The Private Thoughts of Robert E. Lee

What were Lee's real feelings about the Confederacy and slavery?


Can there possibly be any secrets left to discover about the life of Confederate icon Robert E. Lee? Yes—and the source is the general himself.

For her newly published biography, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor draws on a cache of previously unknown Lee family papers, discovered in 2002 in two sturdy wooden trunks that Lee's daughter stored in a Virginia bank about a century ago. Quoting from these and other overlooked letters, Pryor presents a multifaceted man, more accessible and at the same time more puzzling than ever. He was an irrepressible flirt, and, contrary to popular belief, Lee not only believed in slavery; he was capable of treating his own slaves cruelly.

How does the Lee of textbooks differ from the Lee you discovered?

I was struck by the discrepancy between the formidable stone icon and this warm, witty, lusty, vulnerable human being filled with foibles and bafflements.

He was quite a ladies' man, right?

A lot of those letters are very foxy. He's obviously attracted to women and likes to write naughty notes to them. But as far as I can tell, he was not unfaithful, and his wife [Mary Anna Randolph Custis] accepted his flirtatiousness with great humor. For instance, he will write these saucy letters, and she will add a friendly note at the end. She'll write, we're going to a reception, and I hope Robert doesn't pass himself off as a young widower!

His letters about his children are tender.

He writes about holding his children, swimming with his son on his back. It's endearing that this dashing soldier read parenting manuals when he was stationed away from home when they were little.

But you found troubling aspects, as well.

When I was reading these letters, I had to keep questioning my own assumptions about Lee: Was he really against slavery and secession as has been claimed for many years? Was his decision to fight for the Confederacy as inevitable as many maintain? How do we assess these huge questions of patriotism and loyalty that he had to address?

What were his views on slavery?

These papers are filled with information about slavery. This is not something you have to read between the lines; Lee really tells us how he feels. He saw slaves as property, that he owned them and their labor. Now you can say he wasn't worse than anyone; he was reflecting the values of the society that he lived in. I would say, he wasn't any better than anyone else, either.

It is shocking how he treated his father-in-law's slaves.

Lee's wife inherited 196 slaves upon her father's death in 1857. The will stated that the slaves were to be freed within five years, and at the same time large legacies—raised from selling property—should be given to the Lee children. But as the executor of the will, Lee decided that instead of freeing the slaves right away—as they expected—he could continue to own and work them for five years in an effort to make the estates profitable and not have to sell the property.

What happened after that?

Lee was considered a hard taskmaster. He also started hiring slaves to other families, sending them away, and breaking up families that had been together on the estate for generations. The slaves resented him, were terrified they would never be freed, and they lost all respect for him. There were many runaways, and at one point several slaves jumped him, claiming they were as free as he. Lee ordered these men to be severely whipped. He also petitioned the court to extend their servitude, but the court ruled against him and Lee did grant them their freedom on Jan. 1, 1863—ironically, the same day that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

In another departure from the conventional portrait of Lee, you show him agonizing over joining the Confederacy.

Lee's decision to go with Virginia was not inevitable at all. It was very wrenching, and we trivialize it if we say, as some biographers have, that it's a no-brainer, that it was the choice he was born to make. To put it in some context, Gen. Winfield Scott remained with the Union, and he was from Virginia, and so did two fifths of all West Pointers from Virginia. Lee himself said he held on to his letter resigning from the U.S. Army for a whole day before he sent it because it was so painful. The description of Lee at home pacing and weeping and praying, trying to decide what to do is almost a Shakespearean moment.