Learning From Lee

Being something of a civil war buff, one of my heroes and role models has been Robert E. Lee, one of the greatest generals to ever map out a strategy. The general was the epitome of what used to be known as a Christian gentleman. Lee was an Episcopalian, long before that denomination’s liberals made it so difficult for the rest of us to remain in the fold. Despite his strategic brilliance and the uncommon affection the men under his command held for him, Lee had no illusions of grandeur, telling one preacher, “I am only a poor sinner trusting in Christ alone for salvation.” A fierce and cunning warrior, General Lee was gentle in spirit and manner when the guns fell silent.

It has been said that sometimes the greatest testimonials to a man are those given by his enemies. The nature of Robert E. Lee is revealed in a true story. After presiding over the final defeat of the Southern cause, one for which he took the full responsibility, Robert E. Lee and some of his officers rode past Cemetery Ridge, site of the most intense fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg. A Union soldier lying wounded on the ground recognized Lee and shouted in defiance, “Hurrah for the Union!” As the soldier wrote in his journal:

“The General heard me, looked, stopped his horse, dismounted and came toward me. But as he came up he looked down at me with such a sad expression… that all fear left me, and I wondered what he was about. He extended his hand to me, grasping mine firmly, and looking me right into my eyes, said, ‘My son, I hope you will soon be well.’ There he was defeated, retiring from a field that had cost him and his cause almost their last hope, and yet he stopped to say words like those to a wounded soldier of the opposition who had taunted him as he passed by! As soon as the General had left me, I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground.”

Robert E. Lee lived his life according to his Christian principles. Writing to his son Curtis, he offered this advice:

“I am opposed to the theory of doing wrong that good may come of it. I hold to the belief that you must act right, whatever the consequences.”

Even during his darkest days and following the painful loss of a beloved child, Lee never lost his faith in God or blamed Him for for his suffering. When news of the death of his daughter Annie reached the general in the winter of 1862, his secretary saw him take the sad report without change of expression, as he did the scores of other messages that day. But when the aide returned unexpectedly a few minutes later, he saw Lee with his head on his camp desk, sobbing. Though stricken with unbearable grief, the general wrote his wife about Annie’s death, urging her to rely upon God’s benevolence and to maintain faith in His goodness.

Some of General Lee’s soldiers once observed him dismount under fire at Petersburg to pick something from the ground and place it in a tree. After Lee had gone, the curious men went to the tree and discovered that the great man had replaced a fallen newborn bird in its nest.

Lee has been praised by people of all races, from within this nation and without. One of the greatest tributes to the man came from another great wartime leader, himself knowing something of honor and courage. Sir Winston Churchill lauded the great general as “one of the noblest Americans who ever lived.”

Booker T. Washington, the famous African-American educator, author, orator and leader, wrote:

“The first white people in America, certainly the first in the South to exhibit their interest in the reaching of the Negro and saving his soul through the medium of the Sunday-school were Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.”

Lee has also been honored with words of praise from American presidents, including both Roosevelts and Dwight David Eisenhower, whose presidential office had a prominent portrait of Robert E. Lee adorning one of the walls. It was one great general’s way or displaying his respect and admiration for another.

But as history recorded, Gen. Lee, who repeatedly was victorious even with the odds against him, was not perfect. Brilliant a commander as he was, Lee made a disastrous error on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Against Longstreet’s advice, Gen. Lee attempted a massive frontal assault known as Pickett’s Charge on the center of the Union lines. It resulted in great losses of his men and a forced retreat. Lee told his subordinates, “This is all my fault,” and submitted his letter of resignation to Jefferson Davis, who refused to accept it.

After the war, Robert E. Lee served as the president of what was then called Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. In just five years, he turned a rather undistinguished small school into one of the first American colleges to offer courses in business, journalism, and Spanish. Lee also instituted the honor system at the school, stated simply as “We have but one rule, and it is that every student is a gentleman.” That tradition lives on today at what is now known as Washington and Lee University, renamed to honor the man who had such a profound effect on it.

After his surrender to Grant, Lee tirelessly worked for reconciliation. He argued:

“So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South.”

But as magnanimous as he was in defeat, Lee was embittered by the manner in which the north exacted vengeance upon the South under Reconstruction. The general remarked to the former Confederate Governor of Texas during a reunion of ex-Confederates in 1870:

“Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.”

Lee remained concerned about the direction the newly reunified nation was taking. In 1866, he wrote to Lord Acton in Britain:

“The consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all that have preceded it.”

Two years later, commenting on the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, Lee wrote in a letter to his niece Annette Carter:

I grieve for posterity, for American principles and American liberty. Our boasted self Govt. is fast becoming the jeer and laughing-stock of the world.

Monday, January 19 will mark the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee. It would be fitting on the occasion to read something written by or about him. His tactics and strategy are still taught in the U.S. Army’s War College. But there is wisdom beyond the battlefield to be found in his words and honor in his deeds, and much of value can be learned by civilians from his extraordinary life. The library at Washington and Lee University has among its special collection some of his letters which chronicle aspects of the general’s life and career as a soldier, educator, friend, and father. A representative sample is available for viewing online here. The definitive biography of Lee is Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume work, some 19 years in the making and published in 1934. The set won Freeman a Pulitzer Prize in 1935 and has become one of the most acclaimed biographies ever written. You can peruse it here.

– JP