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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.”

Comments (28) to “Did Lee Violate His Oath as a U.S. Officer?”

  1. Impressive logical leap from “them” (plural, collective) to “home state” (singular, specific).

  2. You quote an oath operative from about 1830 to 1862. What about the oath Lee would have said when he joined the army prior to 1830?

  3. Mark,

    I hate these easy questions. It does not give me much to say. The short answer is no. He did not violate his oath.

    Virginia was not just any old state either. She was a very powerful original colony. It was one of “them”. I am not from an original colony or a rich one like Georgia and Virginia, but Pete Longstreet did get his appointment to West Point there. Needless the say, none of the rebel states were in the United States by May 61′. They’re DC congressmen did not bother showing up for work either of course. I guess that relieved them of their oath too. It is hard to maintain your allegiance when you choose to leave or resign from the original group. Unless you have no choice or free will as in a state of bondage, for instance. That must be what freedom is.

    As I remember, most officers made it a point to resign from the US Army prior to taking up arms in defense of their home against a favorite political genius of mine, old “Honest Abe”. He thought it was OK to change your mind and modify your position as circumstances warranted. Since he is an historic icon now, it must mean it is ethically acceptable behavior.

  4. My usual response to such seemingly plural references to the United States is to point out that American English was undergoing a transition in the pronouns and verbal number used with collective nouns. English originally (and British English still does) treats a collective noun as a plural, whereas modern American English uses singular, e.g., the government are versus the government is.

  5. “Them” means they existed as free independent sovereign states. With all power granted to them unless specifically granted to THE federal government by adopted written law. Not the same as England, France and the rest of those, at the time, prior to 1865.

    Virginians plus Adams, Franklin and Hamilton (and others less famous) wrote the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Surely know one believes Jefferson would let Adams and Hamilton make the central government more powerful than the states. All that was politically expedient in the 1850s when it became incumbent to choose sides. The rationale to do so had to be developed by evolution of the changing political climate and culture.

    The oath prior to 1830 was replaced by the new oath. I do not see a problem there at all.

    The oath Lee would have taken prior to 1830 was no longer the oath an army officer would be held accountable to, in my opinion. At least that is the way regulations are treated now. When you rewrite the regs it is annotated exactly when the new manual becomes applicable. The previous manual becomes obsolete of course. 19th Century regulations may have been less organized but the principal is the same, in my opinion. If Lee disagreed with the change it would have been incumbent upon him to resign his commission at that point.

  6. Jefferson would have had no input on the Constitution—he was in France at the time. And your implied citation of the Tenth Amendment is wrong.

  7. Stephen, modern American English still frequently uses a plural verb for collective nouns. I hear all the time that the Red Sox “are” the best team and right now “they are” top of the AL, wheras the Yankees “are” the most hated team and everyone hopes the Sox beat “them”.

  8. “United States” is a collective noun. In British usage, collective nouns get referred to in the plural. That is why it’s referring to the United States as “them.” The officers at the time were quite aware of this usage. It’s only us in 2011 who need to be reminded of it.

  9. Robert E. Lee took that oath in March of 1861, after accepting a promotion to Colonel in the US Army from Abraham Lincoln. When he submitted his resignation, Fort Sumter had been fired on and Lincoln had published his proclamation declaring a rebellion and calling up the militia. There was an opposer to the United States in the form of the Confederate States of America. Rather than serve the United States “honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever,” Lee tendered his resignation and accepted a commission from Virginia, whom he knew to be seceding and whom he had good reason to believe would join the Confederate States of America and become an opposer of the United States, and he accepted that commission before his resignation became effective. Yes, Lee violated his oath.

  10. Reference reply #6:

    Madison was influenced by Jefferson. You are influenced by him and so am I. Along with the rest of western civilization.

    His democratic as opposed to federalist interpretation of a democratic republic is documented well enough.

    Being in France just made him fat. That did not make any difference to Madison either.

    Jefferson was the leader of political thought resulting in secession. A thought that was tried and tested in battle along with states rights. We all know the result. It formed the civil rights movement as Kennedy did send an officer of the attorney general to move Wallace from the school house door.

    The Constitution lives as a growing instrument as it evolves throughout history with very little change.

  11. Reference to reply #9:

    So Lee was a very, very bad man. So was Grant, Davis and Lincoln. None were made of marble.

    If you are not born again and living holy before God by the power of the Holy Ghost through the divine blood of Jesus Christ you should be ashamed of yourself for making a post like that.

    Lee did not violate anything other than the myth the north held the moral high ground. That is why his detractors seek to diminish his military genius.

  12. Reference reply #13:

    There is a severe penalty for treason. Are you saying President Grant was guilty of complicity in such an offense? He might have been an incompetent alcoholic but I do not believe he was a party to protecting traitors. You do know who shielded Lee from prosecution by the two most powerful men in Congress I suppose.

  13. Reference reply #15:

    Treason is a violation of allegiance to a sovereign or state.

    Which allegiance did Lee violate, one to Queen Victoria or Virginia? Also, which allegiance did Washington, Franklin, Patrick Henry and all those boys violate, King George or Louis?

    The two carpet baggers in Congress were just interested in revenge since Lee made his point well enough to make them feel guilty deep down inside. It was more about self than duty for them. They “could not handle the truth”, to quote a popular movie line. The character played by Nicholson was found guilty of lying and conspiracy to cover up a murder. Lee told the truth concerning his allegiance from the beginning.

    President Grant did what he did due to the fact he understood what treason is. You may have a conveniently pious misinterpretation of history or you may just enjoy contention and dissension. Are you serious or are you just 12?

  14. Treason is treason plain and simple.

    Getting caught is what matters most. I believe the Brits hung the guy for it. They did allow him to make a statement though.

    Early should have burned down your hometown too. At least that would have given you something to complain about.

  15. Given that Lee resigned from the Army, he was not in violation of the oath in the strictest sense. Regarding the first oath he would have taken, it did reference supporting the Constitution.

    “The first oath under the Constitution was approved by Act of Congress 29 September 1789 (Sec. 3, Ch. 25, 1st Congress). It applied to all commissioned officers, noncommissioned officers and privates in the service of the United States. It came in two parts, the first of which read: “I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the constitution of the United States.” The second part read: “I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me.” The next section of that chapter specified that “the said troops shall be governed by the rules and articles of war, which have been established by the United States in Congress assembled, or by such rules and articles of war as may hereafter by law be established.””

    An intriguing post, though.

  16. He resigned from the Army…so f-ing what. That did not give him and others to take up arms against the National government.

    I have taken a more modern version fo that oath on 3 separate occasions so I have a very hard view, I admit. But you don’t get to pick and choose.

    Let me ask a counter question…did Lincoln violate his oath of office by expanding the size of military, suspending habeus corpus and print money…none of which he had the authority to do but are things he HAD to do in order to effectively wage a war against a rebellion.

  17. Reference #16:

    I took that oath too. I am also exempt from all state gun permit law. That does not mean I took up arms against the government. I took up arms against private property law violators and criminal activity while exercising my privilege to travel public roadways.

    That is the way Lee perceived it. He was no longer subject to the UCMJ or the equivalent at the time. He was defending his home and his ability to pursue happiness and tranquility.

    After Lincoln declared war by defending a South Carolina fort and invading Virginia he was free to declare martial law or do what he needed to win.

  18. John,

    I do see what you are saying, but I feel that given his resignation, he was not violating the oath in a strict sense. Ethically, that is another matter, as I would agree that he violated the spirit of the oath. Now, were he retired from the army, as opposed to resigning his commission, then I think a strong case would be made for his violating the oath.

    Now, to your question regarding Lincoln and his oath. His initial expansion of the military was legal under the Militia Act of 1792. His suspension of habeas corpus was legal, as Article I, Section 9, clause 2 states: “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” (from: Note the part “unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” We were in a state of rebellion, so to speak, and one can argue that the public safety required it, so Constitutionally, he was in the right and not violating his oath. Printing money is an interesting grey area, as Article I gives Congress the power to “coin Money.” Now, keep in mind that until the issuance of the Greenbacks, states, and even banks printed paper money, so I would need to examine this a bit deeper.

    Considering that initial expansion of the military, through calling up the militia (state units) through the Militia Act powers granted him, and, the Constitutional provision allowing for the suspension of habeas corpus were legal, Lincoln was not in violation of his oath of office.

  19. “That is the way Lee perceived it”

    I’m sure that Benedict Arnold had a rationalization for his treason, as well.

    “After Lincoln declared war by defending a South Carolina fort”

    Lincoln attempted to resupply a federal fort inside the United States and then defended it from attack by other traitors.

  20. Daniel and John,

    One of my great great grandfathers was galvanized. He was some kind of local hero in Newsite, Alabama as the UDC erected a ten foot ornate monument on his grave for his service in the 30th Alabama Infantry at Vicksburg. There is a microfish image, at larger libraries, of the government form used for prisoners paroled not to take up arms against the government. After signing his, he returned home to Alabama until December when he went back to Mississippi and joined the Middle Tennessee Cavalry later called the First Alabama Union Cavalry. His unit was the Army of the Tennessee headquarters troop in the march through Georgia. They were personally selected by Sherman early in the campaign then became a corps unit for the duration. His widow applied for a pension from the state and from the federal government too.

    He was wounded in the hip and carried a hole where the bullet wound healed and worked out over the years to roll across the dining room floor when he was an old man.

    My grandmother told me she sat on his knee as a child and heard stories about cow blood pudding as a result of deprivation and hunger during the war.

    Galvanation was a common practice at the time.

    I had another who never came home from Virginia until after the war due to wounding, capture and imprisonment at Point Lookout Maryland Prison Hospital from the Wilderness or Spotsylvania Court House. One microfish enrollment card says the Wilderness. A separate card says Spotsylvania Court House.

    The original muster roles at the state archives say present for duty at Gettysburg and Chicamauga and sick in hospital at Antietam. His regiment and company show 60 per cent sick in hospital with typhoid in the early fall of 62′.
    He lived to be one month shy of 50 in Cherokee County Alabama and is buried at the old Bethel Baptist Cemetery in Forney near a Georgia veteran from Third Corps. He was a local hero of Stonewall Jacksons Division (48th Alabama) and one of his sons (uncle William) became the richest man in the county. Politics!

    My paternal ancestor never made it home. He was present for duty at Gettysburg but lost at Chicamauga. They were both in the same brigade at the Slaughter Pen in the Valley of Death at Devils Den.

    I am equally proud of all three.
    I do like the Stonewall Jackson connection though. His older brother died for Old Blue Light at Cedar Mountain and the younger of three brothers died at Cherabusco Hospital in Richmond the day Fredricksburg took place.

    I am the result of the 44th Alabama veteran leaving an infant son in 1862. Just made it.

  21. David,

    Arnold was a hero of Saratoga. He conspired to execute a clandestine plan to surrender West Point for personal gain while an active officer in the revolutionary army. That is why his monument at Saratoga has his deeds but not his name inscribed.

    King George welcomed him back to London after helping the colonies win independence before his act of treason against the colonial government.

    Was he a traitor once or twice?

  22. David,

    Arnold was a hero of Saratoga. He conspired to execute a clandestine plan to surrender West Point for personal monetary gain while an active officer in the revolutionary army. That is why his monument at Saratoga has his deeds but not his name inscribed on it.

    King George welcomed him back to London after helping the colonies win independence before his act of treason against the colonial government.

    Was he a traitor once or twice?

  23. “Was he a traitor once or twice?”

    As many times as you like. Like Lee, once a traitor, always a traitor.

  24. Reference reply #s 20 and 22.

    How many of my ancestors were traitors?

  25. “How many of my ancestors were traitors?”

    I think you’re going to have to figure that out.

  26. That question is not for me. This is a discussion. How old are you?

  27. “That question is not for me”

    Sure it is. You know your ancestors better than anyone here.

  28. David,

    I did not know my Civil War ancestors. The last one living died of TB 42 years before I was born.

    You have nothing “to hang your hat on”. You have been talking out of that hat. You have nothing constructive to say about the subject. You do know better than to do too much name calling though. I will give you credit for that.

    Lee was a bigoted, narrow minded 19th Century professional with a limited knowledge of real freedom and equality due to the contradiction expressed by the principles in the Declaration of Independence by Jefferson. Lincoln was also a narrow minded bigot. All three were great 19th Century historical figures (Jefferson dying in that century)with an unmatched record of accomplishment. Neither of whom could have been classified a traitor in even a remote sense.

    Hitler would have appreciated your loyalty to federalism. There is a bus leaving for Afghanistan tomorrow. Why don’t you go save them from themselves. The US government is still trying to work on that. You might be able to help a little with all that sense loyalty and duty you appear to have.

    Have a nice life.