As was true of all Southern whites, those living in Richmond, Virginia, were struggling to come to terms with their changed circumstances in the spring of 1865. In the space of only a few weeks, they had witnessed the total collapse of their political, economic and social order. For residents of the former capital of the Confederacy, the accumulated sacrifices and sufferings of four war-torn years yielded only the spectacle of its highest government officials rendered fugitives or prisoners, the surrender of their armies and the dread uncertainty of living as a conquered people. These psychological dislocations were literalized by the physical destruction of Richmond itself. Intending to prevent vast accumulations of cotton, tobacco and military stores from falling into possession of the large Federal force expected to move in from the east at first light, Confederate authorities ordered their warehouses burned in the early hours of April 3. The conflagration spread quickly. Flames spilled out beyond the targeted area to engulf a 20-block section of central Richmond housing nearly all of the city’s commercial activity.

Some two months later, at the northwestern edge of the “Burned District,” congregants gathered inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church one Sunday in June for weekly services. One of those in attendance, having walked from his Franklin Street home around the corner from the church, was Robert E. Lee.

Presiding over the devotions was the Rev. Dr. Charles Minnegerode, the church’s rector for almost a decade. He had been similarly engaged on that fateful April 2 when, just prior to Holy Communion, the church sextant hurried over to the pew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and handed the chief executive a message telling of the collapse of the defenses around Petersburg and the necessity for evacuating Richmond that night.

Now, as Minnegerode again attempted to administer the sacrament, upheavals in temporal affairs elbowed their way once more into the spiritual domain. When the front ranks of the congregation rose from their seats, a well-dressed black man advanced to the altar and knelt before the railing to receive Communion. In that instant, centuries-old conventions of racial hierarchy and social propriety were being cast aside, and it literally paralyzed the attendees. There was absolute silence in the church for some moments, as the remainder of the communicants remained fixed in their seats. Minnegerode himself stood motionless, uncertain how to respond to this sudden, palpable demonstration of all that Confederate defeat signified.

Then, without a word, General Lee rose from his family pew midway down the length of the church on its eastern side. He strode down the aisle to the chancel rail and kneeled reverently alongside the stranger. The lesson was unmistakable and the effect magical. The living embodiment of the South had pronounced by his action an acceptance of racial coexistence, rejecting the differences between black and white in favor of a shared Christian identity. Lee’s fellow parishioners, who moments before would have recoiled at such a suggestion, followed their old commander’s example and began to do likewise.

The story appears in numerous biographies. It fits comfortably within the larger narrative of Lee as the symbol of sectional reconciliation, the Virginian-turned-American, the reluctant warrior who, having failed to lead his people to victory, demonstrated by his public behavior a willing acceptance of postwar realities. A recent examination of the general’s life, Emory M. Thomas’ Robert E. Lee: A Biography, referred to its subject as a “grace-bringer” who “redeemed the circumstance” at St. Paul’s with “actions…far more eloquent than anything he spoke or wrote.” In his Robert E. Lee: An Album, Thomas again related this uplifting anecdote. When actor Robert Duvall, promoting the film Gods & Generals, claimed in a newspaper interview that Lee had once refused to pray with a black man after the war, the details of what happened at St. Paul’s were established well enough in the popular mind to spark objections from numerous readers.

Historian James I. Robertson Jr. called Lee’s magnanimous gesture “a staple of Virginia history.” National Public Radio host Dan Roberts featured the tale as a segment on his popular program A Moment in Time and explained to his listeners how the former warrior “helped his fellow white southerners accept their defeat and the terrific adjustments ahead” by his exercise in biracial worship. One television documentary on Lee re-created the event for its cameras. Jay Winik used it at the close of April 1865: The Month That Saved America to symbolize the entire process of national healing.

At the 2004 Lee-Jackson Day celebration in Richmond, the keynote speaker not only referenced the story of Lee’s gesture but also assured his listeners in the Virginia State Capitol that the general had made it “to send a strong message…that we are all Americans.” Even Roy Blount Jr.’s recent contribution on Lee for the Penguin Lives series of minibiographies found room in its slim, 210-page survey to relate “Marse Robert’s” “step towards racial integration.”

It is a chestnut that resonates with Civil War scholars and buffs alike. The only problem is that its racially inclusive overtone is contradicted explicitly by the only eyewitness account of the event.

The story first appeared in April 1905, when the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a small item—little more than 300 words— headlined “Negro Communed at St. Paul’s Church.” It offered a reminiscence by Thomas L. Broun, a former major in the Confederate Army (mistakenly identified as a colonel by the newspaper), who claimed to have been present when Lee had made his gesture. The article outlined the initial circumstances of the incident just as related above: Sunday Communion, a black man coming forward to kneel at the rail, the shock and embarrassment of Minnegerode and the congregation.

What Broun then recounted, however, was far different from the way the story has since been told: “General Robert E. Lee was present, and he, ignoring the action and very presence of the negro, immediately arose, in his usual dignified and self-possessed manner, walked up the aisle of the church to the chancel rail and reverently knelt down to partake of the communion and not far from where the negro was….By this action of General Lee, the services were concluded, as if the negro had not been present. It was a grand exhibition of superiority shown by a true Christian and great soldier under the most trying circumstances.”

In other words, Lee did not set an example of racial tolerance for his fellow Southerners. According to Broun, the general’s response to the “Negro question” was to act as if nothing had changed. Defiance, not acceptance, was the example he provided. Lee did not take Communion with a black man, but in spite of him.

Broun’s account appeared again four months later in the pages of Confederate Veteran. The text was copied almost verbatim from the Times-Dispatch, right down to the headline, though a few editorial changes were made. Most notably, a reference in the original to the “air of military authority” possessed by the interloper as he walked to the Communion table (among the first Union troops to enter Richmond was the all-black XXV Corps of the Army of the James) was dropped in this second printing. Also Broun’s earlier description of the incident as an “attempt of the Federal authorities to offensively humiliate [the congregation]” was changed to read “an attempt to inaugurate the ‘new regime.’” Where the former phrase condemned Richmond’s military occupation, the latter—with its less precise terminology—widened the focus of discontent to include the altered racial dynamic in the city. Broun’s praise of Lee for preserving the dignity of the white race is plain in both versions, yet the historians who cite and quote from them in praising Lee for his supposed act of brotherhood somehow manage to always miss the moral of the major’s story.

Does this mean, then, that Lee’s reconciliatory image should be discarded in favor of a new conception of him as an unreconstructed reactionary? By no means—at least, not on the basis of the St. Paul’s incident.

Even if one concedes the veracity of the actions described by Broun, we cannot gain definitive knowledge of Lee’s attitudes or intentions that day. A black man presented himself for Communion; after a pause, the general did the same. Forty years later, Broun—relying only on what he saw—concluded approvingly that Lee must have been governed by a white supremacist impulse. Perhaps so, but an alternate explanation can be advanced with equal plausibility.

Lee once wrote that there was a “true glory” to be achieved in “duty done.” Sympathetic and hostile biographers alike find agreement in the proposition that Lee was a man governed by his preoccupation, if not obsession, with the performance of whatever he perceived to be his duty. Seated in St. Paul’s Church on a Sunday in 1865, at the culminating moment of an Episcopal service, Lee’s sole responsibility would have been to partake in Communion. In that instant, questions of social distinction or propriety, expressions of racial superiority or of racial tolerance would have been irrelevant. Indeed, Lee may not even have taken notice of anyone else in the church. The occasion demanded him to acknowledge and accept the presence of God. That duty alone would have mandated his presence at the chancel rail.

No one will ever know what Lee truly intended. The general said nothing at the time and never mentioned the incident afterward. Unless we credit Broun with the gift of reading minds, his guess is as good as ours.

Admittedly, a number of details in the newspaper account fit the known facts: Charles Minnegerode was rector of St. Paul’s Church. Lee was a parishioner. Both were present in Richmond during June 1865.

Further, Broun himself was an Episcopalian, who immediately after the war resumed his old position as president of a kerosene-producing firm headquartered in Charleston, W. Va. As head of an energy concern operating in what had until recently been a part of Virginia, it is reasonable to assume that he was occasionally in Richmond for business and legal affairs, and equally reasonable to accept that, when in that city, he attended services at St. Paul’s, the Episcopal church closest to what remained of the city’s business center and which stood only a few hundred yards from the state Capitol. Lee and Broun had even crossed paths once before: It was from Broun that Lee purchased his famous steed, Traveller, in 1862.

But while the timeline may stand up to scrutiny, the spatial relations do not. The church proper at St. Paul’s, which visitors can still see today, is a rectangular space seating 1,200 people in four rows of pews, with a large center aisle running between the two main banks of seats and two narrow aisles sectioning off a smaller bank of pews on either side. As with many public buildings constructed in the South during the 19th century, it contains a small balcony at the rear in which black attendees would have been required to sit.

In both the Times-Dispatch and Confederate Veteran accounts, Broun states that the disruptive “presence of the negro” was not noticed until he appeared as one of the first communicants at the front of the church. Given the layout of St. Paul’s, this cannot be the case. If a black man had been sitting in the balcony, it would have been impossible for him to descend the stairs and traverse the length of any of the three aisles to reach the Communion rail before a sizable portion of the whites on the floor had already done so.

The only other possibility—that he was seated in the main gallery somewhere near the front—is equally implausible. If a black man had been seated anywhere among the whites, the “startling effect” of his presence would have brought the proceedings to a halt long before Communion.

Thus the internal evidence alone suggests strongly that the incident never occurred. When one also takes into consideration the fact that Broun’s story did not appear in print until 40 years after the event supposedly took place, that no contemporary mention of it has ever been found and no subsequent account from any other eyewitness is known to exist, that conclusion is only strengthened.

It is significant to note that Douglas Southall Freeman did not make any reference to the story in his celebrated four-volume biography of Lee. Some might dismiss this as inconclusive, since Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning work, published in 1934, has often been criticized for taking too worshipful a stance in regard to its subject. Freeman did not relate the episode, it can be argued, simply because the racist behavior applauded in the only source did not reflect well on the general. Such a line of reasoning suffers from the error of “presentism,” the fallacy of applying modern attitudes to earlier periods of time. Although an advocate for equal justice for blacks, Freeman—in both his private correspondence and his public station as the long-serving editor of the Richmond News-Leader—maintained a commitment to sustaining formal barriers between the races throughout his life. Segregation was a policy he supported, as did many of his readers nationwide. Freeman was a product of his time, and that era largely would not have held the racial attitudes described by Broun as censurable. Indeed, Freeman was candid in discussing Lee’s views on race and felt no need to hide or even qualify statements such as the general’s postwar observation “that wherever you find the Negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find the white man, you see everything around him improving.”

Although Freeman offered interpretations of Lee that inevitably showed the general in the most favorable light, his adulation was never so strong as to lead him to conceal unpleasant facts. One famous incident makes this plain. After the initial publication of R.E. Lee, Freeman discovered a letter written in 1835, when then-Lieutenant Lee was helping to survey the border between the state of Ohio and the territory of Michigan (see sidebar, P. 44). In it, Lee breezily described to a friend how, while examining a lighthouse on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, he and his companion encountered the lighthouse keeper, whom Lee described as “irascible & full of venom,” and in the ensuing altercation killed him.

As can be imagined, Freeman was shocked by the discovery and went to great pains to uncover the truth, but no additional evidence of the man’s death could be found. Yet Freeman could not deny that the letter was indeed in Lee’s own hand. Though he rationalized that it must have been Lee’s companion who committed the act and not Lee himself, he recognized that some mention of the incident needed to be made if he were to fulfill his promise to include “every known, important fact” about Lee in his biography. Thus when the work was reprinted in 1949, the following footnote was added to the first volume: “An unhappy incident of Lee’s experience on this survey was the accidental death of a Canadian lighthouse keeper ‘in a scuffle’ over the use of his tower for running one of the survey lines. The only reference to this, so far as is known, is in Lee to G.W. Cullum, July 31, 1835….A search of Canadian records yields no details.”

Had Freeman possessed a greater sense of humor, he might have saved himself much inner anguish. As a careful reading of the letter makes clear, Lee was merely being facetious in describing his death-duel with the “keeper” of the lighthouse. The venom-filled creature he and his friend encountered and killed was actually a snake.

If Freeman was willing—however erroneously—to speak of Lee’s culpability in a man’s murder, he would not have hesitated to tell a story that depicted the Confederate commander as a racist. A quick glance through the footnotes of R.E. Lee demonstrates that Freeman had combed through the pages of Confederate Veteran, and as a newspaperman he would have been familiar with any Lee-related material that had appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The only logical explanation for Freeman’s omission of the Communion tale when he first published his mammoth biography is that he recognized it at that early date as fiction.

Although it appeared in two different periodicals in 1905, Broun’s account did not find its way into the secondary literature surrounding Robert E. Lee until mid-century, when Stanley F. Horn included it in his Robert E. Lee Reader. Culled largely from postwar hagiographic accounts of the general’s career, the book gathered many of the familiar romanticisms that had sprung up around Lee since his death. It also added a new one, for it was in Horn’s heavily edited version of Broun’s narrative that the story first began to be recast as the progressive gesture of racial healing that survives to this day. Such at least was what major news organizations took away from this retelling. On October 23, 1949, The New York Times ran an Associated Press item on the publication of Horn’s 542-page tome. The A.P. account focused exclusively on what it saw as Lee’s gentle lesson in brotherhood; the Times headlined it “Biography Says Lee Knelt Beside Negro.”

The same article also provided Freeman with another opportunity to pass categorical judgment on the entire episode, and this time he took it. Contacted in Richmond for a response to what Horn had presented, the greatest living authority on Lee finally pronounced his opinion. “There is absolutely no foundation in fact for it,” he told the reporter. “All my researches show that this is a story that grew up after General Lee’s death. There is no contemporary record of it whatsoever.”

What then is the ultimate significance of the St. Paul’s incident—a lie that was first promulgated 100 years ago and has been passed on inaccurately ever since? On one level, it has none. Neither Broun’s segregationist anecdote nor the subsequent multitude of racially inclusive versions are credible sources for anyone seeking to discover the historical Robert E. Lee. Yet the enduring presence of this story—even in the works of otherwise credible scholars who, if their own endnotes are to be believed, have read the original text from 1905—provides some important lessons for all who have an interest in history. It demonstrates the axiom that a lie repeated often enough becomes truth, and thus warns us as readers not to equate frequency with accuracy. It illustrates the important lesson that historians are as objective as other men, and not more so; they too will sometimes hold fast to comfortable and time-honored myths even when evidence to the contrary appears before them. Finally, it suggests that history is not merely a discipline that explains the past. The stories we choose to preserve—be they true or false—tell us much about ourselves.

 

Writer and historian Joseph Pierro lives in Northern Virginia.

Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here