The Nation Memorializes Lee
Arlington House is the nation’s memorial to Robert E. Lee. For generations, Americans have struggled over how to remember this complicated soldier, father, slaveholder, and educator. How do we reconcile his many roles? After the Civil War, Southern groups fought to preserve Arlington House, then under control of the US Army. Their goal was to present Lee as a man who fought for honor and home, not slavery. In 1925 Congress authorized restoration of the mansion to its historic appearance.As the country wrestled with questions of civil rights, a 1955 law made Arlington House a permanent memorial to Lee.
A Leader for the Confederacy
Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in 1862. Lee proved to be a gifted strategist, thwarting Union efforts to capture the Southern capital of Richmond again and again. While Lee ultimately surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, the decisions he made on the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Gettysburg, Petersburg, and elsewhere continue to be studied by members of the US military today.
”To lose this battle they lose their cause. As bad as it is, they have fought for it with a gallantry worthy of a better.”–Union Army Commander Ulysses S. Grant, 1864
The Greatest Mistake
When Virginia seceded in April 1861, Lee went to see his commanding officer, General Winfield Scott. Scott had mentored Lee since the Mexican-American War and considered him the Army’s most talented officer. The two men spoke at length. Lee told Scott he planned to resign from the Army. “You have made the greatest mistake of your life,” Scott responded, “but I feared it would be so.” Two days later, Lee drafted a letter, officially informing Scott of his resignation from the US Army. General Winfield Scott was a native Virginian, but he remained loyal to the Union. About 40 percent of officers from Virginia stayed in the US Army.
“I trust there is wisdom, patriotism enough in the Country to save them, for I cannot anticipate so great a calamity to the nationas a dissolution of the Union.”–Robert E. Lee, January 16, 1861
Loyalties to Family, Home, and Country
In April 1861, Robert E. Lee chose to resign from the US Army. Lee knew the consequences. He understood that US troops would seize Arlington Heights. He realized his wife and children would have to leave the plantation, sacrificing their home and livelihood. Lee agonized over his choice. In the months leading up to the war, Lee said that he could not raise arms against the United States. He stated he did not approve of secession. But in the end, Lee chose Virginia. “I will follow my native State with my sword,” he declared, “and, if need be, with my life.”
A Federalist Family
Robert E. Lee hailed from one of the nation’s founding families. With this came a heritage of supporting a strong federal government. Lee’s father fought alongside George Washington and shared Washington’s nationalist beliefs. Lee’s in-laws, the Custises, descended from Martha Washington and upheld the family’s nation-building principles. Still, Lee turned against the country Washington helped create.
Mary Custis Lee, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, promoted the Washington legacy. When the Union Army advanced on the family’s White House Plantation in 1862, she posted a note that read, “Northern soldiers who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the home of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants.”
“When the storms of adversity shall rock Liberty’s temple to its base, the Sampson of Federalism will grasp the pillars, and in his expiring struggles, will perish with Liberty, in Liberty’s ruins.” –George WashingtonParke Custis, 1812
“The N.Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather’s slaves, but I shall not reply.” –Robert E. Lee to his son Custis, July 2, 1859
“An Unpleasant Legacy”
In 1857 George Washington Parke Custis died, leaving Robert E. Lee in charge of the indebted Arlington House estate. As executor, Lee found an enslaved population who believed they would be freed. Custis’ will contained provisions to free the enslaved—within five years. “He has left me an unpleasant legacy,” Lee wrote. Southern papers condemned Custis for freeing the enslaved individuals he held, while Northern papers protested the delay in their emancipation. To pay off the estate’s debts, Lee worked the enslaved people harder. He hired out individuals to other plantations, breaking up families in the process. Lee believed he was protecting his family and honoring Custis’ will. Lee’s actions triggered deep unrest among the enslaved community.
Free at Last
Robert E. Lee wished to pay off the extensive estate’s debts and fulfill the emancipation clauses of Custis’ will as quickly as possible. He took an extended leave of absence from the US Army for this task. But when the Civil War broke out, the debts remained unpaid and Arlington’s residents remained enslaved. The Lees left the mansion in May 1861. Some of the plantation’s residents freed themselves and began working for the Union Army. Lee legally freed all of the enslaved individuals at the Custis plantations on December 29, 1862.
“The most important point…is the period of the emancipation of the slaves, which is dependent upon the conditions of the will. Justice to them requires their earliest fulfilment.”–Robert E. Lee, October 22, 1858
To meet the conditions of Custis’ will, Lee freed Arlington’s residents in 1862. At the time, he was a Confederate general, fighting for a cause that would keep others enslaved. Arlington’s residents gained their legal freedom in 1862. Within three years, slavery would be abolished across the country.
Robert E. Lee called slavery “evil.” Yet Lee believed in slavery’s constitutional protection and struggled to reconcile its immorality with the laws of the land. “I desire to do what is right and best for the people,” Lee wrote as executor for the Arlington House estate. As Lee became more religious, he saw slavery as something God must determine. He voiced hope for the eventual abolition of slavery, but opposed the actions of abolitionists. He favored “gradual emancipation.” Still, when the crisis over slavery exploded into war, Lee sided with Virginia.
“…slavery as an institution is a moral & political evil in any Country… I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race.”–Robert E. Lee, 1856
A Nation in Reconstruction
The Civil War left the nation divided. How should the US government treat the South? Should African Americans receive equal rights? Robert E. Lee sought to rebuild the South through industrial reform and education, as well as through law and order. In 1867 the U.S. government demanded Virginians write a new state constitution protecting African American citizenship and voting rights. Although Lee was never comfortable with African Americans as equals and opposed their right to vote, he advised white southerners to respect the new order if it could not be changed peacefully.
“I think it is wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who have endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” –Robert E. Lee, August 9, 1869, on not building Confederate monuments