It was a hot summer Sunday in June 1865. Richmond’s old and prestigious St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was packed. Dr. Charles Minnigerode was preparing communion. As he was about to offer the Eucharist, a tall, welldressed and distinguished-looking unknown black man rose and walked to the rail, knelt and offered up his hands to receive the bread.
A shocked hush fell over the white congregation. This was not done. Blacks were offered the “body and blood” of Christ only in segregation. Minnigerode was flummoxed. After an awkward pause, another figure rose, also well-dressed and distinguished, a white man who was rather old, with neatly trimmed silver hair and beard. Walking slowly, he moved with the self-assurance of one used to command. His name was Robert
E. Lee. Kneeling beside the black man, he likewise offered his hands in supplication. Gradually, but steadily, everyone followed until each knelt with Lee and the unknown black man.
This caused a sensation. Lee, like his best general Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, who had taught a black Sunday school class, was a deeply religious man. After Appomattox, Lee had famously refused to encourage any notion of continuing the war. Too, it was well known that Lee had opposed secession and slavery alike. He freed his slaves and stated in 1856 that “Slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” Later he said, “I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished.” Suddenly he found himself a force for national reconciliation. In 1868 the New York Herald editorialized that Lee should run for president.
Why had Lee fought? Like many, he believed the Southern states had a constitutional right to secede, however ill-advised. Perhaps more important was a reluctance to fight against “kith and kin.” Lee simply could not fight against Virginia. Many had said, “I’ll do whatever my state does.”
Despite individual beliefs, the slavery issue had certainly caused the war. But it was a two-track question: Could the states secede for any reason? After all, New England had convened a secession convention because of the War of 1812, mooted only by that war’s end.
To be sure, 1865 laid these two terrible issues to rest forever, but the popular narrative of the “good” North overwhelming the “evil” South does not quite reflect the war’s complexity. This is illustrated not only by Lee but his principal opponents. Union General George McClellan, like many Northern Democrats, was pro-Union but against abolition. In fact, McClellan was so upset by the Emancipation Proclamation he threatened to overthrow Lincoln’s government. Then there was U.S. Grant, who owned five slaves, four from his wife Julia and one he bought. According to one biographer, Grant never made any overt disapproval of slavery.
Arkansas’ Confederate General Patrick Cleburne was staunchly for Southern independence but against slavery and promulgated a petition that all slaves should be freed that swore allegiance and service to the South. But when the old slave-seller Nathan B. Forrest heard about it he said, “If we do that, what are we fighting for?” Jefferson Davis, who later, when it was too late, tried to implement Cleburne’s suggestion, pocketed the petition.
Southern blacks wanted their freedom and suffered from what Cleburne called “the chronic irritation of a hope deferred.” Longing for Northern victory, some stayed while others ran away, yet, to their everlasting credit, there was never the violence many feared.
On the other hand, the mistreatment of runaways by the Union army was common. As “contraband,” some were forced back on plantations and others interned in camps where thousands died. Historian C. Vann Woodward said the handling of freedmen by the Union army wrote “some of the darkest pages of war history.”
Then there was the racial violence in New York City in 1863. Begun as a draft riot, it quickly devolved into rampant terrorism in which blacks were murdered by white mobs. Lincoln sent troops. Indeed, much of the city was so anti-Lincoln there was loose talk of Manhattan seceding. New York City, along with New England, had always been deeply involved in the slave trade, and the British Consul reported 74 slave ships leaving Manhattan for the Guinea Coast from 1859 to 1862. Since both the U.S. and Confederate constitutions outlawed the slave trade, the Yankee slavers sold their human cargo in Cuba and the West Indies. Ironically, no slave ship ever flew the Confederate flag.
In the South the war killed or maimed over one in five white males of military age. Its economy was ruined and many cities burned. In Arkansas the guerrilla war had been so vicious that several counties were denuded of people. Returning Confederates were embittered, disenfranchised and often impoverished, while the freed slaves were totally unprovided for. In the words of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the freedman “has simply been turned loose, naked and hungry to the open sky.” Poor whites and blacks eventually fell into the trap of the sharecrop economy and Jim Crow as the races were played off against each other by political demagogues.
After World War II our enemies got the Marshall Plan. After the Civil War the South got Reconstruction. A terrible price was paid in poverty, ignorance and denial of civil rights. In a sense, the South has never recovered, nor with it our nation. The failure of Reconstruction has been one of America’s greatest calamities.
For the South this catastrophe was difficult to accept. Heroes were needed. For whites, Lee, Jackson, Cleburne, and Confederate soldiers fulfilled that need along with the Lost Cause tradition that arose as a form of post-war psychological salvation, while blacks found heroes in Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and, of course, Lincoln. But along the way the Confederate flag developed a tragic binocularity: whites seeing one thing and blacks another.
Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Lee were great in their own special way. To miss this is to miss the complexity of our Civil War. Yet from the safety of time, we can say that Lee was in error, perhaps symbolically acknowledged that day at the communion rail, but in the end he was wise. So aside from deploring the recent lunacy in South Carolina and praising the sublime response of Christian forgiveness by its victims, what would Lee tell us today?”
Here’s what he said in 1867 when confronted by a Confederate widow expressing hatred of all things Yankee that she hoped to imbue in her children. “Remember, we are all one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring them up to be Americans.”
Phillip H. McMath is of counsel with McMath Woods Law Firm in Little Rock and an oft-published author of articles, plays and books.