Today in History:

An Interview With Robert E. Lee

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"On the subject of slavery, he (General Lee) assured me that he had always been in
favour of the emancipation of the negroes, and that in Virginia the
feeling had been strongly inclining in the same direction, till the
ill-judged enthusiasm (accounting to rancour) of the abolitionists in
the North had turned the southern tide of feeling in the other
direction.  In Virginia, about thirty years ago, an ordinance for the
emancipation of the slaves had been rejected by only a small majority,
and every one fully expected at the next convention it would have been
carried, but for the above cause.  He went on to say that there was
scarcely a Virginian new who was not glad that the subject had been
definitely settled, though nearly all regretted that they had not been
wise enough to do it themselves the first year of the war.  Allusion
was made by him to a conversation he had with a distinguished contryman
of mine.  He had been visiting a large slave plantation (Shirley) on
the James River.  The Englishman had told him that the working
population were better cared for there than in any country he had ever
visited, but that he must never expect an approval of the institution
of slavery by England, or aid from her in any cause in which that
question was involved.  Taking these facts and the well-known antipathy
of the mass of the English to the institution in consideration, he
said he had never expected help from England.  The people 'at the South'
(as the expression is), in the main, though scarcely unanimously,
seem to hold much the same language as General Lee with reference to
our neutrality, and to be much less bitter than Northerners generally--
who, I must confess, in my own opinion, have much less cause to complain
of our interpretation of the laws of neutrality than the South.  I may
mention here, by way of parenthesis, that I was, on two separate
occasions (one in Washington and once in Lexington), told that there
were many people in the country who wished that General Washington
had never lived and that they were still subjects of Queen Victoria;
but I should certainly say as a rule the Americans are much too well
satisfied with themselves for this feeling to be at all common.  General
Lee, in the course of this to me most interesting evening's seance,
gave me many details of the war too long to put on paper, but, with
reference to the small result of their numerous victories, accounted
for it in this way:  the force which the Confederates brought to bear
was so often inferior in numbers to that of the Yankees that the more
they followed up the victory against one portion of the enemy's line
the more did they lay themselves open to being surrounded by the
remainder of the enemy.  He likened the operation to a man breasting
a wave of the sea, who, as rapidly as he clears a way before him, is
enveloped by the very water he has displaced.  He spoke of the final
surrender as inevitable owing to the superiority in numbers of the
enemy.  His own army had, during the last few weeks, suffered materially
from defection in its ranks, and, discouraged by failures and worn out
by hardships, had at the time of the surrender only 7,892 men under
arms, and this little army was almost surrounded by one of 100,000.
They might, the General said with an air piteous to behold, have cut
their way out as they had done before, but, looking upon the struggle
as hopeless, I was not surprised to hear him say that he thought it
cruel to prolong it.  In two other battles he named (Sharpsburg and
Chancellorsville, I think he said), the Confederates were to the
Federals in point of numbers as 35,000 to 120,000 and 45,000 to
155,000 respectively, so that the mere disparity of numbers was not
sufficient to convince him of the necessity of surrender; but feeling
that his own army was persuaded of the ultimate hopelessness of the
contest as evidenced by their defection, he took the course of
surrendering his army in lieu of reserving it for utter annihilation.

"Turning to the political bearing of the important question at issue,
the great Southern general gave me, at some length, his feelings with
regard to the abstract right of secession.  This right, he told me,
was held as a constitutional maxim at the South.  As to its exercise
at the time on the part of the South, he was distinctly opposed, and
it was not until Lincoln issued a proclamation for 75,000 men to invade
the South, which was deemed clearly unconstitutional, that Virginia
withdrew from the United States."

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