The Impeccable Reputation of Robert E. Lee — Before the Lost Cause

Robert E. Lee. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Perhaps no one person has been more polarizing in the legacy of the Civil War than General Robert E. Lee. When the Civil War started in April 1861, he was a respected officer in the United States Army. So respected, he was asked to lead the United States Army and help force the states in the Confederacy to lay down their arms. He declined and took command of Virginia’s forces instead. To Lee, he was protecting Virginia against a government that attacking its own people. To others, he was — and still is — a traitor to his country.

Robert E. Lee — the Perfect Gentleman — Before the Lost Cause

Over time, there have been arguments that Lee’s reputation has been embellished by supporters of the so-called “Lost Cause.” The idea being that Lee was not a humble, friendly man who wanted the war to be over.

Whether that is true or not is left to debate for others. For the purpose of this article, the question is: what did contemporaries think of Lee?

This short account of Robert E. Lee and his reputation is from The Civil War in Song and Story: 1860–1865 by Frank Moore, which was published in 1889. This account was written by Arthur Lyon Fremantle, a British Army officer who followed the Confederate Army and was an eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Please note that section headings and minor text corrections have been made to help scan and understand the text.

Arthur Lyon Fremantle, Civil War
Arthur Lyon Fremantle. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Arthur Fremantle’s Opinion of Robert E. Lee During the Civil War

General Lee is, almost without exception, the handsomest man of his age I ever saw. He is fifty-six years old, tall, broad-shouldered, very well made, well set up — a thorough soldier in appearance; and his manners are most courteous, and full of dignity. He is a perfect gentleman in every respect I imagine no man has so few enemies, or is so universally esteemed. 

Lee is Free of Vices

Throughout the South, all agree in pronouncing him to be as near perfection as a man can be. lie has none of the small vices, such as smoking, drinking, chewing, or swearing; and his bitterest enemy never accused him of any of the greater ones. 

A Well-Dressed Officer on a Handsome Horse

He generally wears a well-worn long gray jacket, high black felt hat, and blue trousers tucked into his Wellington boots. I never saw him carry arms, and the only mark of his military rank are the three stars on his collar. He rides a handsome horse, which is extremely well groomed. He himself is very neat in his dress and person, and in the most arduous marches he always looks smart and clean.

Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863, Lee Triumphant
Lee on his horse, Traveller, during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Lee’s Reputation Before the War

In the old army he was always considered one of its best Officers, and at the outbreak, of these troubles he was Lieutenant-Colonel of the Second Cavalry. He was a rich man, but his fine estate was one of the first to fall into the enemy’s hands. 

He Refuses Hospitality to Protect People

I believe he has not slept in a house since he has commanded the Virginian army, and he invariably declines all offers of hospitality, for fear the person offering it may afterwards get into trouble for having sheltered the rebel General.

Lee and Longstreet Want the War to End

The relations between him and Longstreet are quite touching. They are almost always together. Longstreet’s Corps complain of this sometimes, as, they say, they seldom get a chance of detached service, which falls to the lot of Ewell.

It is impossible to please Longstreet more than by praising Lee. I believe these two Generals to be as little ambitious, and as thoroughly unselfish, as any men in the world. Both long for a successful termination of the war, in order that they may retire into obscurity. 

Battle of Gettysburg, Longstreet Giving Orders
General James Longstreet giving orders at the Battle of Gettysburg. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The Shadow of Stonewall Jackson

Stonewall Jackson (until his death the third in command of their army) was just such another simple-minded servant of his country. 

Lee’s Fault is His Friendly, Pleasant Manner

It is understood that General Lee is a religious man, though not as demonstrative in that respect as Jackson; and, unlike his late brother-in-arms, he is a member of the Church of England. His only faults, so far as I can learn, arise from his excessive amiability.

Battle of Chancellorsville, Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson, Painting
Lee and Jackson at Chancellorsville. Image Source: Library of Congress.

A Discussion About the Reputation of Robert E. Lee

In this video, historian Douglas Murray discusses how his reputation has changed over time.