The Postwar Radical Inquisition
To destroy President Andrew Johnson’s postwar program, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction was established by Congress in early December 1865, chaired by the sinister and vindictive Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania who made no secret of his aim to firmly plant Republican political control in the South, which he considered conquered territory. General Robert E. Lee was interrogated for two hours by the Committee on 17 February 1866.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
The Postwar Radical Inquisition:
“[Radical Republican] Senator Jacob M. Howard [of Michigan] resumed his questions . . . “While you were in command at Richmond, did you know of the cruelties practiced toward the union prisoners at Libby Prison and Belle Isle?”
[Lee answered] “I never knew that any cruelty was practiced, and I have no reason to believe that it was practiced. I can believe, and have reasons to believe, that privations may have been experienced among the prisoners. I know that provisions and shelter could not be provided for them.”
[Howard] “Were you not aware that men were dying from cold and starvation?”
Aware? Was I aware? The questions must have bitten like strong acid. In those vivid and unspoken images that crowded through Lee’s mind that moment and on other days, what did he see, what did he feel? The historian cannot rightly draw upon reverie; but to think that the real marrow of the hearing got into the stenographer’s notes is to be more naïve than one might want to be.
When the opportunity arose, Lee said quietly, “I had no control over the prisoners, once they had been sent to Richmond. I never gave an order about it . . . No report was ever made to me about them. There was no call for any to be made to me. Prisoners suffered from the want of ability on the part of the Confederate States to supply their wants. As far as I could, I did everything in my power to relieve them, and urged the formation of a cartel.
Pushed further, Lee told of specific proposals made to Grant, and of the work of his Christian Committee. “Orders were that the whole field should be treated alike . . . We took in Federal wounded as well as ours on every field.”
Weeks later the Joint Report of the Committee would lash out at the South . . . “The Rebels heaped every imaginable insult and injury upon our nation . . . They fought for four years with the most determined and malignant spirit . . . and are today unrepentant and unpardoned.” [The editor of the Lexington, Virginia Gazette wrote that the] “devilish iniquity and malignant wickedness” of the Committee’s report he found “so monstrous that no Southern man can read it without invoking the righteous indignation of heaven.” How long was the South to suffer from such wretched injustice and perfidy?
Signs of rebellion began to crop up again. Confederate flags were peddled openly in a dozen cities and were called “sacred souvenirs” by Alabama Governor Parsons. “Stonewall Jackson” soup” and “Confederate hash” appeared on hotel menus. In Richmond, a magazine called The Land We Love began to glorify the “Lost Cause.”
Open conflicts between racial groups spread. Three days of rioting in Memphis, beginning on April 30, left forty-six Negroes dead and scores of homes, churches and schools burned. Summer riots in New Orleans saw sensational and unsavory actions go unchecked. Murder degenerated into massacre. “The hands of the rebel are again red with loyal blood,” proclaimed the New York Tribune.”
(Lee After the War, The Greatest Period in the Life of a Great American, Marshall W. Fishwick, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963, excerpts, pp. 122-126)