Editor’s note: In recognition of Robert E. Lee’s birthday, January 19, the Westmoreland News invited Dr. James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., Kinsale-resident and noted scholar on the American Civil War, to offer his thoughts on Lee’s importance today to Virginia and to the nation. Dr. Robertson will sign his book, The Untold Civil War, Jan. 19, 4 p.m. at Stratford Hall.
Americans used to crave heroes. Our country used to thrive on them. Not anymore. Today it is open season on the great figures–largely, one suspects, because we have no truly outstanding figures in our society. Robert E. Lee offers a strong example of the decline.
Once upon a time, when one considered Lee, eyes naturally lifted. So did the mind. That reverence is now under attack largely because a mountain is a mystery when one looks only at the low lands. Our generations tend to have eyes fixed on the ground. We appear incapable of viewing the heights. As a result, too many Americans have grown deaf to the silence of Robert E. Lee. That is sad, not for Lee, but for us.
The very words that Lee used–gentleman, honor, duty, valor–have a quaint sound these days because they are unfamiliar terms. Cynics sneer that no one like Lee could have existed. They say this because no one like Lee exists now. Winston Churchill observed that there was about Lee “a quality of selflessness which raises him to the very highest rank of men … who have been concerned with the fortunes of nations.”
Here was a man who did not exult in victory or rationalize in defeat. At Chancellorsville, his greatest triumph, Lee stood among the cheers of his soldiers but his thoughts were of his wounded lieutenant, “Stonewall” Jackson. At Fredericksburg, he watched a Confederate victory that was close to a massacre and sighed: “It is well that war is so terrible; else we should grow too fond of it.” After the failure of the Pickett-Pettigrew assault at Gettysburg, Lee rode among the survivors and sought to reassure them by saying: “All this is my fault.” At Appomattox, he was most intent not about personal redemption but about what terms of surrender he could secure for his starved and exhausted army.
It was because of Lee that the Confederacy lived as long as it did. It is because of Lee that modern America lives at all. Trapped at Appomattox, Lee could have ordered his army to disperse, take to the hills, and wage guerrilla warfare. Such a strategy would have obliterated the American dream, and Lee would have none of it. The South had waged war honorably, he said. Just as honorably must the South accept defeat. Thus, in the last, indomitable act of his military career, Lee ordered the Army of Northern Virginia into history.
Lee was the one man, the only man, who could exercise decisive influence over a defeated Southern people; and from the day he affixed his signature to surrender documents, to that cold October morning five and a half years later when death came in Lexington, Lee’s course was as consistent as it was commendable.
Just weeks after the Civil War ended, Lee announced that the duty of all countrymen should be to “unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace.” Lee became the model of that conciliatory spirit. The general never wrote his memoirs: he felt no need to justify the course he had taken on behalf of his native state or his conduct as a commander in the field.
Nor would he re-fight the war to any measurable extent. He silently endured hateful attacks from those who thought him a traitor; he made no response to the vengefulness of a federal congress that refused to restore his citizenship. Lee accepted the verdict of arms as conclusive and would have no truck with those Southerners who assumed an irreconcilable attitude. To a mother complaining that her offspring wished to go north to college, Lee responded quietly: “Madame, forget your animosities, and make your sons Americans.”
He was–without a doubt–the icon of the Confederacy, the personification of all that had been good and courageous and noble about the Southern quest for independence. More importantly, Lee achieved victory in defeat by pointing the way for his own and subsequent ages toward a better, united country.
At his death in 1870, hundreds of tributes expectantly came from Southern states. However, expressions of admiration flowed as well from the North. None was as moving as the lines composed by Julia Ward Howe, the poet who had inspired Union soldiers with the stirring lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Mrs. Howe said of Lee: “A gallant foeman in the fight / A brother when the fight was done / And so, thy soldier grave beside / We honor thee, Virginia’s son.”