. George Washington (the Father of Our Country), Thomas Jefferson (the principal author of the Declaration of Independence), James Madison (the Father of the Constitution)—these "champions of liberty" all owned slaves!

Obviously, then, society’s attitude towards Slavery has changed a great deal since the Revolution and indeed since the Civil War itself.  So, we might ask ourselves: Since Slavery was a long-established but by then aged and decrepit institution clearly in its death throes—certainly in the North but also in the South—what was the real driving force behind the Civil War? 

After all, thousands of slaves had already been freed in the South before the War.  On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, Slavery, even in the antebellum South, had much less to do with the Civil War than a growing financial concern in the North over the prospect of massive decreases in tariff revenue from a South eager to go it alone.  “Save the Union,” went the slogan, but it could have been “Save the Union’s Cash Cow.” 

Thus the Catholic Church had no compunction in supporting the South’s bid for secession; she did not identify the Confederacy’s legitimate aspirations with dogged defense of Slavery as is usually the attitude these days on the part of a society whose opinions on history (if considered at all) have largely been formed by Hollywood movie studios.  At the time, however, the Church knew very well that the invasion of the South at Fort Sumter in 1861 was certainly not motivated by the North's moral indignation over Slavery.

The sticking point in all this, of course, is the certain double standard whereby America’s secession from British rule must be considered by all patriots as a divinely ordained event in the salvation history of all mankind while the South’s effort to do essentially the same with respect to Northern rule must be forever regarded a defiant act of diabolical rebellion. Where is the logic?  There is none, which is why most Americans simply accept the federal government’s official version of the facts, and conclude that the Civil War must have been a consequence of the North’s keen sense of moral outrage in the face of grotesque human rights violations in the South.   Please!

In some ways the issue of Slavery was to the Civil War what 9/11 was to the war in Iraq—a legitimate tragedy that nevertheless had far less to do with the war fought in its name then those who beat the war drums care to admit.  Any child reading the life of the gallant General Robert E. Lee, for example, (“one of the noblest Americans who ever lived,” according to Winston Churchill) knows very well that there was much more to the Civil War than the South’s alleged love affair with Slavery. 

“There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age,” wrote General Robert E. Lee, “who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.”  Whereas even some Union generals owned and kept slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation, Robert E. Lee never owned any and those he inherited were immediately freed.  This is a man who was clearly not fighting to keep black people enchained.

So, fairytales aside, what was really at issue?  Just as Blessed Pius IX implicitly acknowledged when he recognized Jefferson Davis as the Honorable President of the Confederate States of America, soldiers defending the Confederacy were as justified in their cause against a foreign invader as were any American soldiers serving in any conflict before or since. And yet to this day, expressions of empathy with the South (chivalry's last bastion) are immediately identified with closet racism, sexism, treason and other ugly crimes.  Clearly, the war against the old order in America still rages on.

Thankfully, the tide is beginning to turn, and, though the violently reconstructed South will likely never rise again, the truth of what really happened to the South just might. The following article raises pertinent questions that get to the heart of what transpired south of the Mason-Dixon Line just 150 years ago when an army of God-fearing Southern gentlemen, encouraged by a saintly Pope and explicitly supported by Catholic bishops and priests, made America’s last stand against an overreaching centralized federal government that would go on to lead our nation into the political, moral and spiritual morass of today.  Read it carefully and note the alarming extent to which we all have been deceived. MJM

Pius IX and the Confederacy

Throughout its short history, the Confederate government sought earnestly and repeatedly to gain some kind of foreign support.  The closest it ever came was in 1863, when His Holiness Pope Pius IX sent a letter addressed to the “Illustrious and Hon. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, Richmond,” and concluded with a hope for a union in “perfect friendship.”1 

Davis interpreted this communication as a form of recognition, even though some measure of his interpretation was subject to false expectations.  The letter was reported in Southern newspapers with the implication that Pope Pius IX supported the Confederacy.2  The President hoped that this letter would be the first step towards widespread European recognition of the Confederate government, but it proved to be the only such communication, and within two years, the Confederacy would be dead.  Still, the letter does raise the question of why the Holy Pontiff would express public friendship to the Confederacy.

When the Civil War erupted in America, pitting the North against the agrarian society of the Confederacy, social, political, and even religious organizations were forced to take sides.  Two of the country’s major churches, the Baptists and the Methodists, divided over the issue of slavery – the Baptists remaining separated to this day.  The Catholic Church, however, did not break in half, though its unity was severely strained.  Instead of dividing, Episcopal alliances were virtually along geographical lines, and the Holy See took the curious position of showing sympathy for the slaveholding Confederacy.  The reason for this was that the pope, Pius IX, saw the same kinds of threatening tendencies in the American North that had driven him from his papal throne in Italy in 1848.  These tendencies in both Italy and America came in the form of progressivism towards a more centralized democracy, economic reform, and opposition to aristocracy.  They were considered to be liberal in both Catholic and Southern society, and were viewed as dangerous to the spread of Catholicism. Furthermore, the Church’s own political weakness in America severely hindered her ability to attempt to change anything about slavery other than the hearts of those who condoned it.  The Catholic Church considered the tendencies of the North to be more dangerous than slavery, and considered the conservative Southern society to be more suitable to the spread of Catholicism than the North.

Pope Pius IX ascended to the papacy in 1846.  After the death of Pope Gregory XVI, the College of Cardinals faced a difficult decision in electing the next pope. Many Cardinals in the Conclave supported Cardinal Lambruschini, whose extreme opposition to liberalism would have kept Gregory XVI’s conservative and prudent Church policies alive.  Others sought to elect a liberal and conciliatory pope in order to counter Pope Gregory XVI’s confrontational policies with the government.  The Conclave chose the latter, and elected Cardinal Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, who chose the name Pius IX.  Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti had been well-liked by Pope Gregory XVI despite the Cardinal’s liberalism in terms of Church reform and relations with the secular Italian government.  Indeed, Pope Gregory XVI once declared that even Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti’s cats were liberals.3

Pope Pius IX appeared to live up to his liberal and progressive reputation immediately following his election to the Chair of Saint Peter.  The Papal States were dangerously close to revolution due to Italian nationalism, and he promised reforms and changes in order to restore stability.4  He was responsible for the introduction of railroads into Rome and the reformulation of tariff laws in order to improve trade.  He installed gas-powered street lighting in Rome, apportioned a share of the papal charities for the Jews, and abolished the law which required Jews to attend weekly Catholic sermons.  He coupled this program of economic and social reform with political reforms of the same magnitude.  The pope incorporated democracy into the governing of the Papal States by appointing lay persons to the government of the Church.  He allowed exiled revolutionaries to return to the Papal States, and even approved a new constitution that gave an elected body of laymen the power to veto the pope.  Protestant leaders from all over Europe congratulated Pius IX, and Italian nationalists dubbed the pope “the most important man in Italy.”5

The pope seemed to be conceding to the wishes of Italian nationalists who cried in thanksgiving for his reforms: “Viva Italia!  Viva Pio Nono!”6  Liberal Italians expected these policies to continue so that the secular government could gain more power and ultimately become completely separated from the Church.  However, Pope Pius IX considered these changes to be the completion of his reforms.  When the pope rejected further demands, his popularity waned.  He had excited the Italian nationalists with his promises of reform, but he was not prepared to fulfill all of their expectations.7  The consequence was disappointment and bitterness.8

In 1848, revolutions erupted throughout Europe.  Italy went to war in order to expel Austria from Italy, but the Italians treated the war more like a crusade than a political war.  When the Italians called for the Pope to lead their “crusade,” he gave an address in which he explained papal policy in relation to Italy.  His new policies took a sharp turn and began to resemble those of his conservative predecessor, Pope Gregory XVI, causing the Italian people to feel betrayed.  In his address to the College of Cardinals, Pius IX stated that he would have no part in this war and that he would send no troops to Austria:

When there was revolution over Europe, I sent troops to guard the frontiers. But when some demanded that these troops join with other [Italian] states to war against Austria, I must say solemnly, that I abhor the idea. I am the Vicar of Christ, the author of peace and lover of charity, and my office is to bestow an equal affection on all nations.9

According to one authority, this statement to the College of Cardinals “was a douche of icy water on the overheated enthusiasm which had surrounded his first two years as pope.”10

Pius IX went from being one of the most loved men in Italy to one of the most hated, and this public resentment eventually led to exile. He lost all control over Rome, and Pellegrino Rossi, his Prime Minister, was murdered in November of 1848.  The Pope sensed grave danger and, disguised as an ordinary priest, fled to Gaeta in the Neapolitan territory.  As revolution continued in Rome and an anti-clerical regime took control, Pius IX called for the Catholic powers of the world to reclaim Rome on his behalf and to restore the power of his office.  In July of 1849, French troops re-conquered Rome for the Pope, and he once again took power in April of 1850.11

On his return to Rome, Pius IX blamed tendencies such as liberalism and centralized democracy12 for the Italian Revolution and for his exile.  As a result, he believed for the rest of his life that conceding in good faith to the political ideals of democracy only paved the way for revolution.13  The revolution of 1848 caused the pope to turn against constitutionalism, and he also condemned many of his past reforms which the Italian nationalists had praised.14  After his return to power, his “liberal honeymoon was over.”15

Pope Pius IX subsequently issued the Syllabus of Errors in which he listed the modernist errors of his time, including the separation of Church and State. He also condemned the notion that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”16  In addition to condemning these errors, he tightened his reins on the government of the Church with the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility in the First Vatican Council.  No longer would he embrace the modernist and liberal tendencies in the world, but he would condemn and oppose them wherever they existed.

A decade after Pope Pius IX’s renunciation of liberalism, the United States was being torn apart by a similar clash of ideals.  Industrialization and technology widened the gap between the progressive North and agrarian South to the point where the two seemed incompatible.  To some, and especially to Pope Pius IX, the clash between these two cultures resembled the revolution which had taken place a decade earlier in Italy, where those who favored democracy vied for control of one of the oldest and most conservative institutions in Europe: the Roman Catholic Church.  Indeed, there were direct political ties between post-revolution Italy and ante-bellum America in that Pope Pius IX’s reforms were welcomed by progressives in the United States.

Sympathy and support for Pope Pius IX’s reforms in the early years of his papacy were main factors for America’s recognition of the Papal States.17 Additionally, the increased Italian support of the concepts of democracy, liberalism, and a free Church in a free state excited secular Americans and aligned many of them with the agenda of the Italian nationalists.18  In a Philadelphia public meeting addressed to Pope Pius IX, Robert Tyler, a vice president of the meeting, offered the following resolution concerning the changes that were taking place in Italy: “The liberal movement now in progress in Italy under the example and auspices of the Papal Sovereign, awakens in the breasts of the American People, the deepest interest, sympathy, and respect.”19 

In a letter addressed to this public meeting, the Honorable Lewis Cass stated that if Pope Pius IX were to continue with his liberal spirit, “he will become the man of his age.”20  Similar to the North’s approval of the Italian reforms, the Italian nationalists also sympathized with many Northern ideals.  With the exception of the Catholic clergy, nearly all of Italy rallied behind the Union and their ideals during the Civil War.21

Though the North often celebrated what the Catholic Church considered to be liberalism, many Southerners feared these tendencies. As a Charleston newspaper of the time explained, the South believed that a centralized, liberal democracy would destroy their agrarian culture and way of life through rampant industrialization:

There can be no doubt in any sound mind that the North and the South require a different government.  The conservative elements of Southern society would be in too small a minority to control the aggressiveness of the wild and wanton democracy, which is found ever and anon to seize the reins of government at the North, under the most propitious circumstances.22

The South believed that Northern society was radical and in direct opposition to their conservative and orderly society.  Southerners realized that to remain a part of the Union may have meant the destruction of the Southern way of life and a concession to a Northern-controlled centralized democracy: “Under the existing Union, the theory and institutions of Southern society, or that of Northern society, will eventually give way.  For both to exist, continue and work out their own ends, they must be separated.”23  And separate they did.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, even though he did not appear on any Southern ballots and thus received no votes from any state in the South.  Many Southerners realized at that moment that the North controlled the Southern society and that the South no longer had any effective voice in the Union.  As a result of Lincoln’s election, South Carolina formally withdrew from the Union, followed immediately by six other states.24

Although slavery played an important role in the hearts of many Americans in deciding which side to support, Catholics in America had to reconcile Church teachings with their own sectional philosophies, which often proved to be a difficult task.25  The issue of slavery did not divide the Catholic Church in half, but it did pose a grave threat to the Church’s unity in America.26  While many Americans were able to remain ambivalent to slavery, the Catholic Church had to take a stand on the issue while also attempting to avoid the same sectional disputes within the Church that caused most Protestant denominations to divide.  Because of the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, as opposed to the lack of central authority in most Protestant denominations, obedience to her teachings and to the pope was enough to maintain Church unity.  However, the issue of slavery, as well as the division of the country, complicated this task.

Catholics in the South found themselves in a situation very similar to the early Christians in terms of political influence.  Both constituted a minority group with practically no political power in a society that advocated slavery.  Although the Catholic Church avoided permanent division in the United States, American bishops differed in their opinions about where the loyalty of Catholics should lie.  Northern bishops tended to support the Union, whereas Southern bishops generally aligned themselves with the cause of the Confederacy.27  However, while Southern bishops supported the South with little or no reservation, Northern bishops often had trouble justifying the Northern position because Church teaching often clashed with the North’s policies.  Bishops on both sides generally supported the section in which they lived, which strained the Church and often pitted bishop against bishop.

Archbishop William Henry Elder of Natchez was one of the most prominent Church leaders in the South.  He was a rare native Southerner among his fellow bishops and was the leader of all Catholics in the state of Mississippi.  In a letter to the Bishop of Chicago in 1861, Bishop Elder made it very clear that Catholics in the South were to give their allegiance to the Confederate government:

I hold it is the duty of all Catholics in the seceding states to adhere to the actual government without reference to the rights or the wisdom of making the separation – or the grounds for it – our state government [and] our new Confederation are de facto our only existing government here and it seems to me as good citizens we are bound not only to acquiesce in it but to support it [and] contribute means [and] arms [and] above all to avoid weakening it by division of counsel without necessity.28

Although Bishop Elder did give recognition to the Confederate government, he was careful not to give the impression that he was aligning the entire Catholic Church with the secession movement; to do so would cause much division in the Catholic Church in America.  He did make it very clear, however, that one could personally support the Confederate secession and still remain in good standing with the Church.  He explained his position in a letter to the Archbishop of Baltimore: “…if [Catholics] were satisfied, dispassionately that secession was the only practical remedy … their religion [does] not forbid them to advocate it.”29  Bishop Elder also stated to a priest-friend that Catholics could support the secession movement because Confederate secession itself was in accordance with Catholic morality:

Some say the Union was a kind of free association which any state had a right to forsake whenever she judged it to be conductive to her interests:  the right of secession.  Others say…we were released by the right of self preservation – because it was impossible for us to live in the Union [and] we had a right to provide for our safety outside of it….  Now any of these positions is perfectly consistent with Catholic morality – with the highest patriotism.30

Though skeptical of the Southern cause at first, Bishop Elder later changed his views.  In an 1863 letter to a friend in Rome, the bishop voiced his fears that the South’s actions were too rash and that they should have relied on “Constitutional Remedies.”31  However, he later viewed the South’s actions as necessary: “The scornful treatment of all attempts at compromise in Congress seemed to confirm the sagacity of their views [and] I must confess that the progress of events in the north has persuaded me the constitution would have afforded little or no protection.”32  The bishop saw Northern troops use brutal tactics in his homeland of Mississippi and stated it “shows how little reliance [could] be placed on the power of constitutions or even of the universal laws of Christian nations, to protect us against fanaticism.”33  Bishop Elder was very sympathetic to the Southern cause and believed that the South had no other choice than to secede.

Bishop Elder taught that Catholics in the South owed their allegiance to both the Confederacy as well as to their individual state governments.  He recognized these governments as the de facto governments, but was careful not to officially support secession in order to maintain Church unity.  Although he attempted to stay neutral, his actions and words caused him many troubles with Northern authorities who considered him to be disloyal to the Union government.  During the Northern occupation of Mississippi in 1863 and 1864, Union authorities attempted to force Bishop Elder to direct all priests under his jurisdiction to pray publicly for President Lincoln at every Mass.  Refusal to do so would have constituted disloyalty and would have been punished.  Bishop Elder refused to comply and as a result, was ordered to remain inside Federal military lines, which included Mississippi at that time.  The Union took control of his cathedral, as well as every other church that refused to offer prayers for President Lincoln.  Lincoln eventually ordered Bishop Elder’s release, but these experiences gave the Southern bishop even more reason to support the Confederate cause.34

Other Catholic bishops across the South held positions similar to those of Bishop Elder.  Jean Marie Odin, the Archbishop of New Orleans, was extremely loyal and devoted to the cause of the South.35  In Savannah, Bishop Verot joined Archbishop Odin as an outspoken advocate of the Confederacy.  In 1861, Verot preached a sermon which caused many in the North to label him as a rebel bishop and a supporter of slavery.  He condemned the slave trade, but laid out a code of rights for the treatment of slaves.36  A Frenchman by birth, Bishop Verot believed that intervention from the French Emperor was the best way for the South to be victorious:

It appears to me that a solemn embassy to the emperor of the French imploring him to interfere in the name of humanity, civilization, [and] liberty, [and] another to Maximilian offering him an alliance offensive [and] defensive with the Confederacy would do more good.37

Bishop Verot was confident in his positions and assured Southern Catholics that “the justice of our cause is clear; clear enough to admit of no doubts in our mind.”38  In addition to being a staunch supporter of the Confederacy, he did not understand how the Northern bishops could oppose the South: “I often hear that Bishop Hughes [of New York]…speaks against the South.  I do not believe what I hear.  Still I would like to hear his arguments against the justice of the Southern cause.”39

Although a supporter of the Confederate cause, Verot was not an apologist for slavery.  Indeed, the abolition of slavery was one of his wishes and goals.  Religious education was the Church’s primary concern with slavery in America, and Bishop Verot believed that the spiritual needs of the slaves were not being met.40  He was certain that abolition would eventually come by spreading the teachings of Catholicism, even with a Confederate victory.  Therefore, he was able to support the Confederate cause in good conscience and counsel Southern Catholics to do the same.41

In the North, the response of Catholic Church leaders to secession and slavery was not as clear as in the South.  Archbishop John Hughes of New York was an Irish immigrant, a staunch nationalist, and one of the most well-known and important Northern bishops during the Civil War.  He held a high position in the Catholic Church in America and was also respected in Rome, so his opinions were held in high regard by all Catholics who had difficulties responding to the war.  The teachings of the Catholic Church did not agree with many popular Northern opinions, especially the violence of abolitionism, so Archbishop Hughes had trouble taking a stance on many sectional issues.  Southern secession saddened the Archbishop, but his views on slavery were ambiguous – a recurring position on slavery among Northern Church leaders.42  This is seen very clearly in an 1854 sermon which he gave in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral:

While we all know that this condition of slavery is evil, yet it is not an absolute and unmitigated evil; and even if it were anything more than what it is – a comparative evil – there is one thing, that it is infinitely better than the condition in which this people would have been, had they not been seized to gratify the avarice and cupidity of the white man.43

This opinion that Negroes were better off as slaves than they would be had they remained in Africa was one of the South’s primary justifications for slavery, causing Archbishop Hughes to be accused of being a supporter of the institution in America.  However, his positions seem to more closely resemble those of a man who struggled with the issue himself and attempted to justify it in order to avoid having to condemn it.

Though he believed in his heart that slavery was very wrong, he condemned the acts and beliefs of abolitionists and stated that it was an error to think that slavery could end immediately.  Instead, he taught that the slave owner had an obligation to be kind to his slave and provide for all of the slave’s physical and spiritual needs.  He maintained that with the spread of Catholicism, slavery would eventually be unthinkable in society and that emancipation would come not from the government, but from the charity of the slaveholder, following the Scriptural example of Saint Paul. 44  In his Epistle to Philemon, Saint Paul sent an escaped slave back to his owner, but urged the slave owner to have a change of heart and to accept him back not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.45  Similarly, Bishop Elder believed that only through the spread of Catholicism and Christian charity, not through laws or violence, could slavery be truly abolished and the distinction between master and slave be truly removed.46

The most important Catholic opinion on the American Civil War was that of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Pius IX.  As noted, after surviving the Italian Revolution over a decade earlier, the pope rethought his past tendencies and adopted conservative policies that reinforced the constant tradition and teachings of the Catholic Church.  For the Pope, the situation in America was all too familiar.  Liberalism was thriving in the North and progress towards a centralized liberal democracy seemed to remove traditional values from American society.  In the South, the pope saw a society that clung to traditional religious and family values, which he believed to be more conducive to Catholic principles despite its support of slavery.47

Until he became President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis attended Baptist churches.  After becoming President, he was baptized into the High Anglican Church.  He developed a great respect for the Catholic Church,48 however, probably due to his attendance at a Dominican Catholic High School in Kentucky for two years.  He kept this respect throughout his life and developed a personal, although distant, relationship with Pope Pius IX during the Civil War.  In Roman Catholics, he saw friends in whom he could trust and who would not turn their backs on the “oppressed.”49  In 1863, Jefferson Davis penned a letter to Pope Pius IX in which he acknowledged the concern that the Holy Father had shown for America in the letters the pope had written to the bishops of New York and New Orleans.  In these letters, the Pope conveyed his sadness over the Civil War, and voiced his desires to see it end quickly.  Davis assured the pope that the Confederacy wanted the war to end as soon as possible and that they were merely fighting so that they could live in peace under their own government.50

That Pope Pius IX referred to Jefferson Davis as the “Illustrious and Hon. President”51 could have been merely formal and respectful language, but behind the Pope’s words in the letter seems to lie a hint of implied recognition of the Confederate government, or at least a desire to recognize it.  Curiously, Cardinal Antonelli, the papal secretary of state during Pius IX’s pontificate, claimed that the pope had not yet recognized the sovereign independence of the Confederate States, but had in fact recognized their belligerency – the first step towards formal recognition.52  In his letter, Pope Pius IX showed his gratitude that the Confederacy was eager for an end to violence, while acknowledging that the North did, in fact, have separate rulers and a separate government and that Southerners were not merely rebels: “May it please God at the same time to make the other peoples of America and their rulers…receive and embrace the counsels of peace and tranquility.”53  Pius IX concluded the letter with a subtle hint that he saw a bright future for relations between the Vatican and Confederacy, were it to become a sovereign nation: “We, at the same time, beseech the God of pity to shed abroad upon you the light of His grace, and attach you to us by a perfect friendship.”54  What the pope meant by “perfect friendship” is unknown, but it indicates that the pope saw something attractive in the Confederacy – so attractive that he was willing to stand alone as the only European leader willing to formally associate himself with its government.

Pius IX’s correspondence with Jefferson Davis implies that he favored the South during the Civil War and recognized values in the South that were uncommon in the progressive world.  The South’s respect for religion, rejection of rampant industrialization, emphasis on family, and opposition to strong centralized secular government were very similar to traditional Catholic principles, so the Pope easily could have considered the South the fertile place in America to spread the Catholic Faith.  He may have also seen the South as a sovereign nation which would perhaps one day faithfully follow the Church’s teachings.

What is for sure is that by 1863, the Vatican understood that the Lincoln administration seemed less interested in returning the South to the Union than in punishing it into complete submission.  When the Emancipation Proclamation reached Rome in the fall of 1862, the Vatican reaction was negative.  L’Osservatore Romano condemned it as a desperate and hypocritical measure which freed no slaves but encouraged rebellion in the South.  The Jesuit Journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, portrayed the war as a hopeless and unjust struggle of the North to punish the South.

During President Davis’ imprisonment following the defeat of the Confederacy, Pope Pius IX sent a picture of himself to Jefferson Davis with the hand-written inscription: “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”55  Along with this picture, the pope sent a miniature crown of thorns which the Sovereign Pontiff had woven with his own hands.56  Such a gift, said a great niece, was “never before conferred on any but crowned heads.”  Robert E. Lee, pointing to his own portrait of Pius IX, told a visitor that he was “the only sovereign…in Europe who recognized our poor Confederacy.”

The Civil War proved to be one of the most trying for the Catholic Church in America, and the involvement of Pope Pius IX shows that the war had many international effects.  Because of the affinity between Catholic and Southern moral and social principles, one could argue that Pope Pius IX believed that the Southern culture provided a more suitable atmosphere for the spread of Catholicism, despite the issue of slavery.  Spreading the Catholic Faith was the primary mission, and the American bishops believed that the necessary abolition of slavery would eventually follow.  The report of Bishop Martin Spalding to Pope Pius IX in 1863 (serialized in L’Osservatore Romano) warned that the immediate emancipation of the slaves would not only force them into an inferior class, but would also make it more difficult to bring them into the Church.  He noted that in heavily Catholic New Orleans, almost half of the slaves had been freed by 1860 through a change in their masters’ hearts, and had become some of the most devout Catholics that he had ever seen.57 

As late as August, 1864 (eight months before General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox), Rufus King, a Federal liaison to Rome, was admitting that papal offices remained unenthusiastic about the Union cause and Cardinal Antonelli was still concerned over the dangers of untimely emancipation.  Pope Pius IX himself had recently confessed to a British diplomat that his real sympathies were with the Confederacy.58  The Pope and Cardinal, however, suppressed their feelings in the face of rising Federal fortunes on the battlefield and the promise of a quicker end to the bloodshed.  But the evidence exists to believe it plausible that Pope Pius IX would have liked to give official recognition to the Confederacy in its beginning, and mourned its defeat in its demise.


1 Letter of Pope Pius IX to Jefferson Davis from Varina Davis, Jefferson Davis: Ex-President of the Confederate States of America: A Memoir By His Wife Varina Davis, (Baltimore: The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America, Inc., 1990), Vol. 2, 448.

2 “Telegraphic.  From Richmond,” The Charleston Mercury, 23 January, 1864,

3 Eamond Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997),


4 Frank J. Coppa, “Papal Rome in 1848: From Reform to Revolution,” in the Proceedings of the Consortium on Revoultionary Europe: 1750-1850, session 2 (Athens, [n.p] 1979), 93.

5 Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, 222

6 Ibid., 222.

7 Coppa, “Papal Rome in 1848: From Reform to Revolution,” 95.

8 Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, 222.

9 Pope Pius IX quoted in Owen Chadwick, A History of the Popes 1830-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 77.

10 Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, 223.

11 Coppa, “Papal Rome in 1848: From Reform to Revolution,” 99.

12 In 1848, Pope Pius IX urged Italians to stay loyal to their local princes and condemned the notion of a centralized Italian government.  For more see Owen Chadwick, A History of the Popes 1830-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 77.

13 Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, 224.

14 Coppa, “Papal Rome in 1848: From Reform to Revolution,” 99.

15 Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, 224.

16 Pope Pius IX, “The Syllabus of Errors Condemned by Pius IX,”, 26 April, 2005.

17 David J. Alvarez, “American Recognition of the Papal States: A Reconsideration,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1980), 49-50.

18 Samuel J. Thomas, “The American Press Response to the Death of Pope Pius IX and the Election of Pope Leo XIII,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1975), Vol. 86, 43.

19 Robert Tyler, Esq. quoted in Raymond H. Schmandt, “A Philadelphia Reaction to Pope Pius IX in 1848,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1977), Vol. 88, 72.

20 Lewis Cass quoted in Raymond H. Schmandt, “A Philadelphia Reaction to Pope Pius IX in 1848,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1977), Vol. 88, 76.

21 Luca Codignola, “The Civil War: The View From Italy,” Reviews in American History, Vol. 3, No.4 (Dec., 1975), 458.

22 “Reconstruction and Subjugation One and the Same.”  The Charleston Mercury, 1 October 1864.

23 “Union With the Northern States Necessarily Destructive of Southern Liberty.”  The Charleston Mercury, 18 January 1861.

24 Four other states withdrew from the Union after hostilities began.

25 Chattel slavery did not become widespread in the world until the 15th century, and the first formal papal condemnation of it is seen around the same time.  In 1404, Spanish explorers discovered the Canary Islands and enslaved its native peoples in the process of colonization.  In response, Pope Eugene IV issued his bull, Sicut Dudum, in which he condemned their enslavement and ordered all slaves to be freed.  Those who chose to keep their slaves incurred ipso facto excommunication.  One hundred years later, Pope Paul III encountered similar struggles with slavery in the world and issued the bull Sublimis Deus in which he describes enslavers as friends of the devil.  Popes Urban VIII and Benedict XIV both condemned the slave trade, as did Pope Pius IX’s conservative predecessor, Pope Gregory XVI, in his 1839 bull In Supremo Apostolatus.  For more, see Mark Brumley, “Let My People Go: The Catholic Church and Slavery,” This Rock (July/August 1999), 18-20.

26 Willard E. Wight, ed, “Letters of the Bishop of Savannah.”  The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Athens: Georgia Historical Society, 1958), 93.

27 Willard E. Wight, “Bishop Elder and the Civil War,” Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 3 (1958), 290.

28 Letter of Bishop Elder to the Bishop of Chicago, quoted in Wight, “Bishop Elder and the Civil War,” 290.

29 Letter of Bishop Elder to the Archbishop of Baltimore quoted in Wight, “Bishop Elder and the Civil War,” 293.

30 Letter of Bishop Elder to Father Napolean J. Perché quoted in Wight, “Bishop Elder and the Civil War,” 292.

31 Letter of Bishop Elder to William G. McGloskey quoted in Wight, “Bishop Elder and the Civil War,” 294.

32 Letter of Bishop Elder to William G. McGloskey quoted in Wight, “Bishop Elder and the Civil War,” 294.

33 Ibid., 295.

34 Wight, “Bishop Elder and the Civil War,” 304-306.

35 Willard E. Wight, ed, “A Letter From the Archbishop of New Orleans, 1862,” Louisiana History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1962), 130.

36 Wight, “Letters of the Bishop of Savannah,” 94- 95.

37 Wight, “Letters of the Bishop of Savannah,” 105.

38 Wight, “Bishop Verot and the Civil War ,”156.

39 Wight, “Letters of the Bishop of Savannah,” 99.

40 After the war, Bishop Verot considered the abolition of slavery to be a blessing from God sent to bring peace to the country, and a cause for “joy and congratulations.”  For more see Wight, “Bishop Verot and the Civil War,” 99.

41 Wight, “Bishop Verot and the Civil War,” 162.

42 Walter G. Sharrow, “John Hughes and a Catholic Response to Slavery in Antebellum

America,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Jul., 1972), 254-256.

43 Ibid., 255-256.

44 Sharrow, “John Hughes and a Catholic Response to Slavery in Antebellum


45 Epistle of Saint Paul to Philemon.

46 Sharrow, “John Hughes and a Catholic Response to Slavery in Antebellum

America,” 259-266.

47 Although written after the Civil War, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum confirmed the Church’s constant teachings on what constitutes a Catholic society.  In the Encyclical, the pope stated that developments in industry and strong centralized government cause a decline in morals by eliminating traditional values and focusing man’s mind on things other than God.  For more see Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum,

48 Davis, Jefferson Davis: Ex-President of the Confederate states of America: A Memoir By His Wife Varina Davis, Vol. 2, 445.

49 Ibid., 445.

50 Letter of Jefferson Davis to Pope Pius IX from Davis, Jefferson Davis: Ex-President of the Confederate states of America: A Memoir By His Wife Varina Davis, Vol. 2, 446.

51 Ibid., 446.

52 Arnold Blumberg, “George Bancroft, France, and the Vatican: Some Aspects of American, French, and Vatican Diplomacy: 1866-1870,” The Catholic Historical Review (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1965), 484.

53 Letter of Pope Pius IX to Jefferson Davis from Davis, Jefferson Davis: Ex-President of the Confederate states of America: A Memoir By His Wife Varina Davis, Vol. 2, 447.

54 Ibid., 448.

55 Davis, Jefferson Davis: Ex-President of the Confederate states of America: A Memoir By His Wife Varina Davis, 448.

56 “Confederate Museum to Keep Its Home of 112 Years,” The Lafayette Advertiser, 28 December, 2003., 1 December, 2004.

57 David Spalding, “Martin John Spalding’s ‘Dissertation on the American Civil War,’” The Catholic Historical Review (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1966), 76-77.

58 King to Seward, Aug. 22, 1864, United States Ministers, p.315-316; O.Russel to J. Russell, Jul. 30, 1864, The Roman Question, p.288.