Today, as in 1865, angry voices accuse Robert E. Lee of treason.
With the approval of President Andrew Johnson, Federal Judge John Curtis Underhill of Norfolk, Virginia sought to try Lee as a traitor.
On June 2, 1865, a grand jury, convened by Underhill, indicted Lee and thirty-six other high-ranking Confederates.
In our time, Lee’s name has been erased from schools and parks. Monuments and statues of Lee have been vandalized or removed from the United States Capitol, Virginia State House and elsewhere.
Yet, between these calls to punish and defame, there was a moment when the Senate voted unanimously to restore Robert E. Lee’s United States citizenship.
Four months later, President Gerald Ford crossed the Potomac to Arlington House and signed the bill into law. Standing on the front porch of Lee’s former home, between the massive columns, Ford spoke of the General and the man.
He recalled that Lee reluctantly resigned his commission in the U.S. Army, and afterwards accepted the generalship of the Army of Virginia.
“He thus,” Ford continued,” forfeited his U.S. citizenship.”
Ford praised Lee’s character, and pronounced him an example to all Americans. That was the summer of 1975, more than one hundred years after Lee had made application to President Johnson for amnesty and repatriation.
Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, describes the thought processes that led Lee to seek a pardon.
Lee was aware that Confederate veterans were watching him and would follow his lead; he felt a deep responsibility to help them rebuild their lives. The North had won the war, he reasoned; southerners needed to accept the results and work to regenerate their economy.
Importantly, an admission of wrong-doing was not necessary for amnesty; Lee had done what he believed honor and duty required of him. However, Lee did have a concern about the Norfolk indictment: he loathed having it appear he was seeking a pardon in order to escape a trial. A letter to General Ulysses S. Grant, asking for clarification of the terms of parole at Appomattox was answered affirmatively by Grant. The surrender document stated that neither Lee nor his army would be tried for treason. Only then did Lee apply for a pardon. What Lee and Grant did not realize was that a loyalty oath needed to accompany the application. When Lee was informed of that fact two months later, he promptly signed an oath, had it notarized, and sent it to the President.
Lee never received a response to his application. The charges of treason came to naught, Johnson issued a General Amnesty on Christmas Day, 1868, but Lee died in 1870 without regaining his rights of citizenship.
A century later, Elmer O. Parker, Director of the Old Military Records Branch at the National Archives, made a surprising discovery: Lee’s notarized oath of allegiance. Parker penned an article about his find for the Archives magazine Prologue, and it came to the attention of Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr. of Virginia. The Senator used the occasion to try and right an old wrong; with fellow Virginian, Congressman Herbert E. Harris, he introduced a joint resolution “to restore posthumously the full rights of citizenship to General Robert E. Lee.” The resolution was not acted upon by either the 92nd or the 93rd Congress, perhaps because Lee’s application for amnesty could not be found. Perhaps it was due to the national nightmare of Watergate.
By the time the 94th Congress was in session, the determined Parker had done further sleuthing. His first clue was an intriguing item in War Department Records: in 1899, one Charles Walsh of Philadelphia had in his possession General Lee’s amnesty application and General Grant’s endorsement of the same. Walsh offered both to the War Department for $100, but the offer was declined. (Department officials thought the correspondence belonged at the State Department.)
The record claimed that in 1865 the documents had been given to General Daniel Sullivan, as a souvenir, by his friend Secretary of State William Seward. Two generations later, Walsh purchased the documents from Sullivan’s grandson.
In 1975, Parker’s pursuit of Lee’s application was rewarded. He writes, “The search was long and led me up blind alleys until it was found in the Illinois State Historical Library . . .” At the same location were Lee’s and Grant’s letters to each other. Their authenticity was verified by a file designation matching War Department records.
Parker forwarded his new information to Senator Byrd who, once again, introduced his resolution. Six months later, it came to a vote. Nineteen Senators co-sponsored the bill; several rose to speak in the Senate chamber.
Senator John C. Stennis (MS) told a story from Lee’s postbellum career as President of Washington College (now Washington and Lee): “General Lee, when a young student brought before him on a disciplinary matter had given a reason for his conduct and was about to give another reason stopped him and said, ‘Young man, one good reason is always enough.”
Senator Philip A. Hart (MI) arose, described Lee “as a man of conscience,” and drew a parallel to the young men who, “out of conviction of conscience” had refused to fight in the Vietnam War. He asked that amnesty be extended to them as it was extended to Lee. Senator Byrd made the concluding remarks: “I will simply say that it has been my view for a very long time that the two greatest men of that very tragic era in our Nation’s history were General Robert E. Lee and President Abraham Lincoln. I do not think we have had any two greater Americans than those two; yet in that tragic conflict, they found themselves on opposite sides.”
After its passage by the Senate, the bill went to the House where it passed 407-10. The ten “nay” votes were due to the lack of an amnesty proviso favored by Senator Hart. Vietnam and Watergate had torn the country apart, but the United States was about to celebrate its Bicentennial. The ceremonial restoration of Lee’s citizenship on the grounds of Arlington Cemetery was a distinctly American event. It commemorated the life of an American original, a life dedicated to service of one’s country and its citizens, interrupted by four tragic years.
In the decades between 1975 and 2021, Lee did not change, but the country changed. All that was admirable in the man and the soldier, all that was beloved by the South, and respected by many in the North and abroad began to be scorned and cast aside. Once again, he is reviled as a traitor. There are still some among us, however, that trust this passionate disavowal of Lee’s stature will be a temporary historical aberration. We hope that, once again, Americans will reconsider Lee and say of him, “He was a man, take him for all in all: I (we) shall not look upon his like again.”