Review: The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee: The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon by John Reeves

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To read an interview with John Reeves on his new work, click here.

John Reeves titled his introduction to this work “Reevaluating Robert E. Lee” but The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee is a reevaluation of many things. Reeves reevaluates Robert E. Lee after 1865, the attempted legal case against him and other former Confederates, and Lee’s views on slavery, the war, and Reconstruction. He also reevaluates Andrew Johnson’s role in punishing former Confederates, the attempt and failure to secure punishment against Confederate leaders, and the creation of the Lost Cause in the aftermath of the war. Overall, The Lost Indictment is a fascinating and enjoyable read that untangles many questions about the transition from war to peace after the destructive Civil War.

Robert E. Lee is probably the most famous Confederate leaders; many Americans revere him despite (or because of) his role in the Civil War and see him as the ultimate heroic gentleman. The Lost Cause and the cult of Lee are prominent in America’s memory of the Civil War and remain strong in the twenty-first century. In the post-war period, former Confederates appeared to get off easy with little to no punishment for their role in the rebellion against the United States. Andrew Johnson earned a reputation for being lenient in his handling of the South in the aftermath of the war, something that made racial Reconstruction more difficult and facilitated the growth of the Lost Cause.

Reeves counters this memory somewhat by examining the attempt by northern leaders to indict Lee and several others for treason right after the end of the war. As Reeves stated in his introduction, the actual indictment document was “lost” for many years (rediscovered in 1937) and many people—from scholars to the general public—either believe it is still missing or do not know about it at all. While the physical document was lost for a period of time, Reeves also points out that the attempts to charge Confederates with treason has been lost from our collective memory due to efforts to promote reconciliation and reunification. Thus, the title The Lost Indictment refers to the physical document but also the altered memory of the war that seeks to forget that these men were charged with treason against the United States. Through the progression of the chapters, Reeves tracks the legal case brought against Lee in the final years of his life, the failure of that case, and what punishments Lee did face for his role in the Civil War. He analyzes Johnson’s role in prosecuting Confederates for treason, how the president took the reins after Lincoln’s assassination with the promise to “make treason odious,” and how that ultimately failed with the treason charges never brought to a full trial. He also examines how the failure of Johnson’s administration to bring charges to bear against Lee and other Confederates and Lee’s views on slavery and Reconstruction facilitated the growth of the Lost Cause. Lee’s opinions and statements immediately after the war were folded into the Lost Cause narrative as he was rapidly placed in a position of honor within that memory. Very quickly, the man who was under indictment for treason became one of the most respected men in America, and he has remained in that position within collective American memory.

I found the treatment of the legal case and why attempts to charge Confederates with treason failed fascinating, and Reeves’ analysis answered many questions that I had about Reconstruction and the treatment of the South by Johnson’s administration. Reeves argues that Johnson was committed to move forward with the treason charges against certain members of the Confederate leadership while extending amnesty to that majority of southerners to ease reunification. There were several roadblocks that delayed and ultimately defeated these attempts and in the end the treason charges were never fully prosecuted. Reeves’ analysis on the legal definition of treason and how that was used in this particular case was also very interesting and well explained. The second line of analysis in the book focused on Lee during Reconstruction and Reeves looked at Lee’s efforts to secure a pardon from Johnson, his response to the treason indictment, his attempts to reclaim Arlington, and his opinions on race and reunification. In his “reevaluation” of Lee, Reeves unpacks many of the tenets of the Lost Cause and connects them to Lee’s actions in the years between the Civil War and his death. While he does not entirely knock Lee from his Lost Cause pedestal, Reeves explains how Lee rose to a position of prominent in the Lost Cause and examines Lee’s views on race and slavery (for example, in the reunification period many looked at Lee as someone who wanted the end of slavery, but in reality he supported the institution and fought to uphold it during the war).

If I have one critique of The Lost Indictment it would be that Reeves had two lines of argument within one book—one examined the attempt to charge Confederate leaders with treason and the other analyzed Lee’s character and position in post-war memory. While related, they could have been two separate works of analysis. Reeves is mostly successful in weaving them together, but it felt disjointed in a few places, such as when he left the progression of the treason charges and had a chapter on Lee’s opinions on slavery. Both arguments are important, however, so overall the book is a fascinating read that really illuminates some of the challenges of Reconstruction and re-frames some of the things we think we know about the period.

Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson earned her PhD in Nineteenth Century/Civil War America from West Virginia University, and also holds a M.A. from WVU and a B.A. from Siena College. Her research is on mental trauma and coping among Union soldiers and she is currently working on her first book, tentatively titled War on the Mind. She currently teaches history at several colleges and universities and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for several years and is the co-editor of Civil Discourse.