Robert E. Lee Takes Communion

St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, V.A.

In many ways, the name Robert E. Lee has become forever linked to Southern pride and the Confederate States of America. Due to the CSA’s fight to maintain the practice of slavery, Lee has also been linked to racism and white supremacy. However, many of Lee’s actions after the end of the war suggest that his association with these ideas may not be entirely justified.

Though Lee did not win the war for the South, post-war southerners still viewed him as an idol and a hero. Because of his god-like status, Lee had the ability to influence the actions and beliefs of many southerners. On one Sunday morning in Richmond, Lee exercised this power to show his acceptance of the new social order that the Union victory established.

On this particular Sunday morning, Lee attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, V.A. The church service progressed as usual until it was time for communion. When the call to communion was made, an unknown black man rose from his pew in the back of the church and made the long walk down the aisle to the front of the church where he proceeded to kneel at the communion rail.

The members of the church were shocked by this act and remained seated, unsure of what to do. Then, Robert E. Lee rose from his pew. He strode down the center aisle and knelt down next to black man, and the two received communion together. After this act, the rest of the congregation followed suit and took communion.

Though this may seem like a small act when compared to the many battles Lee led in order to preserve the Confederate States and the institution of slavery, I think it speaks volumes about the kind of man Robert E. Lee was. It is actions like this that show Lee’s acceptance of the new way of life brought forth by the Union victory and prove he meant it when he said at the war’s end:

“Before and during the War Between the States I was a Virginian. After the war I became an American.”

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About saregeo

I'm a college senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill majoring in public relations and minoring in history. I have an interest in the Civil War, and I'm hoping to use this blog to share interesting facts and stories from and about the war.
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21 Responses to Robert E. Lee Takes Communion

  1. Dylan Sharpe says:

    This is by far the greatest thing I have ever read, you have inspired me for years to come.

    Thank you!

  2. Mark Douglas says:

    Too bad the story was made up. Lee never did that. Like virtually everything you know about Lee, it was either dreamed up, or so exaggerated that it might as well be made up.

    Read a book called “Reading the Man” by Elizabeth Pryor, who had unprecidented access to Lee’s personal papers, including his account books. Pryor loves, adores, Lee, but shows many startling things. She shows them in a way to minimize any blame to him, but show them she does.

    For example, she shows Lee kept a “Hunting List” — apparently Lee wrote that, HUNTING LIST — in his account book. He kept very detailed information about slave girls that had run away, including amazing details about the infants born to these girls, and which the girls took with them.

    Lee recorded the clothing the girls wore, what time of the day they were last seen, what city and street they might near, andmostly what SHADE of infant the child was.

    Lee paid six times the normal bounty to get one young girl back –14 or 15 years old. When bounty hunters brought her to him, he immediately taunted her, had her stripped to her waste, and tortured. The first overseer refused to torture the girl, Lee didn’t even miss a beat. He hired someone else to do the torture — and Lee stood by screaming at the girl while she was tortured.

    Now, Pryor does not show those details. But she does show the Norris statement as “unquestionably accurate”, becaue Norris spoke of this whipping, and mentioned dates, names, places. All those details were IN Lee’s own account books, Lee names those same people the same dates, and same places. The only way on earth the slave would know all that, is if he somehow snuck into Lee’s house and read Lee’s account book, then snuck back to his slave shack, and told someone. Only, the slave could not even read. Nor could he sneak anywhere, he was tortured too, and then sent off to another plantation, with the girl that was whipped.

    The story of Lee torturing the girl (an others) was in New York papers after the Civil War. Lee knew about the stories, he wrote to his son about them. Lee never denied torturing the slave girls — to him, painful treatment of slaves was “Gods will” Lee wrote that God intended slavery to be painful, for “their instruction”.

    But Pryor shows other amazing things too, like Lee’s slaves detested him. Not just one or two, but virtually every slave. Lee had “an epidemic” of run aways, she says, and that Lee’s slaves said Lee was “the meanest man I ever saw”.

    Now, the Myth of Lee is exactly the opposite. We all have been told from youth that Lee freed his slaves, that his slaves so loved him, some refused to leave!

    This is a metaphor for the whole Lee Myth. Virtually EVERYTHING about Lee has been so distorted,that you can discount virtually ALL of it.

    The author of “Lee Considered” said that Lee has YET to be studied! Despite the massive amount of writing done about Lee, virtually all of it is myth. Lee’s major biographer, Douglass Southall Freeman, simply distorted almost everything about Lee, and his biography, and his attitude, is pretty much what everyone else built their picture of Lee on.

    Even the “basics” such as the story that Lincoln offered Lee the command of the Union Army –could be as totally made up as was his gentle treatment of his slaves.

    Pryor shows convincingly that Lee separated EVERY family unit but one. Family UNIT is how Pryor describes it. She should have said, and could have said, Lee sold their babies, because that is exactly what seems to have been going on. It’s impossible to tell without seeing more of Lee’s papers, but Pryor’s writing is artfully dodging SOMETHING. She seems to know exactly what “separating the family unit” means.

    She had access to Lee’s papers. She came to the conclusion he separated the families. But she doesnt make it clear what she based that on. She skips over that. Its very possible she saw the income in Lee’s account books, from the sale of those infants. Its impossible to tell, but that is a very real possibility.

    We know Lee went after the escaped girls who had light skinned babies. We know he was obsessed with their capture. We know that when he caught the girls, he had them tortured. Fine. But what did he do with their babies?

    He got the babies back — -WHERE did he send them? Did he send them with the mother he just tortured? Unlikely. He was furious she had taken the infant. He paid six times the normal bounty to get her back. He screamed at her while he had her beaten. Its beyond silly to think he gave her the child back.

    In fact, he rented her OUT to other slave owners. You don’t rent out infants, the slaves were sent to work, not to raise their children. Children were ROUTINELY separated from the mother. Lee would not have given it another thought, any more than he would think of taking a baby pig from it’s mother. Slaves were animals to him, to be sold, worked, and when necessary, tortured.

    Learn the real Lee, but more than that, realize all these myths you hear about the Southern leaders — all of it myths.

    • saregeo says:

      Thanks for your input. I’m definitely a novice when it comes to Civil War history, so I appreciate any additional information from readers. I originally heard this story from my dad, and found the anecdote repeated in an article that historian Edward C. Smith wrote for National Geographic. Here’s a link to the article (http://tinyurl.com/3xw5w5g) and to Smith’s bio (http://tinyurl.com/2vzlp5n) if you’re interested.

      Thanks for the comment and for reading Butternut and Blue!

      • saregeo

        Most of what Douglas says is twisted truth. I have found him all over the web posting this same information with providing any sources. I suggest you do you own reserach and find the truth for yourself. Stay away from these blogs as most of them present only biased views one way or the other. If you are really interested in learning please visit the Southern Heritage website at http://southernheritageadvancementpreservationeducation.com/page.php?4

        I have a good bit of sourced information posted and will assist you in finding the truth.

        George Purvis

      • saregeo says:

        I’m always looking for new sources for Civil War information, so I really appreciate you passing this link along! And thank you for checking out Butternut and Blue.

    • Mimi says:

      I’m sorry, but from which herd did you get that load of bull? None of that happened, the slave list, the torturing, none of it. I see that story circulating through the internet every time something on Robert E. Lee shows up, but nobody validates a source, there’s no evidence of such a “book” ever existing, and what’s even stranger is that the story is always the same, down to the very punctuation marks. Exact wording, lexicon, everything.

      • saregeo says:

        That’s really strange that the wording has been exact in every posting that you’ve found. Thanks for sharing that information with me.

        And thanks for looking at Butternut and Blue.

      • Mimi,

        Not sure if you were posting to me or not. At any rate let me say this, Douglas’s story does have a some truth behind it, but it has been highly “embellished” to fit his biased agenda.

        It amazes me that in today’s world of fast free and in a lot of cas3es sourced information, someone would make such a hateful, biased post about anything. If you will go to http://southernheritageadvancementpreservationeducation.com/e107_plugins/forum/forum.php look under General Discussions forum and look at the 3 post I have about Robert E. lee, you can clearly see how I took this terrible piece of writing apart.

        You should also know that I offered Douglas and several others who could do no more than copy and paste to come to the SHAPE website and defend their statements. At this point in time none have found the backbone to step forward.

        George Purvis
        SHAPE VP

  3. saregeo,

    As a rule I follow my own advice and stay away from blogs. I didn’t realize you were the owner of this site, my apologies being so critical. I wanted to reply to you in but for some reason the format of the blog won’t let me, another reason I do not like blogs. Anyway, I haven’t had the time to check out the articles on the right side of the page at this time even though they do tweak my interest.

    As I said you are welcome to use the Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education (SHAPE) website as a source of information. We are a 501c group and also known as what is called a free use site. You are welcome to use our information all we ask is credit the website and author of the research

    Regards
    George Purvis
    VP SHAPE

  4. saregeo,

    One last point about Douglas’s letter. There is a website, Civil War Memory, that is very anti Confederate in their views, in other words they take the truth and twist it to fit their needs. Kevin Levin the webmaster rejects this post outright for it’s ranting and raving. I will say I am not sure if Douglas posted it to that forum or if it was someone else. This is unusual for Levin since he only attracts those who have something negative to say about the Confederacy. I don’t have the link at hand but can spend some time looking it for if you want to see for yourself.

    Thank you for letting me correct such an attack on R. E. Lee and the South.

    George Purvis
    VP SHAPE

    PS I can always use writers and researchers, if you are interested let me know.

    GP

  5. Rick says:

    I am currently involved in some specific research into RE Lee (the man vs. the myth) as I will be portraying him in a new play later this year and it my intent to make the character as real and as human as possible. As part of my online research I came across your blog and felt obliged to at least put in my two cents on this discussion, specifically Mr. Douglas’s assertion that virtually everything we know about Lee is at best extreme exaggeration if not complete fabrication.

    First as to the specific communion incident: although there is some debate about the interpretation of the event, there seems to be much less question about whether such an event really happened. What we know about the event came from an eyewitness account published in 1905. (A transcript of an August 2000 presentation on the subject given by Phillip J. Schwarz, Professor Emeritus of History at Virginia Commonwealth University can be found here: http://leearchive.wlu.edu/?page=reference/essays/schwarz/index.html)

    The communion story is also referenced in other places including Jay Winik’s critically-acclaimed book “April 1865″. He also references the same eyewitness account but added his own research and concludes that the event probably did, in fact, occur.

    To the broader argument about what truths we know about Lee: That Douglas Southall Freeman unrealistically portrayed Lee as practically faultless is undeniable. More recent writers have done much to balance out our picture of Lee and include the warts and blemishes that make him more human and less the Marble Man of legend. But even though our modern picture of Lee is much more balanced and less idolizing, the respected Civil War historian James M. McPherson said “the legend that Freeman helped to create contains a great deal of truth.” I tend to believe McPherson’s statement a bit more than I do Douglas’s assertion that “Virtually EVERYTHING about Lee has been so distorted,that you can discount virtually ALL of it.” That seems to be a bit of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    As to Douglas’s use of Elizabeth Pryor’s book “Reading the Man” as a means of drawing an extremely negative picture of Lee I can’t speak directly. I haven’t read her book (although I do have it on order and should receive it in a few days). But Douglas’s argument consistently seems to make conclusions based solely on his interpretation of what she DIDN’T write: “…Pryor does not show those details…”, “She should have said…”, “Its impossible to tell, but that is a very real possibility…”, etc. Further he seems to imply that because she “adores” Lee she is apparently trying to hide or gloss over negative facts about him.

    Maybe these leaps in logic are true and Lee was the monster that Douglas makes him out to be. I don’t know. But the fact that they are leaps based on statements that he thinks should be made (but aren’t) renders them unconvincing. The prevailing opinion of dozens of historians based on other meticulous research doesn’t seem to be as strongly critical or negative.

    This is not to say that there is no merit in Douglas’s argument. But his facts (as stated) seem thin and his vehemence seems excessive.

    I have no doubt that with the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War upon us there will be huge arguments about the real people behind the myths we have built up over the last century and a half, from Lee to Grant to Lincoln himself. No matter how we would like to gloss over their imperfections or glory in their greatness the fact remains that they were all human beings and no more perfect than human beings are today.

    It is as much a mistake to focus only on their faults as it is to focus only on their virtues. Recognition of perspective is about the best we can do and it seems to me that on the whole Lee seems to come off more positively than negatively. After the war he was even viewed positively in many circles (but certainly not all) in the North.

    Lee garnered extensive Northern support (including the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher) for his post-war work at Washington College (later Washington and Lee University). He was also widely praised for his attitudes toward reconciliation after the war. In fact he was even endorsed in 1868 by the New York Herald to be a candidate for President of the US (a call which Lee ignored).

    That sort of broad support well before Freeman’s biography was written seems to indicate that the non-idolized Lee enjoyed some degree of respect even among his former enemies. I think that is significant in understanding the man behind the myth.

    However, I’m not a historian nor an apologist for Lee, just an actor trying to understand a figure from the past with enough detail to try to bring him to life. My opinions are just that – opinions. I make no claim as to the ultimate truths of the past.

    Although I’m somewhat embarrassed that I wrote as much as I did in this response I will say that it helped give form to the research I’ve been doing and give me a greater perspective on the challenge presented by portraying Lee on stage. So thanks for allowing me to ramble on.

    • saregeo says:

      I definitely wouldn’t call your post ‘rambling’. I thought it was great and super informative. I totally agree that we often forget that these historical figures we either love or hate were in fact just humans living their lives. I also like your point that when looking at figures like Lee we need to look at both praise and criticism to get the full picture. Thanks for your comment and good luck with your play! It sounds like you’ve done a lot of great research to really get to know the character you’ll be portraying.

  6. Dennis Cory says:

    Mark Douglas is all wrong and obviously prejudiced.

    Saregeo,
    You seem to be a sincere, intelligent (and maybe even a Christian) young woman. So I want to share this with you. You apply the logic.
    This firstarticle is from YUKU social web: http://thecivilwarhomepagediscussion2824.yuku.com/topic/785?page=1
    There is a quote from a (Ret) Confederate Veteran, Colonel T.L. Broun that really offended me, in reference to the motives of Gen. Lee for this event.
    ” General Robert E. Lee was present, and, ignoring the action and presence of the negro, arose in his usual dignified and self-possessed manner, walked up the aisle to the chancel rail, and reverently knelt down to partake of the communion, and not far from the negro. This lofty conception of duty by Gen. Lee under such provoking and irritating circumstances had a magic effect upon the other communicants (including the writer), who went forward to the communion table.

    By this action of Gen. Lee the services were conducted as if the negro had not been present. It was a grand exhibition of superiority shown by a true Christian and great soldier under the most trying and offensive circumstances.”
    ——————————————————————————–
    The reputability of this story has been satisfactorily confirmed by several unbiased and highly valid sources.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~
    The following is one from Wake Forrest University.edu – Winston- Salem, North Carolina
    http://www.wfu.edu/~matthetl/south/relee.html

    And yet, even reputable scholars continue to speak of Lee in reverent terms. In his recent work Robert E. Lee: A Biography (1995), Emory Thomas records a little known incident in Lee’s life that speaks volumes about both the man and the way he continues to play a “christ-like” role for many. Shortly after the end of the War, Lee attended communion at St. Paul’s Church. It’s “list of communicants read like a Who’s Who of the Confederacy.” When the invitation to come forward and receive communion was given,
    “a tall-well dressed, black man stood and strode to the rail. There followed a pregnant pause. According to one witness, “Its effects upon the communicants was startling, and for several moments they retained their seats in solemn silence and did not move, being deeply chagrined at this attempt to inaugurate the ‘new regime’ to offend and humiliate them…”. Then another person rose from the pew and walked down the aisle to the chancel rail. He knelt near the black man and so redeemed the circumstance. This grace- bringer, of course was Lee. Soon after he knelt, the rest of the congregation followed his example and shuffled in turn to the rail…Lee’s actions were far more eloquent than anything he spoke or wrote.” (Thomas, p. 372.)
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    This historical event is also portrayed as accurate and valid in the History Channel presentation, “The Last Days of the CIVIL WAR” – available on DVD
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    These two reputable sources would not have used this story if it were not confirmed to their satisfaction. Both accounts show Gen. Robert E. Lee as making this gesture as one of his Christianity in accepting the unnamed black man as an equal before God and man. Lee was behaving in total humility in Christian love for this man and as a graphic demonstration to his pastor and congregation of what God Himself had ordained by the outcome of war. Lee himself is quoted as saying the outcome of the war was God’s will, and Gen. Lee demonstrated his belief in that fact by his subsequent life in his remaining years.

    I was very disappointed in the choice of this quotation by Col. T.L. Broun. Although he was in attendance in that specific church, his last 2 sentences were based on his own personal opinion of what he observed. Broun’s interpretation of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s motives and attitude in kneeling next to the negro man were obviously based on his own hateful prejudices and bigotry. The idea he portrays of Lee feeling a superiority in his Christianity over the black man and completely ignoring his presence at the alter are totally against and contrary to anything else Gen. Lee was saying and doing during the early post war period. The statement that Lee as a “true Christian” would snub this black man and feel superior to him is a total oxymoron to Christianity and to the true character of General Robert E. Lee.

    I am from the Pacific Northwest and my ancestors came from Ireland in the 1880’s – I have no ancestral connection to the Civil War. However, as I have grown older I have developed a deep appreciation for the post Civil generals on both sides. Gen. Lee behaved as a true Christian in love and respect, embracing the outcome of the war by choosing to then be an American and healing the wounds of the nation. And in keeping with that attitude he demonstrated his acceptance of the freedom and equality of the races that make up our nation.

    ~ (General Grant also showed restraint in compassion by refusing to obey the requests of his superiors to prosecute Confederate leaders as criminals guilty of treason. Both Gen. Grant and Gen. William T. Sherman chose follow the heart of the policy and wishes of Abraham Lincoln to let the Confederate soldiers keep their personal belongings and horses or mules and be sent home free and clear.)

    E PLURIBUS UNIM and IN GOD WE TRUST

    • saregeo says:

      Dennis – I feel similarly. I think it’s clear that the quote by Colonel T.L. Broun is clouded with his own feelings and biases and doesn’t necessarily portray Lee’s true intentions when he took communion that day. I appreciate your comment and found the links you provided really helpful. Thanks for commenting and for reading Butternut and Blue!

  7. Ernie says:

    After reviewing both of the 1905 accounts of the event, it struck me odd that they both say “It was Communion Day.” Episcopals celebrate the Holy Eucharist EVERY Sunday, although I realize that other Protestant churches do so only on certain Sundays designated as “Communion Days.” This causes me to wonder if (a) this is evidence that the story is apocryphal , (b) this is evidence that the Episcopal Church did things differently in 1865 (unlikely — there is probably no group on earth more tied to tradition and to doing things exactly as they have always been done), or (c) this is evidence that Broun (or the writer of the article?) was a member of another Protestant group that was not aware that every Sunday is Communion Day. Anyway, it jarred.

  8. Alex Bice says:

    actually the book that mr. douglas mentions does exist, i know this for a fact because i own the book and you can buy it on amazon yourself right now heres the link http://www.amazon.com/Reading-Man-Portrait-Through-Private/dp/0670038296
    secondly lee was both a great person and a douchebag much like anyone else. i suggest you read this book along with Lee by richard harwell and use these as information to form your own opinions instead of listening to these half wits .

  9. Molly says:

    Saregeo:

    I assume by now you have or are about to graduate, so “Congratulations!”

    I stumbled across your blog, and noticed the references to Elizabeth Pryor’s book “Reading the Man.” After some surfing, I ran across this interview on the National Endowment for the Humanities website. Having not read the book (although I now intend to), I thought everyone who has commented about this might be interested to know just where and how Ms. Pryor says she found the letters and other documents she used in researching her book. Regardless of her or anyone else’s interpretation of these writings, it is fascinating to know the volume of items that exist! The interview is long and interesting, but the meat of her discussion about the Lee research begins about 5/6 of the way down:

    http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2008-01/interview.html

    Thank you for sparking such a great conversation! Most of the men and women we regard as great were simply very flawed human beings who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. I pray that I will also find the strength and wisdom to show such courage should I ever be faced with equally, seeming impossible circumstances.

    Blessings!
    Molly

  10. A. Redd says:

    The Pryor book is a load of garbage, with dubious historical reference, despite the author’s so-called reliance on Lee letters, notes, etc. Just another low-ball attempt to debunk the man. Not worthy of further comment.

  11. Tom Forehand, jr. says:

    Mark’s discourse about Lee’s whipping a slave — Though Norris may have been accurate about the event he was involved in (the escape, the re-capture and the return to Arlington), this does not mean that he was accurate when he “claimed” that Lee had him and the other two runaways whipped. As a matter of fact, he omits part of the escape story which could be very important (this can be documented).

    So, far this claim by Norris is still only an “allegation” which has not be proven by an unbias source in my opinion. If there is other “evidence” to verify that Lee had Norris (or any other person whipped), I’d appreciate that it be presented. Just repeating and reprinting the Norris allegation of being whipped at the behest ot Lee does not make this a true or accurate accusation.

    Thanks,
    Tom Forehand, Jr.

  12. Gary Bain says:

    At least Lee was a good christian man and not a falling down drunk like Grant…who Lincoln came close firing several times.
    Since no one here lived when Lee did and everybody here read someone else’s book about him who can tell the truth about the man. Most books written today have a bias built in them…if you liked him you bias towards him…likewise if you don;t like him you bias against him. The true history books are the oldest ones written closest to the civil war era….forget the modern biased accounts of Lee.

  13. Tristan says:

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