Book Review: The Lost Indictment Of Robert E. Lee

The Lost Indictment Of Robert E. Lee, by John Reeves

It is unusual, perhaps even remarkable, that despite the fact that Robert E. Lee was widely recognized as a heroic figure in the Civil War (despite choosing the wrong side), that it took more than 100 years after the Civil War for his various legal limitations to be removed by the efforts of Congress and the signature of then President Ford.  This book is a detailed look at the course of the indictment for treason that Lee faced after the Civil War and why it is that the case is so rarely known and why it was that the desire of radicals (and President Andrew Johnson) to punish Lee and other prominent rebels after the Civil War fell through.  It should be noted that the author is very heavy handed about his subject matter, pointing out that it is only in the statue-destroying contemporary period that mainstream American society has started to turn on Robert E. Lee, especially because of Lee’s less than contemporary appealing views on race, although they would have been moderate by the standard of the South at the time.  My own views of Lee are somewhat complex, but I did generally appreciate this book.

This particular book is about 200 pages and contains 11 chapters and a couple of appendices.  The author begins with acknowledgements and a re-evaluation of Robert E. Lee as a general and as a gentleman.  After that the author begins with Lee’s determination not to flee in the aftermath of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant’s army (1), along with with the hostility of many Northerners to Lee and other Confederate leaders in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination (2), with the belief that Lee and others were guilty of what would be considered war crimes (3).  After that there is the question of when the case will begin, a question that would become increasingly problematic as 1865 turned into 1868 and Andrew Johnson faced efforts to impeach and convict him for obstructing the Radical Republican agenda, which left little time and attention by the chief justice and others to put Lee on trial (4).  Lee applied for a pardon (5), even as others criticized his efforts to re-enslave Union black soldiers (6), and thought that Lee would be fit for the gallows as a reminder of the horrors of treason (7).  The author then examines the story of Lee’s whipping of female escaped slaves (8) in the context of concerns about the justice that ex-rebels would receive in court (9), as well as Lee’s death as a prisoner of war on parole (10), and the desire for justice on the part of blacks that was largely thwarted in the postwar period (11).  The book closes with two appendices, an interview with Lee by the New York Herald (A), and a letter from Richard Dana about the logistics of trying rebel leaders for treason (B).

This is by no means a perfect book–the author is a bit repetitive and heavy-handed for that.  It is also very clear that the author wishes to do justice by black Americans during Lee’s time, be it the slaves that Lee inherited from his father-in-law and sought to profit from as much as possible through hiring them out, the black Union soldiers that were denied the honor that they were do because it was contrary to the debased racial culture of the Confederacy, or postwar blacks who struggled to rise in freedom in the face of the Southern refusal to consider their loss in the Civil War as meaning that their ideal of racial superiority was to be rejected.  By pointing to the idealism of contemporary Republicans (although admittedly I am no particular friend of radicalism), the author manages to avoid judging the past by the standards of the present by pointing out that there were more enlightened views at the time, and that the question of mercy and judgment is a difficult one and always has been.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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