Books Guest Blog

Book Talk Q&A with John Reeves

Make plans to join us for a book talk this Saturday with John Reeves. In his book, The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee, Reeves tells the story of the forgotten legal and moral case that was made against the Confederate general after the Civil War. The actual indictment went missing for 72 years. Over the past 150 years, the indictment against Lee after the War has both literally and figuratively disappeared from our national consciousness. The talk is included with Museum admission. Mr. Reeves was kind enough to answer a couple questions ahead of his talk. 


How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?

I’ve been interested in the Civil War for my entire life. Several years ago, I was reading a few books on Robert E. Lee, and became curious about his postwar life. As I read more, I learned that there wasn’t a lot of scholarship on the legal case against Lee and the other Confederate leaders after the war. I started the project by hunting for primary sources in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia. Soon, I realized I had enough material for a book on the subject.

I love examining primary sources. There is still so much to know about the Civil War and its aftermath. For example, the records from the Lee estate at Arlington show that Robert E. Lee was far more involved with slavery than is usually portrayed. There’s an abundance of primary sources relating to the Civil War era, so there are a lot of great stories out there just waiting for a patient historian. I’m currently writing a book about the Battle of the Wilderness, and have been deeply moved by the various accounts of the battle from the participants.


What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?

The biggest finding from my research is that there was a significant legal and moral case that was made against Robert E. Lee after the Civil War that eventually went missing from our historical memory. First, I had to tell the story of the case against Lee. Then, I tried to explain why the story disappeared from our historical consciousness.

Many of us have forgotten that it was always the position of the United States Government that Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the other Confederate leaders had committed treason, as defined in Article III of the Constitution. On June 7, 1865, Robert E. Lee was indicted for treason by a federal grand jury in Norfolk, Virginia. He faced death by hanging if convicted.

After the war, President Andrew Johnson, Attorney General James Speed, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Salmon Chase believed the Confederate leaders had committed treason. Convinced that the leading rebels were guilty of this serious crime, Chase said, “There is the Constitution, and it is so plain that it can’t be made plainer.”

In 1865 and 1866, many northerners and southern Unionists also criticized Lee for his hypocrisy on the issue of slavery and for his alleged mistreatment of Union prisoners. In early 1866, Lee decided against visiting friends while in Washington, D.C., for a congressional hearing, because he was conscious of being perceived as a “monster” by citizens of the nation’s capital. Yet somehow, roughly fifty years after his trip to Washington, Lee had been transformed into a venerable American hero, who was highly regarded by southerners and northerners alike. Throughout the book, I try to understand what accounted for that incredible transformation.


Did you discover anything interesting that you did not publish?

Yes. I write a lot about Judge John C. Underwood in the book, yet I decided not to include some of his additional efforts to punish the Confederate leaders. Ultimately, I decided to keep the main focus of the book on Lee.

Underwood is one of the most fascinating characters in The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee. An abolitionist federal judge appointed by Lincoln, Underwood presided over the indictments of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and 37 other Confederates. He grew up in New York, but lived in Virginia and even married a cousin of Stonewall Jackson. Some contemporaries believed he was the most hated man in Virginia in the 19th century.

During the war and shortly after, Underwood was involved in the confiscation of estates owned by leading Confederates. I discovered a lot of documents on this issue, but decided to save that material for a future project. The issue of land is quite important, but I believed it required a separate treatment.


How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today? 

This book is especially relevant today as we reconsider the legacy of the Civil War and Confederate Monuments. Views toward Lee, in particular, seem to be changing. After the horrific Charleston church shooting in 2015, many Americans became interested in the debate over how we should consider the memory of Confederate leaders and soldiers. In May 2017, after an acrimonious public discussion, the city of New Orleans removed a statue of Robert E. Lee – 133 years after it was unveiled. In August 2017, in the wake of protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, more and more Americans began questioning our veneration of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate figures. Just recently, the Silent Sam monument was toppled by students and activists on the University of North Carolina campus. I believe my book provides the necessary historical context for understanding these contemporary events.