Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Robert E. Lee’s Private Unionist Beliefs

Friends comfort each other in hard times, and sometimes they bare their souls.  Robert E. Lee discussed his Unionist beliefs (held before and after the Civil War) with his friend, former Iowa U.S. Senator George Wallace Jones, who had two sons in the Confederate Army.

Political record

Lee wrote Jones on March 22, 1869:

… I was not in favor of secession and was opposed to war.  In fact, I was for the Constitution and the Union established by our forefathers.  No one now is more in favor of that Union and that Constitution, and as far as I know, it is that for which the South has all along contended; and if restored, as I trust they will be, I am sure there will be no truer supporters of that Union and that Constitution than the Southern people.

But I must not wander into politics, a subject I carefully avoid, and return to your letter.

Robert E. Lee in U.S. uniform (Library of Congress)

Lee added greetings and a benediction:

Please present my kindest regards to every member of your family, especially to your brave sons who aided in our struggle for States rights and Constitutional Government.  We failed, but in the good Providence of God, apparent failure often proves a blessing.  I trust it may eventuate so in this instance …

With my earnest prayers for the peace and happiness of yourself and all your family, I am with true regard, your friend and servant.

R.E. Lee

Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress)

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11 Comments

  1. Mark Decker

    Do you have the full text of the letter?

    • David Connon

      Hi, Mark. George Wallace Jones had written to Robert E. Lee on January 15 and March 16, 1869, after which Lee responded. I transcribed most of the letter (which is held in the George Wallace Jones Collection at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines.). I would be glad to e-mail you the transcription of the three letters.

  2. Good stuff, as usual, Dave. Lee was guided by duty and honor as much as any man I have ever been aware of. I knew of Davis’ friendship with Jones, but unaware of Lee’s friendship with him. Keep up the excellent research and information sharing. Maybe some of it will wear off on today’s crowd of the politically correct (ignorant)!

    • David Connon

      Hi, Dick. Thank you for your kind comment. As far as I know, Lee and George Wallace Jones were not close friends. Lee may have felt liberty to use the word “friend” based on their common friends and colleagues, including former Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

  3. Abraham Edelheit

    Another reason not to rush taking down all statues of Confederate leaders.

  4. Good piece; it serves as a corrective for all the hate being spewed at Lee of late. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson’s widow stated categorically that her husband would not have gone to war against the Union to defend slavery.

  5. Mike Jenkins

    Slavery caused the war, but it’s not why it reached the level it did. The Confederacy didn’t jell until the upper south seceded. Virginia was against secession, but more against the government using force to hold the union together. The union was supposed to be based on consent, not control. Lincoln couldn’t make the legal case for use of force to maintain the union. He was a good lawyer, but he couldn’t make that case. When Fort Sumpter prompted Lincoln to call for troops to suppress the rebellion there, that changed the union from one of consent to one of control. That is the issue that caused Virginia to secede. Not slavery. Imagine Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Richmond, Tredegar Ironworks..all with the North, or at least not with the South. The war would have been a lot less long and lethal. But slavery would have lasted longer.

    • David Connon

      Hi, Mike Jenkins.

      You made a lot of good points! I especially appreciated your statement, “Imagine Lee, Jackson, Richmond, Tredegar ironworks, all with the North, or at least not with the South. The war would have been a lot less long and lethal, but slavery would have lasted longer.” Thanks for reading my blog.

    • Interesting points, Mike. However, the causes of the war are as complex as the actors who played the parts in it. Slavery, State’s Rights and the almighty dollar created an environment that was a sure recipe for conflict. Add some fringe elements and personal ambitions to the mix also. I don’t know if we will ever truly understand the “causes” of this watershed in US history.

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