Skip to comments.With Malice Toward None, With Amnesty for All: The Pardon of Robert E. Lee
Posted on 10/17/2005 8:24:21 AM PDT by Incorrigible
With Malice Toward None, With Amnesty for All: The Pardon of Robert E. Lee
BY DELIA M. RIOS
WASHINGTON -- On Christmas Day 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation granting "universal amnesty and pardon" to "every person who directly or indirectly participated in the late insurrection or rebellion."
Certainly this included Robert E. Lee, former commanding general of the Confederacy's famed Army of Northern Virginia.
So then why, in the summer of 1975, did President Gerald R. Ford cross the Potomac River to sit among Lee's descendants on the portico of the general's hilltop home? He was there, Ford explained, to right an old wrong. He chose that place, Arlington House, to sign a congressional resolution restoring "full rights of citizenship" to Virginia's native son. Then he handed a souvenir pen to 12-year-old Robert E. Lee V.
Ford spoke of Lee's labors to bind the nation's wounds after the Civil War -- even as contemporary America reeled from the April withdrawal of the last U.S. forces from Vietnam, ending another long, bitter conflict.
Was it really Lee who needed Ford's healing hand? Or was Lee, in fact, pardoned twice -- for reasons that had more to do with 1975 than 1865? "It is a good question," says Michael Hussey of the National Archives.
The search for an answer begins in the strange odyssey of Lee's amnesty oath.
Weeks after the war ended, Andrew Johnson invited high-ranking Confederates to apply for amnesty. Lee actively promoted reconciliation. He wanted to take Johnson up on his offer, but learned he had been indicted for treason. He believed he was protected by the "parole" granted as a condition of his April 9, 1865, surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. His old adversary threatened to resign if Johnson did not honor the parole. Johnson agreed, freeing Lee to seek amnesty.
In doing so, Lee signaled that "opposition to the government was at an end," Douglas Southall Freeman wrote in his landmark history. "No single act of his career aroused so much antagonism."
But Lee did not realize an oath was required of him. It wasn't until Oct. 2 that he went before a notary public and signed his name to this pledge:
"I, Robert E. Lee, of Lexington, Virginia, do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder, and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God."
The oath apparently was forwarded to Secretary of State William H. Seward. Then it disappeared from history. Did Johnson see it? Was it misplaced? Suppressed? No one knows. One thing is certain: Lee's request for an individual pardon was never acted upon.
Lee did not press the matter. He was resigned to "procrastination in measures of relief," as he wrote his son, Fitzhugh. But relief did come -- on Dec. 25, 1868, with Johnson's universal amnesty, making Lee's appeal moot.
Only one restriction remained, from the 14th Amendment ratified in July 1868. Any Confederate who had sworn before the war to uphold the Constitution was barred from holding federal or state office. That included Lee, a former officer in the U.S. Army.
Lee died Oct. 12, 1870, at age 63.
Almost 100 years later, an old grievance surfaced -- along with Lee's long-lost oath.
Inspired by the Civil War centennial, an archivist named Elmer O. Parker, began looking for Lee's oath. This great-grandson of Confederate soldiers located the document in a cardboard box among State Department files in the National Archives -- under "Virginia" and "L" for Lee. "Exactly where it was supposed to be," Hussey says. "But no one had thought to look for it."
His find might have been a footnote to Lee's story -- after all, historians already knew that Lee had applied for amnesty. Instead, it stoked a stubborn misconception.
"General Lee died a man without a country," the Richmond News Leader protested early in 1975. The sentiment was repeated in news coverage of Ford's visit to Arlington House, and persists today.
If Lee believed this, it would be news to his biographer Emory M. Thomas and to scholars at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. All Ford actually corrected -- posthumously -- was Lee's right to hold political office, something Congress had restored to former Confederates in 1898.
This was about symbolism. But for whose war?
In July 1975 -- when Congress took up the Lee resolution -- the United States was confronting its failures in Vietnam, with the bicentennial of the American Revolution -- heralded as a unifying event -- just months away.
Listen to Michigan Democrat John Conyers, addressing his colleagues from the floor of the House: "I would suggest to the members that until amnesty is granted to, and full rights of citizenship are restored to, those young Americans who, according to their consciences, resisted the ignoble war in Indochina, this resolution will be neither healing nor charitable."
Another Democrat, Joshua Eilberg of Pennsylvania, countered that the Bicentennial Congress should demonstrate "how we as Americans once divided can learn from our historic past and once again reunite when it is in our nation's interest."
The vote was overwhelmingly in favor. And so the nation's leaders looked to Robert E. Lee and the distant past for reconciliation and peace not yet realized in their own time.
X X X
A sampling of the billions of artifacts and documents in the National Archives is on view in the Public Vaults exhibit. On the Web, go to www.archives.gov and click on "National Archives Experience," then "Public Vaults."
Oct. 14, 2005
(Delia M. Rios can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Not for commercial use. For educational and discussion purposes only.
America lost a great and noble man that day
I've always thought it a little strange that Lee would recieve nearly universal acclaim in the United States after leading the most deadly war AGAINST the United States. (Waiting to be flamed.) I guess it speaks to the fact that a whole segment of our population fought and died for the cause that he led, and human nature demands that meaning be ascribed to such sacrifice.
But I agree that the worship of Lee is no worse than the worship of the traitorous anti-Vietnam War leaders.
You should really wait to post until you have a vague idea of what you're talking about.
Lee led a noble cause, fighting for at least part of the Republic to be governed as the Framers designed it. I consider Robert E. Lee to be one of the greatest men this nation of states has ever seen. God bless his memory
To this day, Robert E. Lee is remembered as one of the the best students ever to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
When you post, you should give some reasons or explanation for your post, so that the reader has a vague idea what your point is.
Yes, a great student. Yes, a great tactician...although not as great as portrayed, and maybe not even as great as Grant.
But also, yes, a traitor. If Hawaii had decided to join the Japanese in WWII, would it have been noble for Hawaiian-born generals to side with Hawaii and japan against the USA?
As a matter of fact, Lincoln DID offer command of the Union forces to Lee, he turned down the offer to serve his STATE..
Our civil war was unique. The only things remotely similar, are the English Civil War -- and many to this day honor the Royalists -- and the '45, the Stuarts again, but also romantiziced in way not dissimilar to our romanticization of the (variously styled) War of the Rebellion, Civil War, War Between the States, War of Northern Agression (which is modern) and (my favorites) The War (I grew up knowing many Southerners who had grown up during Reconstruction, and their usual way of referring to it was as "THE War", sometimes with an emphasis on the "THE") and (sometimes heard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) the Late Unpleasantness.
How could I forget: The War for Southern Independence.
Lee was a traitor to the Feds, but loyal to his State. How many Freepers would - if pushed - choose State first, Union second?
Hawaii wasn't even a U.S. state in World War II (it was admitted to the Union in 1959), so as far as I'm concerned the people of Hawaii had no more obligation to "side with the USA" than the people of Japan did.
It's worth noting that a nation formed by "traitors" really has no credibility when applying that description to anyone else.
This is a timeless debate...and one that never ceases to amaze me. The framers once had the innocence that you ascribe to them, but it was quickly cured by the harsh reality of the failure of the Articles of Confederation. By the time of the Constitution, they were beyond their adherence to the near-absolute sovereignty of the states.
Your position is relativistic.
One can be a "traitor" against a bad regime, in which case it is not a vice. However, when one is a traitor against the greatest nation on earth, it is definitely a vice.
I find it hard to believe that you have not faulted Hawaiians for joining the Japanese.
So if it weren't for Lee, there wouldn't have been a war??
LOL, get a clue!
Ummm, I didn't say that or even imply it. What is your point?
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