“It’s the End of the World As We Know It”: Lee on Race and Emancipation

My research into Confederate reactions to the presence of USCTs at the Crater leaves little doubt that one of their primary fears was that defeat would lead to the overturning of a slave society.  From their perspective this outcome had nothing at all to do with slave ownership and had everything to do with losing control of a society where the institution of slavery guaranteed the continued separation of the races along with its well-entrenched hierarchy.  The archival record is very clear on this and Chandra Manning’s new book on Civil War soldiers and slavery confirms it. 

While the discussion of race and slavery within the ranks has been given new life in recent historical studies, Robert E. Lee’s own racial outlook continues to suffer at the hands of people who draw overly simplistic distinctions or who fail to place Lee within the proper social-economic context.  Luckily we have Lee himself who makes it very clear in a letter to Secretary of War James A. Seddon on the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The letter was written on January 10, 1863:

In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leave 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.

While the letters written by soldiers in the ANV who experienced the fight at the Crater were understandably much more emotional, Lee’s letter touches on the main themes.  Battlefield defeat for Lee meant nothing less than an overturning of the Southern racial hierarchy, and one can assume that his reference to "pollution" has something to do with miscegenation or at least a fear of more liberal rules governing the interaction of the races. 

The acknowledgment of such a racial outlook does nothing to my personal view of Lee since I am not invested in any specific moral image.  He is a figure from the past who held views about slavery and race which corresponded to widely held assumptions. 

Nothing surprising about that.

4 comments… add one
  • Chris Paysinger May 11, 2007 @ 15:45

    I wade into the Lee waters with much trepidation. I’m no expert and personally care little for Lee.(meaning I don’t have dog in this fight…I live in the Western Theatre!!) But what Kevin(and Chandra Manning) raise are interesting points. For me, it would wholly change my preception of Lee’s actions…and his legacy if he held out at Petersburg, etc. purely in an effort to keep the racial status quo. As Jim points out, Lee held no more disparate views on race than did any typical white Southerner, or Northerner. But it does convalute and muddy the waters of Lee’s historical context and memory if Manning’s assertions are true..

  • Kevin Levin May 11, 2007 @ 15:01

    G.T. — Thanks for the positive feedback re: the banner, which I’ve been wanting to do for quite some time. I am still fiddling with the parameters and text so it will probably change. Actually, I didn’t want the picture to be so fuzzy, but I can’t seems to find a way to expand without it.

    Jim, — I think most historians would agree that the Emancipation Proclamation was first and foremost a military order designed to help win the war. Of course, that doesn’t preclude the fact that Lincoln was morally against slavery from very early in his life – at least that is what most Lincoln historians would say.

  • Jim May 11, 2007 @ 14:32

    what may or may not be surprising to some is that white men of position regardless of region during the time held similar views on miscegenation. this leads me to believe that Lincoln’s proclamation was more of a punitive war strategy similar to how the English freed slaves as they came across them in the Revolutionary War.

    also interesting to note how individual views changed from prior to, during, and after the war. I was just reading how prior to the war Grant wrote about the returns he could expect from a slave given to his wife by her father. afterwards, Grant said that once slavery (i.e. the South) attacked the North, that slavery had to go. very widely held beliefs indeed.

  • GreenmanTim May 11, 2007 @ 13:09

    Kevin, this may not be the right post on which to share this comment, but I love the symbolism in your new banner. Aged veterans of Pickett’s charge at the 50th reunion, isn’t it? And distorted to fit the parameters of the page. Lovely.

    Although the Elvis to Lee bookends of Clyde Broadway’s “Trinity would be my second choice, provided he would agree to the subversion his artwork in this way. 😉

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