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Samantha Putterman
By Samantha Putterman June 12, 2020

Fact-checking claims about Robert E. Lee’s position on slavery, secession

If Your Time is short

  • Robert E. Lee did oppose secession and made statements later in the war on his reservations about slavery. 

  • Still, he personally owned slaves and served as the general of the Confederate Army, which fought in favor of secession and in the defense of slavery. 

Presumably timed to coincide with President Donald Trump’s opposition of removing Confederate names from current military assets, social media users are sharing posts that claim the Confederate Army’s famous general, Robert E. Lee, opposed slavery.

We previously fact-checked a post that used the same claim to question the removal of confederate statues and monuments. We rated it False. 

Now, there’s another post about Lee’s position on slavery — and secession — on Facebook. It reads:

"Here’s the irony: Robert E. Lee was the most decorated soldier in the U.S. Army. He was a man of unimpeachable integrity. Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army, but Lee refused only because his loyalty was to Virginia. Lee opposed both secession and slavery. And yet to the historically illiterate left, a man who opposed both slavery and secession has come to symbolize both slavery and secession."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

It’s accurate that Lee was offered to command the Union Army and turned it down despite his desire for the country to remain intact, citing loyalty to his home state of Virginia.

Lee made some mixed statements about his feelings toward slavery, particuarly nearing the end of the war, but his actions and political positions contradict the idea that he opposed it.

"Robert E. Lee did oppose secession. On that point, there is no dispute. Lee's attitudes toward slavery, however, are more complex than the statement that ‘he opposed slavery’ suggests," W. Fitzhugh Brundage, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told PolitiFact in an email. 

"What is clear is that Lee did not oppose slavery to the degree that he was willing to take any meaningful steps against the institution. Finally, during the Civil War Lee used his army in various ways to bolster and sustain the institution of slavery. So while Lee never endorsed slavery as a positive good (a la James Henry Hammond) he got no further than wringing his hands over the institution and lamenting its existence. After the Civil War he displayed clear hostility to black equality of any kind."

Lee personally enslaved people who he inherited after his mother died in 1829. Then, in 1857, following the death of his father-in-law, Lee assumed command of 189 enslaved people working between the two estates. Interestingly, Lee’s father-in-law specified in his will that all the family’s slaves be freed within five years of his death. 

Sean Kane, the American Civil War Museum’s former interpretation and programs specialist, wrote in an article that Lee, as executor of the will, "drove his new-found labor force hard to lift those estates from debt," and, concerned it would take longer than five years, "petitioned state courts to extend his control of enslaved people." That didn’t happen, as Lee freed them in accordance with the will in 1862 (and three days before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect). 

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While his actions and slave-owning practices suggest he supported slavery, some of Lee’s writings offer a more muddled view. 

Prior to the Civil War, on Dec. 27, 1856, Lee wrote to his wife: "In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages." 

But he goes on to say that slavery was "a greater evil to the white man than to the black race" and "while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former." Lee wrote that African Americans were "immeasurably better off" in the U.S. than in Africa and that the "painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race."

Eric Foner, a Civil War historian and Columbia University professor, referred us to a passage he wrote on Lee’s connection with slavery in the New York Times Book Review: 

"During his lifetime, Lee owned a small number of slaves. He considered himself a paternalistic master but could also impose severe punishments, especially on those who attempted to run away. Lee said almost nothing in public about the institution. His most extended comment, quoted by all biographers, came in a letter to his wife in 1856. Here he described slavery as an evil, but one that had more deleterious effects on whites than blacks. He felt that the ‘painful discipline’ to which they were subjected benefitted blacks by elevating them from barbarism to civilization and introducing them to Christianity. The end of slavery would come in God's good time, but this might take quite a while, since to God a thousand years was just a moment. Meanwhile, the greatest danger to the ‘liberty’ of white southerners was the ‘evil course’ pursued by the abolitionists, who stirred up sectional hatred. In 1860, Lee voted for John C. Breckenridge, the extreme proslavery candidate (a more moderate southerner, John Bell, carried Virginia that year)."

"I would not say that this qualifies Lee as ‘against slavery,’" Foner added in the email. 

John Reeves, author of "The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee" wrote a post on some of the most popular myths attributed to the general — the first being Lee’s opposition to slavery.

Reeves explains that after losing the war, Lee attempted to present himself as always being against slavery. In an interview after his surrender, Reeves says, Lee said that "the best men of the South" were eager to do away with it, and in a testimony in 1866 he had "always been in favor of emancipation — gradual emancipation."

But Reeves writes that the historical record doesn’t support these statements, as Lee and his family owned and managed slaves for decades and benefited "tremendously" from the institution.

Our ruling

A Facebook post says Robert E. Lee opposed both secession and slavery.

It’s accurate that Lee publicly opposed secession and wished for the country to remain intact. However, citing loyalty to his home state of Virginia, he assumed the command of the Confederate Army, which fought in favor of secession and in the defense of slavery. 

Lee made statements at the end of the war that he was eager to do away with the institution of slavery. But his actions as a slave owner and his political positions contradict the claim that he opposed it.

We rate this Mostly False. 

Our Sources

Facebook post, May 26, 2019 

PolitiFact, No, Robert E. Lee was not ‘against slavery’ as Facebook post claims, Aug. 27, 2019

History.com, Robert E. Lee resigns from U.S. Army after Virginia secedes from Union, Accessed June 12, 2020

American Civil War Museum, Myths & Misunderstandings | Lee as a slaveholder, Oct. 4, 2017

New York Times, What Robert E. Lee Wrote to The Times About Slavery in 1858, Aug. 17, 2018

Medium, Five myths about Robert E. Lee, July 24, 2018

Encyclopedia Virginia, Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (December 27, 1856)

Email interview, James Grossman executive director for the American Historical Association, June 12, 2020

Email interview, W. Fitzhugh Brundage William B. Umstead Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill, June 12, 2020

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