On this day in 1975, the House of Representatives moved to restore U.S. citizenship to Robert E. Lee, who had commanded the Confederate Army during the Civil War and who went on to become an enduring icon of the South’s “Lost Cause.” The 407-10 vote came after a campaign spearheaded by Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. (D-Va.).
Although President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation of amnesty and blanket pardons to nearly all Southern rebels in 1865, the document required Lee to apply separately. (Three years later, on Dec. 25, 1868, Johnson proclaimed a second amnesty that removed previous exceptions, such as the one that had affected Lee.)
On Oct. 2, 1865, the day Lee was inaugurated as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, he signed the required amnesty oath and filed an application through Ulysses S. Grant, the U.S. Army general to whom Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. (On that occasion, April 9, 1865, the two generals formalized the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, thereby bringing an end to four years of fighting between North and the South.)
Nonetheless, Lee was not pardoned, nor was his citizenship restored. After receiving it, Secretary of State William Seward gave Lee’s application to a friend as a souvenir. Meanwhile, State Department officials, apparently with Seward’s approval, pigeonholed the required oath.
In 1970, an archivist, examining State Department records at the National Archives, found Lee’s long-lost oath. That discovery helped set in motion a five-year congressional effort to restore citizenship to the general, who had died stateless in 1870.
President Gerald Ford signed the congressional resolution on Aug. 5, 1975, correcting what he said was a 110-year oversight. The signing took place at Arlington House in Virginia, the onetime Lee family home that was formerly known as the Custis-Lee Mansion. Several Lee descendants, including Robert E. Lee V, his great-great-grandson, attended the ceremony.
“As a soldier, Gen. Lee left his mark on military strategy,” Ford said. “As a man, he stood as the symbol of valor and of duty.
As an educator, he appealed to reason and learning to achieve understanding and to build a stronger nation. The course he chose after the war became a symbol to all those who had marched with him in the bitter years towards Appomattox.
“Gen. Lee’s character,” Ford added, “has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.”
In his public statements and private correspondence, Lee had argued that reconciliation and patience would further the interests of white Southerners better than antagonism to federal authority or violence. He repeatedly expelled white students from Washington College for having attacked local black men. Privately, he rebuked such fellow ex-Confederates such as Jefferson Davis and Jubal Early for their angry responses to perceived Northern insults.