Robert E. Lee on Robert H. Milroy or Emancipation

Lincoln Writing the Proclamation of Freedom

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.

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44 comments… add one
  • Hardwicke Benthow Aug 25, 2020 @ 12:05

    There’s one part of the letter that I’m surprised that no one has examined as evidence in this debate. Specifically, it’s this part:

    “In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy”

    It stands to reason that the only way that the letter could be referring to Milroy is if Milroy’s forces in particular (that is to say, the soldiers in his commend) had recently vastly increased. If Milroy’s forces had not vastly increased shortly before the letter, then it stands to reason that Lee is referring to the Union army as a whole and its commander-in-chief Abraham Lincoln (the latter of which would be the “he” who has “proclaimed” the policy that so disturbed Lee, if this was the case). It’s even possible that the “vast increase of the forces of the enemy” that he refers to are the emancipated slaves themselves, which he mentions in the same sentence as the “savage and brutal policy”, and without an “and” between them (possibly implying that they are one and the same).

  • joeryancivilwar Aug 14, 2018 @ 10:08

    Please, it is obvious from the circumstances of January 1863 that, contrary to Gallagher’s BS, Lee was not referring to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but to Milroy’s assessments orders, as the “savage and brutal policy. It is a no-brainer. First, there is nothing objectively “savage and brutal” about the fact the proclamation deems Africans to be “free” who come within the Union army lines. Second, someone should pay attention to the fact that the O.R. editor inserts an asterisk after the phrase “savage and brutal policy” in the supposed letter of Lee to Seddon, and points the reader to the several letters found at pp. 7-17 of Series III, letters between Seddon and Lee, Davis and Lee, Imboden and Lee, and Lee and Halleck, all written on or about January 10, 1863 and all dealing with Milroy’s assessment orders. Let’s get real here.

  • Dudley Bokoski Nov 27, 2011 @ 6:05

    Lee is probably referring to Milroy’s proclamations specifically and the Emancipation Proclamation in general terms. I think if you step through all the correspondence in the O.R. from around January 10 it is hard to fault the editors for associating the letter to Seddon with the Milroy correspondence.

    If you chase down all the cross references in the O.R. coming out of the original letter to Seddon you eventually get to these instructions “By order of Brig. Gen. R. H. Milroy:”

    “If they fail to pay at the end of the time you have named, their houses will be burned and themselves shot and their property all seized; and be sure that you carry out this threat rigidly and show them that you are not trifling or to be trifled with.

    You will inform the inhabitants for ten or fifteen miles around your camp, on all the roads approaching the town upon which the enemy may approach, that they must dash in and give you notice, and that upon failure of any one to do so their houses will be burned and the men shot.”

    Which seems to fairly match Lee’s description and lines up neatly with a letter of the same day to Imboden to surpress as much as possible Milroy’s cruelties (which immediately follows this one) and to Halleck protesting the policy described (see above). Within the state government there was much excitement at the time also regarding the requirement for citizens in the occupied territory to submit to the new state government in West Virginia and for some to take loyalty oaths.

    That said, I think context requires also to consider (as does Hennessy) the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1. In addition, (although it is questionable if Lee knew of it) Milroy had issued a proclamation on January 5 titled “Freedom to Slaves” which notified citizens of Winchester of the Emancipation Proclamation and adjoined against interference with its execution.

    Finally, I think Lee’s letter was also written out of frustration in the aftermath of Fredericksburg, because so many people in the South thought the war was about over. In the South there was a popular theory that because of rises n the price of gold the Union would not be able to sustain the war much longer financially.

    In any case, an interesting discussion.

    Philosophically, a Southerner in 1861 would likely have regarded both the freeing of slaves and violations of the rules of war as terrorist tactics against civilians. Obviously Emancipation was not that at all, but to the minds of people who remembered the John Brown raid at Harper’s Ferry there had to have been a great fear of what would happen after liberation.

  • Dudley Bokoski Nov 26, 2011 @ 18:23

    I should have also said the * is immediately after the word “proclamation”,

  • Dudley Bokoski Nov 26, 2011 @ 18:15

    There is one thing missing from the quote. In the O.R. after “..of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed…” there is an asterisk *. At the bottom of page 1086 in Series I., Vol. 21, where the letter is published, the asterisk refers the reader to “See Lee to Seddon, same data, Series III.”

    In Series III, Volume 3, Page 11 we find the letter of Lee to Seddon. It reads:

    SIR: In view of the atrocious orders issued by the Federal General Milroy, with regard to citizens of the Valley District, I would respectfully recommend that prisoners from his command captured by our forces be not exchanged, but that they be held as hostages for the protection of our people again the outrages which he is reported to be committing.

    It appears to me the “..savage and brutal policy proclaimed” is linked in the second letter to Milroy’s orders regarding civilians in the Valley District.

    As Roger Maris fans know, the asterisk makes all the difference.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 27, 2011 @ 2:48

      John Cummings has already made that point, but John Hennessy has suggested that the reference to the earlier letter is mistaken. I will say once again that I believe Lee had much on his mind at the beginning of Jan. 1863, including Milroy.

  • Rick Britton Nov 24, 2011 @ 11:30


    The O.R. is searchable online. After reading the paragragh just prior to the one quoted, it’s pretty obvious Lee was talking about getting the white shirkers and deserters back into the Confederate ranks. It reads as follows: “The people of the Confederate States have it in their power to prevent a recurrence of these misfortunes, and render less remote the termination of this desolating war. . . . They must put forth their full strength at once. Let them hear the appeal of their defenders for help, and drive into the ranks, from very shame, those who will not heed the dictates of honor and patriotism. Let the State authorities take the matter in hand, and see that no man able to bear arms be allowed to evade his duty.”

    • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2011 @ 11:40

      Nice to hear from you, Rick. Yes, I have read the entire note. The military implications of the EP must have been clear to Lee at the beginning of 1863 and the need to for everyone to make the necessary sacrifices to bring the war to an end. That Lee would address desertion is not surprising at all. Like I said, he was taking in the broad picture as he saw it in Jan. 1863.

      • John Cummings Nov 24, 2011 @ 19:17

        Kevin, once again, I must ask, what is it that makes you certain this refers to the Emancipation Proclamation? You have dismissed the use of the word “proclaimed” as evidence. So, the weight must all rest on the insistence of “pollution” as a reference to race mixing, and that is a real leap of faith on your part. The words are, “if we would save the honor of our families from pollution”. Their family honor, disrespected. No other document in this group, which all contain clear reference to Milroy’s disrespect to the civilian population, have reference to the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet the absence of the name “Milroy” in this one instance removes any association to him and his policies? Where are the references to the Emancipation Proclamation in the other documents?
        Interestingly, it is said that somewhere around fifty percent of the Custis family slaves, all of which Lee released from bondage in the last days of December 1862, were of mixed race. There is extensive evidence that the Custis men had been having relations with their female slaves for many years. Is Lee attacking his in-laws actions? Does he consider them guilty of “polluting” the family honor as you would imply? Would he go that far? Is it reasonable that his comfort level would let him essentially attack his own family? People who value family honor wouldn’t. He’s not.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 25, 2011 @ 2:40


          Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving. I still don’t understand the logic behind the assumption that because Lee did not explicitly reference the EP in a previous note that he cannot implicitly reference it in his Jan. 10 correspondence with Seddon. Ken Noe has already pointed out that the use of the word “pollution” was often used in the context of race and miscegenation. I’ve already laid out where I stand on this issue. You are free to reject it based on your considerations. Like I said, historians often disagree about how to interpret evidence.

          Finally, I don’t really understand your final point about Lee and the Custis family slaves.

          • John Cummings Nov 25, 2011 @ 4:01

            Kevin, please forgive me for being remiss in my social graces last night. Yes, I had a very enjoyable Thanksgiving and I trust you did as well.

            I appreciate Ken Noe’s mentioning of the periodic use of the word “pollution” in references to race mixing, it is a valid reference, but not one that can be concretly applied in this instance.

            My point about the Custis family slaves is that it would be odd, to my mind, that something that was so undoubtably obvious to Lee himself, that his family was quite active in race mixing, that he would make a general indictment of a fear for southern society as a whole, when it was such a blatant part of the lives of those he held so dear.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 25, 2011 @ 4:06

              No apology necessary. Thanks.

              it is a valid reference, but not one that can be concretely applied in this instance.

              I believe it can, though I admit that I may be wrong. As I mentioned my interpretation of this document is based as much on Lee’s own words as it is on the public and private correspondence that you can find at this particular point.

              I don’t really know what to make of your final point. Based on my reading of Lee’s correspondence as well as numerous biographies (most notably Elizabeth Brown Pryor) his views on race and slavery fit neatly into the mainstream. He believed in white supremacy and a need to keep the races separate and his references to “God’s time” suggests that Lee believed in slavery’s continued existence.

  • John Cummings Nov 21, 2011 @ 3:19

    The line is “save the honor of our families from pollution”, not “save the families from pollution”. Family honor means their good name and reputation. Lee’s reference here has nothing to do with miscegenation. He is speaking of disrespect and destruction of the privileged society, not their racial purity.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2011 @ 3:26

      Ken pointed out that “pollution” was often used in the context of miscegenation and the end of slavery. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that Milroy was not on Lee’s mind, but that does not necessarily preclude an interpretation that acknowledges the recent publication of the EP given Lee’s own words.

      • John Cummings Nov 21, 2011 @ 3:48

        How does it not preclude it? If the the reference is to Milroy’s orders, etc. as being the “savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed”, and the suggestion of miscegenation has now been removed (as far as I am concerned) by my previous comment about family honor, what remains to suggest there is anything to do with the Emancipation Proclamation? Lee is concerned about the immediate need to have sufficient numbers to meet the growing incursion in the Valley, as well as all fronts. By not having the military strength to remove Milroy from the Valley, he sees the conditions the citizens would endure as unconscionable. Again, he appeals not only to his own government for a sollution, he writes to the General-in-Chief of the Union army to complain. This document is one of several, all dealing with the same theme, and nothing to do with a reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation. This entire argument is nothing but a lesson in semantics.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2011 @ 3:54


          Lee doesn’t mention Milroy or the Valley once in the letter so you are in the same boat as the rest of us. You are assuming that this letter is all about Milroy and the Valley. Given that on more than one occasion Lee had written about Milroy’s operations why would he need to write another one?

          This entire argument is nothing but a lesson in semantics.

          If by semantics you mean a study of the meaning/interpretation of the words used than yes that is exactly what this is. That’s what historians do. In this case there are a number of key words/phrases that point to a concern surrounding the EP.

          • John Cummings Nov 21, 2011 @ 4:11

            What are they? What are these “key words/phrases? Why is it not logical that he would continue in numerous letters to different people, the same topic? Where is the logic that this would have anything to do with the Emancipation Proclamation? How are you validating this interpretation? The only way you can go that route is to seize upon the word “proclaimed”, and that is extremely weak and easily dismissed. Is it logical that he would refer to the Emancipation Proclamation as “savage and brutal”? Isn’t it more logical he would be applying that to Milroy’s edicts against non combatants?
            Common sense tells me the editors of the Official Records would understand the connection. And they did.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2011 @ 4:17

              You continue to bring up the word “proclaimed” which no one else has done. The key phrase in the letter is “…save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction…” As I have suggested you can find plenty of references to the EP that utilize the same language, especially in the period immediately following the publication of the EP. The EP was viewed as “savage and brutal.” You have yet to offer an argument as to why we should accept the interpretation of the editors of the OR.

              • John Cummings Nov 21, 2011 @ 4:44

                I accept it because the editors of the Official Records had the original documents and could see them in their original context.
                If you are now removing the word “proclaimed” as a key word, how are you remotely able to pin “savage and brutal” to the emancipation Proclamation? It isn’t mentiond in any of the other documents. Their content demonstrates an easy application of those words to the orders of Milroy.
                I have already countered the “save the honor of our families from pollution” line in my previous comment, and now, if I must, insist that the remaining “our social system from destruction” is not a reflection of on the end of “slave society”, but a general term regarding the society in totality, in all respects.
                My “continued” reference to the word “proclaimed” as you put it, is due to the emphasis that had been placed on it as being the cloaked word for “Emancipation Proclamation” within this discussion, and on Mysteries and Conundrums.
                None of these related documents says anything relating to the Emancipation Proclamation. Why would this one have a veiled reference? It doesn’t.

                • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2011 @ 5:09

                  I accept it because the editors of the Official Records had the original documents and could see them in their original context.

                  Why should that matter? They read the very same words that we are today.

                  ...I must, insist that the remaining “our social system from destruction” is not a reflection of on the end of “slave society”, but a general term regarding the society in totality, in all respects.

                  That, of course, is your preferred interpretation, but you haven’t said anything that would prevent one from interpreting it differently. Sounds like we are at a crossroads, John.

                  • John Cummings Nov 21, 2011 @ 5:34

                    Not so much a crossroads as it is an impasse.
                    There appears to be more of a dogged determination to insist this is about the Emancipation Proclamation.
                    I think that’s reading something in to it that isn’t there.
                    My “preferred interpretation” as you put it, seeks to present history for what it was, not a convolution.
                    The language of the document is clear to me.
                    There is no further need to go around in circular logic.

                    • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2011 @ 6:04

                      Historians often disagree about the meaning of a specific document. No need to claim some kind of privileged access to Lee’s meaning. I think you’ve sketched out a reasonable interpretation that I happen to think is also incomplete.

                    • John Cummings Nov 25, 2011 @ 3:44

                      As for the editors having the original documents, I am saying thet they could see them as they would have been grouped together from the sources and with any annotation. Many times senders of correspondence kept copies of what they sent to others. As tedious a task as that might seem, hand written as it was, it was part of the record keeping process, especially when one had a secretary or aide to do the copying. This practice continued through the days of typewritten correspondence when they made carbon copies. Now everything is electronic and available by simply bringing up a file ona computer. Copies were vital to demonstrate the relationship of documents to one another. “I wrote this on blah de blah date and here is what he sent me back four days later…” Not just one end of the correspondence chain had the copies either. Both parties, especially in such official capacity, had this method of record keeping. Lee and Seddon both would have needed each end of the communication handy should their arise a need for corroboration. That is the advantage of having the original documents.

          • John Cummings Nov 21, 2011 @ 4:13

            Also, Seddon was already aware of Lee’s reference, as stated on an earlier post. Lee had already sent documents to Richmond. The subject was a matter in hand.

    • Ken Noe Nov 21, 2011 @ 6:22

      There’s a vast literature on antebellum honor, and if I understand it correctly, the ultimate threat to white family honor would be a racially mixed grandchild. So I still come back to his specific use of “pollution.” Sometimes my students encounter the phrase “peculiar institution” and come up with several different possible definitions for it, until they learn that in the antebellum south it meant one specific thing. “Pollution” I believe functioned similarly. As Kenneth Greenberg says, reading nineteenth century rhetoric sometimes requires translation.

      I’d also suggest that everyone involved in the discussion, on both sides, be wary of privileging one puzzle piece at the risk of the whole picture. As McClellan pointed out in the Harrison’s Landing letter, both emancipation and the sort of policies that Milroy would soon represent were part of a larger whole he feared, the Lincoln Administration’s clear drift toward “hard war,” as embodied eventually in supporting the western general’s civilian policies, Pope’s proclamations, the Second Confiscation Act, the Militia Act, both EPs, the sack of Fredericksburg, and finally Milroy’s activities in the Valley. The army that represented the threat of all of that was just across the Rappahannock from Lee on January 10. Sorry, I just have trouble thinking that he would divorce Milroy from a wider context he had faced at least since Pope placed his headquarters in the saddle.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2011 @ 6:29

        Good point, Ken. For a first rate analysis of that “larger whole” I highly recommend George Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!.

      • Robert Moore Nov 21, 2011 @ 6:38

        Speaking of Pope, it might be of value to take a look at what Lee wrote, late in the summer of 62, regarding Pope’s general orders, as they pertained to Virginia civilians. They most certainly raised Lee’s ire, and a comparison with what Lee wrote in January 63 might shed a little light… maybe.

  • John Cummings Nov 20, 2011 @ 2:38

    Had Lee used the word “declared”, or “ordered”, instead of “proclaimed’, we probably wouldn’t be trying to hash this out ad infinitum. It was an unfortunate choice of a word. But, one has only to look at the additional correspondence surrounding this specific letter (some written the same day) and we see his concern for Milroy expressed by name. Lee was so disturbed by Milroy’s policies toward the civilian population in the Valley that he went so far as to complain to Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck! Imagine that.

    January 10, 1863.

    Major General H. W. HALLECK,

    Commander-in-Chief U. S. Army, Washington, D. C.:

    GENERAL: I have the honor to transmit to you copies of two papers recently served upon Mr. Job Parsons, a citizen of Tucker County, Va., by the military authorities of the United States in that region.* The originals of these papers are now in the possession of His Excellency the President of the Confederate States, who has directed me to communicate with you on the subject.
    I am unwilling to believe that such threats against unarmed and defensless citizens as are contained in the extract from what purports to be an order from Brigadier-General Milroy have received the sanction of any soldier, and have the honor to ask whether the extract from the order referred to is literally or substantially correct.
    Should it unfortunately prove to be true. I am instructed to ask whether your Government will tolerate the execution of order so barbarous and so revolting to every principle of justice and humanity. Should you not deem it proper to respond to these inquiries it will be reluctantly assumed after the expiration of ten days from the date of this communication that the order is that of General Milroy, and that its execution will not be restrained. In that event I am directed to inform you that this Government will be completed to protect its citizens by the immediate adoption of stern retaliatory measures.

    I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

    R. E. LEE,

    On January 14, 1863, Halleck responds:

    WASHINGTON, D. C., January 14, 1863.

    General R. E. LEE,

    GENERAL: Your communication of the 10th instant, inclosing copies of two papers purporting to be signed by order of Brigadier General R. H. Milroy, in November last, is just received. Measures will be immediately taken to ascertain whether these papers are genuine, and, if so, General Milroy will be notified that his conduct in issuing them is disapproved. It is not alleged that any attempt has been made to execute them.
    The Government of the United States has not only observed the modern laws and usages of war, but through the present rebellion has refrained from exercising the severer rights recognized by the codes of civilized Europe. It has pursued this course, notwithstanding the innumerable violations of the rules of civilized warfare by its enemies.

    Nevertheless there probably have been, as there always will be, individual acts of subordinates or irresponsible persons which can not be justified, and some of which deserve punishment. All such cases, when brought to the attention of the Government, are immediately investigated and a remedy applied.

    Neither in this nor in any other matter will the course of the Government be changed by any unbecoming threats of barbarous retaliation, no matter by whom they may be made.

    Very respectfully, your obedient servant,



    Now, as for Shelby Foote and his apparent (and unfootnoted) use of the same skewed interpretation, he probably had read Henry White’s book, “Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy, 1807-1870” (published 1897) which is the apparent culprit in this argument. White siezed upon what he assumed was a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation because it fit into the Lost Cause mindset of his day.

    When taken into the context of all the surrounding material, which I present here and in my comments on the Mysteries and Conundrums blog, there is no clear indication in any way shape or form that Lee was speaking of anything to do with the Emancipation Proclamation. Everything points to his horror with Milroy’s actions, “order so barbarous and so revolting to every principle of justice and humanity”.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2011 @ 2:48

      Thanks for the comment, John. I certainly agree with you that at this time Milroy’s actions were a concern for Lee. What I find interesting, however, is that Lee specifically references Milroy in these letters and he does not in the one that is commonly referred to as having to do with emancipation. Why, according to you, is it impossible to imagine Lee commenting on the proclamation as late as Jan. 10, 1863? Do you believe that the reference reflects his concern with the maintenance of a slave society. As I suggested in my post, Lee’ letter certainly reflects much of what you can find in personal correspondence and newspaper editorials related to the proclamation and we know that Lee paid close attention to the home front.

      • John Cummings Nov 20, 2011 @ 3:33

        What I strongly doubt is that he would have waited to vent, in a manner as suggested, until January. The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had been in place since September of 1862. January 1, 1863 was just the date the Emancipation went officially into effect. Seddon already knew what Lee was talking about as he had previously sent the papers served on Mr. Job Parsons, to Richmond.
        Outside of the word “proclaimed” why would you insist he means anything other than Milroy’s orders? That is a strong leap of faith hanging on one word. And why would he throw in such an editorial comment about something he otherwise wasn’t focused on? That is all anyone has done here is latched upon the word “proclaimed” as though it could not be used for any other purpose. It is convenient to apply in this case, if one desires it, but it is not an accurate assumption. The weight of the surrounding correspondence is heavy.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2011 @ 3:41


          What I strongly doubt is that he would have waited to vent, in a manner as suggested, until January.

          I still don’t understand what this means given that you can find commentary throughout the Confederacy, both in the army and on the home front. Once again, I ask why you are treating Lee as a special case.

          Outside of the word “proclaimed” why would you insist he means anything other than Milroy’s orders?

          Actually Lee’s use of the word ‘proclaimed’ has little to do with my interpretation of the letter. Why must we accept that Lee was only focused on Milroy on January 10? We know that Lee followed the news closely and given the implications of the proclamation it seems reasonable that he would have been concerned about his ability to carry out his responsibilities as a military commander. There seems to be an assumption at work here that the proclamation and military affairs constitute two separate domains, which I believe to be a mistake.

          This is the third time that I am asking this question: Do you believe that what is stated in Lee’s Jan. 10 letter reflects his concerns about the maintenance of a slave society?

          • John Cummings Nov 20, 2011 @ 5:49

            No, he is not directly speaking of the maintenance of slave society as such. He is speaking of the sufferings he spoke of, in all the other documents of this grouping, being imposed on the citizens of the Valley. He is so disturbed by it that he has made an appeal to the General-in-Chief of the army he is fighting!
            The editors of the Official Records had no problem understanding what all this related to and the content bears it out. Jonathan A. Noyalas wrote an excellent work on Milroy, entiteld: “My Will Is Absolute Law”. It is worth reading to understand how severe Milroy’s presence was.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2011 @ 6:59

              Lee fails to mention Milroy once in the Jan. 10, 1863 letter to Seddon. Why is that? I think this is Lee taking one step back and assessing the broader picture of the war not just in Virginia but throughout the Confederacy. Given the date it is reasonable to assume that the “policy” Lee is referring to is the EP given that everyone else is focused on it as well. The EP impacted directly on Lee’s ability to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion.

            • Robert Moore Nov 20, 2011 @ 7:24

              “save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction”

              How, exactly, does anyone see, including Noyales, this portion of the statement pertains to Milroy? All the rest, I’d agree, could easily be Lee on Milroy’s actions in the Valley. Yet, this part seems to hint at something else.

              • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2011 @ 7:26

                Yes, and it is the timing of the reference that is crucial.

              • Ken Noe Nov 20, 2011 @ 13:24

                Mr. Cummings also convinces me that Lee had Milroy very much on his mind that day. The one rub is the that word “pollution,” which in the day was a polite euphemism for race-mixing. How would Milroy’s policies specifically (as opposed to the EP) otherwise promote the “pollution” of Confederate families?

                • Robert Moore Nov 20, 2011 @ 13:29

                  That’s exactly where I was going with that…

                  • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2011 @ 13:44

                    That message to Seddon reflects a general assessing the situation broadly at the beginning of a new year. Lee managed to completely re-focus the war in the East following his assumption of command, but with all his success he never lost sight of the challenges he faced. As Gary Gallagher and others have shown, Lee understood the connection between the home front and the military so it isn’t a stretch to assume that he was worried about the implications of the EP on the military situation. I also agree that the reference to “pollution” is key.

                    Once again, Lee’s choice of words fits in perfectly with the broad sentiment that one can find in personal correspondence as well as public pronouncements.

                    • Scott Manning Nov 20, 2011 @ 13:57

                      Does Lee ever use the term “pollution” in any of his other writings?

                    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2011 @ 14:07

                      I don’t believe so, Scott. I wonder if Lee decided not to explicitly mention the EP so as not to appear as if he was crossing the line between military and political policy.

                    • Scott Manning Nov 20, 2011 @ 14:13

                      I doubt if that is the case, as politics and military policies often blend, especially during the Civil War. Clausewitz would of course argue that one is an extension of the other. Either way, Lee crossed into political topics on several occasions. For example, his proclamation to the people of Maryland addresses several political issues.

                    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2011 @ 14:15

                      You may be right, Scott.

                      For example, his proclamation to the people of Maryland addresses several political issues.

                      OK, but Lee was carrying out the policy of his government.

  • Scott Manning Nov 19, 2011 @ 3:39

    Foote prefaces the quote with, “And he added, with a new note of bitterness which had come with the sack of Fredericksburg and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation…” I think this old author still have some wisdom to give us. Yes, he mentioned the Emancipation, but he coupled it with Fredericksburg, which was in shambles after the battle. Perhaps there is a happy medium in this debate. I think it is likely that Lee could have been frustrated with Milroy, with Fredericksburg, with the Emancipation, and the general state of the war. Sometimes a man just has a lot on his mind.

    Source: Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative; Fredericksburg to Meridian (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 239. The original publication was in 1963.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2011 @ 3:41

      Thanks, Scott. Unfortunately, I sold my Foote volumes before moving to Boston. They are pretty heavy.

      Perhaps there is a happy medium in this debate. I think it is likely that Lee could have been frustrated with Milroy, with Fredericksburg, with the Emancipation, and the general state of the war.

      That sounds like a reasonable interpretation to me. No need to explicitly distinguish between all three since they are all Lee’s concerns/responsibilities.

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