This Confederate general opposed slavery

By Bill Federer

Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee

Wilmer McLean’s farm in Manassas Junction, Virginia, was the location of the first battle of Bull Run in 1861. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was using McLean’s house as his headquarters, wrote: “… of this artillery fight was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a Federal shell that fell into the fire-place of my headquarters at the McLean House.”

The Confederates won the first battle of Bull Run due in large part to General “Stonewall” Jackson holding his ground like a “stonewall,” resulting in his nickname. With momentum on their side, Confederate troops could have pursued the fleeing and exhausted Union army 20 miles to Washington and won the war. Instead, an unusually heavy rain turned roads into mud pits and they called off the pursuit.

Wilmer McLean moved away from the conflict, yet almost four years later his new home, near Appomattox Court House, Virginia, was the agreed location for General Robert E. Lee to surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865.

Ken Burn’s documentary film of the Civil War remarked that the war began in Wilmer McLean’s front yard and ended in his front parlor.

Meeting in McLean’s house, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the army of Northern Virginia by taking off his sword and handing it to General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant handed it back. The other Confederate armies followed suit, till the last Confederate ship, CSS Shenandoah, surrendered in Liverpool, England, on Nov. 6, 1865, after circumnavigating the globe.

Union General Philip Sheridan bought Wilmer McLean’s table where Grant drafted the document, and gave it to Major General George Armstrong Custer to carry it away on his horse. The Civil War was ended after 258,000 Confederate deaths and 360,000 Union deaths.

The next day, General Lee issued his final order: “After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude… I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes.”

Robert E. Lee concluded: “I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection.”

Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) was a the son of the Revolutionary leader, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, and the son-in-law of George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Ann Randolph (Custis) Lee, inherited the 1,100 acre Washington estate directly across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., which was later turned into Arlington Cemetery.

Tutored and homeschooled as a child, Robert E. Lee excelled at West Point, graduating second in his class in 1829. From 1837-1840, working in the Corps of Engineers, Robert E. Lee improved the channel of the Mississippi River. From 1846-1848, Lee distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War. He engineered the American troops’ passage from San Antonia across the difficult Mexican mountains so they could quickly take Mexico City. Lee was against slavery and a number of years before the war he freed his own slaves.

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On Dec. 27, 1856, Robert E. Lee wrote to his wife: “Slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country. … I think, however, a greater evil to the white than to the black race. … The doctrines and miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small part of the human race, and even among the Christian nations what gross errors still exist!”

Lee was so highly respected, that when war looked imminent, President Abraham Lincoln offered him the field command of the U.S. Army. Lee struggled all night with his decision, finally resolving to the obligation of loyalty to his home state.

Lee resigned from the U.S. Army, explaining in a letter to his sister: “With all my devotion to the union and the feelings of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.”

General Robert E. Lee’s military expertise was so formidable that, for the first two years of the Civil War, it looked as if the South had won. General Stonewall Jackson’s repeated victories kept pushing the North back until Lee’s troops were dangerously close to attacking Washington, D.C. Near the end of the war, after tremendous loss of life, one of Lee’s generals suggested rallying more recruits to the Confederate cause.

General Lee responded: “General, you and I as Christian men … must consider its effects on the country as a whole. Already it is demoralized by four years of war. If I took your advice, the men … would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many wide sections. … We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.”

After the war ended, Lee was known for trying to bring healing to a divided nation. A story was reported by Colonel T.L. Broun of Charleston, WV, that two months after the war ended there was a service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, June 4, 1865. The congregation was startled when a Negro advanced to the communion table. But then: “General Robert E. Lee arose in his usual dignified and self-possessed manner … and reverently knelt down to partake of the communion, not far from the Negro.”

In June of 1865, U.S. Grand Jury in Norfolk, Virginia, indicted Robert E. Lee for treason. When some friends became indignant, Lee calmly responded: “I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”

After the war, a southern clergyman spoke critically of the recent actions of the federal government. Following a pause, Robert E. Lee asked: “Doctor, there is a good old book which … says ‘Love your enemies.’ Do you think your remarks this evening were quite in the spirit of that teaching?”

Lee remarked: “Before and during the War Between the States I was a Virginian. After the war I became an American.”

In August of 1865, Robert E. Lee accepted the invitation to become the president of Washington College at Lexington, Virginia (later changed in his honor to Washington and Lee University). Robert E. Lee invited his former chaplain, John William Jones, to speak in 1869. Afterward, Lee thanked him, remarking: “Oh, doctor, if I could only know that all the young men in this College were good Christians I should have nothing more to desire. I wish, sir, to thank you for your address. It was just what we needed. Our great want is a revival which shall bring these young men to Christ. …”

Lee continued: “I should be disappointed, sir, and shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless these young men all become Christians; and I wish you and others of your sacred profession to do all you can to accomplish it. We poor sinners need to come back from our wanderings to seek pardon through the all-sufficient merits of our Redeemer. And we need to pray earnestly for the power of the Holy Spirit to give us a precious revival in our hearts and among the unconverted.”

General Lee once remarked to Chaplain John William Jones regarding the Bible: “There are things in the old Book which I may not be able to explain, but I fully accept it as the infallible Word of God, and receive its teachings as inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

Robert E. Lee confided: “In all my perplexities and distresses, the Bible has never failed to give me light and strength.”

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