Thursday, October 14, 2010

Robert E. Lee

Lexington, Virginial.  Visited August 2000; July 2006

Reader's note:  In doing posts on the Civil War I will include both Union and Confederate figures.  I would appeal that these posts be read as human interest stories, not as commentary on that difficult period in American history and the slavery that required such a tragic war to be fought for its eradication.

This post is in recognition of the 140th anniversary this week of the passing of Robert E. Lee.

Had it not been for his participation in the Confederacy Robert E. Lee would have probably been recognized as the quintessential American hero. He was born in 1807 on the great colonial estate of Stratford Hall Plantation. His father was the renowned Revolutionary cavalry commander and Virginia governor Henry ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee. His marriage to the great granddaughter of Martha Washington further embedded him in the heritage of colonial American nobility.

Little is known about Robert E. Lee’s boyhood years. At age 17 he received an appointment to the fledgling U. S. Military Academy at West Point, where he finished second in his class. Lee distinguished himself by being one of the few cadets to graduate without ever receiving a demerit. This apparently was a big deal because you can’t read about Lee without seeing mention of his demeritlessness.

After graduation Lieutenant Lee served well in the Corp of Engineers. But it was his service in the Mexican American War of 1846-48 where Lee distinguished himself as a soldier and a leader. In the Mexican War Lee also fought along side comrades who would become major figures in the Civil War, including his ultimate foe Ulysses Grant.

After the war Lee (now a colonel) served in several military positions, including commandant of the Military Academy, and would have probably finished out his military career as a model soldier had the Civil War not erupted in 1860. Looking for a man with combat and command experience who showed promise in administration, Abraham Lincoln called upon Robert E. Lee to serve as commander of the major Union force of the war, the Army of the Potomac. But faced with the choice of fulfilling his army oath by waging war on his home state, Lee resigned his commission and accepted a role in the fledgling Army of the Confederacy.

Within two years Lee had assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia and would participate in the most significant action of the war. Lee’s remarkable success in battle while consistently outnumbered and outgunned made him a legend. He was a bold and innovative commander who led his army by audacious generalship and force of sheer personal charisma. But as the war began to drag out Lee’s dwindling army found itself facing inevitable defeat. In April 1865, surrounded on all sides by superior Union forces, Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. 

Appomattox Courthouse at the place where Robert E. Lee and U. S. Grant met to agree on surrender.  The actual surrender document would be signed in a farm house nearby.  The blogger with two of his intrepid kids circa 2006.

Perhaps Robert E. Lee’s greatest contribution to history was his conduct in defeat. Rather than seeking to prolong hostilities that would simply produce further destruction, he urged the South to end its conflict and return to the Union. Though he lost his American citizenship because of his role in the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee spent the rest of his days seeking national reconciliation and restoration of the country. After the war he accepted presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia because he wanted to rebuild the youth of the South which had been decimated by the Civil War. It was at his home in Lexington on October 12, 1870 that Robert E. Lee quietly passed away from the effects of a stroke. He was 63 years old. His last words – ‘strike the tents’ - poignantly reflect the heart of a life-long soldier.

In 1975 Robert E. Lee’s United States citizenship was restored by act of Congress.

The Robert E. Lee Statue on Gettysburg Battlefield looking out toward the open field of Pickett's Charge.  A great scene in the movie 'Gettysburg' where Lee rebukes Jeb Stuart expresses the leadership style ascribed to General Lee

The man Robert E. Lee is difficult to distinguish from the icon of the antebellum South. He wrote very little about himself and published nothing of note on his life experiences. What is known is that he was a man of exemplary character, dignity and self resolve. As to the scourge of slavery, Lee was a man of his times; he personally lamented the practice of forced human bondage but felt that the institution of slavery must be resolved over time.

Despite his deficient understanding of the sin of slavery, by all accounts Robert E. Lee was a man of sincere, Biblical faith; as distinguished from the culturally accepted religious piety of his era. In his own words, ‘My chief concern is to try to be an humble, earnest Christian.’ Though one of the greatest warriors in military history, Robert E. Lee may be most remembered for the personal character and humanity that radiated from a heart living consciously and consistently before the face of God. A letter to his wife late in the war provides a telling glimpse into the soul of Robert E. Lee.

“What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.”

Robert E. Lee is buried in the family crypt in the lower level of Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University. As is fitting to his simple dignity, the only marker is his name on a simple masonry seal.

For anyone who is a student of the Civil War or American History, a detour off of I-81 into the quaint historic town of Lexington is well worth the effort. We will visit Lexington again for future posts on this blog.

Grant (circa 2006) next to Lee's horse Traveller, who is buried just outside the Lee Chapel

Other blog subjects buried in Lexington, VA

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