My family’s ancestors came to America from Germany and settled in the Ohio and Pennsylvania regions. I was proud as a child to know that some of our ancestors fought for the winning side. I had an infamous great-great uncle who stowed away on a Union train at the age of fourteen, and accompanied General Sherman’s army as they burned the South.

When I was fourteen in 1971, I went to live in Florida. The city I lived in was making the national news nightly with the protests that occurred over bussing and the desegregation of the local schools. Those were tumultuous times that brought out the best and worst in people. I can still recall a neighbor across the street calling my brothers and me, “Yankees.” There was a hint of contempt in his voice and I wisely chose not to tell that neighbor about my great-great uncle.

As a young man I was blessed to work for a famous landscape architect who lived in a small little town outside of Charleston, South Carolina. I made many friends during the four years that I lived in South Carolina. My friends called me “Yankee” occasionally, but it was always with a smile on their face. My fascination with the Civil War grew, not only from the stories I heard, but also with the growing realization that all of these stories and their storytellers presented a common theme. The Civil War was a defining event that seemed to shape the lives of anyone who descended from ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. There was something unresolved, something left unacknowledged, that only a person born with that particular heritage could understand. There were some missing puzzle pieces that prevented me from being accepted as a true Southerner, something that would always define me as a “Yankee.”

Nowhere was this puzzle more evident, than when I tried to figure out the life of Robert E. Lee, prompted by recently watching a documentary called Robert E. Lee, An American Experience. Here was a man that in every way, save his good looks, was very much like Abraham Lincoln. Both men were intelligent. Both men were extremely spiritual and had a prayerful relationship with the same God. Both men opposed secession from the Union. Both men thought slavery to be morally evil and yet each of them tolerated slavery as a temporary situation that would be resolved at a future time. How could someone so much like Lincoln refuse his president’s invitation to command the Union troops?

I believe it is worth the effort to consider some alternative thoughts concerning Robert E Lee. I admit frankly that these are my own thoughts, and may be wrong. I also admit that I am not a born Southerner and that my stock is Yankee. However, these thoughts have helped to approach the mystery of Robert E Lee and his place in history. Further, I think it possible some of these reflections might present an understanding that has the power to heal the old wounds I sensed while living in the South.

Fateful Decision

A very important question concerning Robert E. Lee is what motivated Lee to refuse Lincoln’s invitation and to cast his lot with the South. The documentary implies that political ambition was the primary factor. I am not so sure. During this period of the fateful decision, Lee spent a period of 48 hours without sleep. By day he walked the porch of his home, by night he paced the floor of his bedroom. It is said that during this time, Lee’s dark hair and beard started their turn to shock white. We also know that Lee, like Lincoln, was a very spiritual man. He made many statements in his personal life and public life saying that his sole ambition was to “do God’s will.” Is it possible that Lee was seeking the will of the Lord during this intense period? Is it possible Lee felt that it was God’s will that he stay with the South?

On the face of it, if we believe the North was “right” and the South was “wrong,” then how could the Lord ask any sincerely spiritual man to stay with the South? To the average person, that does not make sense. Another perspective would reach the same conclusion, but from a different angle: since Lee was an “Apologist,” someone who objected to slavery on moral grounds but justified slavery as a temporary situation that would “die out” over time, how could a person with such views receive inspiration from God? [1] Either God purposefully steered a good man wrong, or since Lee was an apologist, God was not going to answer Lee’s prayers to know which side he should join and left him to his own devices.

But we also know from the scriptures that the Lord’s ways are not our ways, and that He sees the end from the beginning. Let’s reason together, as the Lord does with us, and see if there is possibly a third answer.

To consider that possible third answer, let us assume that Lee was a sincerely spiritual man who sought to do the Lord’s will in this decision, and that the Lord did indeed inspire him to stay with the South. If this is true—and I do not know that it is, but there is considerable evidence Lee was sincerely spiritual—what could this mean?

The book Lost Triumph by Tom Carhart suggests one interesting possibility. This book focuses on one of the early battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Seven Days in June 1862. Fought outside of Richmond, the South initially appeared to be losing the battle, but then the tide of battle turned when General Joseph Johnston, who was in charge of the Confederate forces, was wounded. Consequently, Lee—who was at that time more or less minister of war for the Confederacy—took command of the Confederate Army. Carhart comments:

But this was much more than just a Pyrrhic victory, for if [General Joseph] Johnston had not been wounded and replaced by Lee, it appears that Richmond would have fallen and the Confederate army in the east eliminated as a factor. Had that occurred, it seems that the seceded states would have recognized their predicament and soon returned to the Union fold. But the crucial aspect of this was that their return would have been made with slavery intact, for the Emancipation Proclamation would not be announced until September 1862, and would not take effect until January 1, 1863. Seen in that light, one could make the ironic point that Lee fought for the freedom of the slaves, since his arrival on the battlefield resulted in a dramatic extension of the Civil War, an extension sufficient to ensure the announcement and enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation.

While Carhart does not suggest this “ironic point” of history was of divine origin, might it be possible that God knew that the only way to free the slaves was to balance the two opposing sides and prolong the war so that emancipation might develop as a realistic option for Lincoln? It was certainly not the Confederate cause that God was endorsing in inspiring Lee to stay with the South, but might it have been the cause of the slaves?

Lee could not have known in April 1861 when he rejected the president’s offer that there might be a deeper meaning to any spiritual impressions he received at that time, and this would explain much about this paradoxical man. Such an event would explain the unflinching boldness that characterized Lee’s battle plans (e,g., if God were with you, who could oppose you?). Such an event might also explain Lee’s tolerance of slavery as a temporary situation (i.e., slavery is morally wrong, but since God is with us, slavery will eventually die out once independence has been achieved). If at all true, this might explain Lee’s bewilderment at the end of his life, when in his private communications he continued to express the sentiment that the Confederate cause was “just.”

Perhaps both sides had some measure of justification before January 1, 1863. But after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on that date, there came into existence a “better cause,” a more just cause which would merit the help of the Lord. After the Emancipation Proclamation, we see a dramatic shift in the tide of the war, with victories including Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg (March–July 1863) and of course, the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1863). The Confederacy would never recover, and eventually surrendered a little over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

This same spiritual drama also marks the closing scenes of the Civil War:

On April 9, 1865, the two generals met in a house owned by a Southern farmer named Wilmer McLean in the country settlement of Appomattox Court House, Va. The meeting was one of the most dramatic scenes in American history. Grant wore a mud-spattered private’s coat, with only his shoulder straps indicating his rank. Lee had put on a spotless uniform, complete with sword. Grant offered generous terms, and Lee accepted them with deep appreciation. The Confederate soldiers received a day’s rations and were released on parole. They were allowed to keep their horses and mules to take home “to put in a crop.” Officers would keep their side arms.
Five days later, on April 14, Lincoln was assassinated. Northerners cried out for revenge for Lincoln’s death and for the hundreds of thousands killed in the war. But before his death, Lincoln had advised ‘malice towards none … charity for all’ to heal the country’s wounds (http://storiesofamericanhistory.com/civil-war-part-6/ ).

So many good men paid the price to exterminate the great evil of slavery! We think of that price in terms of lives lost and bodies maimed. In a sense, this was epitomized by the death of the president. After Lincoln’s assassination, America instantly immortalized him, and rightfully so, for Lincoln, like Christ, had stood in the place of mercy, and made the decision to end slavery, which changed America forever. As the resurrected Christ is in the heart of every Christian, so too, Lincoln is “forever in the hearts of his countrymen.”

But what of Robert E Lee? Did good men like Lee also pay a price to bring about a greater good, even when he could not see and recognize it? Does God honor the sacrifices of those He uses to bring about a greater good, even when they themselves are blind to it despite being good men?

A Larger Question than Lee

These spiritual questions are not confined to the case of Robert E. Lee. Millions of men, many if not most of them good men, have found themselves fighting and dying for a cause that was not the better cause. Many had no choice but to do so.

Perhaps we might say that their sacrifice was not in vain, even if their side did not embrace a better cause. Consider again all those in grey who fought in the Civil War. It was not their generation that started slavery. Men that were motivated by greed and profit, both Northerners and Southerners, brought slaves to America long before it was a country. The men in grey were not the source of the problem; rather they were the solution to the problem, for could the cancer of slavery have been purged from our country without the Civil War? If you say no, then consider how necessary it was for there to be men in grey who bled, died, and lost the war. While certainly some of those in grey were scoundrels on a personal level and will merit the condemnation of God, most were not. Some were even exemplary human beings. We are told that it is the leaders who declare war and aggress who will be held accountable by God, not the soldiers who obeyed lawful orders. [2]

I cannot help but wonder if this is the reason for the lack of resolution I feel when in the South. We see only that the South lost, but not that the South had to fight in order that they might lose, and that by losing our nation was purged of a great stain. The ambivalence we feel about Robert E. Lee is emblematic of the confusion that arises when we realize there can be good men on the side that should lose, men that actually feel inspired by God to be there.

In the year 1970, one hundred years after Lee’s death, an employee of the National Archives found a lost oath of allegiance to the United States sent by Lee after the end of the war. Shortly after this find, Congress restored Lee’s status as an American citizen. There is a lesson in that for us all.


[1] Those who would disqualify Lee from God’s inspiration due to his views would have to disqualify Lincoln from God’s inspiration as well. Lincoln objected to slavery on moral grounds, but tolerated it in practice, for political reasons. Lincoln too believed that the issue of slavery would be resolved over time, politically. [Back to manuscript].

[2] (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/war?lang=eng) “[W]e recognize that in this world, government leaders sometimes send military troops to war to defend their nations and ideals. Latter-day Saints in the military do not need to feel torn between their country and their God. In the Church, “we believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (Articles of Faith 1:12). Military service shows dedication to this principle. If Latter-day Saints are called upon to go into battle, they can look to the example of Captain Moroni, the great military leader in the Book of Mormon. Although he was a mighty warrior, he “did not delight in bloodshed” (Alma 48:11). He was “firm in the faith of Christ,” and his only reason for fighting was to “defend his people, his rights, and his country, and his religion” (Alma 48:13). If Latter-day Saints must go to war, they should go in a spirit of truth and righteousness, with a desire to do good. They should go with love in their hearts for all God’s children, including those on the opposing side. Then, if they are required to shed another’s blood, their action will not be counted as a sin. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Cassler, David E. (2019) "The Spiritual Mystery of General Robert E. Lee," SquareTwo, Vol. 12 No. 2 (Summer 2019), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerLee.html, accessed <give access date>.

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