Friday, October 12, 2007

Lyman Trumbull & Robert E. Lee

Lyman TrumbullRobert E. Lee

Webster defines coincidence as “the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection.” Consider a couple of my favorite examples:

Americans observed the one year anniversary of 9-11 on September 11, 2002. Print and broadcast media ran tributes to the victims, the nation observed a moment of silence, and the president visited the Pentagon, the field in Pennsylvania, and ground zero in New York City. While Americans mourned the victims, they also feared another attack from Al Qaeda. But here’s the part I chalk up to coincidence…the winning numbers that night in the Pick Three lottery for New York were 9-1-1. Strange coincidence, right?

Here’s another one:

Edgar Allan Poe wrote dozens of short stories, but he only wrote one novel. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is a strange book. The story follows Pym as he stows away aboard a whaling ship. Poe describes the horrific journey, which culminates in a shipwreck, mutiny, and cannibalism. That’s right. The crew kills and eats the cabin boy, named Richard Parker. Here’s the coincidence…In 1884 a ship was blown off course by a hurricane. The crew was adrift in the Atlantic Ocean for several weeks. After 19 days with little food and water, one of the young crew members began drinking seawater and became delirious. The crew ended up killing him and, for the next 35 days, they stayed alive by eating him. The unfortunate fellow’s name…Richard Parker!

I realized that today is another one of those days. No, it’s not a day filled with tragedy or cannibalism, but coincidence does play a part in October 12. If life and death are opposite sides of the same coin, then Lyman Trumbull is on one side, while Robert E. Lee is on the other. Here’s what I mean:

Today is Lyman Trumbull’s 194th birthday. Lincoln had known Trumbull for years. Their wives had been great friends throughout their earliest days in Springfield. Julia Jayne Trumbull had even served as a bridesmaid at the Lincoln wedding. However, their relationship imploded when Trumbull bested Lincoln for the Senate in 1855. Mary Lincoln never again spoke favorably or even cordially to the Trumbulls.

When Lincoln became president, Trumbull was serving in the United States Senate. Almost from the beginning, Trumbull aligned himself with the radicals. He quarreled with the president over patronage issues, the conduct of the war, and emancipation. Trumbull wanted the president to emancipate the slaves and allow blacks to serve in the Union ranks. After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, Trumbull began working on a constitutional amendment to make emancipation permanent.

Today, Trumbull is recognized as the co-author of the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially abolished slavery in America.

While Trumbull was born on this day in 1813, Robert E. Lee died on this date in 1870.

There is little left to say about the legendary Confederate general. Lee is revered by Americans, both North and South. But like so many people from the past, the Lee legend distorts the man. Advocates of the Lost Cause interpretation of American history will tell you that Lee was an anti-slavery man. They say he did not lead his Rebel soldiers into battle to preserve slavery; instead, Lee was merely defending his beloved Virginia from a tyrannical government led by Lincoln and the dreaded Republican Party. Sometimes the truth is more complicated.

Lee owned about six slaves during his lifetime, but he acquired many more through marriage. In 1831, Lee married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, whose great grandmother was Martha Washington and step-great grandfather was, of course, George Washington. When Lee’s father-in-law died, he left his daughter a plantation called Arlington and 196 slaves. The will called for the slaves to be emancipated within five years “in such a manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper.” Lee was named executor of the will.

Custis had run up staggering debts and Lee, as executor, was in charge of paying his creditors, as well as repairing the plantation he and his wife had inherited. Lee knew how to raise the money. He took a two year leave of absence from the army and began hiring out the slaves to work on neighboring plantations.

Several of the slaves began complaining about their new work. Many of them understood that Custis planned on emancipating them after he died, so why were they still working? Lee discussed the situation in an 1858 letter to his son:

I have had some trouble with some of the people. Reuben, Parks & Edward, in the beginning of the previous week, rebelled against my authority—refused to obey my orders, & said they were as free as I was, etc., etc.—I succeeded in capturing them & lodging them in jail. They resisted till overpowered & called upon the other people to rescue them.

Three more slaves ran away the following year. Lee pursued his property and captured them a few miles from the Pennsylvania border. The New York Tribune published two anonymous letters in June and July 1859. Both letters claimed Lee had the three runaways, two men and one woman, whipped.

In 1866, one of these runaway slaves gave an interview. After their capture, Lee told the runaways “he would teach us a lesson we would not soon forget.” The slave claimed the stories about being whipped were indeed true. The two men were tied to posts and whipped 50 times by the constable, while the female slave received 20 lashes.

Lee fulfilled his duty as executor to the will and freed the slaves at the end of the five year period. On December 29, 1862, two days before Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lee completed the paperwork required to free the Custis slaves.

Today is a curious day. The man who authored the amendment that killed American slavery entered the world; fifty seven years later, the man who had led Confederate soldiers into battle departed.

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