Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Fantasizing Robert E. Lee as a Civil Rights Pioneer

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on July 23, 2012

Have you heard the story about how, shortly after the end of the war, Robert E. Lee took communion with an African American man at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, embracing racial harmony and setting an example of Christian brotherhood between former slaves and former slaveholders?

Today’s make-believe Confederates may buy that feel-good story, but real Confederates saw Lee’s actions for what they actually were — a solemn, dignified, FFV-style “fnck you.”

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12 Responses

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  1. corkingiron said, on July 23, 2012 at 9:55 am

    That’s actually really fascinating. The “facts” of the story remain the same, but the story changes entirely. It’s the difference between explaining the past to the present and using the past to justify the present. Great find, Andy.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 23, 2012 at 10:05 am

      There’s a lot of that in the modern mythologizing of the Confederacy. In most cases, all you have to do to see through that foolishness is to go back and read what real Confederates were writing and saying at the time. Those old guys knew what they were about, and it’s willfully dishonest for their descendants to repackage those views into something more palatable to a modern audience.

  2. Forester said, on July 23, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Well … I don’t know. The facts are the same in both accounts. Neither is from the long-departed Lee himself, so we are left to wonder. It could go either way.

    Were I writing the piece, I would emphasize the mystery of it. It’s still a powerful story, and it does show that Lee had spunk and beliefs — whether they were good or bad beliefs we’ll never know, but he wasn’t the type to just sit down quietly. It’s still a good Lee story. I can’t take too much high ground here … I probably would have said the same things as Lee’s letter had I been a Virginian back then instead of today.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 23, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      As I say, I’m agnostic as to whether this happened or not. It doesn’t seem to have been recorded until 40 years after the event, and it’s (AFAIK) an uncorroborated account, which makes it problematic in terms of the historical record.

      What’s compelling to me is the difference in how Lee’s actions were seen (1) by the witness who claimed to be present, and (2) modern-day folks who use the very same, single-source story to convey an entirely different message.

      I suppose one could argue that Broun, the eyewitness to the event, was mistaken in his interpretation of both Lee’s intent and the way those actions were perceived by the rest of the congregation. But there’s nothing in Lee’s own views to suggest his reaction was anything other than what Broun describes.

  3. Sir said, on July 24, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    “Fantasizing Robert E. Lee as a Civil Rights Pioneer” – yeah real agnostic; you’re bias on the issue is quite clear from the snideness of the title alone.

    And yes, post-war, upon mature reflection, there ARE statments and actions by Lee to indicate that his reaction was NOT as what Broun describes.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 24, 2012 at 7:00 pm

      “There ARE statments and actions by Lee to indicate that his reaction was NOT as what Broun describes.”

      Which are. . . ?

    • Andy Hall said, on August 6, 2012 at 1:21 pm

      Still waiting. . . .

  4. Foxessa said, on July 25, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    As others said, this was a fascinating story as a telescope into the past.

  5. Greg Clutter said, on July 25, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    My first reaction was to say that Lee was very much a man of the times he lived in. However, that doesn’t speak to the man’s character either way, does it. What I do believe is the man spoke well, carried himself welll, treated soldiers and civillians well and generally didn’t loose his temper or calm. Very few people had a cross word to say about him, including Grant himself. So for these reasons coupled with the fact that people love to root for the under dog and love a tragedy, Lee has become golden.
    If anyone hasn’t read up on his nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, and his post Civil War career I would really suggest doing so.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 25, 2012 at 8:07 pm

      “My first reaction was to say that Lee was very much a man of the times he lived in.”

      Of the times, but also of his class and region.

  6. BorderRuffian said, on July 26, 2012 at 11:33 am

    MOOT

    “…In Richmond, Va.,…Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman, author of the prizewinning biography of Lee termed the church story in ‘The Robert E. Lee Reader’ a myth.
    ‘There is absolutely no foundation in fact for it. All my researchers show that this is a story that grew up after Gen. Lee’s death. There is no contemporary record of it whatsoever.’

    Springfield Union (Springfield, MA), October 23, 1949

    …and the “Evil Neo-Confederate Conspiracy” interpretation of the supposed incident actually appears in the same Northern paper in the same year- 1949.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 26, 2012 at 11:42 am

      If you’d bother to read the post, you’d know I acknowledged that “there’s a lot of doubt surrounding the truth of this event; I’m agnostic on whether it really happened or not.”

      It’s entirely possible that it’s a complete fabrication. What interests me is how the same basic outline of events was seen one way in the 1900s, and yet is spun completely differently today. In that sense, whether it’s factually true is less interesting in the way it’s used to reinforce different generations of Lee’s myth, then and now.


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