Did Lee Violate His Oath as a U.S. Officer?
It is sometimes asserted that when Robert E. Lee and other U.S. officers joined the Confederacy, they betrayed their oath. But this assumes that the oath of today was also the oath of yesterday. Not correct.
In fact, the oaths taken by U.S. officers have undergone several changes since the American Revolution. The oath that was operative from about 1830 through 1862 read: “I, _____, appointed a _____ in the Army of the United States, do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles for the government of the Armies of the United States.”
Note the use of the word “them” when characterizing the United States. In the context of the secession crisis, surely this rendered the oath problematic, and at least made reasonable the interpretation that a Southern officer’s allegiance reverted to his home state. The U.S. Congress tacitly acknowledged this when in July 1862 it altered the object of an officer’s allegiance from “the United States” to “the Constitution of the United States.”