Saturday, July 7, 2018

John Reeves's "The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee"

John Reeves has been a teacher, editor, and writer for over twenty-five years. Recently, Reeves’s articles on Robert E. Lee have been featured in The Washington Post and the History News Network. His next book is on the Battle of the Wilderness.

Reeves applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee: The Forgotten Case against an American Icon, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee, I discuss the indictment of Captain Henry Wirz, the former commandant of Andersonville Prison during the Civil War. In August 1865, just a few months after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, Wirz was charged, along with several leaders of the Confederate States of America, with conspiring to “injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military services of the United States…in violation of the laws and customs of war.” Among the co-conspirators, who were charged with Wirz, was General Robert E. Lee.

After the Civil War, northerners and freedmen were outraged by what they learned about Andersonville Prison, where 13,000 Union soldiers died due to insufficient food and atrocious living conditions. There were approximately 100 black prisoners at Andersonville and they were treated even worse than the white prisoners. President Andrew Johnson was determined to punish all those who were responsible for such horrors. So, that’s why Robert E. Lee and Captain Wirz were charged with war crimes.

The prosecutors ultimately decided to focus solely on Wirz, and they removed Lee from the indictment. Wirz was eventually tried, convicted and hanged. His public execution took place near the United States Capitol. The Judge Advocate General of the Army described Wirz as more of “a demon than a man.”

In the end, Robert E. Lee was never tried for war crimes against Union soldiers. He was extremely upset that the accusations had ever been made in the first place. Many northerners were relentless in their attacks on Lee on this issue, however. An editor for The Liberator argued, “Lee had the power to prevent or mitigate the sufferings of our prisoners, the worst tyrant and tormenter, from the remotest ages of Paganism down to the cruelest instrument of the French Reign of terror, was not so wicked as he.”

Lee was also indicted for treason by a federal court in Virginia on June 7, 1865, though he ultimately escaped prosecution on those charges as well. My book provides detail on the forgotten legal and moral case that was made against Lee in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. I also try to show how an indicted rebel went on to become a hero for both southerners and northerners in the decades after Appomattox.

I believe that “The 99th Page Test” is accurate for my book. Most Americans have forgotten that Robert E. Lee was accused of mistreating Union prisoners. And even though he may not have been responsible for the day-to-day operations at Andersonville Prison, he certainly upheld, as the South’s leading general, the Confederacy’s odious policies toward African American prisoners during the Civil War. Many Americans are unaware of the mistreatment of black soldiers who fought to preserve the Union. That story has been “lost” to us over the past century and a half. By forgetting the indictments of Lee for treason and war crimes, it made it easier for Americans to deify him. That is a central theme of The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee.
Learn more about The Last Indictment of Robert E. Lee at the Rowman & Littlefield website, and visit John Reeves's website.

--Marshal Zeringue