General Robert E. Lee’s wife was probably the first refugee of the Civil War, according to Dr. Gary Gallagher, History Professor at the University of Virginia, during a discussion recently at the Wichita Falls Civil War Roundtable held at the home of historian Jack Hill. Dr. Gallagher said the Lee’s beautiful home Arlington House which overlooked the Potomac River and Washington D.C. was vulnerable to Union troops early in the war because of its proximity to the nation’s capital.
“Lee’s wife was a refugee for virtually the entire war as she traveled from home to home throughout the South as a guest since her own home was captured early by the soldiers clad in blue uniforms,” said Gallagher, a nationally recognized historian. She abandoned Arlington House on May 15, 1861 after her husband told her she would be in danger if she remained there.
In fact she was once trapped behind enemy lines at her son Rooney’s home when Union troops invaded Kent County. Union Commander George McLellan showed chivalry was not dead, though, as he allowed her free passage to safety in Richmond.
Civil War historian Jack Hill said, “A northern general made sure General Lee’s home was captured early. As punishment to the Commanding General for the Confederate Army, the Union turned his home surrounded by 200 acres into a cemetery which is now called the Arlington National Cemetery.”
Hill further said, “There was also a lawsuit after the war in which a member of Lee’s family won a court judgment against the United States for restitution for having their home taken during the war. A member of the family received $100,000 for the property which back then was worth several millions. Of course that was very valuable property. No way to know if they got paid what it was really worth.”
Lee reportedly was originally offered command of the Union forces by President Abraham Lincoln, but he turned it down, according to Gallagher.
“His home state of Virginia came above his loyalty to the United States. He simply couldn’t invade his home territory,” Gallagher said.
General Winfield Scott, who commanded Lee during the United States-Mexican War, said Lee was the best soldier he ever witnessed. Scott also told Lee he was making the biggest mistake of his life by turning down Lincoln’s offer.
Lee’s wife wasn’t the only refugee who suffered during the War Between the States. Many plantation owners fled their homes and became refugees after hearing stories that the Yankee armies were burning down homes and harming the Southerners inside them. Gallagher said stories of Northern atrocities against homes of civilians in the South were exaggerated.
Many African-Americans became refugees fleeing toward freedom in the North, according to Gallagher, saying, “Their experience was normally a positive one as they considered they were improving their situations by escaping to the Northern states. And many of them did believe their lot in life was improved.”
The plight of some African-Americans was not always guaranteed to be improved though as portrayed in Michael Shaara’s “Killer Angels”. In his bestselling novel, a band of Union troops heading toward the Battle of Gettysburg found a fleeing African-American lying by the side of the road in bad condition. While they fed him and gave him water, they proceeded ahead without him.
“What will happen to him?” one soldier asked.
“Maybe he’ll find his way to one of the bigger cities,” another soldier speculated.
While the Civil War is well-known for the loss of 600,000 American lives, it is also clear that it was a time of great transition and homelessness for many whites and African-Americans who became refugees as circumstances beyond their control transformed their lives.
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