Robert E. Lee:

Better Peace Keeper than General?


With his army virtually surrounded near Appomattox, Virginia in April 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War. Grant's terms were generous: Lee and his men would be allowed to keep their pistols and horses and return home as free men. After reading the terms to his emotional troops, Lee told them, "Men, we have fought the war together, and I have done the best I could for you ... be good citizens as you have been good soldiers." Lee intended to resume his life as a good citizen of the United States. Instead, a federal court indicted him for treason.

When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated just weeks after the surrender, Lee was an obvious scapegoat for Northerners who wanted vengeance against the South. Ironically, it was Lee's battlefield nemesis, U.S. Grant, who came to his rescue. Grant threatened to resign unless President Andrew Johnson honored the terms of the surrender. Johnson withdrew the charges of treason.

The post-war Robert E. Lee never gave Northerners cause for alarm. He cooperated with federal Reconstruction policies to reorganize the Southern states, even if he did not agree with them, and advised his fellow Southerners to do the same. His example of grace in defeat is often credited with preventing a guerrilla war by defiant Southerners.

In 1866, he was appointed president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, where he moved his family and made his first real home since before the war. But, Lee never officially regained his civil rights as a citizen of the United States. At least not until 1975 (105 years after his death), when Congress pardoned him for his role in the Civil War.


Copyright 2001-, Terry Muse
Revised: December 9, 2001
Contact: Terry Muse