One of the great myths about General Lee was that he was well liked or popular. Let’s look at his funeral for some insight in how that came to be.
Start with this simple history fact:
On June 7, 1865, Underwood’s grand jury indicted Robert E. Lee for treason, charging him with “wickedly, maliciously, and traitorously” carrying on war against the Constitution and the “peace and dignity” of the United States of America. Lee faced death by hanging, if found guilty of the charges.
If Lee had been victorious in Civil War, it would have meant death to the Constitution. Thus he very correctly was charged with treason.
He was the very face of tyranny, the Old South in a single man, a deeply flawed aristocrat (allegedly he didn’t even fight for Virginia, but specifically for his family and their wealth derived from slavery). He wrote as much to his sister in an infamous and often cited letter of April 1861:
With all my devotion to the Union and feeling 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.
However, it’s easy to see through his words as little more than “loyalty” hype.
Lee in 1857 had just taken ownership of 189 people when his father-in-law died. Lee was given the specific instruction in the will to set them all free within five years. In other words, Lee is falsely grousing in 1861 that he can’t raise a hand against his relatives while doing exactly that — refusing to honor his father-in-law’s wishes, instead tyrannically abusing 189 people that he held hostage in his “home”. Similarly, and more obviously, his devotion to the Union was completely false.
Arguably even worse, Lee unilaterally started a practice of systemically destroying the families he had inherited, cruelly and directly “rupturing” a family practice for no reason other than greed.
…Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.” The trauma of rupturing families lasted lifetimes for the enslaved—it was, as my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates described it, “a kind of murder.”
Talk about failure at loyalty, raising his hand against his own… Lee apparently “kind of murdered” the family that he had been ordered by his family to set free. Is it thus really a surprise he set out to destroy the country he swore to defend?
Lee’s family life and career were something like a boiling mess of domestic strife foreshadowing his violence against America.
…Mary Custis Lee, the wife, grandchild of Martha Washington, a badly spoiled and unpleasant woman, 30 years an invalid, who was often separated from her husband and preferred life with father in the Arlington mansion. The solace Lee sought from numerous other women apparently never came to consummation. On top of this was an unhappy military career, which took 30 years to earn Lee the rank of colonel. By the decade before the war, Lee had become subject to spells of deep depression, fits of morose behavior, occasional outbursts of violent temper and an obsession with death that amounted to “an almost suicidal tendency.”
Accordingly, Lee was reckless in his march into a war where he cared little about humanity and soon he was held to blame for causing a staggeringly cruel death toll of Americans, doing little or nothing despite being aware when his men committed gross atrocities.
During his life and for several years after his death in 1870, Lee was subject to severe criticism, North, South and abroad.
He himself very intentionally denied care to wounded American soldiers. He betrayed his entire country, a republic, with an aim of terrorizing and slaughtering Americans to expand a violent tyranny of his family, such that only a few white elitist men (his relatives, his children) would rule.
That’s not exactly the kind of popularity one wants for a funeral in 1870.
Don’t get me wrong, though.
There were many traitors who loved Lee’s vision of tyranny replacing American government and who fought for his cause of aristocrats expanding slavery. Many favored his barbaric tactics in war, essentially terrorism. Some even tried to fabricate a “Christian Soldier” myth to rope in religious extremism as some kind of excuse for his habit towards unnecessarily high casualties (as Grant maneuvered time after time towards decisive victories, capturing huge numbers of enemy soldiers, Lee instead mired his men into hopeless withering defeats and unnecessary mass deaths).
Yet, his funeral gives us ample evidence how Lee’s popularity diminished so greatly he died mostly ignored just several years after the end of a Civil War he infamously led to failure.
To put it bluntly it was the state of becoming ignored and disappearing from view that likely prevented him from being very publicly put to death. Some even suggest it was General Grant who personally and very silently weighed in to save Lee from his due.
Had the failed Confederate General more prominently stuck his neck out and tried to remain a relevant figure after the Civil War it seems likely he would have ended up hanged.
In his [June 1865] instructions to the grand jury, Judge John C. Underwood described treason as “wholesale murder,” and declared that the instigators of the rebellion had “hands dripping with the blood of slaughtered innocents.” In early 1866, Lee decided against visiting friends while in Washington DC, for a congressional hearing, because he was conscious of being perceived as a “monster” by citizens of the nation’s capitol. […] Andrew Johnson didn’t overlook Lee’s pardon application because a required oath had gone missing. He deliberately chose not to pardon Lee because the southern commander was under indictment for treason. In late 1865 and early 1866, Andrew Johnson, famous at the time for his vow to make treason odious, fully intended to have Lee prosecuted and punished under Article III, section 3 of the US Constitution… death by hanging if convicted.
Read that again: “Lee was conscious of being perceived as a ‘monster’ by citizens…”
Indeed, prohibited from taking any public office or even being able to vote in elections, this monster squirreled himself away into obscurity where he would continue facilitating terrorism against American families.
Lee took up a post as president of a small militant extremist training school, a regional “Washington College” in Lexington, Virginia (a school he fit into well, given it owned human beings and benefited from their forced labor and enslavement, not to mention reputation for raping black girls).
…students at Washington formed their own chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and were known by the local Freedmen’s Bureau to attempt to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from the nearby black schools. …Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence toward black people carried out by his students as he was when they were carried out by his soldiers.
Did you know Rosa Parks was the top investigator for the NAACP when she focused on this particular legacy of Lee?
More than a decade before Parks became a civil rights hero for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, Parks led a national campaign against sexual assaults on black women.
And did you know that memorials to Southern Confederacy even to this day are meant to promote domestic violence against American women?
Julian Carr spoke at the dedication of the monument in 1913 [center of McCorkle place on the UNC Campus, Chapel Hill, NC]. His speech recounted the heroic efforts of the men the monument honored… “100 yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench, until her skirts hung in shreds…”
And that’s not even to get into the fact that while Lee allegedly ignored the well-known and systematic rape of Black women he also locked away his daughters refusing them any freedoms at all, such that they could serve only his wants and no other life or purpose.
[Lee’s daughter Mildred] had many suitors after the war but turned them all down, as none of them matched up to her father [who impatiently kept her isolated]. He relied on her to run the household after he accepted the position as head of Washington College and they moved to Lexington, Virginia. […] A friend of the family asked if she could write a book about Mildred’s life, but Mildred responded that she had not done anything worth the world to know. “[T]he true history of my life – and I suppose of any woman’s – would read stranger, sadder, more inexplicable than any romance that ever was written.”
It makes one wonder if their father had instead been faithful himself and served the Union he had sworn to defend, whether his daughters would have experienced much less “strange” sadness. Their imprisoned life of empty servitude was to an unfaithful tyrant.
Then Lee abruptly died from heart disease on October 12th, 1870 (just five years after the end of Civil War).
Records tell us at this point very few mourned him outside his militant school and some former circles of slaveholder politicians.
The numbers don’t lie.
The school even had to turn its “cadets” into his pallbearers and the small funeral procession was over almost as quickly as it started.
Order of Procession as “Escort of honor, consisting of officers and soldiers of the Confederate Army. Chaplain and other Clergy. Hearse and Pall-Bearers. General Lee’s Horse. The Attending Physicians. Trustees and Faculty of Washington College. Dignitaries of the State of Virginia. Visitors and Faculty of V. M. Institute. Other Representative Bodies and Distinguished Visitors. Alumni of Washington College. Citizens. Cadets V. M. Institute. Students Washington College as Guard of Honour.” It continues, in part “At 10 O’Clock, Precisely, The Procession (except as hereafter designated) will be formed on the College ground, in front of the President’s House and will move down Washington Street… The Procession will be halted in front of the Chapel… when the Cadets for the Institute and the Students of Washington College will be marched through the College Chapel, past the remains…
These details are captured in an auction piece.
And it’s confirmed also in an 1883 recount of the funeral.
To put it another way a small regional school and some former seditious officers showed up dutifully, as well as slaveholder politicians, in total numbering barely over 1,000 people.
That’s essentially nothing, given he had only recently stopped being the head of a secessionist military with lofty aims of destroying America to replace it with a slave state.
He had more than 8X that number preparing to fight a last battle when he surrendered just a few years prior. Think about that. Four years after 8,000 men swore they would fight to destroy America on Lee’s command only a few showed up to pay him respect at his funeral.
Thus, the defeated General Lee died with a negative score in his battles, losing a massive war badly with excessive loss of life. He had not regained his citizenship, nor was he personally/formally pardoned officially for treason let alone leading a fight to destroy the American Constitution.
Nonetheless his body was allowed to receive a “military salute” from the tight circle of his own cadets at his school.
Tributes were mentioned from just eight cities:
- Louisville, Kentucky
- Augusta, Georgia
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- Atlanta, Georgia
- Richmond, Virginia
- Columbia, South Carolina
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Lexington, Kentucky
In a nutshell, after Lee stopped his fight to expand slavery and surrendered his sword to General Grant at Appomattox Court-House on April 12, his public career ended.
He quickly passed from public thoughts (despite occasional rants intended to deny Black Americans any voice in politics) and very few cared to inquire about his fate, foreshadowing why his own cadets in a small college in an obscure town were tasked with being his pallbearers.
It’s interesting to also note that President Andrew Johnson could not call Civil War officially over until all Confederate leaders met Union General Grant’s demands. When Lee surrendered he said he stood only for the Army of Northern Virginia, and that he did not lead but a few men.
The famous Grant-Lee agreement thus became a signal from the Union that any ongoing fight to preserve slavery was over; a model of surrender for large armies of the Confederacy who didn’t see Lee as leader yet still aligned with his unjust cause. It would be another 16 months after Appomattox until Grant dominated all and (on August 20, 1866) the U.S. President formally declared threats to the Constitution were ended.
In one peculiar case demonstrating shameless cowardice, on April 21 just days after Lee’s surrender, Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby told his own men they were abandoned:
I disband your organization in preference to surrendering it to our enemies. I am no longer your commander.
Mosby’s men walked away from this “ghost” of a leader into various groups wandering in various directions; they surrendered despite Mosby’s melt-down under pressure. Being “on your own” surely had little value to his troops as they already head been on their own — surrender brought them care from Union leadership who served their needs, including basics like being fed and clothed.
It was in this context of abandonment and purposefully weak leadership that Lee’s body was buried under a small school church, when its name was abruptly changed to Washington and… Lee.
Eight regimental Confederate Battle flags were set to surround a tiny recumbent statue carved of Lee in this suddenly renamed “Lee Chapel”. Private donations had to be solicited to pay for statue chamber and family crypt for Lee that was built onto the Washington Chapel.
A sudden rise of interest in promoting Lee’s name after he couldn’t be hanged for it? To what end? This was exactly what Lee said he didn’t want: anti-American flags were flown in an American school chapel (until 2014), even becoming an events center of anti-American militant groups (until 2016).
Hold that important century-long fund-raising point for a minute.
Here’s how the Army and Navy Journal on August 28, 1869 quoted Lee in regard to a Gettysburg gathering to remember the dead.
In the face of the published assurances that General Lee would like to be present, a [August 5th] letter is published from him, in which he says: “My engagements will not permit me to be present. I believe, if there, I could not add anything material to the information existing on the subject. I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.
General Fitzhugh Lee (nephew of General Lee) is similarly quoted in the Army and Navy Journal:
I rather think, though, and I write it in all kindness, sir, that if the nation is to continue as a whole, it is better to forget and forgive rather than perpetuate in granite proofs of its civil wars.
Lee and Lee’s family both asked to “obliterate the marks’ and prevent “granite proofs” such as statues… yet the exact opposite happened.
By the 1900s it became fashionable to solicit large private donations to create marks of civil strife in America and litter the countryside with “granite proofs” of the man and family who said please don’t.
Lee’s burial, as small and obscure as it was, was still a contradiction to Lee’s supposed wishes to bury signs of his rebellion. It became an encoded shrine to organizing violence and perpetuating the Civil War “like a contagion” that Lee supposedly quit.
Lee’s overt failures at basic humanity have become an asset for others after his death, given how funds find their way into schools that continue to turn a blind eye to domestic terrorism (add a Lee memorial to campus). Apparently it includes VERY large funds. How many Americans know, for example, one of the nation’s richest men JP Morgan Jr refused to pay taxes while also securing nearly $100m in loans to Mussolini?
The Washington and Lee school have thus doubled-down on using Lee to stoke donations for hate, as they repeatedly refuse to return their name to its original version (directly disobeying Lee’s own request to “obliterate the marks of civil strife”).
The school has even literally cited removal of the late name addition as “a threat to current financial support”, openly admitting use of Lee’s name after he no longer was alive to be hanged has always been about stoking cash donations through manipulating sentiment for money from wealthy domestic terror financiers.
The commission, which studied the history of the university, noted that the sculpture and other imagery in the chapel were part of an effort in the South in the late 19th century and beyond to make the Confederacy a great cause, worthy of veneration, and to make Confederate heroes into something akin to saints. “By continuing to hold rituals and events in Lee Chapel, the university, wittingly or not, sustains the Shrine of the South and the memory of Lee as a commander of the Confederate Army,” the report said. “The commission heard repeatedly in its outreach that the effect is problematic for many students, faculty, staff and alumni.” Notably, the commission said, orientation of new students takes place in the chapel, as does the signing of the honor code.
This brings to mind a similar argument made in the early 1980s when this school’s leadership literally said it would rather shut everything down than allow any women to be educated, as if less misogyny somehow posed a dire threat to its financial stability.
It finally relented in 1985, despite white male alumni vociferously arguing that their “values” (surely more than just their legacy of raping Black women) would be “compromised” by women.
Many of the current students at the time and alumni attended Washington and Lee for its strong conservative values, and felt like those values would be compromised if the university began to admit women.
Of course the opposite happened and the school’s finances are fine while it now ranks in the top 5% of male/female diversity (50/50). However the racism still exists and Lee’s name translates directly to shockingly low numbers of Black Americans on campus. Only 40 faculty out of 1,000 and just 90 students out of 1,800 are Black.
The monumental attachment to a “monster” like Lee is unquestionably meant as an intentional way to solicit money to make Black Americans feel unwelcome and deny them education.
General Lee’s funeral and its relics, as obscure and small as it all was initially, has grown into an encoded way for people to keep the Civil War unresolved — try and squeeze money out of what has become known as the “Lost Cause” fraud.
Lee today is little more than an empty puppet, a name used primarily to beg for handouts from white supremacists and stoke racial tensions, all the while clearly disrespecting Lee by elevating him into public scrutiny (where he fails even the most basic tests).
Obviously the US isn’t going to name a federal building in Oklahoma after Timothy McVeigh, nor is it going to name a sky scraper in NYC after Osama bin Laden. My how times have changed!
For important comparison, in 1885 when Grant died he was so revered by everyone that his pallbearers included even the Confederate Generals who had surrendered to him. He was globally mourned as a hero in what was recorded as the largest funeral in history; millions attending in a procession seven miles long that took almost all day and filled NYC. And — very unlike the fraudulent Lee monument and flag gravy train — if you would like to purchase something in Grant’s honor to commemorate actual great deeds of a US General and President, it’s called an American flag.