“Degradation worse than death”–Lee responds to the Emancipation Proclamation?

From Hennessy and Harrison:

The following appears in a letter from Robert E. Lee to James Seddon, January 10, 1863, urging a concerted effort to increase the size of Confederate armies in the face of the intensifying Union war effort.*  In it, Lee appears to offer commentary on the recently issued Emancipation Proclamation, whose consequences he characterizes darkly and vividly.  Indeed, he seems to use the Proclamation as an argument for redoubled recruiting and a renewed Confederate effort.

In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. Lee, General.


* O.R. Vol. 21, page 1086. The editors of the ORs incorrectly presumed that this passage refered to a series of orders issued in western Virginia the previous November by Union General Robert H. Milroy, commanding local citizens to pay for the damage done by Confederate raiders.  Clearly, however, the narrow scope of Milroy’s orders (which related solely to the district in which he operated, and which were later repudiated by the federal government) does not comport with the broad commentary offered here by Lee.  Moreover, the Official Records clearly show that on January 10, Lee was still in the process of investigating the nature of Milroy’s orders to confirm they had indeed been issued.

While the January 10 letter to Seddon Lee quoted here does not mention the Emancipation Proclamation by name, it seems apparent that his language refers to it.

16 thoughts on ““Degradation worse than death”–Lee responds to the Emancipation Proclamation?

  1. I don’t know. It’s a pretty good argument I’ll give you that, but I would like to see some more commentary and maybe a few more statements by Lee to give certainty to this idea.

  2. Just a suggestion but, could this not have been a reference to Milroy’s January 1, 1863 occupation of Winchester with an approximate force of 7,000 and a dogmatic application of exceedingly harsh policies toward civilians? Granted, Milroy was quite energized by the Emancipation Proclamation as he established control of the region, but the assumption that the Proclamation itself is what Lee speaks of here is wanting. Lee was quite concerned as to how he could expend men to drive Milroy out and was justifiably worried that he could not supply such an expedition during winter months.
    What else suggests an incorrect assumption by the editors of the ORs? Milroy’s forces were a severe threat to home and hearth in the Valley and would continue to be until they left for the Gettysburg Campaign.

    • John: Noel and I both agree that the language Lee uses likely was not provoked by the sort of financial levies imposed by Milroy. As I mentioned too, on January 10, Lee was still trying to clarify and understand exactly what Milroy had done in western Virginia. If you read the full run of letters related to this in the ORs, you’ll see that the complaint about Milroy’s levies dates to well prior to his occupation of Winchester. It seems to me that financial levies don’t threaten “the honor of our families” with “pollution” and threaten the “social system” with “destruction.” But, you are quite right that the letter is not entirely clear, and so each can take from the passage what they think the evidence suggests. I daresay, though, that if the editors of the ORs hadn’t linked this letter to the Milroy business (Lee wrote another letter to Seddon the same day about Milroy, which is probably the root of their presumption that the two are related), I don’t think there’d be much doubt in anyone’s mind what Lee was writing about. John H.

    • John: I mention the levies only because that’s what the bubbling complaint by Lee referred to during this period. The occupation of Winchester by Milroy’s men, while harsher than previous occupations, had not really even taken full form by January 10, and in any event included nothing (beyond Milroy’s joy over emancipation) that held the potential to affect Southern society in the manner referenced by Lee. John H.

      • I guess we can never know, this far removed from the circumstances, but I would hate to convict on this circumstantial evidence. Interesting that it would be something alluded to rather than just plain spelled out. Seems more likely that its vagueness implies a link to something previously referenced by either men.
        It fits if we want it to fit. I am sorry we are trying so hard to do so.

      • John: Convict? Of what? That Lee saw slavery as a system of racial control whose end would threaten the traditional basis of Southern society is nothing new; his views reflect the views of most Southerners, and not a few Northerners too (Lee’s views reflect Jefferson’s in many ways). When in 1856 Lee wrote his famous letter deploring the “moral and political evil” of slavery, he also spoke of abolition as “an evil course.” He went on, “the question has ever been, What will you do with the freed people? This is a serious question today. Unless some human course based upon wisdom and Christian principles is adopted, you do them a great injustice in setting them free.” His writings on January 10, 1863, are entirely consistent with his past writings on the topic. What differs here, and renders the 1863 letter more interesting, is his apparent use of emancipation as a rallying cry for a redoubled effort on the part of the South and his forceful choice of words–uncommon for Lee. But there is no “convicting” Lee of anything here.

  3. By “conviction”, I am implying that the weight of supporting evidence, that Lee wrote this regarding the Emancipation Proclamation, is extremely speculative. I am also concerned that by suggesting that these unsubstantiated “uncommon-words for Lee”, represent some sort of hidden demon, we are darkening further an already bleak past. Your examples of Lee calling for “wisdom and Christian principles” and decrying slavery as “a moral and political evil”, are more in keeping with his character of legend that some are happily trying to tear asunder in today’s academia. Is this suggesting Lee considered emancipating slaves, “degradation worse than death”? And what of this saving “the honor of our families from pollution”, is this a suggestion that Lee is speaking of miscegenation? Assigning such heavy accusations does what in this instance? How do we benefit? If the purpose of this letter was already put forth to speak of General Milroy’s actions, by those who handled and edited for publication the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion”, how are we so much wiser 130 years after that to suggest they were “incorrect”? I am not writing this to defend the “Marble Man”, I am worried that looking for racism in hidden places is not helping us reconcile the wounds of our past, it is on the contrary, tearing open well healed scars and rubbing salt into the trauma.

    • I’d offer too that being selective in our view of history–discussing things only that please us–has done far more damage than an honest presentation and understanding of it ever could.

  4. One thing to take into account in favor of the linkage of the letter to the issuance of the final EP is that one of the most critical differences between the terms of the Preliminary EP and the final EP was the latter’s provision: “And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” This was going way beyond simple emancipation of slaves.

  5. It was more than just a levy. Here were Milroy’s instructions, which Lee protested to Halleck.

    “If they fail to pay at the end of the time you have named, their houses will be burned and themselves shot and their property all seized; and be sure that you carry out this threat rigidly and show them that you are not trifling or to be trifled with.

    You will inform the inhabitants for ten or fifteen miles around your camp, on all the roads approaching the town upon which the enemy may approach, that they must dash in and give you notice, and that upon failure of any one to do so their houses will be burned and the men shot.”

    In the O.R. on the same date immediately follows orders to Imboden to surpress, as much as possible, execution of Milroy’s orders.

    That said, I think you are right in making the point that on January 1 the Emancipation had been put into force (Milroy issued a proclamation announcing it to Winchester citizens on January 5).

    I believe the editor’s of the O.R. got it right in their asterisk reference to correspondence in Series III, but historians are also correct in placing the letter into the larger context of the Emancipation Proclamation. I think it would not be correct, however, to deny the link to Milroy’s actions, which Lee spent much time on January 10 attempting to address, and did address in his very next letter the same day.

  6. It is a stretch requiring a bungee cord to presume that Lee’s January 10th letter is a reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation for at least two reasons.

    First, as noted, Lee’s response does not mention the EP.

    Second, if Lee (or anyone) were to have a hostile visceral reaction such a reaction would have been much more likely in September 1862 when Lincoln first announced the EP. The January 1863 announcement was a mere formality.

    In fact it was even softer than the September 1862 announcement because Lincoln added that he encouraged the ex-slaves to refrain from violence and work for fair wages whereas the earlier EP did not. Even many Northerners presumed that the September 1862 EP was an attempt by Lincoln to promote a slave rebellion in the South.

    • Actually, there were quite visceral replies to both…the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation 22 Sep. 1862 referenced Sections 9 and 10 of the 1862 Confiscation Act; however, Section 11 of this Act authorized Lincoln to recruit as many blacks as he chose and employ them in whatever manner he thought best to put down the rebellion.(1) The allusion was not lost on Davis, who in December declared black soldiers captured would be “returned” to slavery and their white officers would be executed for inciting slave rebellion. The actual Emancipation Proclamation did, in fact, include differences, such as explicitly inviting blacks “into the armed service of the United States.”(2) Davis declared the EP on 10 April 1863, “the crowning attempt to excite a servile population to the massacre of our wives, our daughters, and our helpless children.”(3) On 24 April Lincoln issued Francis Lieber’s “A Code for Government of Armies in the Field,” which includes principles such as “The Law of Nations knows no distinction of color, and if an enemy of the United States should enslave and sell any captured persons of their Army, it would be a case for the severest retaliation…” as his General Order No. 100; it formed the basis for his demands of equal treatment for black soldiers (and is still the basis for the U.S. Military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice).(4) The CSA Congress rejected Lincoln’s demands for equal treatment and codified Davis’ December decree on 1 May in what is known as the Retaliatory Act.(5) Captured black U.S. troops “identified” as fugitive slaves were forced into slavery or forced to build fortifications; those who had been free blacks were held as POWs, though some were sold into slavery.(6)

      As to whether Lee’s letter refers to the EP: the claim cannot be substantiated. However, the wording is certainly consistent–almost word for word in some cases–with dire warnings of Secession Commissioners dispatched to convince those states slower to secede of the necessity to do so; slavery had to be protected and the slaves kept in their place, or those damned Black Republicans will have them defiling our women! I agree the sequence of documentary evidence does not prove Lee is referencing Milroy; but as Lee does not specifically identify either the EP or Milroy assigning either as his subject is speculative.

      (1) Abraham Lincoln, “The First Edition of Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary
      Emancipation Proclamation,” Library of Congress, September 22, 1862,
      https://www.loc.gov/item/scsm001017/, 2.

      (2) Abraham Lincoln, “The Emancipation Proclamation,” January 1, 1863, 3, 4.

      (3) Frank Moore, ed., The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, Documents,
      Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, Etc., Vol. VI (New York: G. P. Putnam,
      1868), 517.

      (4) Francis Lieber, A Code for Government of Armies in the Field, as Authorized by the
      Laws and Usages of War on Land (Washington, D.C.: War Dept. Adj. General’s
      Office, 1863), 11.

      (5) Moore, ed., The Rebellion Record, Vol. VI, 727.

      (6) Holland Thompson, The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes,
      Volume VII: Prisons and Hospitals (New York: The Review of Reviews Co., 1911),

  7. Came across this thread doing research on Lee. Not sure if this has been mentioned, but what about Lee’s own Emancipation Declaration made in December 1862 and recorded in Richmond on January 2nd (or was it 3rd) 1863? Lee had just granted freedom to Custis’s slaves and his own personal slaves, declaring that they were deserving of their freedom. I find it hard to square that Lee would react so harshly to the Emancipation Proclamation after he himself declared his own slaves free. Also, keep in mind that Lee had just butchered the Union army at Fredericksburg. So, in order of events, Lee defeats the Union army handedly at Fredericksburg, sends a letter home to Mary directing her to free ALL the family slaves, and then flips out about the Emancipation Proclamation? I can see how he might think it a threat to his military objectives, but I can’t read anything more than that into it. This is just my 50,000 ft view. I’m still digging into the details. But, I find it hard to believe that Lee would have a personal issue with the Emancipation Proclamation. Is that your claim? Maybe Lee was talking about something else? Or, could he have been playing on James Seddon’s personal sympathies and fears as a way to draw up the men he knew he desperately needed? It seems to me that at the time Lee wrote the passage you’ve quoted, he was personally done with slavery.

  8. Pingback: [Ilya Somin] Why slippery slope arguments should not stop us from removing Confederate monuments – Ben Lee

  9. Lol orrr maybe he freed his own slaves to fill the ranks of his army by “every means employable” to protect his estate. Hoping they’d fight for their freedom. then turn around and suffer the black codes and jim crow. Hence, the few images of “black confederates” we see floating around the internet. haha

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