The mid-1970s pardons of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were only symbolic gestures that had little impact beyond political posturing, though the outpouring of respect and veneration of these great American leaders showed an America still exhibiting historical perspective. This was the same era that historian Emil Eisenschiml revisited the long-overlooked plot of Edwin Stanton’s Radical Republican’s plotting Lincoln’s death.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Heroes for All Americans
“In August 1975, President Gerald Ford signed Senate Joint Resolution 23 restoring full citizenship rights to Robert E. Lee. Three years later, President Jimmy Carter approved congressional action extending similar amnesty to Jefferson Davis.
A generation following Appomattox, “Marse Robert” had eclipsed all other Confederate rivals, becoming the region’s most celebrated hero. Theodore Roosevelt praised the Confederacy’s greatest general as a hero for all Americans. In the mid-1920s Congress heartily endorsed the refurbishing of the Custis-Lee mansion, naming the home a national shrine. Author Douglas Hall] Freeman painted a portrait of Lee as an individual beyond reproach in all respects of his public and private life.
After World War II . . . A host of symbolic measures indicated his status as a national hero: Virginia’s placement of a statue of the general in the Capitol building; the hanging of Lee’s portrait in the main reading room of the West Point Library; the christening of the nuclear-powered submarine the Robert E. Lee; and the opening of America’s centennial celebration of the Civil War with separate ceremonies at Grant’s and Lee’s tombs.
[The] intensity with which the general was venerated, especially in the South, made any criticism of him risky business. President Dwight Eisenhower learned this fact the hard way. In May, 1957, Ike visited the Gettysburg battlefield in the company of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. After their tour, the World War II heroes told reporters that both Meade and Lee deserved to be sacked for the errors they had committed at Gettysburg.
Senator Olin Johnson of South Carolina indignantly responded to Ike’s blasphemy” “It is offensive to my people to listen to a general who had at his disposal in his day the most wealth, men, materials of war, and the largest army, navy and air force in history, and hear him criticize a great Confederate general who, despite poverty, starvation, a ragged army, and practically no navy or munitions, managed to hold off and even invade the territory of the industrialized, wealthy, well-fed Yankees.”
Senator Harry Byrd, Sr. of Virginia . . . observed that “Lee needs no defense . . . his glorious record, his noble character, and his moral leadership give him a place in world history that no one can impair.” An editorial in the Washington Evening Star called the president’s post-tour comments a major setback for Republican efforts to woo votes in Dixie . . . “
[Senator Hubert] Humphrey of Minnesota melodramatically seconded a pardon: “I know I am what one would call a Yankee, but I am more than that: I am an American. One great American was Robert E. Lee.”
Shortly after Carter’s election, Senator Mark Hatfield [of Oregon] introduced in the Senate a bill “to restore Posthumously Citizenship to Jefferson F. Davis.” In lengthy remarks, Hatfield [stated that] the Confederate leader was “an honest public servant of principle the like of which is all too rare in these days when expedience is more ardently practiced than conviction defended.” Hatfield claimed that his resolution would “correct a grave injustice inflicted upon Davis by a vindictive conqueror.”
(Reconstruction in the Wake of Vietnam; The Pardoning of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, Francis MacDonnell, Civil War History, Vol. XL, 1994, Kent State University Press, excerpts, pp. 127-130)