This story is part of The Confederate Reckoning, a collaborative project of USA TODAY Network newsrooms across the South to critically examine the legacy of the Confederacy and its influence on systemic racism today.
Even in his last days, Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, had already become a myth — a myth that gave a defeated South something to cling to; a means of understanding its defeat.
"After his death, I think he became a symbol of ‘nice guys can lose,’ that we have at least a hero, if not a victory … someone who is sacrificed for the greater values – the greater values being, in part, white supremacy but other things too," Emory Thomas, a historian and modern Lee biographer said.
He led the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War after resigning his commission in the U.S. Army and turning down the offer of leading Union forces against the rebellion. In doing so, he would effectively renounce his U.S. citizenship, which would only be restored in 1975.
While he believed slavery was a moral ill, Lee still owned slaves and did not change his white supremacist views throughout his life.
His military exploits would come close to securing Southern independence and solidifying the status of a country founded in defense of slavery. However, the combination of the Union's industrial might, his own mistakes, and the strategy of Union General Ulysses Grant would lead to his defeat.
In 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. His exploits during the war and his canonization by defeated Southerners have rendered him among the most famous losers in military history.
To Thomas, who wrote "Robert E. Lee: A Biography", published in 1995, historical evidence shows Lee was a man who lived by a strict moral code, a sense of honor and duty; a great soldier and engineer who rose to the challenges he faced.
Thomas also noted that Lee was not progressive with regard to race. Lee believed slavery was morally wrong, but he did not believe the abolition of slaves should come through the works of man, but, instead, the will of God.
In an interview, Thomas referenced a famous letter Lee wrote about slavery in 1857. In it, Lee distilled his views as a slave-owner on race.
"In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it, however, a greater evil to the white man than to the black race," Lee wrote. "The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy."
In that letter, and other moments throughout his life, including testimony before Congress after the Civil War, Lee displayed views on race that Thomas described as compatible with social Darwinism — a worldview that arose later in the 19th century and early 20th that Western governments, particularly that of the U.S., used to justify colonization, war and imperialism.
In 1862, he would free his father-in-law's slaves, as required by the man's will, a matter of weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.
"He anticipated social Darwinism… In the evolutionary pyramid of human beings, I think he saw white folks like himself at the top. And African Americans somewhere down the ranks, above American Indians whom he really thought were dreadful," Thomas said.
"It was comfortable for white folks to believe, particularly the successful ones, to believe that the world is an evolutionary jungle out there and the people who survive are the fittest and hence they are the end product of evolution…which is patently wrong because the people who make the rules govern the evolution [of] who survives and who doesn’t."
After the Civil War, Lee became president of what is now Washington and Lee University, working to expand a small, struggling school in Lexington, Virginia. In his biography of Lee, Thomas noted the role of mediator Lee played between the population of freedmen and his students, some of whom attacked Black residents. On several occasions, Lee dismissed students involved in attacks on Black people.
Those actions, according to Thomas, were more about preserving the recently restored peace than about concern for freedmen and should not be taken as a sign Lee supported Reconstruction. His wife, Mary Custis Lee, wrote in post-war letters about the upended status quo and claimed the family had been robbed by Black people.
Lee's views on race were not much different than many white men of the time — North or South, according to Thomas.
"The entire country was a bunch of white racists… Most Americans had certain racial views similar to those of white Southerners during the period of the Civil War," Thomas said. "Americans were just as happy to see Black people emancipated as long as they stayed in the South."
He noted the riots and violence perpetrated against Black people in New York City during draft riots in 1863.
The "Lost Cause" mythology that Lee now embodies took root, Thomas said, as a search for meaning in Southern defeat.
"You lose the war and you're scrambling, trying to get crumbs of dignity from the fact that you lost... The Lost Cause is a way of saying, 'good people can lose and we were good.' You factor race out of it, which many white Southerners did."
Thomas agrees with the historical view that the U.S. did not reckon with the racial legacy and impact of the Civil War, instead focusing on reconciliation.
"One of the reasons we have racial tension in this country is that we’ve never resolved the question of what to do when you try to square industrial capitalism with humanitarian concerns for 4 million freedmen," Thomas said. "And the way to do it would be to give those freedmen property, to confiscate and redistribute wealth. And nobody had the will to do that. And because they didn’t in 1865-69, we have a second Reconstruction in the Civil Rights movement, which is apparently still ongoing."