Lee’s views on slavery
Since the end of the Civil War, it has often been suggested Lee was in some sense opposed to slavery. In the period following the war, Lee became a central figure in the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. The argument that Lee had always somehow opposed slavery helped maintain his stature as a symbol of Southern honor and national reconciliation. Freeman’s analysis places Lee’s attitude toward slavery and abolition in a historical context:
This [opinion] was the prevailing view among most religious people of Lee’s class in the border states. They believed that slavery existed because God willed it and they thought it would end when God so ruled. The time and the means were not theirs to decide, conscious though they were of the ill-effects of Negro slavery on both races. Lee shared these convictions of his neighbors without having come in contact with the worst evils of African bondage. He spent no considerable time in any state south of Virginia from the day he left Fort Pulaski in 1831 until he went to Texas in 1856. All his reflective years had been passed in the North or in the border states. He had never been among the blacks on a cotton or rice plantation. At Arlington, the servants had been notoriously indolent, their master’s master. Lee, in short, was only acquainted with slavery at its best, and he judged it accordingly. At the same time, he was under no illusion regarding the aims of the Abolitionists or the effect of their agitation.
A key source cited by defenders and critics is Lee’s 1856 letter to his wife:
… In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.— Robert E. Lee, to Mary Anna Lee, December 27, 1856
The evidence cited in favor of the claim that Lee opposed slavery included his direct statements and his actions before and during the war, including Lee’s support of the work by his wife and her mother to liberate slaves and fund their move to Liberia, the success of his wife and daughter in setting up an illegal school for slaves on the Arlington plantation, the freeing of Custis’ slaves in 1862, and, as the Confederacy’s position in the war became desperate, his petitioning slaveholders in 1864–65 to allow slaves to volunteer for the Army with manumission offered as a reward for outstanding service.
However, despite his stated opinions, Lee’s troops under his command were allowed to actively raid settlements during major operations like the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania to capture free blacks for enslavement.
In December 1864 Lee was shown a letter by Louisiana Senator Edward Sparrow, written by General St. John R. Liddell, which noted Lee would be hard-pressed in the interior of Virginia by spring, and the need to consider Patrick Cleburne‘s plan to emancipate the slaves and put all men in the army who were willing to join. Lee was said to have agreed on all points and desired to get black soldiers, saying “he could make soldiers out of any human being that had arms and legs.”