Mary Custis Lee, the First Freedom Rider

Mary Custis Lee, eldest daughter of Robert E. Lee, did not fit the mold of her time. At a time when marriage prospects were slim after the Civil War, most unmarried young women were expected to stay home and care for elderly parents. Mary never married. There just were not many men her age who survived the war. Neither did she stay home. Mary chose a different life. She spent decades traveling to Europe and other places.

Near the Exit

Coming back to Virginia in June, 1902, Mary passed through Washington, D.C.  She had a large collection of bags. Thinking herself fortunate, Mary and her African-American maid sat near the exit, at the rear of the railroad car. A new law had just been passed, effective in Alexandria, Virginia. The new law mandated that blacks, known as “Negroes,” sit in the rear, near the exit. There was no such law in Washington. But, in Alexandria, that was the law. It was the first “Jim Crow” law passed in Virginia. The conductor explained to Ms. Lee her error, but she preferred to remain in her seat. She refused to move.

She will be Arrested

At the next stop, A Negro man got on board. The conductor again tried to Mary to move to the front. Again, she insisted she would stay. The conductor returned to Mary, trying to persuade her to move. He told her she would be arrested. Ms. Lee remained. Upon arrival in Alexandria, she was indeed arrested. People began to gather on the street, realizing who she was. In post-war 1902, there were hundreds of Confederate veterans or family members in the city. On the way to the station house, the sidewalks were thronged with Lee supporters.

Men of the Caton Stripe

The new Jim Crow seating law was not entirely popular. It had been passed by James Caton, representative to the state legislature from Alexandria. Mr. Caton was described in a black owned newspaper as a “representative of the poor whites.” According to the Colored American, a Washington D.C. newspaper, the arrest of Ms. Lee stirred up discontent among the “better classes” of Virginia. The white newspapers, Alexandria and Washington, commented that the new seating law was working well. But, the Colored American expressed hope her arrest would lead to revocation of the new law. The editor believed the confederate veterans in Richmond would seek its reversal.

At the station house, gray-haired veterans surrounded Ms. Lee. The officer in charge was prevailed upon to release Ms. Lee with the understanding she would return the next day to face the charge. It was said that when Ms. Lee finally reached her destination in Alexandria, the home of a friend, she collapsed. Modern commentators suggest Ms. Lee was less interested in opposing a strange new law than simply annoyed that she was expected to sit apart from her trusted black maid. But, that seems unlikely. It was a major to-do for the name of a woman to appear in the newspapers of 1902 for any reason, much less for an arrest. The Colored American expressed sympathy for her plight, knowing she must have felt extreme embarrassment. The editor indicated he knew she was embarrassed, but appreciated her efforts. Ms. Lee was, said the Colored American, liberal regarding the rights of man. Meaning the newspaper knew she opposed these “petty racial animosities,” advanced by men of the “Caton stripe.”

More likely, the daughter of Robert E. Lee was aware of this new law and appreciated an opportunity to express her opinion. She likely did not expect to be arrested. According to one report, when she was brought to the doors of the station house, someone in the crowd protested against Ms. Lee being brought within. Ms. Lee responded that she did not believe the people of Alexandria would suffer her to be brought in as a prisoner.

In a time when women had few avenues for public discourse, Mary Custis Lee expressed her annoyance as she saw the opportunity. She was in the end, her father’s daughter.

Fore more about this incident, see this blog post.

Sources:

Washington Post, June 16, 1902, p. 4

Richmond Dispatch, June 14, 1902, p. 1

Washington, D.C, Colored American, June 21, 1902, p. 8

Gen. Lee to the Rear

In the annals of warfare, it was extraordinary. There is no record of this happening to Julius Caesar, Hannibal or Napoleon. In May 1864, in the Battle of the Wilderness, Gen. Robert E. Lee tried to lead the charge of the Texas Brigade. Commanding generals do not typically attempt to lead a charge themselves. They should have more concerns than one portion of a larger battle. Yet, when the Texas Brigade moved up to block a penetration by Union General Winfield Scott’s forces, Lee knew the moment was dire. He knew that the Confederates were being pressed in ways they had never been pressed. He wanted to be sure the charge succeeded.

Drive These People Back

Gen. Lee cheered as the Texans moved into position to plug the gap created by Gen. Scott. The Corps Commander, Gen. Longstreet planned to move one brigade into the gap, followed by a second brigade and then a third. When the Texans first arrived, Gen. Lee urged them, “We must drive these people back.” A man not given to frequent displays of emotion already showed more emotion than his soldiers were used to. “The Texans always drive them,” he added.  The commander of the Texas Brigade, Gen. Gregg, told his men, “The eye of Gen. Lee is on you.” The Texans responded with cheers. With a shout of “Forward,” the Texans and Arkansans started forward with a yell.

Immediately, the men noticed Gen. Lee was moving with them. Capt. Bedell noticed the general advancing with them well into the enemy fire. Dozens would later insist they were there and they held the reins of Traveller, pulling Lee back to the rear. Traveller was the name of Lee’s horse, named after Gen. Washington’s horse during the American revolution. Gen. Washington was Gen. Lee’s step-grandfather.

Jumping the Chain Command

Capt. Bedell had been wounded twice in prior battles. He was one of the original recruits into Co. “L” of the Texas Brigade. Co. L came from Galveston. Capt. Bedell implored Lee to stop. Gen. Lee responded, “I want to lead the Texas Brigade in this charge.” From commander to his men, bypassing three or four layers of command was unusual in itself. But, the overall commander was negotiating with his men. He could have simply told them to shut up and let him do his job. But, he was negotiating, asking them to let him do what he thought he needed to do ensure success.

It is hard for civilians to understand this remarkable military relationship during war. There is an unspoken understanding that each person, male or female, will do his/her best at all times to ensure success of the military unit. In this instance, the Commanding General was asking his men to let him do what he believed he had to do to plug this gap. His men were telling him, “no.”

The tender feeling in that moment cannot be overstated. They were also saying the possibility of losing Gen. Lee was too high a price to pay for the success of one charge. That is an extraordinary honor, a gesture rarely extended to army commanders.

Charge Hell Itself

Other soldiers joined in. “You will get killed dad[d]y.” “We won’t go forward until you go back,” said another. One soldier watching this unheard of display remarked years later, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.” One soldier in a friendly way kicked at Traveller, saying, “Get out of the Wilderness with General Lee, you old looney!” That alone would merit court martial in today’s army.

The general finally turned toward the rear, as the Texas Brigade surged forward into the fire. Dozens of Texans fell. But, Gen. Lee lived.

Arthur Wellesly, the Duke of Wellington, was equally adept at forecasting moves and counter-moves by the enemy. He was also generally well-liked by his troops. But, his soldiers never expressed similar sentiments, as Lee’s men did him.

Source:

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade (LSU Press 2017), pp. 212-213.

The British Military Observer

It is an old military tradition to send military observers to view a war in a distant country. We learn so much from wars in distant lands about the latest tactics and equipment. During the United States Civil War, Great Britain sent Col. Garnet Wolseley to observe the Confederate army. Col. Wolseley would later become the leading general of his age in the British army. He would retire as a Field Marshall.

Col. Wolseley frowned as he watched the First Texas Infantry Regiment march by. Even then, in 1862, as they retreated form the Battle of Antietam, most of the men were barefoot. They limped from the cuts and scrapes on their bare feet. Their lower legs were covered by briar scratches. The cuffs of their sleeves and pants were frayed and ragged. They had tossed their blankets away, because they were shredded by bullet holes.

Col. Wolseley noticed their complete lack of military bearing. But, Gen. Lee assured him, “The enemy never sees the backs of my Texans.”

No Footwear

The truth was the Confederacy could not support its troops. Even into November, 1862, 2,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia lacked foot wear of any sort. Another 3,000 had shoes that would not last through Christmas. The flour that arrived into the stores of Hood’s Texas Brigade in November had worms an inch long. As the war dragged on, the supply situation grew worse, not better. Yet, these hardy, brave men fought on.

The men of the First Texas Regiment were inspected and found wanting. The Inspector General for the Army of Northern Virginia found their rifles in “very bad order” In modern parlance, we would say they failed the IG inspection. It is likely they simply had not cleaned their rifles adequately or lacked some parts. The Inspector General said the officers were derelict in their duty. But, Gen. Hood was not impressed. He knew his citizen soldiers may not look pretty, but they were combat effective. He ignored the report.

Contemporary observers insist the Southern soldier fought for slavery. It is true that slaves represented material investment to the South. But, if the Southern soldier fought solely for slavery, why did he endure such privation for nothing more than material gain? If he was fighting only to protect his investment, why did he fight with no shoes and socks? It was surely poor investment strategy to protect one’s investments in another human being by serving in an army that could not provide shoes and socks.

Source:

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade, (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), p. 136-137, 138.

“Gen. Lee to the Rear”

In the annals of military warfare, it was so extraordinary. There is no record of this happening to Julius Caesar, Hannibal or Napoleon. In May 1864, in a the Battle of the Wilderness, Gen. Robert E. Lee tried to lead the charge of the Texas Brigade. Commanding generals do not typically attempt to lead a charge themselves. It just is not done. The commanding general has to keep the entire battle in mind. He has to forecast chess moves three or four moves in advance. He must respond to aides hurrying back and forth with urgent messages seeking aid, warning of supply shortages, and he must press recalcitrant commanders. The heat of battle is “prime time” for a commanding general. Yet, when the Texas Brigade moved up to block a penetration by Union General Winfield Scott’s forces, he knew the moment was dire. He knew too that the Confederates were being pressed in ways they had never been pressed. He wanted to be sure the charge succeeded.

Drive These People Back

Gen. Lee cheered as the Texans moved into position to plug the gap created by Gen. Scott. The Corps Commander, Gen. Longstreet planned to move one brigade into the gap, followed by a second brigade and then a third. When the Texans first arrived, Gen. Lee urged them, “We must drive these people back.” A man not given to frequent displays of emotion already showed more emotion than his soldiers were used to. “The Texans always drive them,” he added.  The commander of the Texas Brigade, Gen. Gregg, told his men, “The eye of Gen. Lee is on you.” The Texans responded with cheers. With a shout of “Forward,” the Texans and Arkansans started forward with a yell.

Immediately, the men noticed Gen. Lee was moving with them. Capt. Bedell noticed the general advancing with them well into the enemy fire. Dozens would later insist they were there and they held the reins of Traveller, pulling Lee back to the rear. Traveller was the name of Lee’s horse, named after Gen. Washington’s horse during the American revolution. Gen. Washington was Gen. Lee’s step-grandfather.

The Chain of Command

Capt. Bedell had been wounded twice in prior battles. He was one of the original recruits into Co. “L” of the Texas Brigade. Co. L came from Galveston. Capt. Bedell implored Lee to stop. Gen. Lee responded, “I want to lead the Texas Brigade in this charge.” From commander to his men, bypassing three or four layers of command was unusual in itself. But, the overall commander was negotiating with his men. He could have simply told them to shut up and let him do his job. But, he was negotiating, asking them to let him do what he thought he needed to do ensure success.

It is hard for civilians to understand this remarkable military relationship during war. There is an unspoken understanding that each person, male or female, will do his/her best at all times to ensure success of the military unit. That principle is a sacred duty. It stays with you all your life. In this instance, the Commanding General was asking his men to let him do what he believed he had to do to plug this gap. His men were telling him, “no.” They were assuming the responsibility for the success of this charge. They were saying, “sir, we got this.” They were not just assuring him they would ensure the success of this charge, they were insisting. They were telling their boss, “no,” in terms that did not allow for negotiation.

The tender feeling in that moment cannot be overstated. They were also saying the possibility of losing Gen. Lee was too high a price to pay for the success of one charge. That is an extraordinary honor, one probably never made to a general of Robert E. Lee’s caliber. Napoleon’s soldiers respected the general, but they did not love him.

Charge Hell Itself

Other soldiers joined in. “You will get killed dad[d]y.” “We won’t go forward until you go back,” said another. One soldier watching this unheard of display remarked years later, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.” One soldier in a friendly way kicked at Traveller, saying, “Get out of the Wilderness with General Lee, you old looney!” That alone would merit court martial in today’s army. In the Confederate army, assaulting the general’s horse in other circumstances would have resulted in lashes or worse.

The general finally turned toward the rear, as the Texas Brigade surged forward into the fire. Dozens of Texans fell. But, Gen. Lee lived.

Arthur Wellesly, the Duke of Wellington, was equally adept at forecasting moves and counter-moves by the enemy. He was also quite well-liked by his troops. But, at no time did any British soldier suggest Lord Wellington go to the rear, to ensure his safety.

Source:

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade (LSU Press 2017), pp. 212-213.

Confederate Time Capsules

The Robert E. Lee memorial in Richmond was recently pulled down with no ceremony. It was erected in 1890 on Monument Avenue in Richmond. It was an equestrian statue depicting Lee on his horse, Traveler. Beneath the memorial were two time capsules. Both time capsules were buried within the monument. Now that the memorial has been removed, the two capsules have been uncovered.

One of the Lee statue time capsules included an 1865 Harper’s Weekly article showing a person weeping over Abraham Lincoln’s grave. According to contemporary news articles, there should also a picture of Lincoln lying in his casket. That picture has not yet been uncovered. If found, that would represent a wholly unknown Lincoln picture. But, the second time capsule, a copper box, was found full of water. Many papers in that state will not survive. See AP news report here.

San Antonio

In the Confederate memorial in San Antonio, there was also a time capsule. Within that box was a paper written by a young Harry Hertzberg. Hertzberg was a state senator from San Antonio, who gained renown for attacking the Ku Klux Klan in a speech in 1922. This was a time when the KKK had a great deal of acceptance across mainstream Texas society. It was said the KKK included some 20% of the white businessmen in any given Southern city at the time. See more about Harry Hertzberg here.

Young Mr. Hertzberg was just a student when his paper on Jefferson Davis was selected for inclusion in the San Antonio time capsule.  He was a prominent member of the Jewish community. His family operated the long-time San Antonio business known as Hertzberg Jewelers.

Both the San Antonio memorial and the Lee Memorial were erected by Confederate veterans and by members of the Daughters of the Confederacy. The Daughters of the Confederacy was founded as a way to support destitute Confederate veterans and to remember those who did not return from combat. Erecting memorials across the South lead to the creation of the Daughters of the Confederacy.

Source:

San Antonio Daily Express, June 4, 1899, p. 1, col. 3

The Leadership of Robert E. Lee

There is no greater challenge than to lead men and now, women in combat. No situation, no office will call on a leader’s abilities more than combat. It is the supreme leadership test. A general can understand the squares and hash marks on a military map perfectly. Yet, if his men do not follow him, then he is not a combat leader. Leadership is the test. It is the crucible. One masterful leader was Robert E. Lee. How did he do it?

Lee was a modest man. Even at the height of his fame, he eschewed pomp and ceremony. One contemporary Southern newspaper noted at the time that Lee slept in an ambulance when he traveled. When he stayed in a tent in the field, it was never the “largest and best house in the neighborhood, as is the custom of some officers.” One contemporary Southern soldier noticed that when Gen. Lee rode about the battlefield, he made no notice of himself. He rode as quietly as a farmer would ride about his farm. He wore a generally modest uniform, lacking some of the indicia of his rank. He disdained the usual decorative gold braid on his sleeves.

This soldier was saying that Lee did not do what some senior officers would do, even today. Lee did not stop and correct a soldier’s uniform. He did not stop and fuss at men at work. He did not ride about with a retinue trailing behind him.

George S. Patton

Gen. George S. Patton’s leadership style was very different. Patton wore the three stars of a Lieutenant-General before he was entitled to the rank. As a newly appointed Corps Commander in North Africa, he installed a metal flag on his car with the three stars. Every other Corps Commander used the simple, government-issue cloth flag that would unfurl when the wind blew. But, government-issue was not good enough for Gorge Patton. He wanted a flag that would be visible even when the wind did not blow. So, he had a metal flag with the three stars fabricated for his scout car.  

Indeed, even in this author’s experience, I have known a few officers over the years who could not resist the urge to pin on early. Promotion orders are always issued a few months prior to the effective date. That means an officer will know a few months prior that he will be promoted. A few, perhaps very few, officers could not resist pinning on the new rank before that effective date.

In choosing a smaller tent, Lee knew what that meant for the Headquarters soldiers. No general would erect his own tent. Like today, most officers in the 1860’s did not erect their own tent. That chore fell to some harried enlisted men. That Lee eschewed the larger roomier tent reflects some consideration for the soldiers’ welfare. It is hot work erecting those darn tents. Soldiers notice those small things.

Pincushions

Gen. Lee understood a modern component of morale: appealing to the family. Whenever an officer brought his wife near enough for a visit, Lee insisted on being so informed. He would call on the wife of any officer who was in the area. This would usually occur in winter quarters or during a lull between campaigns. Lee made it known that he was to be informed when a wife was nearby for a visit.

Lee also gave pincushions to soldiers who were mentioned in battle dispatches. The highest honor the Confederate army could bestow was to be mentioned. The Confederate army did not award medals. The general would give a pincushion to the mentioned officer or soldier. In a time when all women sewed, Lee knew the pincushion was of little value to the husband. But, the wife would appreciate it. It was a small gesture, but doubtless one appreciated by many spouses.

Manual Labor

There is perhaps no more sensitive issue in any army than whether and to what extent officers perform manual labor. Generally, the more traditional the army, the less likely officers perform manual labor. Even today, many officers believe it beneath them to perform manual labor, even for a few minutes.

Soon after taking command of Confederate forces, Lee told his men they have to start digging entrenchments. Like the Duke of Wellington, he saw the value in hard labor. Lee said that to keep up with the Federal forces, who were working like beavers, the Confederate officers would also have to help dig. Lee, the student of Roman and French military history, knew that trenches were essential to protect Richmond. The army, which he would name the Army of Northern Virginia, had suffered from loose discipline. It was not uncommon for officers to make unannounced trips to Richmond for social reasons. Gen. Lee sought to impose discipline in part by focusing on digging. His men awarded him with the nicknames, “King of Spades” and “Granny Lee” for his efforts. But, his focus was on building an army. He knew the value of simple manual labor.

Sources:

Emory E. Thomas, Robert E. Lee (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 226, 275, 330

Stanley P. Hirshson, General Patton, a Soldier’s Life (New York: Harper Collins 2002), p. 317-319

Scott Bowden, Robert E. Lee at War (Grapevine, Texas: Legion of Honor Publ. 2017), p. 68-69, 71-72.

Confederate Leadership Principles and the Afghan Army

Armies have trained and studied for centuries on how to develop unit cohesion or esprit d’corps. With proper unit cohesion, an army can accomplish any objective. But, how do we attain unit cohesion? In Afghanistan, we see a complete disintegration of an army. On paper, the Afghan army numbered 300,000 soldiers. But, we know in reality it was much less, perhaps only 50,000. Even so, they have surrendered several times within the last week, sometimes without a shot fired. An entire Afghan Corps headquarters surrendered last week. How big is a Corps staff? In the U.S. army, a corps staff would include upwards of 500 soldiers. However large it was, they surrendered without firing a round. Why?

The New York Times tells us that the Afghan soldiers were not supported by their chain of command. They generally surrendered because they lacked food and ammunition. One Afghan security force was given a box of slimy potatoes as their daily ration. A police officer yelled out, “These french fries are not going to hold these front lines!” just days before surrendering. Not stated is that it is likely the Afghan higher commanders did not visit their troops. Sometimes, we visit the subordinate troops just to “show the flag.” As a commander, you always need first-hand information about the soldiers’ welfare. Historians tell us that one problem with how the U.S. conducted the Viet Nam war was the lack of visits by field grade officers to company level troops. Field grade officers include colonels and majors, the mid-grade levels.

Confederate Leadership

The Confederate soldiers endured this and worse. Many times, they would have been happy to have slimly potatoes as their daily ration. The Confederate army made their own shoes from rawhide. It was common for soldiers to wear trousers with only one leg. 300 members of the Texas Brigade returned from furlough in the Spring of 1864, knowing food and clothing would be scarce. See my prior post about the Texas Brigade here. In 1863, the Rebels were receiving only one-quarter pound of meat per day. During one two week period, one company received only one-quarter pound of flour, one-quarter pound bacon, three ounces of sugar.  Tents and blankets were rare for an army that always slept outdoors. See my prior post here.

In 1864, the adjutant to Confederate Lt-Gen. William Hardee reported at the close of the Battle of Atlanta that his uniform included the following: a hat with no crown, socks with no feet, trousers with one large white patch on the seat, boots with no soles. This was W.L. Trask’s sole clothing for the prior four months. If that was what an officer wore, we can imagine what the enlisted men were wearing.

Yet, the Confederates did not disintegrate like today’s Afghan army. The Texas Brigade suffered from a 6% desertion rate, much lower than other Confederate units. But, the Texas Brigade also did not suffer from the sort of home problems other Confederate army units endured. The Yankee soldiers did not pillage and burn Texas homes as they did in other Southern states.

John Bell Hood Leadership

So, what did the Confederates do that the Afghan army did not? We find some clues in the experience of John Bell Hood. Then Col. Hood succeeded to command of the Texas Brigade after others had tried and failed. He succeeded because he talked to the enlisted men. He explained the “why” of an order. He respected them for their pre-war jobs, many of which were very respectable. When he imposed a rule, such as lights out by 10 p.m., he explained that keeping lanterns lighted would keep other men awake. He insisted that subordinate officers explain the necessity of particular rules.

We know that Gen. Lee practiced the same sort of leadership principles. Even though he was the most senior general in the army, Lee wore a modest uniform, without all the required marks of his rank. He did not erect the largest tent. In fact, Lee’s tent was no larger than any other officer’s tent. Lee rarely slept in a house. He almost always slept in a tent, just like his men. And, of course, we know that Gen. Lee three times tried to lead a charge himself and three times, his men turned him back. There is no better example than to assume the most dangerous position in an attack.

Jefferson Davis was roundly criticized throughout the war by Southerners and Southern newspapers. But, he often visited various communities and the troops. He heard their complaints. The president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, has rarely left the high blast walls of the presidential palace in Kabul. The Confederates simply practices excellent leadership. Of course, we call this “Confederate” leadership. But, they were actually practicing what they learned at West Point and in the U.S. Army.  It takes work to lead men. It requires a leader to listen to his men. The Confederates practiced those principles of good leadership. It appears the Afghans did not.

Sources:

Emory E. Thomas, “Robert E. Lee (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 226, 275, 330

Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 296, 351-352

New York Times, Aug. 14, 2021, p. 1, col. 6

Ken Burns’ Documentary

Ken Burns’ excellent Civil War documentary has now become the object of subject of some criticism. Folks say it white-washed the Confederacy and in general painted the Confederates in too positive a light. One 2020 post on the Journal of the Civil War Era blog says:

“In romanticizing the Confederacy, obscuring the role of slavery, and refusing to grapple with the war’s devastating racial repercussions, the much-loved documentary is complicit in a long tradition of distorting the meaning of the Civil War.”

What does the author mean by romanticizing? Well one complaint concerns descriptions by Shelby Foote praising Robert E. Lee as a warm, outgoing man who always had time for any private soldier’s complaints and Jefferson Davis as an outgoing, friendly man, “a great family man, loved his wife and children, an infinite store of compassion.” See the JCWE blog post here.

The author, Ella Starkman-Hynes, seems concerned by Mr. Foote’s “down-home drawl” and his folksy ways. Mr. Foote exhibits admiration for some of the Confederate leaders. Mr. Foote presents a sympathetic portrayal of some Confederates. Worst of all, says the author, Foote said he would have joined the Confederate army if he had lived at the time. Mr. Foote was a descendant of a Confederate officer and a native of Mississippi.

In short, Ms. Starkman-Hynes objects to presenting Confederate soldiers and leaders with a human side. It is almost silly, if it did not also reveal an odd view of folks who sought to defend their soil from invaders. One comment does criticize this blog post. But, other critical comments to the post which came later have been deleted.

Robert E. Lee

But, worse for the sake of accurate history, it fails to explain some of its controversial sources. It points to the 2017 Atlantic piece about Robert E. Lee which asserts Lee whipped his own slaves. In truth, that source, Wesley Norris, a former slave, was rejected by most Lee historians. It was Elizabeth Pryor who in 2007 pointed to Norris’ allegations and corroborated them to some degree. But, she did not and cannot corroborate the central piece of Norris’ allegations, that Lee had three escaped slaves whipped or that Lee whipped them himself. Ms. Pryor won a Lincoln prize worth $50,000 for her Lee biography. But, a prize does not corroborate Norris’ allegations either.

Most historians rejected the Norris allegations, because they are based largely on reports from abolitionist newspapers. Abolitionist newspapers were not reliable sources. Too, that story just contravenes what is well known about Lee. The former general avoided confrontation. Other slaves who escaped and were re-captured, Lee leased them out. He did not whip them or have them whipped. He leased them to other white men. In some ways, leasing out enslaved Americans was quite harsh in its own right. Leasing them to some other white person effectively removed the slaves form their home. But, that act of leasing out difficult slaves was more true to Lee’s personality. Most historians just find Norris’ 1866 story unlikely. But, the author of the JCWE blog post never mentions any of this controversy. Ms. Starkman-Hynes accepts the central assertion of the Atlantic article at face value.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

The author accuses Nathan Bedford Forrest of “overseeing” the massacre at Ft. Pillow. The massacre at Ft. Pillow was indeed a war crime. But, the evidence of Forrest’s involvement is ambiguous. There is evidence that Forrest knew about or perhaps even ordered the massacre. There is evidence that he did not and that he actually stopped the massacre. This blog post seems to have accepted one set of facts over another without explaining the controversy. The documentary does explain the massacre clearly. So, Ms. Starkman-Hynes’ concern is not clear. She seems offended that Foote describes Forrest as an unschooled military genius. Which he was. For a discussion of the evidence regarding Forrest’s possible involvement in the massacre, see History net here.

Too, Ms. Starkman-Hynes might have devoted some space to the problem posed by Ft. Pillow before the massacre. Nothing excuses a war crime. But, prior to Forrest’s attack, the fort served as refuge for Union soldiers and Union sympathizers who were committing raids on the nearby Southern farms and homes. The Negro soldiers (to use the contemporary term) generally knew where the homes of Confederate soldiers were and where the women and undefended homes were.

And, have to add, the wording is just problematic. The blog post accuses Forrest of “overseeing” the massacre. “Oversee” is not a well-defined term. It could include almost any action on the part of the general. Technically, I “oversee” the plumber when he comes to my house. I always check on him and ask questions. But, that does not make me responsible for the fixed toilet. The blog post appears to accuse Forrest of complicity. It does so with no discussion of the contrary evidence.

I tried to point out these modest points about Forrest and Lee, but my comment was deleted like many others.

Blue Gray Reunions

The blog post even criticizes Ken Burns’ use of reunion videos. The documentary shows footage from the 1913 and 1938 reunions which were held at Gettysburg. I wrote about those reunions here and here.

The reunion videos are sweet. They show ancient blue and gray veterans shaking hands and embracing. As I mention in my prior posts, the reunions were not all handshakes and hugs. There was a knife fight and angry objections to the Confederate flag. But, the JCWE blog argues that the reunions somehow replaced or prevented political freedom for black citizens during this time period. The post does not explain how reunions inhibited civil rights. But, even if they did, that does not mean the reunions hold no value for modern audiences. Reconciliation is hard work. Those old veterans did that hard work. Our country was better for it.

Robert E. Lee Finances

Robert E. Lee had to live down many aspects of his father. One area was surely finances. Light Horse Harry Lee ended up in debtor’s prison and was universally regarded as a wastrel. The son, Robert, did indeed do better than the father in regard to his finances. As an Army officer, his salary was not great, but it was sufficient. In 1841, he was paid $1,817 for the year. At the time, that was a good salary, but far from wealthy.

Robert did inherit some slaves from his mother. But, as an Army officer, running a farm or plantation, even if he could afford one, was out of the question. He sold his slaves. He probably rented out a few of the enslaved persons. Still the income to be derived from these “assets” was quite limited.

What he did do was live frugally and invest well. When he was posted near Arlington, he  could live at home. But, generally, he was posted in places with no military quarters. He rented a room in Brooklyn, New York for $300 per year. In the 1830’s, he bought stock in two Virginia banks. After the Panic of 1837, he diversified. He invested in canal and railroad bonds. He purchased state bonds from Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky. He relied on investment advice from a friend in St. Louis. By 1846, his portfolio amounted to $38,750, which yielded about $2,000 in income per year. He owned or had a claim to a small piece of land. But, compared to his father, he had done very well with minimal inheritance. Seventeen years after graduating from West Point, he had sizeable assets.

By the end of 1861, many of Robert’s investments were in Northern city, state and railroad bonds. He wrote to his son, Custis that he would likely be a pauper by the end of the war. He knew his investments in northern institutions would surely be forfeit. And, he likely knew his investments in Southern assets would surely depreciate substantially.

And, he knew his wife would likely lose her ancestral home at Arlington. And, indeed, now we know that the former Arlington plantation is now the Arlington cemetery. Robert wrote her telling her Arlington was probably lost. Even by January, 1862, Arlington was occupied by Federal troops.

Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 108-109, 214-215.

Robert E. Lee, Superintendent

Robert E. Lee was a field soldier. So, he avoided the post as Superintendent at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He declined it when the post was first offered. But, in 1852, he was not given a choice. He considered the place to be a “snake pit” of politics from which he could not emerge unscathed. It was a high profile post, to which politicians and stray generals would drop by. Too, his oldest son was then a cadet and Lee feared being accused of favoritism. The son of Light Horse Harry Lee always felt the need to prove he was not his father.

Superintendent is equivalent to the President of a university in today’s time. Some aspects of the job, then Col. Lee enjoyed.

Supervisjng some 50 cadre and 2450 cadets, there were aspects that challenged Col. Lee. One was discipline and dealing with difficult students. One such difficult cadet was James M. Whistler. He was the son of George Washington Whistler, a graduate of West Point. George W. Whistler was a career officer who did in Russia in 1849. The young Whistler accumulated 116 demerits by the end of his first ear in 1852. That was more than the limit which required his dismissal. The Superintendent and the Commandant of Cadets could review such expulsions and consider less punitive measures. Lee chose to delete 59 of his demerits. In 1853, Whistler became very ill. Col. Lee wrote his mother and suggested he go home to recuperate. Col. Lee told his mother that James Whistler had successfully passed an overdue exam. He stood 32nd in his class, but first in drawing.

In his third year, Whistler had to sit for an exam in chemistry. The verbal exam asked Whistler to discuss silicon. The young Whistler responded, “I am required to discuss the subject of silicon. … Silicon is a gas.” It may have been the shortest exam in West Point history. In thirteen words, Whistler failed the exam and flunked out of West Point. Later in his life, Whistler would say that had silicon been a gas, he would have been a major general. Col. Lee then had to perform a duty he considered “the most unpleasant office” he was called on to perform. He had to direct Whistler and eight other young cadets to take a wagon to the dock and eventually home.

Within a week, James Whistler submitted a petition to Lee to take a second exam. Col. Lee once more had to decide a young cadets future. But, again, his demerits were just too high. Lee rued that one so capable of doing well had let himself fail. But, Jimmy Whistler would later paint a picture of his mother and become one of the great masters.

Col. Lee’s most difficult cadet was probably his nephew, Fitzhugh. In the end, Fitzhugh graduated 45th in a class of 49. But, he graduated only because his classmates supported him and agreed to take a pledge of good behavior in Fitz’s behalf. At one point, Fitz had 197 demerits when he was again caught bringing alcohol on campus.

Every Saturday afternoon, Col. Lee invited the cadets to his home at West Point for dinner. There were aspects which he did enjoy. Col. Lee left his post in 1854. But, he took a good deal of gray hair with him. For the man who avoided confrontation, it was unavoidable at West Point.

See article here about the Father of West Point, Sylvanus Thayer, the first prominent Superintendent.

Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 152, 154-162