In the news 150 years ago, today – General Lee’s Testimony Before the Reconstruction Committee

Posted on April 10, 2016 by


The following appeared in the Staunton Spectator, 150 years ago, today. Good stuff about postwar Virginia, from Lee’s perspective.

LeePostwarIn the House of Representatives, on Tuesday week, Mr. Conkling, from the Joint Committee of Fifteen, reported a large amount of evidence on the condition of the Southern States. The following is the testimony of General Robert E. Lee, who was sworn and examined on the 17th of February, 1866:

By Senator Howard. – Where is your present residence?

A – Lexington, Va.

Q – How long have you been in Lexington?

A – Since the 1st of October last – nearly five months.

Q – Are you acquainted with the state of feeling among what we call the secessionists at present in Virginia towards the Federal Government?

A – I do not know that I am. I have been living very retired, and have had but little communication with politicians. I know nothing more than from my observations and such facts as have come to my knowledge.

Q – What is your opinion, from observation among the secession people, of the state of feeling towards this Government, at this time?

A – So far as comes to my knowledge, I do not know of a single person who either feels or contemplates any resistance to the Government of the United States, or indeed any opposition to it. No word has reached me to either purpose.

Q – From what you have observed is it your opinion that they are friendly towards the Government, and that they will co-operate to sustain and uphold it in future?

A – I believe they entirely acquiesce in the Government, and so far as I have heard any one express an opinion, they are for co-operating with President Johnson in his policy.

Q – In his policy in regard to what?

A – His policy in regard to the restoration of the whole country. I have heard persons with whom I have conversed, express great confidence in the wisdom of his policy of restoration, and they seem to look forward to it as a hope of restoration.

Q – How do they feel in regard to that portion of the United States who have been forward and zealous in the prosecution of the war against rebellion?

A – Well, I do not know. I have heard nobody express any opinion in regard to it. As I said before, I have not had much connection with politicians in the country, if there are any. Every one seems to be engaged in his own affairs and in endeavoring to restore the civil government of the State. I have heard no expression of sentiment towards any particular portion of the country.

Q – How do the secessionists feel in regard to the payment of the Federal debt?

A – I have never heard any one speak on the subject. I suppose they must expect to pay the taxes levied by the Government. I have heard them speak in reference to the payment of taxes, and of their efforts to raise money therefore, which I suppose is for their share of the debt. I have never heard any one speak in opposition to the payment of taxes or of resistance to their payment. Their whole effort has been to try and raise money to pay the taxes.

Q – From your opinion and knowledge of the people of Virginia, would they, if the question was left to them, repudiate and reject that debt?

A – I never heard any one speak on that subject, but from my knowledge of the people, I believe they would be in favor of payment of all just debts.

Q – Do they, in your opinion, regard that as a just debt?

A – I do not know what their opinion is on the subject. I have never heard any opinion expressed, but I have never heard any opinion expressed contrary to it. Indeed, as I said in the beginning, I have had very little discussion or intercourse with the people. I believe the people would pay the debts they are called on to pay. I say that from my knowledge of the people generally.

Q – Would they pay that debt, or their potion of it, with as much alacrity as people ordinarily pay their taxes to the Government?

A – I do not know that they would make any distinction between the two. The taxes levied by the Government, so far as I know, they are prepared to pay to the best of their ability. I never heard them make any distinction.

Q – What is the feeling of the people of Virginia towards the payment of the so-called Confederate debt?

A – I believe, so far as my opinions go – and I have no facts to go upon – they would be willing to pay the Confederate debts, too.

Q – You think they would?

A – I think they would, if they had the power and ability to do so. I have never heard any one in the State with whom I have conversed speak of repudiating any debt.

Q – I suppose the Confederate debt is valueless, even in the market in Virginia.

A – Entirely; so far as I know, I believe the people look upon it as lost entirely. I never heard any question on the subject.

Q – Do you recollect when the Confederate bonds were made payable?

A – I have a general recollection that they were made payable six months after a declaration of peace.

Q – Six months after a ratification of peace between the United States and the Confederate Government.

A – I think they read that way.

Q – So that the bonds are not due yet by their terms?

A – I suppose, unless it is considered that there is peace now, they are not due.

Q – How do the people of Virginia, the secessionists particularly, feel towards the freed-men?

A – Every one with whom I have associated expresses kind feelings towards the freedmen. They wish to see them get on in the world, and particularly to take up some occupation for a for a living, and to turn their hands to some work. – I know that efforts have been made among the farmers near where I live to induce them to engage for the year at regular wages.

Q – Do you think there is a willingness on the part of their old masters to give them fair wages for their labor?

A – I believe it is so. The farmers generally prefer those servants who have been living with them before. I have heard them express their preference for the men whom they know who have lived with them before, and their wish to get them to return to work. I am not aware of any combination among the whites to keep down the wages of the blacks. I have heard that in several counties land-owners have met in order to establish a uniform rate of wages, but I never heard of any combinations to keep down wages, or establish a rate which they did not think fair. The means of paying wages in Virginia are very limited now, and there is a difference of opinion as to how much each person is able to pay.

Q – How do they feel in regard to the education of blacks? Is there a general willingness or unwillingness to have them educated?

A – Where I have been the people exhibit a willingness that the blacks should be educated, and they express an opinion that that would be better for the blacks and better for the whites.

Q – General, you are very competent to judge of the capacity of black men to acquire knowledge. I want your opinion on that capacity as compared with the capacity of white men.

A – I do not know that I am particularly qualified to speak on that subject as you seem to intimate; but I do not think he is as capable of acquiring knowledge as the white man is. – There are some more apt than others. I have known some to gain knowledge and skill in their trade or profession. I have had servants of my own who learned to read and write very well.

Q – Do they show a capacity to obtain a knowledge of mathematics and exact sciences?

A – I have no knowledge on that subject. I am merely acquainted with those who have learned the common rudiments of education.

Q – General, are you aware of any combination existing among the blacks of Virginia, anywhere in the State, having in view the disturbance of the peace, or any improper or unlawful acts?

A – I am not; I have seen no evidence of it, and have heard of none; wherever I have been they have been quiet and orderly, not disposed to work, or rather not disposed to any continuous engagement to work, but just very short jobs to provide them with the immediate means of subsistence.

Q – Had the colored race generally as much love for money and property as the white race?

A – I do not think it has; the blacks whom I know look more to the present than to the future.

Q – Does the absence of a lust for money arise more from the nature of the negro than from his former servile conditions?

A – Well, it may be in some measure attributed to his former condition; they are an amiable, social race; they like their ease and comfort, and I think look more to their prese4nt than their future condition.

Q – In the event of a war between the United States and any foreign power, such as England or France, if there should be held out to the secession portion of the people of Virginia or the other recently rebel States, a fair prospect of gaining their independence and shaking off the Government of the United States, is it, or is it not your opinion that they would avail themselves of that opportunity?

A – I cannot speak with any certainty on that point; I do not know how far they might be actuated by their feelings; I have nothing whatever to base an opinion upon; so far as I know, they contemplate nothing of the kind now; what may happen in the future I cannot say.

Q – Do you frequently hear, in your intercourse with secessionists in Virginia, expressions of a hope that such a war may break out?

A – I cannot say that I have heard it; on the contrary, I have heard persons (I do not know whether you could call them secessionists or not – I mean those people in Virginia with whom I associate) express a hope that the country may not be led into a war.

Q – In such an event do you think that that class of people whom I call secessionist would join the common enemy?

A – It is possible – it depends upon the feeling of the individual.

Q – If it is a fair question (you may answer it or not as you choose) what, in such an event, might be your own choice?

A – I have no disposition now to do it, and never have had.
Q And you cannot foresee that such would be your inclination in such an event?

A – No; I can only judge from the past; I do not know what circumstances may produce; I cannot pretend to foresee events. So far as I know, the wish of the people of Virginia is for peace.

Q – During the war was it not contemplated by the Government of the Confederate States to form an alliance with some foreign nation if possible?

A – I believe it was their wish to do so; it was their wish to have the Confederate Government recognized as an independent Government. I have no doubt if it could have made favorable treaties it would have done so; but I know nothing of the policy of the Government; I had no hand or part in it; I merely express my own opinion.

Q – The question I am about to put to you you may answer or not, as you choose – “Did you take an oath of fidelity or allegiance to the Confederate Government?”

A – I do not recollect having done so, but it is possible when I was commissioned I did. I do not recollect whether it was required. If it was required I took it; or if it had been required I would have taken it – but I do not recollect whether it was or not.

By Mr. Blow – Q, In reference to the effect of President Johnson’s policy, if it were adopted, would there be anything like a return to the old feeling. I ask that because you used the expression “acquiescing in the result?”

A – I believe it would take time for the feeling of the people to be of that cordial nature to the Government that they were formerly.

Q – Do you think that their preference for that policy arises from a desire to have good feeling and peace in the country, or from the probability of their regaining political power?

A – So far as I know the desire of the people of the South, it is for the restoration of their civil government, and they look upon the policy of President Johnson as the one which would most clearly and most surely r-establish it.

Q – Do you see any change in reference to the poorer people of Virginia as regards industry? Are they as much, or more interested, in developing their material interests than they were?

A – I have not observed any change. Every one now has to attend to his business for his support.

Q – The poorer classes are generally hard at work, are they?
A So far as I know they are. I know nothing to the contrary. I have noticed no change in their relations to the colored people. So far as I know, the feelings of all of the people of Virginia are kind to the colored people. I have never heard any blame attributed to them as to the present condition of things, or any responsibility.

Q – Can capitalists and working men from the North go into Virginia and go to work among the people?

A – I do not know anything to prevent them. Their peace and pleasure there would depend very much on their conduct. If they confined themselves to their own business and did not interfere to provoke controversies with their neighbors, I do not believe they would be molested. There is no desire to keep out labor or capital. On the contrary, they are very anxious to get labor and capital into the State. The manner in which they would be received (as I said before) would depend entirely on the individual. They might make themselves obnoxious, as you can understand.

By Mr. Howard – Is there not a general dislike of Northern men among secessionists?

A – I suppose they would prefer not to associate with them; I do not know that they would select them as associates.

Q – Do they avoid and ostracize them socially?

A – They might avoid them. They would not select them as associates unless there was some reason. I do not know that they would associate until they became acquainted. I think it probable that they would not admit them into their social circles.

By Mr. Blow – Do you think the colored persons would rather work for a Northern man than a Southern man?

A – I think it very probable that they would prefer a Northern man, although I have no facts. I know of numbers of the blacks engaging with their own masters, and I know of a good many who prefer to go off and look for new homes. Whether it is from any dislike to their former masters or from a desire to change or that they feel more free and independent, I do not know.

Q – What is your opinion in regard to the material interests of Virginia – do you think they will be equal to what they were before the rebellion, under the changed aspect of affairs?

A – It will take a long time for them to reach their former standard. I think that after some years they will reach it. I hope they will exceed it – but it can’t be immediately, in my opinion. It will take a number of years.

Q – On the whole, the condition of things in Virginia is hopeful, both in regard to its material interests and the future peace of the country?

A – I have heard great hope expressed, and great cheerfulness and willingness to labor.

Q – Suppose that this policy of President Johnson should be all you anticipate, and that you should also realize all that you expect in the improvement of your material interests, do you think the result of that would be the gradual restoration of the old feeling?

A – That would be the natural result, I think, and I see no other way in which that result can be brought about.

Q – There is a fear in the public mind that the friends of the policy in the South adopt it, because they see in it the means of regaining the political position which they lost in the recent contest – do you think that this is the main idea with them, or that they merely look to it as you say, as the best means of restoring the civil government and the peace and prosperity of their respective States?

A – As to the first point you make, I do not think that I ever heard any person speak upon it. I never heard the points separated. I have heard them speak generally as to the effect of the policy of President Johnson. The feeling, so far as I know now, is that there is not that equality extended to the Southern States as is enjoyed by the Northern.

Q – You do not feel down there that while you accept the result, that we are as generous as we ought to be under the circumstances?

A – They think that the North can afford to be generous.

Q – That is the feeling down there?

A – Yes, and they think it is the best policy – those who reflect upon the subject and are able to judge.

Q – I understand it to be your opinion that generosity and liberality towards the entire South would be the surest means of regaining their good opinion?

A – Yes, and the speediest.

Q – I understood you to say generally that you had no apprehension of any combination among the leading secessionists to renew the war, or anything of the kind?

A – I have no reason in the world to think so.

Q – Have you heard that subject talked over among the politicians?

A – No sir; I have not. I have not heard that matter suggested.
Q Let me put another hypothetical case – suppose the Executive of the United States should be filled by a President, who, like Buchanan, rejected the right of coercion, so called and suppose a Congress should exist here, entertaining the same political opinions, thus presenting to the once rebel States the opportunity to again secede from the Union, would they or not, in your opinion, avail themselves of that opportunity, or some of them?

A – I suppose it would depend upon the circumstances existing at the time. If their feelings should remain embittered, and their affections alienated from the rest of the States, I think it very probable they might do so; provided they thought it was to their interest. I do not know there is a deep-seated feeling of dislike towards the Government. I think it probable some animosity may exist among the people. I think at the time that they were disappointed as to the result of the war. I know of no condition of discontent against the Government among the secessionist. I believe that the people will perform towards the Government all of the duties they are required to perform. I think that is the general feeling.

Q – Do you think it would be practicable to convict a man in Virginia of treason for having taken part in this rebellion against the Government by a Virginia jury, without packing it with direct reference to a verdict of guilty?

A – On that point I have no knowledge, and I do not know what they would consider treason against the Government – if you mean past acts.

Mr. Howard – Yes, sir.

General Lee – I have no knowledge as to what their views on that subject in the past are.

Q – You understand my question. Suppose a jury was empanelled in your own neighborhood, taken by lot, would it be practicable to convict, for instance, Jefferson Davis, for having levied war on the United States, and thus having committed the crime of treason?

A – I think it would be very probable they would not consider he had committed treason. I do not know whether a jury would heed the instructions of the court to convict the offender.

Q – They do not generally suppose that it was treason against the Government, do they?

A – I do not think that they do so consider it. So far as I know, they look upon the action of a State in withdrawing from the Government as carrying the individuals in it along with it, that the State was responsible for the act, and not the individual. I am now referring to the past.

Q – State, if you please, (and if you are disinclined you need not answer the question,) what your own personal views on the question were?

A – That was my view – that the act of Virginia in withdrawing herself from the Union carried me along as a citizen of Virginia, and that her laws and her acts were binding on me.

Q – And that you feel to be your justification in taking the course you did?

A – Yes, sir.

Q – I have been told, General, that you have remarked to some of your friends in conversation, that you were rather wheedled or cheated into that course by politicians?

A – I do not recollect ever making that remark; I do not think I ever made it.

Q – If there be any other matter about which you wish to speak, do so freely.

A – Only in reference to that last question you put to me; I may have said, and may have believed, that the position of the two sections which they held to each other were brought about by the politicians of the country; that the great masses of the people, if they understood the real question, would have avoided it; but not that I had been individually wheedled by the politicians. But I did believe at the time that it was an unnecessary condition of affairs, and might have been avoided if forebearance and wisdom had been practiced on both sides.

General Lee then closed his evidence in stating (in reply to questions) that the people of the South would not like the proposed constitutional amendment; that he was not aware of any cruelties to Federal prisoners at belle Isle, tho’ aware that they suffered many privations. He had no control or command whatever over the prisoners’ depots, and did not know who commanded at Andersonville until he saw it in the papers.