Memory  /  Argument

After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee Led the Charge for Reconciliation

Lee should not be defined not only by his time as a Confederate general, but also by his actions after the war was over.
Jan Kronsell/Wikimedia Commons

All the statues of Robert E. Lee in Confederate uniform fail to convey one critical point: He was more than that. After Appomattox, Lee turned from being a leader in war to a leader of peace. As I found in examining his religious convictions, he became — largely because of his faith — the South’s preeminent exponent of reconciliation. That, I believe, is why he needs to be remembered, but in a different way.

Just before surrendering, Lee began seeking peace. Some aides proposed fighting an ISIS-style guerrilla war. Lee had none of it.

“The Confederacy has failed,” he told them. “As Christian men, … we must consider only the effect which our actions will have upon the country at large.”

If his men could return home “quietly and quickly” they could “plant crops & begin to repair the rages of the war. That is what I must now try to bring about.”

Realistically, yet faithfully, he looked to the future.

Like many, Lee had believed the Confederacy could win only if God so willed. It lost. He connected the dots.

“God has thought fit to afflict us most deeply & his chastening hand is not yet stayed,” Lee, an active Episcopalian, wrote in May 1865, to a priest in Petersburg. “We have only to submit to his gracious will & pray for his healing mercy.”

That meant seeking genuine peace, “that the afflictions & interests of the country may be united and not a forced & hollow truce formed, to be broken at the first convenient opportunity. To this end all good men should labour.”