“Degredation worse than death”–Lee responds to the Emancipation Proclamation

Yesterday at Years of Anguish (nearly 500 in attendance–thanks very much for coming), Gary Gallagher talked about Lee’s little-known response to the Emancipation Proclamation–pointing out how historians and readers both have largely ignored the document.  We talked about this in a post a long time ago over at Fredericksburg Remembered, and so re-post it here:

The following appears in a letter from Robert E. Lee to James Seddon, January 10, 1863, urging a concerted effort to increase the size of Confederate armies in the face of the intensifying Union war effort.*  In it, Lee offer commentary on the recently issued Emancipation Proclamation, whose consequences he characterizes darkly and vividly.  Indeed, uses the Proclamation as an argument for redoubled recruiting and a renewed Confederate effort.

In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. Lee, General.

* O.R. Vol. 21, page 1086. The editors of the ORs incorrectly presumed that this passage refered to a series of orders issued in western Virginia the previous November by Union General Robert H. Milroy, commanding local citizens to pay for the damage done by Confederate raiders.  Clearly, however, the narrow scope of Milroy’s orders (which related solely to the district in which he operated, and which were later repudiated by the federal government) does not comport with the broad commentary offered here by Lee.  Moreover, the Official Records clearly show that on January 10, Lee was still in the process of investigating the nature of Milroy’s orders to confirm they had indeed been issued.

10 thoughts on ““Degredation worse than death”–Lee responds to the Emancipation Proclamation

  1. Lee, like virtually every 19th Century caucasian, felt the black race to be inferior to the white. This is the basis for his reaction. In his eyes, and many others, the Emancipation Proclamation was a thinly veiled attempt to create slave revolts and exodus on Southern plantations, especially when you consider black emancipation was ONLY allowed in Confederate held territory. If you lived in Union held areas, you didn’t have to give up your slaves.

  2. Really enjoyed the Years of Anguish last night…and learned a
    great deal from it. John Hennessy was, as usual, a font of
    specific and fascinating information about what was happening
    in 1861 Fredericksburg…such as the flood and the Scarlet Fever
    epidemic. Gary Gallagher, whom I had never heard before, was a riveting, candid, and cogent speaker. Boy, did he tell it like it was! Fascinating…
    many thanks!

  3. I am sorry I did not attend the program Saturday as originally planned, but other matters took precedence. I am disappointed also that there was opportunity to present refutation of the previous and now recurring manipulation of this document. I stand firmly behind my previous assessment of this interpretation and offer further insight to my assertion.

    Allow me to first restate how I find it baffling that people 150 years removed from an incident, motivated by there own determinations, can second-guess the editors of the original collection of the Official Records and feel comfortable in doing so. I see this as massaging history. There is an obvious effort, or at least desire, to “discover” such new interpretation during the Sesquicentennial years, to codify conveniently to revised societal constraints. It is easy to take written words and interpret into them ones own desires when no accompanying document can dispel it. Such systemization has become routine when driving home an agenda. Insist that everything is about one thing and all things become that thing, no matter how contrived.

    It is a stretch to suggest that Lee would have vented his spleen against the Emancipation Proclamation as late as January 10, 1863 when the Preliminary Emancipation, and all it implied, had been in place since September 22, 1862. The actions of General Milroy in the Valley were more immediately and logically the item of the day and certainly more directly aimed at the dignity of the citizenry rather than their institutions. Details can be found within the work linked here: http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-04142003-224717/unrestricted/MilroyandWinchesterthesis.pdf
    This is exactly how the editors of the Official Records saw the reference. It should be safe to assume that they had better insight as to the document’s context then we can today. Looking for key words that might imply something more sinister and vile in its context is grasping at straws. On what ground can you stand to declare their work as being “incorrectly presumed”? My comments to the original posting can be found here: http://fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/degredation-worse-than-death-lee-responds-to-the-emancipation-proclamation/

    Importantly, on the same date as the letter to Seddon, Lee writes the following:
    Colonel J. D. IMBODEN, Commanding,&c.:
    COLONEL: I thank you for your letter of the 2nd instant, received yesterday. I am much gratified to hear of the gallant conduct of Captains McNeil and Imboden, and hope they will continue to harass the enemy as much as possible. I am anxious for you to proceed, as rapidly as possible, in the organization and increase of your command, so that you may bring a strong brigade into the field at an early period. I wish the enemy driven out of the valley entirely, both the South Branch and the Kanawha. Please report to me the state of your command, your effective force in infantry, cavalry, and artillery, and your prospects of increasing it. With regard to the orders of Milroy, you must endeavor to repress his cruelties as much as possible. I will recommend to the Secretary of War that prisoners take from his command be not exchanged, but held as hostages for the protection of our citizens.
    Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
    R. E. LEE

    And with that is palpable evidence that the “cruelties” attributed to Milroy, very clearly can indeed be the same “savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed” in the Seddon letter. It was clearly not something Lee had yet to consider. It was a paramount concern of the day and required a concerted effort to counter. The last sentence is very telling. Lee will recommend that prisoners taken from Milroy’s command will be held hostage “for the protection of our citizens”. This is a very strong refutation of your post’s implication, and Gary Gallagher’s efforts at the same misutilization of a primary source to spice up the story. My vote stays with the original editors of the ORs.

    It is also important to note that on December 29, 1862, while camped in Spotsylvania County, Lee saw to it that he carried out the act of manumission entrusted to him as executor of his father-in-law’s will. I might suggest here that there is a sign of conscience to make good by will rather than to submit to force. The text of this document can be found at the following link: http://files.usgwarchives.net/va/spotsylvania/wills/c2320001.txt

  4. Here, by the way, same date, is the letter to Seddon regarding the holding of prisoners from Milroy’s command. Note the same tone. Nothing here about the Emancipation Proclamation, just the “atrocious orders” issued by Milroy, “with regards to the citizens of the Valley District”.

    January 10, 1863.
    Hon. JAMES A. SEDDON, Secretary of War.
    SIR: In view of the atrocious orders issued by the Federal General Milroy with regard to citizens of the Valley District I would respectfully recommend that prisoners from his command captured by our forces be not exchanged but that they be held as hostages for the protection of our people against the outrages which he is reported to be committing.

    I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

    R. E. LEE,

    I can not see, based now on three documents, that the references Lee makes in the other letter to Seddon on the same date, are anything but concern about Milroy’s “brutal policy”, and I steadfastly believe his use of the word “proclaimed”, has nothing whatsover to do with the Emancipation Proclamation”.

  5. I will add one more thing here, and that is to provide, perhaps, the reason for Gallagher’s preference for the opinion that Lee speaks of the Emancipation Proclamation in his letter to Seddon. In his book “Lee and His Army in Confederate History”, page 186, note 31, he cites the document from “Lee, Wartime Papers”, page 390, where there is no attached commentary, annotation or editorializing in that collection, just the letter as it is written. However, Henry Alexander White, a Lost Cause mythologist and theologian, seized upon the opportunity to attach the Emancipation Proclamation to Lee’s meaning in his 1897 book, “Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy, 1807-1870”. White, born in 1861, would not have had opportunity to discuss the fine points of this document with Lee himself, but rather made a broad assumption as he assembled a glittering appraisal, typical for his day, of the southern leader, replete with all the visceral embellishments for such literature. See page 254 of this book: http://www.archive.org/details/robertelee00whitiala

    Doubtless, in all his perusals of such material, Gallagher had to have run across this misattribution and logged it into his storehouse of knowledge, as tainted an item as it is. With this kind of influence, a notion such as this takes root, but is completely biased and misguided. It was in White’s time and it is today.

  6. Here is further evidence of the concern regarding Milroy:

    Executive Department, C.S.A., Richmond, Va
    January 22 1863.
    General RE Lee, commanding, etc., Fredericksburg, Va
    General: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of yours of the 19th covering correspondence with General Halleck, and am pleased at the manner in which you presented the matter which had been submitted to you in connection with the atrocities of Milroy. If General Halleck should fulfil his promise, information recently received here does not permit me to doubt that he will have no opportunity to escape on the ground that Milroy has not executed his barbarous threats.
    Yours of the 21st has also been received, and after reading it, my opinion is that you would not be justified at this time in making further detachments from your command. Should the enemy succeed in crossing the river either above or below the long line occupied by you, at the same time holding a strong reserve opposite to Fredericksburg, it would make your retrograde movement, for the purpose of attacking the force he had thrown over, hazardous by all the difficulties which would attend the exposure both of your flank and rear. The rain which is now falling must render the roads in that region impracticable for heavy artillery, and it may be that the movements which are observed are only changes of position for the establishment of winter cantonments.
    We have nothing from North Carolina to develop the purpose of the enemy there, and it may well be that the late storms have interfered with his programme if it all tended to an attack upon Wilmington.
    Intelligence from Tennessee is less cheering than we had anticipated, except that the cavalry is still successful against the enemy’s shipping.
    As ever, your friend,
    Jefferson Davis

  7. “if we would save the honor of our families from pollution” is a reference to “race-mixing,” which apparently was the greatest fear many Southerners- and certainly many Northerners- held with the prospect of emancipation.

    Many people- including myself- have regarded Lee as a Christian gentleman. He was a man devoted to God. He didn’t smoke, drink or swear. But from what I’ve learned about Lee in recent years, I have to ask: How could someone of supposedly such a deep Christian faith NOT hear the truth of God that Black people were human beings, made in the image of God? Granted, most Americans of his time period didn’t get it either… but John Brown did (and he’s remembered as insane). William Lloyd Garrison did. Lee’s fellow Southerners Angelina and Sarah Grimké did. Abstaining from alcohol and tobbacco doesn’t save you anyway but I’d rather Lee have been a cigar-chomping, whiskey-loving potty mouth who really did believe in the abolition of slavery and humanity of Blacks than the so-called Christian gentleman he was.

    Maybe Lee was thinking of saving the South’s “social system from destruction” when the Army of Northern Virginia invaded the North during the Antietam and Gettysburg Campaigns, where his soldiers abducted Blacks and sent them South to slavery. Maybe he was thinking of “pollution” when his soldiers murdered Black Union troops at the Battle of the Crater in July 1864. In any case, it’s really a shame.

  8. I would argue Lee had three things in mind when he wrote the memo. First, he was frustrated many in the South believed the war was essentially won when he understood very clearly it wasn’t. Second, the policies enforced in Western Virginia (and most recently Winchester) with regard to the Southern sympathizers. And, without question, the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1. Accepting any one of these doesn’t negate the other two.

    The language with regard to the social system (slavery) no doubt does relate to the Emancipation Proclamation. Then the question becomes, is the Emancipation Proclamation the “savage and brutal policy”? Here, I tend to think the editors of the O.R. got it right, based on the flurry of letters from Lee and the War Department dealing with Milroy’s policies, which were sent around January 10 (when the letter this quotation is from was sent).

    Here is the specific language in orders from Milroy which, I believe, explains the “savage and brutal policy” portion of the quote.

    “If they fail to pay at the end of the time you have named, their houses will be burned and themselves shot and their property all seized; and be sure that you carry out this threat rigidly and show them that you are not trifling or to be trifled with.

    You will inform the inhabitants for ten or fifteen miles around your camp, on all the roads approaching the town upon which the enemy may approach, that they must dash in and give you notice, and that upon failure of any one to do so their houses will be burned and the men shot.”

    This was a different species of war and coming on the heels of what Lee viewed as depredations carried out against civilians in Fredericksburg, and it fit a narrative where efforts must be redoubled lest the government which sanctioned such actions regain control of his native Virginia.

    The best case for the link to the Emancipation seem to be the two phrases, “save the honor of our families from pollution” and “degredation worse than death.” I would have to read more from Lee, from persons of that era, and from modern experts on the language of the era to draw a conclusion as to what he meant. It would be interesting to know, as perhaps some readers here would, whether Lee engaged in any similar discussion later in the war or after it.

    In short, this is an argument where every viewpoint is probably right to some degree.

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