An interview with John Reeves, author of The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee

Lost Indictment.jpg

This is an interview with John Reeves about his recent book The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee. To read a review of the book click here. 

To start, give our readers an idea of your main argument or point in The Lost Indictment. Why did you write this book?

 The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee tells the story of the forgotten legal and moral case that was made against the Confederate general-in-chief after the Civil War. On June 7, 1865, just two months after his surrender at Appomattox, Robert E. Lee was indicted for treason by a Virginia grand jury and faced death by hanging if convicted. He also suffered harsh criticism in the press for his apparent hypocrisy on the issue of slavery and his alleged mistreatment of Union prisoners. Somehow, Lee escaped punishment on the treason charge and went on to become one of the most highly regarded Americans in our history. The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee tells the little-known story of the government’s failure to prosecute the South’s beloved military hero, a result that had wide-ranging ramifications for the future. The book also considers why we erased this story from our national memory for so long. In just the past few years, Americans have begun to reevaluate the legacy of Robert E. Lee, so this story is quite timely, I believe.

In David Blight’s outstanding book Race and Reunion, he quotes Robert Penn Warren who wrote, “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.” Blight believes that post-Civil War Americans struggled with the tension between healing and justice. Over the years, our natural desire for the former often meant forgetting the difficult issues relating to justice. My book is about the rediscovery of a forgotten episode of vital importance to understanding both the life of Robert E. Lee and the history of the United States.

Like most writing projects, I stumbled upon this idea that eventually took on a life of its own. Several years ago, I was reading a few books on Robert E. Lee, and became curious about his postwar life. As I read more, I learned that there wasn’t a lot of scholarship on the legal case against Lee and the other Confederate leaders after the war. I began the project by hunting for primary sources in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia. Soon, I realized I had enough material for a book on the subject.

The actual indictment was lost for a number of years and rediscovered in the 1930s, yet most people don't know about it. Where is the document now and how did you discover it and start writing this book?

The story of the actual physical record of Lee’s indictment is curious and symbolic of our memory of that event. At some point after the summer of 1865, the relevant records of the Norfolk court disappeared.  Over the next seventy-two years, Lee’s indictment would remain missing, despite the best efforts of historians and historical societies to find it. As late as 1935, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Lee, Douglas Southall Freeman, would say that the record of the indictment had “disappeared.” Today – even though the original document was actually rediscovered in a wooden box in the basement of a Richmond courthouse in 1937 – most writers and scholars appear to believe the indictment is still missing.

In order to tell the complete story of Lee’s indictment for treason, I had been methodically trying to hunt down the original documents, even though I knew they may have disappeared forever. One day, I luckily stumbled across a discovery written up in The New York Times in 1937. An article titled “Indictment of R.E. Lee Is Found; Box Yields Long-Sought Paper” alerted me to the revelation that Lee’s indictment, along with those of 33 other leaders of the Confederacy, had been found by a WPA Archives Project worker named F.B. Morris (there were, of course, 37 actual indictments by the Norfolk grand jury in June 1865, so three remain missing). I immediately contacted the National Archives, and was informed that those documents would now most likely be at their Philadelphia location, if they had them. I went up to Philadelphia a few days later and discovered a yellowish note in a dusty folder from the 1960s stating that Judge Underwood’s indictments from the 1860s had been moved to the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia) in Richmond. In hot pursuit, I headed to Richmond right away, and there, sure enough, I discovered the original documents. After an exhaustive search, I had finally found the missing indictment of Robert E. Lee.

Why did the indictment disappear for so long, and what does that mean for contemporary Americans? It’s quite possible, of course, that the original documents were misfiled back in the tumultuous summer of 1865. That’s probably what also happened to Lee’s loyalty oath, which was intended to support his application for amnesty in 1865. Filing systems may not have been especially reliable at the time. There might be another, less innocent explanation, however. The United States government eventually decided not to pursue its case against Lee and entered a “nolle prosequi” (or “not prosecution”) into the court record, which dismissed the case in February 1869, a year and a half before Lee’s death. It’s not a stretch to think that the Federal government, in the midst of trying to reunite the nation, was happy to have its indictment against Lee – who had become an almost saint-like figure among southerners – go missing and remain hidden in a Richmond basement. 

Why did you decide to focus on Robert E. Lee for your book, instead of another Confederate leader or the whole group of men who were indicted after the war?

I began my research because I was interested in the claim that Lee had helped heal the Union after the Civil War. At the time that I got started, Lee remained an extremely popular historical figure for many Americans. Eventually, I soon became focused on the question of how an indicted traitor eventually became a heroic figure, who had schools, highways, and even military bases named after him. So I’d say this particular story was always primarily about Lee from the very beginning.

I do discuss Jefferson Davis and Jubal Early, who were also indicted for treason. But it’s also true that I don’t devote too much attention to the Confederate leadership as a whole. I actually think there’s a very interesting story there as well. Many of the indicted individuals became successful citizens after having taken an oath to the Constitution, as required under the amnesty provisions. For example, Lee’s nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, would be elected governor of Virginia and would later serve as a general during the Spanish American War. And Lieutenant General James Longstreet notoriously joined the Republican Party, and was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. By examining the group as a whole – which I’d argue is a slightly different book -- we might better understand how the Confederate leadership was able to seamlessly return to positions of power in the South. Was that a fair or just outcome? That would be a worthwhile question to pursue.

What is your book's biggest contribution to Civil War scholarship? What does it make us rethink or reevaluate about the period?

I hope that my book will result in readers reconsidering what they remember about the Civil War. The hagiographic treatment of Lee – which is part of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war -- wasn’t entirely accurate. Within that tradition, Lee’s role in upholding a social system based on chattel slavery was reframed as a noble defense of a Constitution he supposedly loved. Hardly mentioned at all was his reactionary opposition to the essential task of transforming freedmen into citizens after the war. Overall, the heroic Lee tradition portrayed him as an opponent of slavery before the war and a lead actor in bringing about sectional reconciliation afterward. Neither of those two beliefs is supported by the evidence. And the idea of white supremacy, which was central to Lee’s actions and worldview, was downplayed by his disciples. As a result of this Lost Cost mythmaking, however, posterity has “lost” a more accurate appraisal of the man. Hopefully, my book provides a more honest account of Lee and his time.

What does your book tell readers (maybe outside the historical profession) about this history and its relevance to our current world? Why is this topic important now?

This book is especially relevant today as we reconsider the legacy of the Civil War and Confederate Monuments. Views toward Lee, in particular, seem to be changing. After the horrific Charleston church shooting in 2015, many Americans became interested in the debate over how we should consider the memory of Confederate leaders and soldiers. In May 2017, after an acrimonious public discussion, the city of New Orleans removed a statue of Robert E. Lee – 133 years after it was unveiled. In August 2017, in the wake of protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, more and more Americans began questioning our veneration of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate figures. Just recently, the Silent Sam monument was toppled by students and activists on the University of North Carolina campus. At the dedication ceremony of that Silent Sam monument back in 1913, a former Confederate soldier actually bragged about horse whipping “a negro wench until her skirts hung in threads.” Americans today are shocked to learn that such attitudes were commonplace in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, long after the Civil War had ended. I believe my book provides the necessary historical context for our current reevaluation of the Lost Cause tradition.

About the Author

John Reeves has been a teacher, editor, and writer for over twenty-five years. The Civil War, in particular, has been his passion since he first read Bruce Catton’s The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War as an elementary school student in the 1960s. Recently, John’s articles on Robert E. Lee have been featured in The Washington Post and on the History News Network.

Earlier in his career, he taught European and American history at various colleges in Chicago, the Bronx, and London. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA in Economics from Syracuse University in 1984. Later, he received an MA in European History from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and pursued a PhD in History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His dissertation was on Britain’s role in Persia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Throughout his career, Reeves has tried to make history lively and accessible for students and general readers. Over the years, he has taught European and American history at Lehman College, Bronx Community College, and Southbank University in London. His next book is on the Battle of the Wilderness. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children.