The “E” Is For “Enigma”: How Should We Remember Robert E. Lee? Part 3


[This is the third part of a series of blog posts about Robert E. Lee and what became of his stripped status as an American citizen after the Civil War. You can jump to the first post here, second post here.]

Robert E. Lee died decades before any of the Congressional amnesties — the initial one in 1872 and the final blanket amnesty in 1898 — could have altered his ability to vote or hold office. And Congress did not write those amnesties to have a posthumous effect.

Here’s something else we know that’s quite interesting. Robert E. Lee apparently wanted to have his full powers of citizenship restored. But we have to put a big asterisk on that, for reasons I’ll get into shortly.

On June 13, 1865, Robert E. Lee wrote two letters: one to President Andrew Johnson, and the other to Ulysses S. Grant. (Lee signed both “your obedient servant.”) In the letter to Johnson he officially requested “full restoration of all rights and privileges.” In the letter to Grant, Lee asked his former Union opponent to forward the application to the sitting president.

Despite probable sincerity and good intentions, the application on its own wasn’t good enough. Lee later learned that he also had to submit a signed oath of allegiance to the United States.

So the former general went ahead and fulfilled that requirement on October 2, 1865.

All the same, the application was never acted upon. The story goes that the paperwork was lost or possibly intentionally misplaced.

But that tale of bureaucratic snafu or vengeful sabotage was, at one time, styled to have a romantic and dramatic ending.

As some would have it, a clerk at the National Archives stumbled into Lee’s citizenship paperwork more than 100 years later, in 1970. Many took this amazing “discovery” of an attempt to be restored as a full-fledged American citizen to be a deeply moving gesture of national reconciliation from Lee. (We’ll look at why I placed “discovery” in quotes down the line). An Alexandria, Virginia, newspaper collected signatures and petitioned Congress to restore Lee’s right to vote and hold office.

U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, an Independent Democrat from Virginia, along with a number of co-sponsors widely but not entirely representing Southern states, introduced a bill in 1975 to do just that.

Hearing about this for the first time, I wondered: would our leaders really spend valuable legislative time arguing about the validity of a Confederate general’s 110 year-old ghost running for office?

Would any member of Congress rise to oppose posthumously giving Lee the right to vote? And on what grounds? Would they try to re-fight the Civil War in the House and Senate chambers?

Would anyone call Lee a traitor?

In a time of race riots, would any politician grandstand about Lee’s role as a defender of the institution of slavery? How would Lee’s legacy meld with the politics and current events of the 1970s?

I thought it would be extremely interesting to see how this bill was debated.

And I was right.

In the next part I’ll bring you a narrative of how this controversy played out.

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