I am really sorry to have missed last weekend’s “Years of Anguish” event in Fredericksburg organized by John Hennessy and including Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, and Jeff McClurken. Apparently, at some point during his presentation Gallagher commented on Lee’s views on slavery and emancipation with a reference to his January 10, 1863 message to James Seddon:
In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. Lee, General.
It’s a well-known quote, but is it about emancipation or was Lee referring to a series of orders issued in western Virginia the previous November by Union General Robert H. Milroy? Hennessy clearly believes that Lee was referring to the recent signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In a series of comments, however, fellow blogger John Cummings pushes for the Milroy interpretation. Cummings gives it a pretty good shot, but in the end his counter-interpretation fails to convince. He opens with some broad strokes about how the sesquicentennial is influencing historians:
Allow me to first restate how I find it baffling that people 150 years removed from an incident, motivated by there own determinations, can second-guess the editors of the original collection of the Official Records and feel comfortable in doing so. I see this as massaging history. There is an obvious effort, or at least desire, to “discover” such new interpretation during the Sesquicentennial years, to codify conveniently to revised societal constraints. It is easy to take written words and interpret into them ones own desires when no accompanying document can dispel it. Such systemization has become routine when driving home an agenda. Insist that everything is about one thing and all things become that thing, no matter how contrived…. It is a stretch to suggest that Lee would have vented his spleen against the Emancipation Proclamation as late as January 10, 1863 when the Preliminary Emancipation, and all it implied, had been in place since September 22, 1862.
Someone is going to have to check this, but I seem to remember Shelby Foote quoting the passage in volume 2 of his Civil War trilogy and as we all know that was written quite a long time ago. To suggest that Civil War historians have only recently interpreted that passage as a reference to emancipation seems a bit of a stretch. The problem, of course, is that the claim is a non-starter and I would suggest that if you are going to offer a counter-explanation stick to it and make the best case possible.
However, it’s the final sentence that grabbed my attention and I am at a loss to explain it. You can spend the rest of your life reading private correspondence and newspaper editorials throughout the Confederacy in early January 1863 on the dangers of emancipation, but somehow we are to believe that this would have been too late for Lee. Why? Cummings never explains this point.
Now I am the first person to admit that Cummings may be right, though I don’t believe he has made the case for his preferred interpretation. Let me approach this from a slightly different angle and I don’t mean in any way to pick on Cummings, but I want to know if he or anyone else for that matter believes that the passage reflects Lee’s thinking surrounding slavery and race.
It certainly dovetails with much of what you will read from various private and public sources at this time. More importantly, however, the passage is perfectly consistent with the historical record surrounding his views on these matters before, during, and especially after the war. In fact, given the work that historians have done on Lee over the past few decades, the above passage – as interpreted in reference to the EP – isn’t even that interesting when it comes to understanding the vast majority of southern slave holders. It’s a broken record.
Lee like others new exactly what was at stake come January 1, 1863. The EP brought the white South [slave and nonslave owner alike] one step closer to “degradation worse than death”. For Lee it led directly to supporting a proposal to arm slaves to salvage as much of their antebellum social and racial hierarchy. He didn’t have to reference Lincoln and the EP specifically. Seddon and anyone else for that matter would have known exactly what concerned Lee.