Robert E. Lee (January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870) was an American Confederate general best known as a commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. More specifically Robert E. Lee was also a slave owner and committed to the cause of the secession of the slave owning states from the United States. The rehabilitation of his reputation after the war, his part in the Civil War and his history of slave ownership was accomplished mainly through the efforts of Pro-Confederacy groups like The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the Southern Confederate Veterans (SCV). These entities used selected excerpts from Lee quotes to paint the picture that Lee was a noble figure who wanted to end slavery and unite the country.
His letters are quoted in part by some trying to justify a continuing positive historical legacy for him but these apologists only relay a small part of Lee’s own words. Below a direct quote makes it clear that Lee had no problem with the cruel treatment that he and other Southern slave owners inflicted on their fellow human beings. He stated that slavery was an “evil” but went on to say,
“I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things."
An example of the “necessary painful discipline” he describes in the passage included pulling children from their parents arms, separating entire families by selling enslaved people to different plantation owners and giving orders for salt brine to be poured over lash wounds that he ordered as slave punishments.
His letters to his wife also include this; “How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, then the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.”
This passages show that Lee had no real moral compunctions against slavery and he put the truth to his words through his actions toward his slaves, whom he considered his property.
These cruel practices set him apart as an enthusiastic participant in the worst excesses of slavery's cruel legacy.