During the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee was a highly-respected military mind. After the official surrender of the Confederate forces on April 9, 1865, however, he became just another chapter in U.S. history.
Lee went from being a well-known leader to a defeated older man with an uncertain future. He was trained at West Point and later became its superintendent, but his life as a soldier ended the day the Confederacy ended. Lee was officially pardoned by Abraham Lincoln, who was, at that point, the last President standing. Then, Lee had nowhere to go. Even his home was lost with the end of the war.
General Robert E. Lee’s estate was smack in the middle of what became a national cemetery. That’s right: Lee made his home in Arlington, Virginia before the Civil War changed the course of destiny. Lee moved, with his family, to Lexington, Virginia and became the president of Washington College.
An inglorious end
It was not a prestigious post or a high-paying one, but it suited Lee. At the war’s end, Lee wanted only to live a quiet life… and to become a citizen of the United States again. He signed an oath of amnesty in 1865, asking to become a citizen once more.
A twist of fate, or perhaps a quiet act of malice, caused Lee’s paperwork to be lost. The oath was never officially filed, and Lee was never again a citizen of the U.S. in his lifetime. That piece of paper stayed lost for a century and was only found later in the National Archives. Lee died as a guest of the United States on October 12, 1870, of heart failure.
The final chapter
In August 1975, at a ceremony at Arlington House, President Gerald Ford re-instated General Lee’s citizenship to the United States. Lee’s body is buried on the grounds of Washington College, which today is known as Washington and Lee University. This is not much of a legacy for a man who was, at one time, one of the country’s greatest military strategists.
Lee was also a southerner, and on the wrong side of a conflict that continues to ring down through history. Today, Lee is still reviled by many. Statues and pictures of him are found offensive, and others have used Lee’s likeness as a rallying cry to promote racism. But in the end, Lee was an American who was fighting for a cause that he believed in. The cause was misguided. Lee was misguided. In life and in death, he paid for his mistake many, many times over.