General Lee and Visibility – Schwarz

General Lee and Visibility

Philip J. Schwarz

Note: The story of Robert E. Lee and a black man kneeling together at the communion table in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, in June 1865, is open to various interpretations. Some see it as an example of Lee’s humility and humanity and his desire to bring about healing in the aftermath of war. Others doubt that it really happened. What follows is a presentation on the subject that Professor Schwarz made to the Stratford Hall Plantation Seminar on Slavery on 4 August 2000. This revision, dated December 2006, is presented here with his kind permission.

My theme today is equal historical visibility.

I will illustrate that theme by examining General Lee’s visibility in light of someone else’s invisibility.

We must be masters of our history. That means we must look squarely at the colonies’ and the United States’ ?original sin? of slavery and the racism that upheld its existence and that far too often hides its history. To be masters of our history, we must see all of that history.

History has made General Lee very visible. A particular incident in Lee’s history has made someone else very visible to me who I hope will soon be visible to you.

To suggest a way of mastering our history, let’s take a closer look at the story of General Lee and the black man at Richmond’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in June 1865.

There is a standard eyewitness account — in two versions.


?Negro Communed at St. Paul’s Church,? Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 16, 1905, p. 5. ?Colonel T. L. Broun, of Charleston, W. Va., is in the city stopping on Floyd Avenue. He was present at St. Paul’s Church just after the war, when a negro marched to the communion table ahead of the congregation. Colonel Broun, in speaking of the matter on yesterday, said:

?Two months after the evacuation of Richmond, business called me to Richmond for a few days, and on Sunday morning in June, 1866 [sic], I attended St. Paul’s Church. Dr. Minnegerode [sic] preached to a congregation fairly good. It was communion day. When the minister was ready to administer the Holy Communion, amongst those who first arose and advanced to the communion table was a tall, well dressed negro man; very black. He walked with an air of military authority. This was a great surprise and shock to the communicants and others present, who frequented that most noted of the Episcopal Churches in Virginia. Its effect upon the communicants was startling, and for several moments they retained their seats in solemn silence, and did not move, being deeply chagrined at this attempt of the Federal authorities, to offensively humiliate them during their most devoted Church services. Dr. Minnegerode [sic] looked embarrassed.

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.

This lofty conception of duty by General Lee under such provoking and irritating circumstances, had a magic effect upon the other communicants, who immediately went forward to the communion table. I, being one of the number, did likewise.

By this action of Gen. 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 offensive circumstances.’?


?Negro Communed at St. Paul’s Church,? Confederate Veteran, 13 (August 1905): 360. ?Col. T. L. Broun, of Charleston, W. Va., writes of having been present at St. Paul’s Church, Richmond, Va., just after the war when a negro marched to the communion table ahead of the congregation. His account of the event is as follows:

?Two months after the evacuation of Richmond business called me to Richmond for a few days, and on a Sunday morning in June, 1865, I attended St. Paul’s Church. Dr. Minnegerode [sic] preached. It was communion day; and when the minister was ready to administer the holy communion, a negro in the church arose and advanced to the communion table. He was tall, well-dressed, and black. This was a great surprise and shock to the communicants and others present. Its effect upon the communicants was startling, and for several moments they retained their seats in solemn silence and did not move, being deeply chagrined at this attempt to inaugurate the ?new regime? to offend and humiliate them during their most devoted Church services. Dr. Minnegerode [sic] was evidently embarrassed.

General Robert E. Lee was present, and, ignoring the action and presence of the negro, arose in his usual dignified and self-possessed manner, walked up the aisle to the chancel rail, and reverently knelt down to partake of the communion, and not far from the negro. This lofty conception of duty by Gen. Lee under such provoking and irritating circumstances had a magic effect upon the other communicants (including the writer), who went forward to the communion table.

By this action of Gen. Lee the services were conducted 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 and offensive circumstances.’?

Of course Lee’s action stands out in the incident, but we need to consider the other main character, the black man.

We see Lee through Thomas Broun’s eyes: we must also watch Broun observing the African-American man. To Broun, this African-American male is an insult not only because of his actions, but also because of his very clothing, and even because of his blackness. Broun ascribes motives to the black man. But the black man is not named. We have no idea who he was. Instead we only have Broun’s spin on him.

Who was Broun?

Thomas L. Broun
Thomas L. Broun
Courtesy of W.Va. Division
of Culture and History

?The last roll: Maj. Thomas l. Broun,? Confederate Veteran, 22 (July 1914): 324–25. Born December 26, 1823, Middleburg, Loudoun County, Virginia. Died March 3, 1914, Charleston, West Virginia. Married Mary Morris Fontaine, daughter of Col. Edmund Fontaine, of Hanover County, the first president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.? Grandfather William Broun emigrated from Scotland and practiced law in Westmoreland County in colonial period. After study at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Broun was graduated from the University of Virginia in 1848. After teaching school in Middleburg, he moved to Charleston to study law. Attorney for railroads and coal transporting companies. He served in military and support capacities during the civil war. ?It was from Major Broun that General Lee obtained his famous war horse Traveler.? Considered one of the leading members of the bar in West Virginia. He was a director of the West Virginia Historical Society. ?He was for more than forty years a vestryman of St. John’s Episcopal Church, of Charleston, W. Va., and prominent in diocesan affairs.? ?Major Broun was a profound student of history, especially of southern history. . . .?

But, as professional historians, we have to examine his accuracy as well as his credibility. Broun was interviewed by the Richmond Times Dispatch in 1905; he also wrote to the Confederate Veteran in 1905, in both cases forty years after the event. Broun was 81 years of age in 1905. There’s no reason to stoop to the stereotype of the aged person who can’t remember anything, especially because octogenarians often remember the distant past better than recent events. But neither is there any reason to be certain that Broun’s memory of the event was accurate in every detail.

Corroboration?>

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond
from and old postcard

I have located no direct corroboration of Broun’s account. Most of the Richmond newspapers were burned out by the evacuation fire. The ones that were able to continue publication said nothing about the incident.

There is, however, some circumstantial evidence.

That is, Lee was in Richmond in early June 1865.

Communion Sunday at St. Paul’s was probably Sunday, June 4th, it being the first Sunday of the month.

Broun could very well have been present at St. Paul’s on that Sunday: Broun returned to Charleston, West Virginia, in ?early? June 1865 to try to resume his law practice. Given his railroad work and his forthcoming relationship by marriage to the first president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, why might he not have been in Richmond on business just prior to returning to Charleston?

Circumstantial evidence can sometimes support a case, but in this instance there is some missing substantial evidence.

Who was the well-dressed black man?

I have only a small idea of who he was.

Proving or disproving the incident’s details is not my first goal. Instead I wish to examine the question of major Broun’s perceptions and relate those perceptions to today’s memory of the incident.

The invisibility of the ?well-dressed? black man

Major Broun was a man of his times. That is, he was a white man of his times in April 1905 as well as in June 1865. Listen to the opinion that Joseph Bryan of Richmond assumed Broun would accept. In an 1899 letter to Broun, Bryan declared that William Jennings Bryan was going around the country relying on Lincoln quotations. (Remember that Bryan made his second of three unsuccessful runs for the presidency in 1900.) ?Mr. Lincoln’s idea, which Mr. Bryan is quoting, was that the negro is the equal of the white man, and I am no such democrat as that, so if you can stop of Mr. Bryan I will promise you to let him severely alone, but as long as he continues to undertake to represent democracy I must enter my urgent and repeated protests.? In other words, like so many white southerners of his time, Broun probably held overtly racist ideas and believed strongly in white supremacy.

By 1902, white Virginians had strengthened white supremacy by sharply curtailing the franchise for African Americans. Broun certainly knew about that action in 1905; he probably also approved of it.

In 1905, Broun had probably changed few or none of his ideas about race.

So the point of view in his evaluation of the June 1865 incident is that of a prominent white lawyer in 1905 who thought white supremacy was the natural order of things. He could only remember the black man’s actions at St. Paul’s as an effort to ?inaugurate the ?new régime’ to offend and humiliate? the worshipers. White supremacy was temporarily in jeopardy in 1865; forty years later, Broun would have seen white supremacy as ensured. He could contemplate the 1865 incident from a seemingly victorious viewpoint.

And a victorious viewpoint is exactly what we see in Broun’s remarks or silences. Besides attributing motives to the African-American man without asking him what his motives were, Broun tried to put this man in his place by ignoring his identity.

Of course it’s true that if a black man reached the communion table at St. Paul’s before most members of the white congregation did, it was to make a point, but what was that point? If the man was a minister, or even perhaps an Episcopalian — after all, he went to the communion table — was it simply to assert his equality in the eyes of God? What was this man’s history, what was his story? Was this man free born or recently freed? Was he a leader? Why was he well dressed? What happened to him after the incident?

General Lee’s conduct.

Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee after the War
Washington and Lee University

And what about Lee’s conduct? So many people tell the story of Lee’s response to the black man’s action as conciliatory and accepting. Perhaps it was, but does Broun? Listen to Broun’s language: Lee, ?ignoring the action and presence of the negro,? and with a ?lofty conception of duty . . . under such provoking and irritating circumstances? walked to the chancel rail. ?By this action of Gen. Lee,? Broun continued, ?the services were conducted 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 and offensive circumstances.?

Do we know what Lee’s ?statement? was on that Sunday in June 1865, or do we only know Broun’s interpretation of Lee’s action? We know that Lee was an early advocate of black troops in the Confederate armies. On the other hand we also have his post-war statements that reflect a strong assumption of black social and political inferiority. But we know little more than this.

Broun’s perception of Lee’s motives is very clear. I do not see in Broun’s description any attempt by General Lee to be conciliatory towards the black man. I see instead Broun’s imputation that General Lee had made a gesture of superiority. One of the most powerful ways to assert one’s superiority is to ignore someone’s insult. Isn’t this the superiority that Broun perceived in General Lee’s response to the ?kneelin? of 1865? So I can’t be sure about the accuracy of Broun’s interpretation of the event.

The increased visibility of the black man.

The earlier publication of Broun’s memories of the incident in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 16, 1905. (The Confederate Veteran report appeared in August 1905.) The newspaper account refers to Broun having spoken of the matter the day before. (The newspaper report passes the ?temporal proximity test?: it appeared the day after Broun talked with the Times-Dispatch. The Confederate Veteran account says Broun ?writes.? He apparently wrote to the magazine, but did he ?write? the newspaper account?)

Nevertheless, the Confederate Veteran report follows the newspaper report almost word for word.

Almost.

Reverend Charles Frederick Ernest Minnigerode

Charles Frederick Ernest Minnigerode
(1814–1894)

Minister at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Note that neither report states that the black man was the first person to arrive at the ?communion table.? The newspaper account introduction (not Broun) says ?a negro marched to the communion table ahead of the congregation.? The Confederate Veteran hedges a bit by saying that ?a negro in the church arose? when the minister was ready to administer communion. So Broun either could not remember whether the African-American man was the first to arrive at the communion table, or he considered his mere arrival there along with white communicants to be the problem.

Next, where the Confederate Veteran account describes him only as black, the newspaper account says the African-American man was ?very black.? Why this change?

Most importantly, the newspaper report says the black man ?walked with an air of military authority,? a phrase interestingly enough omitted by the Confederate Veteran.

And while the two accounts agree in their assertion that the black man had attempted to ?offend and humiliate? the white churchgoers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch characterizes the incident as an ?attempt of the Federal authorities, to offensively humiliate them.?

The hint of military background is enticing; the pointed remarks are obvious. Was the African-American man a Union soldier in civilian dress? By omitting the hint of a military background, was the Confederate Veteran unwilling to give him even that credit in the eyes of the Confederate veterans who were the magazine’s subscribers?

Remember the low opinion that many leading Confederates had of black people in the military. When President Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and black troops began to fight for the Union that year, President Jefferson Davis issued an official threat — never implemented — of reprisal: all free African Americans within the Confederate States were to be reduced to slavery, as were any free black people in non-slave states that the Confederacy vanquished. (Ervin L. Jordan, Jr., Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia [Charlottesville, 1995], 319–20.) Only in March 1865 did the Confederate states decide to raise black troops formally. And clearly none of them would have been officers who would be allowed to walk ?with an air of military authority.?

But the Richmond Times-Dispatch pointed remark concerning the ?attempt of the Federal authorities, to offensively humiliate them during their most devoted Church services? and the Confederate Veteran’s assertion that the event was an attempt ?to inaugurate the ?new regime’? are telling. Besides the return of U.S. rule to Virginia, that new regime was the beginning of an attempt to weaken white supremacy and marked the impending constitutional prohibition of legalized slavery, signaled by the April 1865 evacuation of Richmond and the end of the Civil War and sealed by ratification of the abolitionist 13tth Amendment a half year after June 1865.

The point of the accounts is clearly not only that the ?federal authorities? were using a black man in a sacred context to dominate the white ex-Confederates, but also that General Lee was not to be dominated and had saved his fellow ex-Confederates from humiliation. ?It was a grand exhibition of superiority shown by a true Christian and great soldier under the most trying [and] offensive circumstances,? both accounts declared.

Note also that neither account tells us whether the minister administered communion to the black man. It’s a fair assumption that he did.

Engraving of Man in Bonds
Engraving of Man in Bonds
?Am I Not A Man and A Brother??

More visibility?

Still, is there a way to make the black man more visible?

I’ve already asked some questions about the African-American man: if the man was a minister, or even perhaps an Episcopalian — after all, he went to the communion table — did he go to the communion table simply to assert his equality in the eyes of god? What was this man’s history, what was his story? Was this man free born or recently freed? Was he a leader, especially a military leader? Why was he well dressed? What happened to him after the incident?

Broun does not help very much with these questions. He was from West Virginia and was only visiting St. Paul’s, so there is no reason to expect him to know the black man. We have no eyewitness account from any Richmonder, as far as I know. So we probably have lost ?local knowledge.?

Black Union troops were not allowed in Richmond in uniform at this time. General Grant had ordered all African-American Union troops removed from Richmond and from the rest of Virginia at the end of April 1865. (Michael B. Chesson, Richmond after the War, 1865–1890 [Richmond, 1981], 75.) So it’s unlikely this man was a Union soldier on active duty. He could have been a veteran, though.

There are other clues to the black man’s identity. The New York Herald printed a letter of June 7, 1865, from five black signatories and ?many others? stating grievances against Richmond’s government and against the occupying white Union troops. Most of the signatories, they declared, owned real estate and paid taxes in the capital city. Was the ?black man? among these people? A later account referred to a reorganization meeting called by the leaders of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, an African-American congregation. And it was but a week after the June 4 incident in St. Paul’s that a delegation of black men was formed in Richmond to visit president Andrew Johnson to express their grievances about their treatment by Federal troops.

There’s no smoking gun here, but these concerted activities indicate that African-American Richmonders, whether ?black? or ?very black,? ?well dressed? or not, and walking with ?an air of military authority or not,? were present and accounted for and quite active in their effort to protect their new status.

I hope someday to find out more about the African-American man.

For now, what implications may we draw from this incident?

Thanks to the recent work of various historians, the visibility of black Americans in our past has increased and will continue to increase. This is the wider implication of the June 1865 incident.

But consider this. It’s safe to say, isn’t it, that after all the events of the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, black Americans are much more visible than they were? So don’t we just want to look forward and move on? Why do we have dredge up all the pain of the past?

We have to look back to avoid to avoid turning back.

There are many ways to look back. You’re well aware that some people wanted Arthur Ashe to be invisible on Monument Avenue — in fact, not to be there. Others want Lee (and Traveler) to become invisible.

Education is the better way.

General Lee and visibility. African Americans and visibility.

Lee Statue, Monument Avenue, Richmond
Lee & Traveller Defaced, Monument Avenue
Photo courtesy Dean Hoffmeyer
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Whatever is the truth about what did or did not happen at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Communion Sunday, June 1865, we can at least take the story as emblematic of the contradictions that have so long been part of American life.

There was for over two centuries the contradiction between slavery and freedom.

Virginia is one very good place in which to study those contradictions. There were more slaves in Virginia, and for a longer time, than in any other North American colony or state from the mid-17th century to at least 1860.

After the 13th amendment, a new contradiction arose. ?We are all free Americans,? many whites would insist, ?but . . . .?

A major part of the American story is the efforts to perpetuate the contradictions associated with slavery and white supremacy. These days I frequently hear white people ask why so many black Americans are angry or sensitive about slavery when slavery existed in almost every other society in history, and when slavery ended here over a century ago. If white supremacy and racism had ended in 1865, that question would be relevant, but it’s clear that in spite of the progress that has been made, there are still two societies in the United States, one black and one white. Black and white Americans blame each other for this state of affairs. I believe that a clear acknowledgement of the nature and cause of slavery in the United States is essential to our building a better society.

It is still possible to turn around some of the contradictions. General Lee, who was denied the restoration of his citizenship, is very visible on Monument Avenue. Arthur Ashe, who was for a long time denied full citizenship, is also very visible on Monument Avenue. And the educational work of institutions such as Stratford Hall Plantation is becoming more and more visible as a means of understanding slavery.

Finally, it must be glaringly obvious by this point in my discussion that one very important participant in the June 1865 episode is also invisible in one sense. In other words, what was General Lee’s version of the event? No one has discovered any statement by him — or anyone else — concerning the black man who made a stir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in June 1865. Will no other evidence ever appear. Never say never about historical evidence!

Afterword: After this talk ended someone stated that attention to General Lee’s spirituality is in order. That is, what might there have been in his religious convictions that would motivate him to act as he did in the June 1865 incident discussed above? Such attention would make General Lee more visible in the incident.

Philip J. Schwarz is Professor Emeritus of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition to many scholarly essays and book reviews, his numerous publications include The Jarring Interests: New York’s Boundary Makers, 1664–1776 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1979); Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705–1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988); Slave Laws in Virginia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996); Migrants Against Slavery: Virginians and the Nation (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001); and Slavery at the Home of George Washington (ed.) (Mount Vernon: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 2001).

spacing pixel

Washington and Lee University • Lexington, VA 24450 • (540) 458-8400