Thursday, January 23, 2014

Robert E. Lee Guilty of Ingratitude?

The charge is often made by Northern historians that Southern graduates of United States military academies were indebted to the federal government for their education and displayed ingratitude in drawing their swords against that government.  Below, Admiral Raphael Semmes takes issue with this assertion.

Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman

North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission

"Unsurpassed Valor, Courage and Devotion to Liberty"

"The Official Website of the North Carolina WBTS Sesquicentennial"

Robert E. Lee Guilty of Ingratitude?

"Another charge, with as little foundation, has been made against myself, and other officers of the Army and Navy, who resigned their commissions and came South. It has been said that we were in the condition of eleves of the Federal Government, inasmuch as we received our education at the military schools, and that we were guilty of ingratitude to that Government, when we withdrew from its service.

This slander has no doubt had its effect, with the ignorant masses, but it can scarcely have been entertained by any one who has a just conception of the nature of our federal system of government. It loses sight of the fact, that the States are the creators, and the Federal Government the creature; that not only the military schools, but the Federal Government itself belongs to the States.

Whence came the fund for the establishment of these schools? From the States. In what proportion did the States contribute it?

[Senator Thomas Hart] Benton answered this question . . . when he was discussing the effect of the [protectionist tariffs benefitting the North] under which the South had so long been depleted. He has told us, that four States alone, Virginia, the two Carolinas and Georgia, defrayed three-fourths of the expenses of the General Government; and taking the whole South into view, this proportion had even increased since his day, up to the breaking out of the war.

Of every appropriation, then, that was made by Congress for the support of the military schools, three-fourths of the money belonged to the Southern States. Did these States send three-fourths of the students to these schools?

Of course not – this would have been something like justice to them; but justice to the Southern States was no part of the scheme of the Federal Government.  With the exception of a few cadets, and midshipman "at large," whom the President was authorized to appoint – the intention being that that he should appoint the sons of deceased officers of the Army and Navy, but the fact being that he generally gave the appointment to his political friends – the appointments to these schools were made from the several States, in proportion to population, and as a matter of course, the North got the lion's share.

But supposing the States to have been equally represented in those schools, what would have been the result? Why, simply that the South not only educated her own boys, but educated three-fourths of the Northern boys, to boot.  Virginia, for instance, at the same time she sent Robert E. Lee to West Point, to be educated, put in the public treasury not only money enough to pay for his education, and maintenance of three Massachusetts boys!

How ungrateful of Lee, afterward, being thus a charity scholar of the north, to draw his sword against her."

(Memories of Service Afloat, Raphael Semmes, LSU Press, 1996/original 1868, pp. 79-80)