Robert E. Lee is well known as a Confederate military general, but perhaps his greatest contribution to the United States was his effort to reunite the country following the American Civil War. In the opinions of his contemporaries and historians, Lee played a crucial role in restoring peace following the war.
The American Civil War was the most catastrophic event in the United States’ history. Over the course of four years of ruthless war, upwards of 620,000 people – U.S. and Confederate – lost their lives. This was more than two percent of the entire population of the US and Confederate states combined. In the Confederate states, 30 percent of the military aged white men died. The trauma affected nearly every home across the nation.
In addition to the human carnage, the war disrupted nearly all forms of life. Both armies set fire to homes, towns, and cities, trampled farms, severed railroads, and killed livestock. The war also revolutionized the South at the end of 1865 with the abolition of slavery and nearly 4 million African Americans across the country were freed.
In April 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia after four years of fighting. While surrender seemed inevitable, at least one of Lee’s generals suggested he not surrender and instead have the army “take to the woods and bushes” and carry on the fight. Former Virginia Governor Henry Wise encouraged Lee to fight saying, “Country be damned! There is no country! You are the country to these men.” Lee declined to take this advice. He decided that refusing to surrender “would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.” Lee, realizing that further fighting would have no impact on the outcome of the struggle, made the momentous decision to stop the further effusion of blood and surrender his army, even though he “would rather die a thousand deaths.” Lee’s victories as a Confederate general showcased brilliant maneuvers. His grace in defeat set the tone for reunion. In his book April 1865, Jay Winik declared that “by this one momentous decision, he spared the country from the divisive guerilla warfare that surely would have followed.”
Lee and his fellow Confederate leaders feared for their treatment as possible prisoners of war. In many rebellions around the world, victors often humiliated or denigrated defeated leaders before executing them. At Appomattox, General Ulysses S. Grant gave Lee’s army very generous terms, allowing them to be paroled and sent home if they promised not to take up arms against the United States again. These generous terms were in the spirit of President Abraham Lincoln’s wish to let the South up easy.
Lee left Appomattox for Richmond following the surrender. The United States Army seized and occupied Lee’s family home, Arlington House, and turned it into a military cemetery. From their temporary home in Richmond, Lee and his family tried to chart a path forward. He encouraged fellow Confederates to “go home, all you boys who fought with me and help build up the shattered fortunes of our old state.”
Lee desired that white Southerners move past the Confederacy and move forward towards peace and reconciliation. He feared that the passions and feelings of people in both the North and South could drive the sections into more conflict and bloodshed. He counseled his fellow Southerners that “it should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, give full scope to reason and every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart & mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past & fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue, and in religion.”
Some former Confederates felt humiliated and persecuted and wanted to continue hostility with the United States. Lee consoled them and told them it was their duty to return home and rebuild their communities. Colonel J. Stoddard Johnston said after talking to Lee that “Great as I had held him as a military chieftain, my admiration of him in this trying hour . . . was even grander than when I had seen him at the head of invincible legions.”
Lee desired to live a private life. But he knew that because of his status and fame, his actions and words would influence the public opinion. Lee wrote in September of 1865 that the issues between the North and South had been decided and he believed “it to be the duty of every one to unite in the restoration of the country, and the reestablishment of peace & harmony.”
In the late summer of 1865, Lee accepted the position of president of Washington College (today Washington & Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. At this time, he was still uncertain of his fate and whether the federal government would prosecute him for treason, as some in the North were calling for. He was at first reluctant to accept the position for fear that it might embroil the struggling college in controversy. Ultimately, he accepted and moved to Lexington, Virginia. In this new position, Lee decided to commit his remaining years to the education and betterment of the young men of Virginia.
Robert E. Lee demonstrated his commitment to reunification by asking President Andrew Johnson for a pardon in the summer of 1865. Lee took the Amnesty Oath on October 2, 1865, swearing allegiance to the United States government. His most famous biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, wrote how Lee’s personal example of requesting a pardon from President Johnson was an action that helped lead fellow former Confederates to submit to federal authority. “News that General Lee had asked for a pardon soon became known. It had much the effect with the South that Grant and Halleck had predicted. Many of those who had fought with General Lee reasoned that they could safely follow his leadership in this particular and could accept the President's amnesty.”
In early 1866, the United States Congress called on Lee to testify. Lee chose to keep quiet about his post-War politics and stance on Reconstruction. Privately, he advocated for others to avoid feelings of bitterness and resentment. While president of the college, Lee placed his efforts in reconciling the North and the South. When asked to join in the placement of granite markers on the Gettysburg battlefield in 1869, he replied that he thought it wiser that they “not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife & to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant invited Lee to the White House. Despite the fact that Grant and Lee fought bitterly during the war, they conversed during a private meeting in the White House.
Lee died on October 12, 1870. People in northern and southern states mourned his death. Over the next century Lee would become revered for his work towards reconciliation after the war.
Numerous United States presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, heaped praise on Lee’s character.The veneration of Robert E. Lee ultimately led to the erection of numerous monuments and memorials to Lee across the South and the publishing of numerous memoirs and stories of Lee. These actions often exaggerated and occasionally fabricated many of Lee’s accomplishments and character traits. Robert E. Lee’s impeccable character would earn him the nickname of “The Marble Man.”
So revered across the nation was Robert E. Lee that in 1925 the United States Congress ordered his home, Arlington House, be restored to its appearance before Civil War to honor him largely for his work to reunite the nation after the war. U.S. Representative Louis Cramton of Michigan (his own father a Union veteran) declared that “it is unprecedented in history for a nation to have gone through as great a struggle as we did in the Civil War” and then to become “so absolutely reunited.” He felt that “there was no man in the South who did more by his precept and example to help bring about that condition than did Robert E. Lee.”
Shortly after Arlington was set to be restored, a bridge was built over the Potomac River connecting Arlington House to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The Arlington Memorial Bridge physically and symbolically linked the north and south as a symbol of reunion.
In 1955, Arlington House was made a permanent memorial to Robert E. Lee because he “. . . attained world renown as a military genius, and after Appomattox fervently devoted himself to peace, to the reuniting of the Nation, and to the advancement of youth education and the welfare and progress of mankind . . .”
Historians thought the Amnesty Oath that Lee submitted in October 1865 was lost. However, the oath paperwork was re-discovered in the National Archives in 1970. Lee never officially regained his American citizenship during his life. In 1975, the United States Congress voted to restore Robert E. Lee’s citizenship as “this entire Nation has long recognized the outstanding virtues of courage, patriotism, and selfless devotion to duty of General R. E. Lee, and has recognized the contribution of General Lee in healing the wounds of the War Between the States.” President Gerald R. Ford officially posthumously restored Robert E. Lee’s citizenship at a ceremony on the portico at Arlington House.
Most historians agree that Lee’s efforts to promote peace following the American Civil War were essential in the reunification of the nation. Douglas Southall Freeman wrote that “the Confederates came to consider it as much the course of patriotism to emulate General Lee in peace as it had been to follow him in war. More than any other American, General Lee kept the tragedy of the war from being a continuing national calamity.”
Even Lee’s more critical biographers came to this same conclusion. Elizabeth Brown Pryor noted that Lee came closest to greatness in his “enlightened decisions he took to foster peace and rebuild the South in the early aftermath of the war. This was his grand visionary moment.” She further notes that “the dignified relinquishment of command is among the most ennobling of American traditions . . . Robert E. Lee’s actions just after the Civil War are a proud example of that tradition. His courageous military restraint in 1865 and his early words of reconciliation were more than a face-saving final bow from the stage. They offered a model for a great and proud army that felt itself humiliated; a salve for a devastated citizenry; a running start towards reconciliation. Some may be disappointed that Lee was not perfectly noble in every word and deed during the postwar period. Yet his tremendous forbearance under pressure of prosecution, public criticism, and personal ostracism is notable.”
 Alexander, Edward Porter. Military Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907. 604.
 Winik, Jay. April 1865. New York: Harper Collins, 2002. 146.