- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

Robert E. Lee distinguished himself as a general during the Civil War, but how he surrendered his army and returned to civilian life immortalized him as a great American.

Now, 199 years after his birth on Jan. 19, 1807, he is still revered for how he put the war behind him and encouraged others to do the same.

“I don’t know of another American between 1865 and 1870 who did a better job of bringing this country back together than Lee did,” says James I. Robertson Jr., a history professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg and author of “Robert E. Lee: Virginian Soldier, American Citizen.”

When Gen. Porter Alexander came to Lee before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox with the idea of conducting guerrilla warfare throughout the South, Lee rejected the suggestion in favor of unifying the country.

Mr. Robertson says Lee knew if Confederate soldiers decided to take part in guerrilla war, they would be without rations and would be forced to steal to survive.

“Lee’s attitude was, we did what we could, we lost, let’s look to the future and rebuild,” Mr. Robertson says. “He knew that it would take the country years to recover from a guerrilla war.”

Lee received numerous potentially lucrative business offers after the war, but he turned them all down to become president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va.

“Lee felt the best way to get the South back on its feet was by educating young men on how to live in a reunified country peacefully,” Mr. Robertson says. “He saw his duty was to bring his country back together.”

Mr. Robertson says another reason Lee did not want to become a businessman was that he viewed it as making money off of the sacrifice of others.

“This is the same reason Lee would not write his memoirs or attend veterans meetings; he didn’t think it was right to use others’ deaths as a means to get wealthy,” he says.

Mr. Robertson says an abiding affection for and fascination with Lee continues because he is the “personification of what we call cliches.”

“We Americans love a good loser, and Lee was a wonderful loser. He did the best he could for four years, then handed over his sword and got back to his life,” the author says.

Richard Abell, author of “Sojourns of a Patriot,” says Lee’s character is what most people find fascinating about the man.

“One of the marks of depth of character is how someone responds to true adversity — with nobility or revenge. … Lee had no sense of revenge,” he says.

Mr. Abell adds that Lee’s decision to side with the Confederacy was not an act of treason, but of loyalty.

The Lee family had been in Virginia for more than 160 years when the state decided to secede. Though Lee was offered command of the Northern army, he turned it down because he could not invade his home state.

“Americans today don’t fully comprehend that one’s first loyalty was to the state, not the country. To Robert E. Lee, his country was Virginia. … He was motivated in his decision by what his state would do,” Mr. Abell says.

According to Mr. Abell, Lee let his life be an example for how the South should reunify with the North. Lee was aware of his position and never encouraged bitter feelings. He pushed for people to identify themselves as Americans, not Confederates or Yankees.

“Lee didn’t get wrapped up in philosophical debates because they weren’t very practical. … He set an example quietly because he knew people would see what he was doing and would do the same,” Mr. Abell says. “The way he led his life had a much deeper and [more] profound impact than anything he said.”

Mr. Abell says that even though Lee was the general for the losing side, Confederate and Union troops alike “understood he was a truly great man who treated everybody properly with a sense of fairness that they felt.”

“Lee conducted war as a gentleman; he believed in what he was doing, but if he lost, then so be it,” Mr. Abell adds.

Nowhere is Lee’s character and devotion more evident than at the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington.

Arlington House was built between 1802 and 1817 by George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Washington’s wife, Martha Custis; the Washingtons raised him as their own son after his father died. Custis’ daughter married Lee in the house in 1831, and for 30 years, the Lees called Arlington House home.

It was in this house that Lee made the decision to resign from the U.S. Army and follow his state into civil war.

“The reason this house exists today is [because] arguably one of the most important decisions in American history accrued on the second floor,” says Kendell Thompson, the site manager at the Robert E. Lee Memorial. “This is where Robert E. Lee came to grips with his duty and honor to his state.”

Mr. Thompson says the house itself is an example of how much Lee is loved even today.

“Lee is certainly an icon of good character and is so respected that by the 1950s, a national memorial was designated for him,” Mr. Thompson says.

He also points out that Arlington National Cemetery was started on land that used to belong to the house.

Mr. Thompson says people continue to admire and respect Lee because he was foremost a good leader, but he also managed to maintain a good character.

“There is a soft spot for Lee today because he was faced with a difficult personal decision that became historical. That has resonance because we continue to struggle with difficult personal decisions in regard to war,” Mr. Thompson says.

Melissa McIntire is a freelance writer.

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