President Ford Restores Robert E. Lee's Citizenship After 100 Years

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President Ford Restores Robert E. Lee's Citizenship After 100 Years

Today in Military History: August 5, 1975

On April 9, 1865, Union Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia near Appomattox Court House from its longtime commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee. The next day Grant signed a parole paper, allowing Lee and his staff officers to return to their homes without legal repercussions.

On May 29, 1865 President Andrew Johnson – who succeeded the assassinated Abraham Lincoln – issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon to those former Confederates who participated in the "late Rebellion." This document was a general pardon, but did contain fourteen classes of persons who were barred from the general pardon. These persons, including Lee, were required to make a special application directly to the President.

Lee wrote to President Johnson on June 13, saying in part:

"Being excluded from the provisions of amnesty & pardon contained in the proclamation of the 29th Ulto; I hereby apply for the benefits, & full restoration of all rights & privileges extended to those included in its terms. I graduated at the Mil. Academy at West Point in June 1829. Resigned from the U.S. Army April '61. Was a General in the Confederate Army, & included in the surrender of the Army of N. Va. 9 April '65."

Consequently, Lee was provided with an Amnesty Oath form, which he filled out, dated October 2, 1865 – the same day he was sworn in as president of Washington College in Lexington, VA – and sent the signed document to the nation's capital [see below].

Unfortunately, Lee was not fully pardoned, nor was his U.S. citizenship restored. He died 5 years later, still in a kind of limbo. He was buried in the chapel that bears his name at what is today Washington and Lee University.

In 1970, a worker in the National Archives was going through some State Department files from the post-Civil War era. In those files he discovered Lee's Amnesty Oath. Apparently, then-Secretary of State William Seward, having no intention of approving Lee's request for restoring his citizenship, gave Lee's original application to a friend. The agency then pigeonholed Lee's Amnesty Oath, and so matters rested for 100 years.

Five years later, U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr. (VA) introduced Senate Joint Resolution 23, a bill to restore Lee's U.S. citizenship. Passed by both chambers, the measure was signed by President Gerald Ford on August 5, in a ceremony at Arlington House – formerly the Custis-Lee Mansion – on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. In addition to a number of congressional members, about a dozen of Lee's descendants attended the ceremony, including Robert E. Lee V, the general's great-great grandson.

President Ford's remarks at the ceremony included these words:

Lee's dedication to his native State of Virginia charted his course for the bitter Civil War years, causing him to reluctantly resign from a distinguished career in the United States Army and to serve as General of the Army of Northern Virginia. He, thus, forfeited his rights to U.S. citizenship.

Once the war was over, he firmly felt the wounds of the North and South must be bound up. He sought to show by example that the citizens of the South must dedicate their efforts to rebuilding that region of the country as a strong and vital part of the American Union.

In 1865, Robert E. Lee wrote to a former Confederate soldier concerning his signing the Oath of Allegiance, and I quote: "This war, being at an end, the Southern States having laid down their arms, and the questions at issue between them and the Northern States having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony....

As a soldier, General Lee left his mark on military strategy. As a man, he stood as the symbol of valor and of duty. As an educator, he appealed to reason and learning to achieve understanding and to build a stronger nation. The course he chose after the war became a symbol to all those who had marched with him in the bitter years towards Appomattox.

General Lee's character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride. 

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General Lee was probably the greatest officer that West Point ever produced. He was certainly one of the greatest men this country ever produced. His character was above reproach. He was a Christian of uncompromising principles. His citizenship should have been restored in 1865. Unfortunately, not all those in the federal government embraced pardon and reconciliation.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.