If you rely on the mainstream media for your news, you probably do not know that January 19, is the 199th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee. Nor would you know that numerous celebrations will be held to honor the General on that day. I am not sure why the mainstream media ignores Lee. It is certainly not because he isn’t newsworthy. Lee is immensely popular not only throughout America but also in Europe. And when any organization compiles a listing of famous Americans, General Lee is always ranked near the top. .
During the War Between the States and continuing into the years following the War, Lee was frequently the subject of articles by journalists and editors. These men often sought his opinion regarding affairs of state. General Lee spoke for many of us in this statement contained in his January 5, 1866, letter to New York editor, C. Chauncey Burr: "All the South has ever desired was that the Union, as established by our forefathers, should be preserved, and that the government, as originally organized, should be administered in purity and truth." (emphasis added)
Today, the government that Lee described no longer exists, but when the General made his comments many mistakenly believed that the government "as originally organized" might survive. They had not realized how radically the government had already been altered during the War years. Lee himself thought that the concept of sovereign states combined with a limited federal authority would continue. And he wanted to do his part to sustain such a concept. So, within months of his surrender at Appomattox, he decided to apply for the restoration of his citizenship that had been revoked as a result of his War efforts.
An official pardon and a restoration of citizenship was eventually granted to Robert E. Lee, but not during his lifetime. How did it all come about? Well, "thereby hangs a tale" — 100 years in the making and along the way there were the usual bureaucratic logjams, petty politics, high hopes, and disappointments. And, also, an unsolved mystery and an extraordinary bit of luck.
General Lee began the pardon process in June of 1865, when he sent his official application to General Grant. Observing the chain of command, Grant submitted the application to Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, along with his strong recommendation that it be approved. Secretary Stanton duly sent the pardon application to President Andrew Johnson.
Before the application could be considered, an impediment had to be removed. A federal court in Virginia had indicted Robert E. Lee for treason and, although the indictment seemed to be little more than political posturing, it might stand in the way of a pardon. So once again General Grant stepped into the fray, sending a request to President Johnson to squash the indictment in as much as Grant had issued an official parole to Lee at Appomattox as a condition of his surrender. Although the indictment was never formally blocked, it was unable to attract any support and simply faded away.
Lee soon learned that there was another obstacle; an application for a pardon had to be accompanied by an oath of allegiance to the Union. Accordingly, on October 2, 1865, Lee, in the presence of a notary public, affixed his signature to the following prescribed oath. "I, Robert E. Lee, of Lexington, Virginia, do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder, and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God."
And there was yet another unanticipated hindrance that Lee had to deal with. Some of his former Confederate associates, a small but vocal group, objected to Lee’s amnesty application and especially his oath of allegiance to the Union, claiming that his actions were contrary to the principles for which the South seceded. They besieged Lee with protests as well as pleadings to disavow both actions. Lee did his best to explain his motives to this group and he tried to assuage their anger. His efforts in this endeavor were not entirely successful. But, as he firmly believed in the course he was following, he continued to pursue the legal measures required for obtaining a pardon.
Lee’s notarized oath of allegiance was forwarded to William H. Seward, Secretary of State, who would have then forwarded it to President Johnson. But the President never received the pledge, so the pardon process could not be completed. There is no evidence to indicate that Secretary Seward deliberately withheld the document from the President. And it is highly unlikely that such an important document could simply have been misplaced. But what happened to the document after Seward received it remains a mystery.
Without the oath of allegiance no action could be taken on Lee’s pardon application. Although Lee must have been disappointed, he accepted the matter stoically and made no further attempts to pursue a pardon. Robert E. Lee died in 1870 without receiving a pardon or having his citizenship restored. And, for the next 100 years the matter was considered a closed chapter of history.
Then, in 1970, a Civil War buff obtained permission to research old State department files stored in the National Archives. During his research, he came across a cardboard box labeled "Virginia." While rummaging through this box, he spied an aged sheet of paper containing a faded pen and ink inscription. Upon examination, he was stunned to learn that he was actually holding the notarized pledge of allegiance to the United States that Robert E. Lee had executed in 1865. Considering the numerous changes in administrations over the years, changes in State department staffing and relocations of offices and files, it is almost miraculous that this single sheet of paper survived for over a century, first in the State department and then in the National Archives.
Upon learning of the discovery of the lost pledge, Virginia Senator, Harry F. Byrd proposed a congressional resolution for a posthumous pardon and restoration of citizenship for Robert E. Lee. Normally the approval of such a resolution would have been routine. But there were a few members of Congress who did not want the federal government to take any action that would benefit the memory of the great General. One of these Congressmen, the Democratic Representative from Michigan, John Conyers, strongly and vocally opposed the measure. Conyers referred to the resolution as "neither healing nor charitable."
But Congress, to its credit, overwhelmingly voted in favor of the resolution and President Gerald Ford indicated his willingness to sign it. The signing ceremony took place on August 5, 1975, at Arlington House, the former home of General Lee’s family. The room was filled with distinguished citizens and dignitaries including Virginia’s Governor, its Senators and its Representatives. These excerpts from the comments President Ford made at the signing ceremony are a fitting tribute to Robert E. Lee.
"I am very pleased to sign Senate Joint Resolution 23, restoring posthumously the long overdue, full rights of citizenship to General Robert E. Lee. This legislation corrects a 110-year oversight of American history. It is significant that it is signed at this place. Lee’s dedication to his native State of Virginia chartered his course for the bitter Civil War years, causing him to reluctantly resign from a distinguished career in the United States Army and to serve as General of the Army of Northern Virginia. He, thus, forfeited his rights to U.S. citizenship. Once the war was over, he firmly felt the wounds of the North and South must be bound up. He sought to show by example that the citizens of the South must dedicate their efforts to rebuilding that region of the country as a strong and vital part of the American Union. As a soldier, General Lee left his mark on military strategy. As a man, he stood as the symbol of valor and of duty. As an educator, he appealed to reason and learning to achieve understanding and to build a stronger nation. The course he chose after the war became a symbol to all those who had marched with him in the bitter years towards Appomattox. General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride. In approving this Joint Resolution, the Congress removed the legal obstacle to citizenship which resulted from General Lee’s Civil War service. Although more than a century late, I am delighted to sign this resolution and to complete the full restoration of General Lee’s citizenship."
President Gerald Ford’s posthumous pardon of Robert E. Lee was indeed an event in which every American can take pride. But it also created an interesting bit of trivia. On Christmas Day of 1868, President Andrew Johnson, in one of his last official acts before leaving office, granted a blanket pardon to all those who "participated in the late insurrection or rebellion." Does this mean that General Lee has the distinction of being the only American to be pardoned by two Presidents — 100 years apart? It poses a fascinating question but one that I will let history professors debate.