The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee
by John Reeves
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had much to be worried about as his once mighty Army of Northern Virginia crumbled in April 1865. On April 9, he would meet Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to formally surrender his forces. In addition to fearing what would happen to his troops, Lee didn’t know his own fate. Would he be tried for treason and brought to the gallows?
How Lee eluded prosecutors and even became a college president is the subject of John Reeves’s fascinating book, The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee: The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon. Today, few people even remember that Lee was charged with treason and had reason to expect he would receive the ultimate punishment for treason, hanging. Reeves describes how despite enormous demand in Congress and the Union states for revenge following the end of the war and the murder of beloved President Abraham Lincoln, Gen. Lee not only outlasted prosecutors but altered his reputation to the point where President Eisenhower placed his portrait in his office and President Ford pardoned him.
Everything had to work perfectly for Lee to avoid prosecution and as Reeves demonstrates, it did. His first priority was to secure immunity. Thanks to Gen. Grant’s parole agreement for Confederate soldiers, Lee was safe from prosecution until the war officially ended. As he waited for the war to be declared over, Lee set out to change his reputation and largely succeeded. While Henry Wirz faced trial and execution for the treatment of prisoners at the Andersonville, Georgia, prison camp, Lee declared ignorance of what happened to prisoners of war once they left his forces. As for slavery, he presented himself as a reluctant slaveowner, bound by his father-in-law’s will.
The legal system worked in Lee’s favor, too. Chief Justice Salmon Chase was assigned to try the case but claimed other duties prevented him from doing so quickly. Charges were brought in Lee’s home state of Virginia, where he was widely popular and prosecutors feared facing a local jury. Years passed and President Andrew Johnson became embroiled in a bitter dispute with Congress over reconstruction. Johnson granted a general amnesty for the former Confederates and Lee’s indictment was dismissed shortly afterward. As Reeves points out, he had outlasted prosecutors. He died a free man.
Because he never faced trial, Lee’s conduct was left to historians rather than a jury of his peers. The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee is an important contribution to our legal history.