The Last Battle Of The Civil War: United States Versus Lee, 1861-1883, by Anthony J. Gaughan
In several ways, the title of this book can be a bit misleading to the casual reader, in that the title is meant to grab attention, but does so in a way that disguises the actual contents of the book. For example, the battle being alluded to in the book’s title is a legal battle over whether George Washington Custis Lee, the eldest son of Robert E. Lee, was due compensation for the seizure of his family home in order to make the Arlington National Cemetery. The case itself was not named United States versus Lee at the beginning of the case, because the federal government claimed sovereign immunity, and the only way to pierce that shield was to sue the responsible federal employees who stood in for the government in order to allow for legal tests of the constitutionality of the behavior of government administrations, and only became known by its name when the federal government appealed the decision of Lee vs Kaufman, Strong, et al to the Supreme Court. Additionally, the lawsuit itself only began in 1877 after Lee had exhausted all of the other remedies readily available, and preferable. Nevertheless, even if the title provokes more questions than it answers, and requires a great deal of explanation, the book itself is a worthwhile and deeply thought-provoking history about a legal case of great importance and high drama, heightened because it was a narrow 5-4 majority deciding that the federal government could be sued for ejectment even by a citizen who had rebelled against the United States government and that this act did not forfeit the right to be compensated for the taking of property. The author, perhaps somewhat hyperbolically, states that this case was a landmark in promoting sectional reconciliation, and that it represented a triumph of the rule of law over the rule of men, but the reader can judge for themselves the extent to which this is the case.
The contents of the book are interesting for those who enjoy reading legal histories . For a reader with an interest in important Supreme Court decisions dealing with deeply divided courts and cases that dragged on for decades because they were symbolic of matters greater than the straightforward merits of the case, this book presents a solid example of a case where the political context threatened to overturn what was a simple and straightforward matter of justice on the merits of the case itself. The book is organized chronologically, beginning with an acknowledgements section and a chronology of the Arlington case, and then containing nine chapters in slightly under 200 pages of written material (before the extensive notes, bibliography, and index) that deal with the context of the Lee family claim to the Arlington property, which was owned by Robert E. Lee’s wife as the heir of her father, the fact that the government was obviously a party of interest in the dispute over the property, the historical context of how the land was seized for the nonpayment of an unconstitutional property tax of piddling amount and then used in such a fashion that the family would not be able to ever claim residency over the land ever again by serving as a graveyard and as a freedman’s village, and then spends a great deal of time discussing the course of Lee’s appeals in Congress and then the court system, the legal strategies of both sides, the importance of the people who were judges in determining whether Custis Lee got a fair trial, and the implications of the case and its decision for the future of the United States in the short term, where sectional reconciliation trumped racial reconciliation, and in the long term where a strong defense of the rule of law made it possible, eventually, to overturn unjust discrimination.
In many ways, the case discussed in this book was not the last battle of the Civil War because in some ways the war continues to go on. Our nation is still divided as a result of the larger context, and the questions of the Civil War and its aftermath—the powers that the federal government has during wartime, the relationship between the people and their local, state, and national governments, the relationships of branches of the government, the fact that rule of law often depends on the behavior of corrupt and usually unaccountable judges—are still questions of importance today. This is not even to mention the problems of sectionalism and racial politics that continue to exist today. And without having sympathy either for treachery or rebellion or the racial domination of Southern elites, of which George Washington Custis Lee was one, one can (and should) have a sense of empathy for Lee as a property holder seeking to defend his right to be compensated for what the government took away from him, all the more so because he was a timid and diffident man who hated the hostile attention his family name drew in the postbellum world and said, in a revealing quote toward the end of his life, that he had never known any day of fun. Still, his successful lawsuit against the federal government for the seizure of his family’s strategically located estate helped make it clear that even traitors were worthy of just compensation for the seizure of their property by the government, and that is a right worth celebrating, even given the context. The author does a stellar job at presenting the legal maneuvers of this case and making it both comprehensible and compelling to those who have an interest in history as well as constitutional law.
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