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US Civil War Lesson Plan: Should Robert E. Lee Have Been Tried for Sedition?

written by: Curt Smothers • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

This lesson plan promotes critical thinking on a controversial historical issue surrounding the aftermath of the US Civil War: Should Robert E. Lee have been charged with treason? Teachers can either use the plan for an interesting discussion, writing assignment, or expand it to a mock "grand jury."

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    Robert E. Lee on horseback 

    General Robert E. Lee stands out as a heroic, but defeated, military leader. He nearly led his Confederate Army to victory. He fought bravely, but his rebel army was overwhelmed by the superior forces of the United States Government. Should General Lee have been tried for treason? Many of the Confederacy’s military leaders, including Lee, were Union officers at the beginning of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee could have become the Union’s top officer and helped to put down the rebellion, but instead he chose to fight for the Confederacy.

    This lesson plan will encourage students to examine the moral and legal implications involved in Lee’s decision to rebel against the United States. Students will critically examine whether Lee and other Confederate generals should have been put on trial for treason against the United States.

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    Learning Objectives

    After completing this lesson plan, students should be able to:

    • Understand the factors in Robert E. Lee’s personal and military background that led to his decision to fight against the United States.
    • Understand how the U.S. Constitution defines treason and why treason is the only crime defined in our founding document.
    • Judge whether Lee should have been put on trial for treason.
    • Understand the difficulty of the choice Lee and his fellow Southern officers had to make.
    • Judge whether or not the choice to take up arms against the United States was, in the context of the times, justified.
    • Understand why Lee and others were never charged nor tried.
    • Weigh the consequences of full Southern amnesty against the need to uphold the law.

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    Class Activities

    • Have students read a short biography of Robert E. Lee before class begins. A 15-question optional multiple choice take-home quiz is included at the bottom of this section.
    • In class begin a discussion of Lee's biography. Ask students what they would do if they were in the shoes of Southern officers whose states had seceded from the Union? Would they:

    a. Fight against the rebellion as some did? Why?

    b. Fight for the Confederacy as most did? Why?

    • Explain the provisions of the U.S. Constitution as regards treason. (Note: Treason is the only crime defined in our U.S. Constitution. Our founders were wary of a strong government that could define any anti-government activity as "treasonous," so they were very careful in specifying what treason was. This provision will likely put the students in somewhat of a quandary, in that the actions of Lee and his fellow officers met the strictly legal criteria of treason.)
    • Poll the class with the following questions:

    How many students believe Robert E. Lee should have been put on trial for treason? Why or why not?

    How many students believe Robert E. Lee was guilty of treason? If found guilty, what should have been his punishment? Did he deserve to be pardoned?

    Robert E. Lee Quiz 

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    Further Steps

    The reading and discussion can be the basis of two additional activities:

    1. An essay assignment based on the poll questions above.

    2. An in-class “grand jury" deciding whether or not to indict Robert E. Lee for treason against the United States. Possible approaches:

    • Poll the class to determine those remaining undecided (or “fence sitters"). Form a “grand jury" of at least 7 students to consider the evidence and arguments. The role of “prosecutor" can be filled either by the teacher or a panel of students. As in most grand jury situations, the defendant is not represented by counsel. (See the sample "prompt sheet" at the end of this session.)
    • If the grand jury decides to indict Robert E. Lee, have the remainder of the class listen to arguments for the defense (either by the teacher or a panel of students). Since the class has already heard arguments that led to the indictment of General Lee, the teacher should ask the class to consider these arguments as having been presented during the course of a “real" trial. After "trial" arguments either take a vote or assign an essay where the student votes "guilty" or "not guilty" and states the reasons.

    Prompt Sheet 

US Civil War Lesson Plans

Use these lesson plans to enrich your students' understanding of America's greatest conflict. Students will research, collaborate and critically examine the political, cultural, social and moral issues underlying the US Civil War.
  1. US Civil War Lesson Plan: Should Robert E. Lee Have Been Tried for Sedition?
  2. History Lesson Plan: Civil War Prison Camps
  3. Lesson Plan for History: The Inauguration Speech of President Jefferson Davis
  4. Civil War Lesson Plan: Confederate VP Alexander Stephens' "Cornerstone Speech"