“Madam, don’t bring your sons up to detest the United States Government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities and make your sons Americans.” 

-Lee writing to a Southern mother, with a heart wrenching of hatred towards the North. Source: Proceedings & Debates, 2nd Session of the Seventy-First Congress, United States of America, Vol. LXXII-Part 8, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1930, 8492. 

Since approximately 2013, a new historiography of the American Civil War/War Between the States, the False Story, has emerged and called into serious consideration the previously-widely ascribed ​’Lost Cause’.[1] This challenge to the Lost Cause thesis might be said to have helped urge the production of many high quality works, ​such as Black American history.[2] It may further be held that all historiographies’ possess some form of limit to their accurate scope of reference, and ​that historical study is a constantly-shifting landscape viewed from the unique scope of each successive generation. Yet, the nascent school ​has itself already revealed a number of questionable methodological practices, such as in the works of Adam Serwer and Eric Foner. These methodological ​patterns are not original but are quite similar to those which beset study of the ‘Contact’-era between Indigenous Australians and Europeans in the early 2000s in Australia. ​Challenging a historical thesis, successfully or not, often presents a heuristic contribution to both history and historiography. But, to a noticeable extent, ​the False Story has presented arguments based on ad hoc, inadequate, and what might even be described as dishonest examination of historical evidence, pilloried​ on a base of Orwellian emotional nationalism. This paper will present an All American argument that an illustrative comparison of the structure, arguments ​and components of the Australian ‘History Wars’ and the False Story school of the Great American Conflict, holistic examination of the evidence, combined with George Orwell’s classic distinction between ​patriotism and nationalism will refute that ​Robert E. Lee can be in any way connected to the Ku Klux Klan. ​

The Australian historian, Penny Russell, once described an insightful, if partial, definition of the role of a historian. “The historian’s role is not meaningless reportage, but the production of meaning.” She added that role also included drawing attention particularly on lesser-discerned evidence to allow for the reader to find familiarisation with figures of the past who were not “like themselves”.[3] Joy Damousi contributed a useful addition to this understanding on the historian’s role. Writing about striving for a balance of objectivity and empathy, and while focused mainly on ‘commemorative history’, (such as how the remembrance and commemorations surrounding the Gallipoli campaign had changed for each successive Australian generation), she insightfully observed, “…The question of amnesia is central to a historian’s task, as what is forgotten is, of course, as important as what is remembered. The ethics of history alerts us to the ways in which contemporary concerns shape our historical understandings…we view the past through the lens of the present…”[4] In their refutation of Keith Windschuttle’s assertions about the lack of connection of the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples’ to their ancestral lands, Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan separately drew attention to the seeming outright attempt by Windschuttle to evade evidence which could challenge his position. Both Reynolds and Ryan respectively posited that Windschuttle was guilty of setting the burden of proof in the debate in an untenable manner, eschewing and attempting to re-define the evidence that might successfully contest his assertions.[5] Lastly, Patricia Grimshaw described that Windschuttle’s defining comprehensive aspect was the worst form of historical revisionism: In his work, ‘he had drawn a circle in the sand and attempted to convince the reader away from thinking or questioning outside of it.’[6] Windschuttle’s stance and conclusions had the appearance of being comprehensive and well-structured; but the more probing questions and evidence that was applied, the less cogent his arguments became.

Likewise, in their denunciations of Robert E. Lee, Serwer and Fonter strove not truly to challenge the Lost Cause school of Civil War/War Between the States studies and present a robust and fresh account of Robert E. Lee.[7] Their design, rather, was to landmark the structure of the nascent historiography, the ‘False Story’. This school encompasses all the aforesaid Windschuttle-esque features in its explanation of the Civil War and its’ legacy, but in similar to the Lost Cause, the False Story encompasses a high volume of what George Orwell noted as ’emotional nationalism’, in his own landmark essay; a relentless strive for, ‘competitive prestige.’[8] In other words, this historiography is not defined by a division over meaningful interpretation of the events of American past; it is defined by the attempt of some Americans’ to use the past to legitimise and justify being divided against other Americans in the present. It is also directly influenced by the attempt to depict one social segment of the American Civil War as utterly good and beyond reproach, the other as damnable, and to draw a direct tie-line from the former to his own social/political societal segment of today and the latter to those they identify as ‘contemporary opponents.’​ 

Serwer and Foner not only strove hard to convince the reader that no evidence exists to challenge their views, (as Windschuttle implied at times in the manner of his prose), but the aggressive tone Serwer in particular wrote suggested a less-than-subtle attempt to intimidate out of actively seeking and presenting this. Grimshaw’s stated definition of the worst practice of historical revisionism applies as aptly here, and nowhere is this clearer than in their condemnation of Robert E. Lee for never having publicly denounced the Ku Klux Klan. Foner held as fact that Lee was directly asked to speak out against the Klan and made a conscious decision to remain silent, whereas Serwer pressed of there being no evidence of Lee ever doing so, leaving the reader with the impression that none existed at all, thereby, with the effect of a negative proving a positive.[9] They engage in Grimshaw’s definition of the worst form of historical revisionism with their allegations of Robert E. Lee giving tacit or secret support to the Klan and its’ activities in that they attempt to convince the audience to not critically reflect outside the parameters of the historical issue as they have crafted it, and it is obvious they have constructed the said parameters to gain an advantage. The explanation of the past they present makes sense, provided that only a very select assortment of evidence is presented, and then that only a limited number of questions are raised to probe its surface.

When an exhaustive collection of historical evidence is conducted and a rigorous critical reflection is applied, the False Story is severely challenged in what it can satisfactorily explain. The foremost historical theses can demonstrate that the author has grappled with the most extensive research which is relevantly possible and administered the greatest degree of rigorous analysis. Foner fails to provide a clear reference of Lee being asked to speak out publicly on the issue and declining, while Serwer attempts to convey that a negative proves a positive; the lack of evidence to show that the General did speak out against the Klan is proof that he never did. And it is precisely here where each engage in methodological err that might best be likened to the ‘Brady defence’, as had Windschuttle; all fail to disclose other, fully relevant evidence on the matter that is known, or might be reasonably expected for them to be familiar with. For while it is true that evidence showing Robert E. Lee expressly criticising the Klan in private or public is unknown to date, there are a high number of clear examples of the General advocating exactly against any type of activity which the Ku Klux Klan and similar organisations were bent on engaging in.[10]

 It may well be inferred that this aspect of Lee’s life represents an area where a valid measure of criticism might be applied. That the Klan was operative and engaging in clandestine terror and violence in the South is open to no dispute, and just such a clear-cut example of the General condemning the Klan is, at best, unknown to date. Yet at the same time, it might be fair to posit that if Abraham Lincoln could not have successfully prevented the violence with which America exploded any more than any other individual, Robert E. Lee can’t be personally held to account for the violence which continued after the war’s conclusion. Historians’ Gary Gallagher and Matt Atkinson are each correct in their respective opinions that in the post-war years, Robert E. Lee went to great lengths in public to promote reconciliation, though clearly show anguish in private. And at the same time, while it may not be accurate to describe Lee’s efforts to this end in this period as ‘having done a lot of work’, nevertheless, by choosing to dutifully set a personal and public example, none could have advanced as powerful an influence towards reconciliation in the country and among its’ people.[11]

 It ought to be addressed that Susan Lawrence Davis claimed in her work that four ex-Confederates approached Robert E. Lee prior to the Klan’s Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, in May of 1867, for an endorsement from the General of the organisation and its aims. Gaining an audience, Davis writes that Lee replied, “I would like to assist you in any plan that offers relief. I cannot be with you in person, but I will follow you but must be invisible; and my advice is to keep it as you have it, a protective organization.” This supposed statement has been held as the origin of the Klan’s term for itself, ‘The Invisible Empire.’[12] However, critical reflection casts doubt on this account. Her father was one of the founding members of the Klan, and her book was published in the ‘Rebirth’ of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which was also the halycon era of the ‘Lost Cause’ school of Civil War studies. Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee’s most preeminent biographer, notes that while Davis’ interviewed many early Klan members, no evidence exists in any primary materials of Davis, Lee, etc, to document that this meeting took place, or that Lee ever voiced such sentiments. Freeman discerns that while Davis accurately transcribed what had been told to her in the interviews compiling her research, the incident is highly likely of apocryphal nature.[13] Nor does the story mesh with the known disposition of Robert E. Lee. The lack of forthrightness and the aura of dissimulation simply do not transfer to the character of the General, whom always strove for transparency in his life.[14] The account has all the qualities of the Klan attempting to invoke the figure of General Lee to convey credibility on their actions and organisation in the high point of the Lost Cause and the Jim Crow Eras.[15]

The first example which challenges Serwer and Foner’s stance of Robert E. Lee supporting the Ku Klux Klan comes from the memoirs of Edward Porter Alexander, Chief Ordnance Officer to General James Longstreet in the Army of Northern Virginia. Alexander wrote that on the morning of 9 April 1865, unaware that Lee had already determined to ask Ulysses S. Grant for terms of surrender, he approached Lee and made an emotional plea for a last, desperate movement that would enable approximately two-thirds of the then-present Confederate forces to escape through the Union lines. The aim would be for those successful in the breakout attempt to unite with Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, or to their distant home states, “…to take to the woods and bushes…and they [the Union forces] could not scatter to follow us.” The Gray Fox listened actively, but then replied by way of asking Alexander open-ended questions to show that such could not ultimately result in Confederate independence. “General…you and I…have no right to consider only how this would affect us. We must consider its effect on the country, as a whole. Already, it is demoralised for four years of war. If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many wide sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it may take the country years to recover from. And, as for myself, you young fellows might go bushwhacking but the only dignified course for me, would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.”[16]

When Lee rode back into the midst of the Army of Northern Virginia, he had just surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House. It was a scene of nigh-indescribable emotional desolation. Commissioned officers and enlisted men alike ‘threw themselves prostrate on the ground, covering their faces with tears or cried openly on their horses.’ His army now rallying around Lee one final time, enunciating and demonstrating its readiness to charge the Union forces at his command even now, the General stood firm against this. Lieutenant George Mills of the 16th North Carolina heard him to say, “Boys, I have done the best I could for you. Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, I will always be proud of you. Goodbye and God bless you all.”[17]

When the stacking of arms had begun at Appomattox Court House following the surrender, Lee and his party had been assigned an escort party of Union cavalry to ride alongside them for to ensure safe passage as far along the journey back to Richmond for as long as the General wished them to. Along the way, Lee’s party and the Fourth Massachusetts’ troopers encountered some veterans of the Stonewall Brigade, making their own long journey to their homes in the Shenandoah Valley. Lee patiently showed them on his well-worn battle map the quickest route and then bespoke to them to, ‘think of the future and not the past and to be as loyal citizens as they had been soldiers.’ Lee then turned to the escort party and addressed them, “You see I am in my own country and among friends and do not need an escort. I am giving you unnecessary trouble and now request you to withdraw to your men and re-join your command.” These were effectively the last military orders that he would ever impart to any troops. After saluting them, according to the escort party commanding officer, Lieutenant Samuel C. Lovell, the Gray Fox, “…shook my hand and wished me a safe return to my home, with tears in his eyes.”[18]

To the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, who had been on the run from the Union Army ever since the evacuation of Richmond begun on 2 April 1865, at Lee’s urging, and had maintained a stance categorically against surrender of resistance, Lee attempted persuasion of acceptance of the military realities, dissuasion from any further resistance and a plea for the journey to reconciliation be commenced, “Mr. President, it is with pain that I announce to Your Excellency the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia…I deemed this course the best under all the circumstances…The enemy was more than five times our numbers. If we could have forced our way one day longer it would have been at great sacrifice of life; at its end, I did not see how a surrender could have been avoided. We had no subsistence for man or horse and it could not be gathered in the country…the men deprived of food and sleep for many days, were worn out and exhausted...”,[19] “...I have given these details that Your Excellency might know the state of feeling which existed in the army, and judge of that in the country. From what I have seen and learned, I believe an army cannot be organised or supported…to maintain the contest unaided with any hope of ultimate success. A partisan war may be continued, and hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence. It is for Your Excellency to decide, should you agree with me in opinion, what is proper to be done. To save useless effusion of blood, I would recommend measures be taken for suspension of hostilities and the restoration of peace.[20]

 At some point between the 16-18 of April 1865, Channing Smith, a young trooper under the command of Confederate guerrilla cavalry commander, John S. Mosby, was secretly missioned to Richmond to seek out the advice of Lee as to what Mosby and his command ought to do, following news of the surrender at Appomattox. Being hidden away in the home of his uncle, Confederate General R.H. Chilton, the younger Rebel had his opportunity to seek Lee’s advice in secret. Lee and his daughter, Mildred had come for a visit to see the elder Chilton. The Gray Fox would instruct this mission, which had come seeking military advice, exactly the opposite; that of peace and reconciliation. “Give my regards to Colonel Mosby…go home all you boys who fought with me, and help to build up the shattered fortunes of our old state.”[21]

Confederate Captain George Wise, the son of the former-Governor of Virginia, turned-Confederate General, Henry Wise, was unsure of the sagacity of seeking a pardon from the federal government in Washington, which would involve swearing allegiance to this body. His senses of reasoned appreciation of the future and emotional devotion to the past warring within him, Wise the younger sought out the Gray Fox in Richmond for counsel. Despite being unwell, Lee received the young ex-Rebel, whom personified what Lee saw as the best hopes for the future of the South and upon the likes of which reconciliation depended. The General listened as Wise made clear his perceived indignity and vented the prospect of leaving America altogether. Lee would conceded Wise’s frustration as understandable, but then offered, “…I would advise you to take it [the oath]…Do not leave Virginia. Our country needs her young men now.” Upon informing his adamant father of his choice, the elder Wise would berate that his son had, ‘disgraced the family!’ However, upon hearing that the action had been advised by Robert E. Lee, the elder Wise replied, “Oh! Well, then that alters the case. Whatever General Lee says is alright, I don’t care what it is.”[22]

Far from eschewing Black Americans from integration into society, Lee and his wife, had had Selina and Thornton Gray, slaves of  Lee’s father-in-law, married in 1847 in the same Arlington estate parlour that Lee had been married in.[23] Lee and his family defied Virginia state law to teach his father-in-law’s slaves literacy, so as to provide them with education in anticipation for freedom. A critical reflection of Lee’s Congressional Testimony in February, 1866, reveals in nuanced terms that the General twice openly questioned that White supremacy would endure in the South. In response to loaded questioning, based on the Congressional panel’s presupposition of permanent, cultural White supremacy in Virginia, (and significantly, after having already emphasized the importance of education of Black Americans and the collective, positive social effect this would produce), Lee stated, “…I do not know what the future may develop…What the future may prove, how intelligent [Black Americans] may become, with what eyes they may look upon the interests of the State in which they may reside, I cannot say more than you [Northerners] can.”[24] While not erudite in language, the testimony nevertheless proves that the General was open to the aspect of racial-cultural change in the South. Serwer is amongst such company as Michael Korda, Charles Bracelen Flood, Elizabeth Brown Pryor in a tradition of historians whom have incorrectly held that Lee opposed Black Americans voting in the post-war world. [25]  Overturning the contention of Pryor, the General gave a high amount of attention to the situation of Black Americans, and towards this, made numerous provisions.[26]

Lee biographer, Gamaliel Bradford, Jr., recorded that the General once halted the brutalisation of captured-USCT soldiers by telling the Confederate guard responsible, “If I ever hear of your mistreating a prisoner again, be he as black as Erebus, I will hang you to the nearest tree.”[27]Upon learning that Confederate troops at Saltville, Virginia, had murdered bed ridden-USCT in hospital under the command of General Felix Robertson, Lee wrote to General John C. Breckinridge, Confederate Commander of the Department of East Tennessee and West Virginia. Lee communicated his disgust, “…That a general officer should have been guilty of the crime…”, and instructed Breckinridge to arrange, “…charges against him [Robertson] and bring him to trial.”[28] In June of 1865, former-Confederate Colonel, T.L. Broun, of West Virginia, attended services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. As with many social localities in both the South and North, this avenue was segregated with While Americans seated on the ground floor, and Black Americans in the upper echelon, the former always receiving holy communion before the latter, at the front of the congregation. As the pastor, the Rev. Charles Minnigerode was about to conduct this part of the service, Colonel Broun wrote forty years later a Black American immediately placed himself before at the altar for reception, deliberately imposing himself before the White American constituents. This instance of Black Americans overtly and symbolically challenging the dominance of White supremacy culture in America of the era had all the potential to instil a race riot, or worse.[29] From amidst the disbelief of the White Americans, and the fear and trepidation of the Black celebrants of the potential consequences for this public defiance of the order of White supremacy, none other than Robert E. Lee arose from the pews and knelt alongside the Black American, in front of the entire congregation.[30] Perhaps what spurred the General to perform this heroic and public motion of racial equality was the echo of his own orders about the attempted formation of legal Confederate national troops of Black Americans, “…they must be made to forget that they had been regarded as menials.”[31] [32]

 In his letter to the Board of Trustees at Washington College tendering a conditional acceptance of their offer to become the President of the post-secondary facility, Lee made clear the manner in which he would conduct himself and his expectations for all students and supporters, “I think it the duty of every citizen in the present Condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace & harmony, & in no way to oppose the policy of the State or Genl Governments, directed to that object. It is particularly incumbent on those charged with the instruction of the young, to set them an example of submission to authority…”[33] Thomas Morris Chester, the war’s lone Black war correspondent for a major newspaper on either side, reported that connection to General Lee guaranteed safe passage through Richmond, Virginia, for Black Americans.[34] To his fellow ex-Confederate General, Pierre G.T. Beauregard, Lee would write, “…After the surrender of the Southern armies in April [of 1865]…it became in my opinion the duty of every citizen, the contest being virtually ended, to cease opposition, and place himself in a position to serve the country.”[35]

In May of 1868, Francis H. Brockenborough, the son of Judge Brockenborough who had tendered the offer of Washington College’s Presidency to Lee, was shot by a Black American, Caesar Griffin, after the two clashed in an altercation. Given that his father was the rector of the school at which his older brothers attended, the students of Washington College delved into a racial frenzy. A horde of students apprehended Griffin and hauling him along with a noose around his neck, stormed the Lexington Courthouse property, bent on lynching. Law enforcement officers and Washington College officials scrambled in vain to stop the mob. At this desperate moment, Robert E. Lee strode into the throng and ordered the crowd, “Young gentlemen! Let the law take its course!” With this one utterance, the mob dispersed, and Griffin was put in custody. A short time later, the same racial passions were rumoured to be whipping up the student body to storm the courthouse again, remove Griffin forcibly from the cells and hang him. Once more, Lee acted in a manner of advocacy of the due process of law for Black Americans, tasking a young Givens B. Strickler, an ex-Confederate soldier and returning student at Washington College, to read out a direct message from him, “I earnestly invoke the students to abstain from any violation of the law, and to unite in preserving quiet and order on this and every occasion.”[36] Ely Samuel Parker, the Iroquois chief and aide-de-camp to Ulysses S. Grant, provided testament that Lee had lived to challenge his earlier prejudices towards Aboriginal Americans,[37] perhaps having been impressed by their contributions to the Confederate war effort and the example of his lieutenant, Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s, ‘eager acceptance’ of them into the latter’s Corps.[38]

Three last pieces of evidence are necessary to examine the claims of Serwer and Foner of Robert E. Lee tacitly or otherwise supporting the Ku Klux Klan. In September of 1870 at the White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia, former-Union General, William Rosecrans, visited the facility. A high number of notable military and political former-Confederates were also gathered. Rosecrans spoke to a number of his Southern hosts, appealing them to communicate, ‘their gladness to be back in the Union and loyal to the old flag’, which he could in turn convey to federal government. Upon being asked for his opinion as to the post-war sentiment in his state, Fletcher Stockdale, who had been briefly a Confederate Governor of Texas, stated, “…[Texans] will not again resort to forceful resistance against the Federal government…”, but added this stance had been adopted because, “…they…know their position. They know they resisted the Federal Government as long as any means of resistance was left, and that any attempt at resistance must now be in vain…they have no means and would only make bad, worse.”[39] This having been voiced in Robert E. Lee’s presence, in the hastily-arranged quorum he had assembled for Rosecrans seemingly met with the approval of The Gray Fox. When all the assembled had filed out of the room, Lee held Stockdale back and, apparently having been animated by the frank admission that Southern rapprochement was first and foremost stimulated by acceptance as fact of complete destruction of any Confederate force to successfully resist the Union Army,[40]  Stockdale would relate Lee had held him back in private. “Governor”, Lee said, “if I had foreseen the use [the North] designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.”[41]

This account is supposed to have taken place in 1870 and had been re-told through a number of parties by the time it was documented in 1903. Nevertheless, there is no reason to believe it is not true. Stockdale would describe Lee as, “rising with colour, throwing back his head like an old war-horse”, as he voiced this passion.[42] Detractors such as Serwer and Foner might point to this passage as proof of deceitfulness on the part of the General towards any sincere move to national and social reconciliation, and implicative of their claim of his tacit support of the Klan. Such a position would rather reveal the aggressive emotional nationalism of parties other than Lee. ​It is clear that Robert E. Lee did not look favourably upon much of Reconstruction, especially in the manner it was applied to the South by the North.[43] But what may help most in gaining as accurate understanding of this passage in the whole context of Lee’s life in the post-war may be gleaned by critically reflecting on the circumstances of it and the difference George Orwell defined between patriotism and nationalism.

Since Lee was surrounded by ex-Confederates in a small room, contained by their emotive re-telling of their collective experiences in the war and its aftermath, taken with the presence and mission of the Northern, former-adversary, Rosecrans, it ought be no surprise that he reacted in such a manner. As Orwell poignantly reminds us in his stellar work upon the difference between nationalism and patriotism, “…Let a certain note be struck, let this or that corn be trodden on, and it may be corn whose very existence has been unsuspected hitherto, and the most fair-minded and sweet-tempered person may suddenly be transformed into a vicious partisan…One prod to the nerve of nationalism, and the…decencies can vanish…”[44] With the condensed atmosphere of emotion, spontaneous conversation and the vivid, collective recollections of the war all combined, it should not surprise us this evoked in a General, who had wielded command over a vast military force that was locked in desperate combat for a prolonged period. It is proof not of any deceitfulness or the like on the part of Robert E. Lee; it is rather a re-assertion of his humanity. It is also fair to note that his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln, also felt these pangs and allowed them on occasion to surface.[45] What is also telling of this episode is the very fact it was spontaneous and verbal. In tandem with Orwell, Donald T. Phillips and David Acord offer what may be the key insight in regards to this, coupled with an appreciation for the critically reflection on what the difference between the spontaneous oral and the composed written word can glean in a given historical context. ​

Orwell stresses that patriotism is defined by the balancing of reason and emotion in-step to determine choices and actions in a productive manner, and that it’s counter-part of nationalism is perhaps best summarised as passions’ post ex facto utilising motives to justify and legitimise striving for ‘competitive prestige and power’.[46] In their books, What Would Lincoln Do?, and, Lincoln On Leadership, Acord stressed the manner in which Abraham Lincoln at least attempted to engage himself on a consistent basis. By choosing to ‘respond’ as a preference to ‘react’ and letting understandable human emotions to be processed adequately before applying himself to his duties, Lincoln was able time and again to most effectively, while Phillips adds that Lincoln would utilise letter-writing as a technique to not only relieve aggravation, but to convey the most effective and appropriate response possible to express himself.[47] Acord and Phillips’ emphasise the aspect of writing, when Lincoln conveyed the thoughts and policies he most wanted to put forth has an apt insight about the historical persons of the pre-digital age. ​

Letter-writing is an exercise which the 21st Century has all but lost touch with, given the fact that instantaneous and direct communications have long since become the norm. Whereas conversations can be spontaneous, writing a hand-written letter not only requires more time to compose, and by this, it allows for more time for reflection of the writer’s thoughts and words. The evidence shows this applies just as aptly to Robert E. Lee; the General gave vent to his anger; but this, he refused to allow to become hatred. When the General spoke to Stockdale, he did not hide his anger over the manner in which Reconstruction was being applied in the South. However, along with what Lee said, it must be considered what he wrote, to both Pierre G.T. Beauregard, and his war-time aide, Colonel Charles Marshall, about the South, and its past, present and future in America and the world. The spontaneous verbalisation in the highly emotive and compact setting must be considered against the considered written word in a more dispassionate and reflective mood on the General’s part. The Beauregard letter is dated just months after the war ended, and although there is no firm date fixed to the Marshall communique in any of the primary sources, it is presumed to also have been communicated in the final year of his life, roughly spanning the duration of Lee’s final years. Together these read-​

“…I have been elected to the Presidency of Washington College, and have entered upon the duties of the office in the hope of being of some service to the noble youth of our country. I need not tell you that true patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and that the motive which impels them – the desire to do right – is precisely the same. The circumstances which govern their actions, change, and then conduct must conform to the new order of things. History is full of illustrations of this…”[48]


“My experiences of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them nor to be indisposed to serve them: Nor, in spite of failures which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge, or the present aspect of affairs, do I despair of the future. The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”[49]

The Lost Cause historiography would for too long pose General Lee as a flawless Deity, above human err or fault. This posturing of the General is perhaps most effectively addressed in a constructive manner by Gary Gallagher. While his work is not beyond constructive criticism, (such as his postulating that Lee in fact supported slavery), by the very act of carefully peeling away the veil of hagiography, Gallagher makes possible the restoration of Robert E. Lee’s place as a historical figure.[50] And when once this is achieved and the process of historical critical reflection is applied, Lee’s humanity is restored. At this stage of historiographical junction, the work of Matt Atkinson becomes viable. Atkinson, of Gettysburg National Park Service, would tacitly argue more correctly that these evidences prove the General’s experiences of the war had had changed him from being a Southern emotional nationalist to walk far along the road to becoming a reasoned American patriot.[51] These are sentiments that indicate both disapproval in their author for the clandestine violence and nationalism of the elusive Klan and assert the heroism of his humanity.​

Perhaps more so than at any other time previous in history, the world is in need of America. The reality of her influence and position in the community of nations can be questioned in no serious manner. But appreciation for historical evidence which is non-American in origin has shown to have a valuable place in the critical reflection of both American history and historiography. The truth thus rendered is both enlightening and catenating; America is just as much in need of the world. The Australian ‘History Wars’ contestation about the nature of Contact between Aboriginal and European peoples’,[52] have provided a heuristic framework of rigorous analysis for examining the claims by Adam Serwer and Eric Foner about Robert E. Lee lending his support and influence to the Ku Klux Klan. A critical reflection of the evidence not only disprove their contention, but demonstrates that part of what made Robert E. Lee a hero was his transition from being a Southern nationalist to the place he ultimately occupied as an American patriot. In the process, the General lived to question, to challenge, to re-consider the prejudices that had marked the world he knew. Such a critical reflection on the General illuminates the connective links of humanity, history and historiography, and invoke the re-capture in our times of the difference between Orwellian reasoned patriotism and emotional nationalism. Lastly, the All American historiography would urge both a fresh, holistic and exhaustive examination of the Civil War/War Between the States, in addition to a critical reflection of both the Lost Cause and False Story schools of thought of the Great American Conflict. For after all, it is the General’s own words that, “…it is history that teaches us to hope.”[53]

[1]) For an excellent summary of the origins and structural framework of the ‘Lost Cause’, view the lecture of Matt Atkinson, ‘Jubal Early & The Moulding of Confederate Memory’, Gettysburg National Park Service, (NPS), Winter Lecture Series, (WLS), 7 February 2016 [Accessed 23 March 2019].

[2]) Some recent examples of superb Black American historical works in recent times might include the article of Danny Smith, ‘An Archive of Fugitive Slave Ads Sheds New Light on Lost Histories’,  [Accessed 27 March 2019], which seeks to glean biographical, demographic and social information about enslaved Black Americans, their masters, etc, Cate Lineberry’s, Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robhttps://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/archive-fugitive-slave-ads-could-shed-new-light-lost-histories-180959194/ert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero, St. Martin’s Press, 2017. As well, the films, ‘Twelve Years A Slave’ (2013) and ‘Birth of a Nation’ (2016) can be said to generate public historical interest, generally, while Civil War history at large suffered the passing of landmark historian, Hari Jones, in 2018. The website dedicated to him and his life’s work can be accessed at http://harijones.com/ [Accessed 27 March 2019].​

[3]) Russell, Penny, ‘Almost Believing: The Ethics of Historical Imagination’; Macintyre, Stuart, Ed., The Historian’s Conscience, Australian Historians on The Ethics of History, Melbourne University Press, (MUP), 2004, 115.

[4]) Damousi, ‘The Emotions of History’, Ibid, 35.

[5]) Refer to Henry Reynolds’, ‘Terra Nullius Reborn’; Manne, Robert, Ed., Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Black Inc, 2003, 109-38, and Lyndall Ryan’s, Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803, Allen & Unwin, 2012. For example, Reynolds points out that Windschuttle attempted to posit in his book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Vol I, Van Diemen’s Land, 1803-47, MacLeay Press, 2002, that the lack of the term, ‘property’, (from an incomplete  vocabulary list of Tasmanian Aboriginal words), proved that none had any concept of ‘land ownership’, yet he simultaneously refused to consider the many variations of the synonymous term, ‘my country’, in his arguments, despite this evidence having been demonstrably known. I am grateful to Dr. Rebe Taylor of the University of Tasmania, for her article on the matter in, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 October 2003, of how historians’ might construct arguments with particular motives in mind. See also her book, Into The Heart of Tasmania: A Search for Human Antiquity, Melbourne University Press, 2017.

[6]) Grimshaw, Patricia, ‘The Fabrication of a Benign Colonisation?’, Melbourne Historical Journal, 31, 2003, 13.

[7]) Serwer, Adam, ‘The Myth of the Kindly General Lee’, The Atlantic, 4 June 2017. For Foner, refer to the, UK Telegraph, 18 August, 2017, and, New York Times, 28 August 2017.

[8]) Orwell, George, ‘Notes on Nationalism’, Polemic: Magazine of Philosophy, Psychology, and Aesthetics, October, 1945 ed.

[9]) UK Telegraph, 18 August 2017; New York Times, 28 August 2017; Serwer, ‘The Myth of the Kindly General Lee’.

[10]) Maurice, Sir Frederick, Robert E. Lee: The Soldier, Boston & New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925, 273. “…In surrender and defeat, as in victory, he asked himself only – what is right? To the counsellors who would have him take to the mountains and prolong a useless struggle by guerrilla warfare, he refused to listen…” Major Maurice cites General Lee, “Is it right to surrender this army? If it is right, I will take all the responsibility.”

[11]) For a good comparison and contrast of their respective overall views, refer to, Gary Gallagher, ‘Robert E. Lee Confronts Defeat’, Robert E. Lee Chapel, Washington & Lee University, (WLU), 12 October 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCLPb_bUjCE [Accessed 29 April 2009], &, Matt Atkinson, ‘Robert E. Lee Comes Home from War’, Gettysburg NPS WLS, 3 January 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVFoZFH1sLM [Accessed 2 May 2019].​ See also, Riley, Franklin L. (Ed.), General Robert E. Lee after Appomattox, McMillian Company, New York, 1922, 132. Ulysses S. Grant offered on Lee’s influence, “All the people, except a few political leaders in the South, will accept whatever he does as right and will be guided to a great extent by his example.” See, Proceedings & Debates, 2nd Session of the Seventy-First Congress, United States of America, Vol. LXXII-Part 8, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1930, 8491-2.

[12]) Davis, Susan Lawrence, Authentic History: Ku Klux Klan, 1865-77, Self-Publisher, 488 Seventh Avenue, New York, N.Y., 1924, 80-81. These four ex-Confederate junior Officers’ had been Felix G. Buchanan, John B. Kennedy, William Richardson and John B. Floyd.

[13]) Freeman, Douglas Southall, R.E. Lee: A Biography, Vol. IV, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York – London, 1935, 317, fn 70.

[14]) For a fair and balanced overview of Lee’s personality, refer to H.W. Crocker III’s, Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons in Character, Courage & Vision, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2000, particularly pages 1-29, with Thomas Connelly’s, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee & His Image in American Society, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge & London, 1977, 163-219.

[15]) For a general, contemporary description of the Klan, refer to the 14 September 1868, Philadelphia Evening Telegraph, 22 January 1869, Athens (Tennessee) Post. On a point of historical amazement, there had been Black members within the original Ku Klux Klan. Washington Willis, a Black American of Mississippi, testified under oath that he had been given the opportunity to join the Klan, but had refused and his wishes were apparently respected. He also testified he had witnessed two other Black Americans, Jefferson and Burril Willis, ride as full members of the Klan in a large party. See, Testimony Taken by the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into The Condition of Affairs in The Late-Insurrectionary States, Vol. 12, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872, 1184-85. The author can posit no explanation of the wider meaning of the evidence.

[16]) Alexander, Edward Porter, Military Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907, 602-06. Porter notes that after this conversational advice from Lee, “I had not a single word in reply. He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it, I was ashamed of having made it.” Porter related it to several Confederates with whom he’d been planning to initiate just such an escape and guerrilla war. Upon hearing Lee’s counsel, all abandoned the thought.

[17]) Davis, Burke, Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee & The Civil War, The Fairfax Press, New York, 1981 ed., 424-26; Flood, Charles Bracelen, Lee: The Last Years, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1981, 14-17.

[18]) Flood, Lee: The Last Years, 28-29; Arnold, William B., The Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry in The Closing Scenes of the War for the Maintenance of the Union: From Richmond to Appomattox, 31-32.

[19]) Sandburg, Carl, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Vol. IV, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1939, 172; Lee Family Digital Archive, (LFDA)/Robert E. Lee – Jefferson Davis, 12 April 1865 [Accessed 22 April 2019].

[20]) American Battlefield Trust Online/Primary Sources, Robert E. Lee – Jefferson Davis, 20 April 1865 [Accessed 22 April 2019]. See also Thomas, Emory M., Robert E. Lee: A Biography, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 1995, 368.

[21]) Flood, Lee: The Last Years, 46; Jones, Major Freeman E, ‘Mosby’s Rangers & Partisan Warfare’, Masters’ Thesis, John Hopkins University, Washington, D.C., 1991, 104-05. In the interim between Appomattox and his final surrender, Mosby would receive a dispatch, dated 16 April 1865, on behalf of Union Major General Hancock which read, “…It is not practicable for you to communicate with General Lee, as he is no longer in authority…further resistance on the part of your command can result in no good to the cause in which you have been engaged.” Refer to, War Reminisces by The Surgeon of Mosby’s Command, Richmond, Virginia, 1890, 174-75, by Aristides Monteiro.

[22]) Avary, Myrta Lockett, Dixie After The War: An Exposition of Social Conditions Existing in the South, During the Twelve Years Succeeding the Fall of Richmond, New York Doubleday, Page & Company, 1906, 70-71; Matt Atkinson, ‘Robert E. Lee Comes Home from War’, Gettysburg NPS WLS, 3 January 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVFoZFH1sLM [Accessed 2 May 2019].

[23]) O’Connell, Kim A., ‘Arlington’s Enslaved Saviour: Selina Gray’, Civil War Times, February 2015.

[24]) Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction at the First Session Thirty-ninth Congress, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1866, part II, 129-36. When one considers the similar context between the Lincoln-Douglass debates eight years previously, and the General’s opening and consistent emphasis on the educational status of Black Americans in Virginia at the time and reading his testimony holistically, it becomes clear that Lee was ‘opening the door’ to Black Americans being granted the franchise.

[25]) All of these historians have read out of context, and without the opening emphasis on education, the line in Lee’s Congressional Testimony, “…My own opinion is, that, at this time [Black Americans] cannot vote intelligently...”, and omit his preceding statement, “…If it should be plain to [Virginia] that [Black Americans] will vote properly and understandingly, she might admit them to vote.” His order to Richard Ewell on 27 March 1865 strongly imply his support for would-be national Black Confederate soldiers to receive the vote, “…their rights and privileges dependent in law and order as obligations upon others as upon theirselves…”See, Library of Congress, (LOC), Richard S. Ewell papers, Charles Marshall-Richard Ewell, 27 & 29 March 1865, as cited on https://www.historynet.com/robert-e-lee-on-black-troops-and-the-confederacy-february-1998-civil-war-times-feature.html [Accessed 1 April 2020]. Douglas Southall Freeman noted Lee’s willingness to support Black enfranchisement when Virginia’s Reconstruction-era constitution was re-drafted. See, R.E. Lee: A Biography, Vol. IV, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York-London, 1943, 315. Along with the 7 May 1868 entry in the notes of William Preston Johnston, (whom held the chair of History and English Literature at Washington College in the post-war), the above evidences, prove that Lee believed in Black enfranchisement on the same terms as Abraham Lincoln, (as outlined by the latter’s 11 April 1865 speech). Refer to, Gallagher, Gary W., Ed., Lee: The Soldier, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London, 1996, 30; LOC MS/ 14133434/E467.1.J75C7-William Preston Johnston: A Character Sketch, 1899, 18-19; Sandburg, Carl, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Vol. IV, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1939, 222.

[26]) Pryor, Elizabeth Brown, Reading The Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, Penguin Books, 2007, 454; LFDA/Robert E. Lee – W.H.F. Lee, 9 July 1860; Lee – George W.C. Lee, 4 & 19 January 1862; Lee – Mary Lee, 28 January & 21 December 1862 [Accessed 4 April 2020]; George G. Meade, 5 May 1865, Richmond, Va., as cited in, The Life & Letters of George Gordon Meade: Major-General, United States Army, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913, 278-79; Lee – Amanda Parks, 9 March 1866, as cited in, Lee Jr., Robert E., Recollections & Letters of General Robert E. Lee, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1905, 222-23; 29 May 1863, Liberator; 6 May 1915, Hopkinsville Kentuckian; 5 October 1929, New Zealand Evening Post; The Century Magazine, Vol. 30, May 1885, 166-67; Forehand Jr., Thomas, Ed., Robert E. Lee’s Softer Side, Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, 2007, 85, 112-16; Flood, Lee: The Last Years, 150-51.

[27]) Bradford Jr., Gamaliel, Lee: The American, Boston & New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912, 195, en 17. Refer also to https://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/blog/the-all-american-perspective/ [Accessed 9 August 2020].

[28]) Charles Marshall – General John C. Breckingridge, 21 October 1864, Official Records: War of the Rebellion, Vol. II, Series VII, 1020; McKnight, Brian D., Contested Borderlands: Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia, University of Kentucky Press, 2006, 211. While praising Breckinridge on the, “handsome success”, of the victory Saltville represented, the full text of the letter shows the Lee’s condemnation of the mistreatment of the USCT prisoners. “[General Lee] is much pained to hear of the treatment the negro prisoners are supposed to have received, and agrees with you in entirely condemning it. That a general officer should have been guilty of the crime you mention meets with his unqualified reprobation. He directs that if the officer is still in your department you prefer to bring charges against him and bring him to trial. Should he have left your department you will forward the charges to be transmitted to the Department, in order that such action may be taken as the case calls for.

[29]) See for the strike of Boston coach drivers against accepting Black Americans being employed as drivers in the 12 May 1866, Charleston Trader; the Memphis Riot of 1866 is cited in the 12 May 1866, Philadelphia Evening Telegraph, and that of 1868 in the 31 March 1868, Nashville Union & Dispatch; the race riot of Norfolk, Virginia, is outlined in the 26 April 1866, Virginia Free Press; the New Orleans race riot is well-cited in the 4 August 1866, Des Arc (Arkansas) Citizen. The 7 August 1866, Daily Phoenix, of Columbia, South Carolina, in its coverage of the New Orleans race riots described the Radical Republican policy of social equality as an intention to ignite a, “war of the races”, and in which, “…the negroes will be annihilated. The fate reserved for them under radical rule is that which the Indians encountered under the tender mercies of the Puritans.” The Richmond Whig was cited in the 9 June 1868, Staunton Spectator, that the race riots that occurred after the municipal elections in Washington, D.C., were the, “natural fruits”, of attempting to convene racial equality.

[30]) Richmond Times-Dispatch, 16 April 1905; Confederate Veteran, October 1905, 360. When Thomas Morris Chester, the only Black American war reporter for a major newspaper on either side during the war, sat in the Confederate White House in conquered-Richmond to document notes for the Philadelphia Press, he was attacked by a White, Confederate Officer. To this assault, Chester delivered a thrashing upon his would-be assailant. Refer to Coffin, Charles, The Boys of ’61, or, Four Years of Fighting: Personal Observations with the Army & Navy, Boston: Estes & Lauriat, 1885, 519, and, Blackett, R.J.M., Thomas Morris Chester: Black Civil War Correspondent, His Dispatches from the Virginia Front, Da Capo Press, 1989, 41-42. Even Pryor would concede that Lee had long defied the custom of segregated worship. See, Reading The Man, 454.

[31]) Library of Congress, (LOC), Richard S. Ewell papers, Charles Marshall-Richard Ewell, 27 March 1865, as cited on https://www.historynet.com/robert-e-lee-on-black-troops-and-the-confederacy-february-1998-civil-war-times-feature.html [Accessed 1 April 2020]. The fuller scope of the order provides insurmountable evidence that General Lee had come to accommodate far more progressive views of Black Americans, “When a negro is willing, and his master objects, there would be less objection to compulsion, if the state has the authority. It is however of primary importance that the negroes should know that the service is voluntary on their part. As to the name of the troops, the general thinks you cannot do better than consult the men themselves. His only objection to calling them colored troops was that the enemy had selected that designation for theirs. But this has no weight against the choice of the troops and he recommends that they be called colored or if they prefer, they can be called simply Confederate troops or volunteers. Everything should be done to impress them with the responsibility and character of their position, and while of course due respect and subordination should be exacted, they should be so treated as to feel that their obligations are those of any other soldier and their rights and privileges dependent in law & order as obligations upon others as upon theirselves. Harshness and contemptuous or offensive language or conduct to them must be forbidden and they should be made to forget as soon as possible that they were regarded as menials. You will readily understand however how to conciliate their good will & elevate the tone and character of the men…

[32]) The argument of Andy Hall, https://www.civilwarmonitor.com/blog/fantasizing-lee-as-a-civil-rights-pioneer [Accessed 1 April 2020], that the General’s actions in the ‘Church story’, ought be read in the as Lee attempting to make a public spectacle of the Black American, will be challenged in the forthcoming article, ‘Made To Forget They Were Regarded As Menials’, by G.E. Lefurgy.

[33]) LFDA/Lee – Washington College Trustee Board, 24 August 1865 [Accessed 24 April 2019].

[34]) Philadelphia Press, 12 June 1865. Chester would write perhaps the most historically significant testament of the General’s heroism of any of Lee’s contemporaries in his 16 April 1865 copy. Refer to, ‘Respect Across The Bows: The Journalist & The General’, by G.E. Lefurgy, https://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/blog/respect-across-the-bows/ [Accessed 1 April 2020].

[35]) LFDA/Lee – Pierre G.T. Beauregarde, 3 October 1865 [Accessed 27 April 2019].

[36]) Riley, General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox, 129-30; Flood, Lee: The Last Years, 183-85; Thomas, Robert E. Lee, 389; Richmond Dispatch, 13 May 1868; Alexandria Gazette, 16 May 1868; Orange Court House Native Virginian, (OCHNV), 22 May 1868. It seems that the shooting incident had been preceded by a General Frazier protesting to a group of Black Americans in Lexington of the discriminatory treatment they received, including, but not limited to, being forced to give way to White Americans in public thoroughfares. Brockenbrough’s son, wife and other White women had passed a group of Black Americans, the latter who refused to yield way. After seeing the women in his company to home, the younger Brockenbrough had returned to the Black Americans and was subsequently shot. Griffin would eventually serve two years’ incarceration for this episode on what Thomas has described as, ‘questionable legal manoeuvres’, but these and the above social discriminations were neither the creation or within the personal control of Robert E. Lee. The General’s public words and actions stand in direct contrast to what the Klan would regard as, ‘negro domination/equality in the South and/or North’. See, OCHNV, 8 May 1868.

[37]) While posted on the Texas frontier in the 1850s, Lee had written poorly of the Comanche nation, and by inference, all Aboriginals, “…riding in and out of Camp all day. Their paint & ornaments making them more hideous than nature made them, & the whole race is extremely uninteresting.” LFDA/Lee – Mary Lee, 12 April 1856 [Accessed 2 April 2020]. And, “These people give a world of trouble to man and horse, and, poor creatures, they are not worth it.” Lee – Mary Lee, 25 August 1856, as cited in, Jones, Rev. William J., Life & Letters of Robert E. Lee: Soldier & Man, New York & Washington, The Neale Publishing Company, 1906, 80. Colonel Ely Samuel Parker would belie Horace Porter’s well-known account that at Appomattox surrender on 9 April 1865, Lee would apparently regard Parker with silent, racial indifference, offering his hand to Parker with respect. “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker would clasp the General’s hand in return and state, “We are all Americans.” Refer to Porter, Horace, Campaigning with Grant, New York, The Century Co., 1906, 481, and, Parker, Arthur C., The Life of Ely S. Parker, Buffalo, New York, Buffalo Historical Society, 1919, 133.

[38]) Robertson Jr., James I., Stonewall

Gerald Lefurgy

Gerald Lefurgy is an independent scholar living in Australia with ties to the Echoes of Time Museum in Buffalo, NY.

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