Sunday, December 20, 2020

Was Robert E. Lee a traitor?

In a 19 December 2020 post titled They’re Carting Robert E. Lee Out of the U.S. Capitol and It’s About Damn Time , Sophia Nelson writes The state [Virginia] has revered traitors Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others The idea of Robert E. Lee as traitor was also expressed in an April 27, 2019 post by Nelson Trump’s ‘Great General’ Robert E. Lee Was a Traitor and a Bad Person which included the text Until 1862, that is, when he turned traitor and gave up his commission in the US Army for a stint as commanding general of the “Confederate States of America” after South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina in April 1861, as an act of war. A devoted son of Virginia, Lee returned home and took up arms against the United States of America whose Constitution he had sworn to protect and defend. What Trump does not get is that but for the grace of President Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and their whole posse should have been hanged for treason.

As a first point, whether or not Robert E. Lee was a traitor to the United States of America depends on whether or not it was legal to secede in 1860-1861, a point which was undecided at the time. If secession were legal, Lee was not a traitor.

As a second point, Sophia Nelson makes factual errors in the above-quoted text. points out that Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on April 20, 1861 (not in 1862) and Lee took a position in the Virginia state militia, not in the Confederate army: [On April 20, 1861] Colonel Robert E. Lee resigns from the United States army two days after he was offered command of the Union army and three days after his native state, Virginia, seceded from the Union. (...) Two days later, Lee was appointed commander of Virginia’s forces with the rank of major general. He spent the next few months raising troops in Virginia, and in July he was sent to western Virginia to advise Confederate commanders struggling to maintain control over the mountainous region.

If secession were legal, Lee was a citizen of the state of Virginia, but not of the United States, on April 20, 1861. Lee took command of Virginia forces, and was not, at that time, "commanding general of the Confederate States of America." Lee would take command of the Army of Northern Virginia during the battle of the Seven Days in 1862. He was not "commanding general of the Confederate States of America" at that time either.

If anyone of the "whole posse" merited being charged with treason, it would have been the completely unrepentant Jefferson Davis. Although it is true that Abraham Lincoln urged a forgiving policy to Confederate officials, Lincoln was dead by the time Jefferson Davis was indicted for treason. It was Salmon Chase who gave Davis a rather contrived defense, and Davis was neither tried nor convicted of treason. Chase was concerned that the full Supreme Court might find merit to the "not a citizen" defense, which would effectively validate secession. Ironically, the ardent abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens was willing to defend Jefferson Davis, exactly on that basis. The United States of America had an opportunity to convict Davis and/or Lee of treason while they were alive in the time after 1865. This was not done. To "convict" them more than 150 years later is inappropriate. Additionally, it is disturbing that Sophia Nelson got so many facts wrong in her argument.

The choice of what statues to send to the Capitol to represent the state of Virginia is a different matter. But that choice should not be based on incorrect facts. The timeline of what Robert E. Lee did is well-defined.


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