Author: Allen C. Guelzo

the director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College and the author of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004), Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (2013), and Robert E. Lee: A Life (2021).

Lee, Robert E. and Slavery

Robert E. Lee was the most successful Confederate military leader during the American Civil War (1861–1865). This also made him, by virtue of the Confederacy’s defense of chattel slavery, the most successful defender of the enslavement of African Americans. Yet his own personal record on both slavery and race is mottled with contradictions and ambivalence, all which were in plain view during his long career. Born into two of Virginia’s most prominent families, Lee spent his early years surrounded by enslaved African Americans, although that changed once he joined the Army. His wife, Mary Randolph Custis Lee, freed her own personal enslaved people, but her father, George Washington Parke Custis, still owned many people, and when he died, Robert E. Lee, as executor of his estate, was responsible for manumitting them within five years. He was widely criticized for taking the full five years. Lee and his wife supported the American Colonization Society before the war but resisted the abolitionist movement. Lee later insisted that his decision to support the Confederacy was not founded on a defense of slavery. During both the Maryland (1862) and Gettysburg (1863) campaigns, Lee’s officers kidnapped free Blacks and sold them into slavery. By 1865, Lee supported the enlistment of African Americans into the Confederate army, but he surrendered before a plan could be implemented. After the war, he generally opposed racial and political equality for African Americans.