- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 19, 2002

It is a story that, if not true, ought to be. During the three-day battle of Gettysburg, Union soldier Gamaliel Bradford fell wounded with a shattered leg. Bradford was lying unattended on the field when a group of Confederate horsemen approached. The figure in the lead was white-haired and immaculately dressed. The aura about him led Bradford to conclude he was Gen. Robert E. Lee.
In pain and embittered, Bradford raised a fist and shouted: "Hurrah for the Union!"
Lee pulled his horse to a stop, dismounted and walked toward the Union soldier. Bradford thought Lee intended to kill him, but the pained and sympathetic expression on Lee's face told him otherwise. The general bent over Bradford and said: "My son, I hope you will be well soon." He then remounted and rode away.
Bradford later confessed: "As soon as General Lee had left me, I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground."
Some men give deep respectability and honor to their country. Lee was one such figure. The Confederacy lasted as long as it did because of him. When Lee surrendered, the Southern attempt at independence ceased to exist.
Lee's supreme being impressed everyone who ever knew him. Viscount Wolseley, commander in chief of the British armies, met Lee on several occasions during the Civil War. Years later, the English soldier stated: "I never felt my own individual insignificance more keenly than I did in his presence."
Wolseley added: "I have met many of the great men of my time, but Lee alone impressed me with the feeling that I was in the presence of a man who was cast in a grander mould, and made of different and of finer metal than all other men."
Until September 11 of last year, the words Lee so often used duty, honor, valor had a quaint sound because they were unfamiliar. Some people even charged that no one like Lee could have existed. They said it because no one like him existed in modern times.
Such a conclusion has changed. War always brings a consciousness of the past and its heroes. We look back for guidance and strength as we face the unknowns that lie ahead.
Americans do not have to search far into yesteryear before they encounter the imposing figure of Lee. The Virginian simply cannot be overlooked.

The prewar years
Born 195 years ago today, on Jan. 19, 1807, Lee was the son of Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. Yet Robert Lee modeled his life after another Virginia soldier.
His inspiration was always George Washington. Army commander Lee wore a colonel's uniform because army commander Washington did so; when Lee acquired a new horse in 1861, he named it Traveller after a mount Washington rode; and much of Lee's military thinking came from strategies employed by the man known as "the father of his country."
In 1829, Lee graduated second in his class at the U.S. Military Academy. His subsequent reputation as a brilliant engineer came from work on such coastal fortifications as forts Pulaski and Monroe and in preventing the Mississippi River from literally leaving St. Louis high and dry.
Lee's marriage in 1831 to Mary Custis (daughter of an adopted son of Washington's) ultimately produced seven children. Two sons would become Confederate generals.
Military fame first came to Lee in the Mexican War. He served on Gen. Winfield Scott's staff and was a member of Scott's inner circle of advisers. Conspicuous bravery followed at Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec.
Scott declared: "American success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor, and undaunted energy of Robert E. Lee." Later the general in chief added, "He was the very best soldier I ever saw in the field."
A stint as superintendent at West Point preceded command of cavalry on the Texas frontier. In 1857, Lee obtained a protracted furlough to serve as executor of his late father-in-law's badly mismanaged Arlington estate.

Feelings of devotion
Lee became increasingly concerned as secession began shattering the country. He wrote to a daughter late in January 1861: "If the bond of the Union can only be maintained by the sword and the bayonet, instead of brotherly love and friendship, [the Union] will lose all interest with me. I can, however, do nothing but trust to the wisdom and patriotism of the nation and to the overruling providence of a merciful God."
Within three months, civil war exploded. General in Chief Winfield Scott was too old for the new demands. Lee received an offer to take charge of all Union forces. Contrary to legend, he did not agonizingly pace the floors at Arlington. His feelings of devotion were too ingrained for that.
Virginia had been in existence 180 years before the United States was born. The Lee family and Virginia were practically one. Lee's ancestral obligations were all-powerful. "I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children," he stated as he declined the offer to become the North's ranking general.
Within a week thereafter, Lee accepted command of all Virginia volunteer units. His rapid mobilization of a piecemeal army was a primary factor in the Confederate victory at the first major battle of the war, at Manassas. A series of disappointments then ensued, however. The duties, not the performances, brought unpopularity.

Unflattering titles
Lee became military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. His first assignment was to try to bring order among three fractious generals in the mountains of western Virginia. Lee was not the stern supervisor needed to straighten out an awkward internal squabble in the face of a strong Union troop movement. His mission was a failure. The bulk of the blame fell on him. The loss of that area (which later became West Virginia) earned him a nickname, "Evacuating Lee."
His next mission was an inspection of the defenses at Charleston, S.C. Lee's sharp engineering eye instantly saw major inadequacies. He ordered barrier islands abandoned, and he put all able-bodied men to work digging new earthworks. Resentment among refugees and the social elite brought a second unflattering title, "King of Spades."
Back in Richmond, Lee became, in effect, Davis' chief of staff. He endured the frustrations of being part of a high command without having a command. Desk duties led to still another nickname, "Granny Lee."
All of those negative epithets originated with civilians.
In late May 1862, Confederates were desperately contesting a drive on Richmond by the largest army the Western Hemisphere had ever seen. A new day for Lee came on the evening of June 1, with the end of the battle of Seven Pines. Davis named Lee to succeed the wounded Joseph E. Johnston as commander of the South's best fighting force, the Army of Northern Virginia.
Now in charge of the Confederacy's tottering fortunes was a man who had never led a military unit larger than a 1,000-man regiment. Yet Lee looked the part of an army general. Just slightly less than 6 feet tall, he was finely proportioned, with gray hair and beard, brown eyes and a countenance that combined dignity, assurance, tact and kindness.
What happened thereafter is a familiar and courageous saga.

Amazing turnabout
Lee consolidated his forces, then launched a daring counterattack known as the Seven Days' Campaign. His plans were overly elaborate, and movements were poorly executed. Yet Lee saved Richmond and, in the process, learned valuable lessons in his first direction of an army in battle.
With the Union Army of the Potomac squatting helplessly in the mud along the banks of the James River, Lee struck again. He combined with his ablest lieutenant, Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson, to repulse another Federal army at Second Manassas. Few greater turnarounds have occurred in military history. In late June, a huge enemy army was at the outskirts of Richmond. Ninety days later, thanks to Lee's audacity, that Union force had been sent reeling, a second Union army was in defeat, and Lee was preparing to invade the North.
This heavy raid came to a climax at Antietam in the bloodiest one-day engagement in American history. Lee withdrew to Virginia. In December, Confederates won such a lopsided victory at Fredericksburg that Lee remarked: "It is well that war is so terrible; else we should grow too fond of it."
May 1863 brought Lee his greatest triumph. Yet the success at Chancellorsville came with the loss of his greatest soldier, Jackson. At this point, too, Lee's health began to deteriorate.
An attack of angina that spring, followed by a lengthy bout with diarrhea, sapped much of his strength and possibly dulled his powers of reasoning.
A second, rather desperate invasion of the North ended with Lee's defeat at Gettysburg. It was a three-day struggle filled with might-have-beens and still-raging controversies.

Death of a nation
Union forces in the East did not resume a major offensive again until the following May. By then, Confederate resources were strained to the limit when they existed at all. The North's new general in chief, Ulysses S. Grant, was determined to hammer at Lee for however long it took to destroy the Confederacy's principal bulwark: the Army of Northern Virginia.
Eleven months of fighting began on May 5, 1864, in the Wilderness and continued through Spotsylvania, the North Anna River, Cold Harbor and finally to the siege of Richmond and Petersburg. Lee countered and fought with extraordinary skill and determination. Grant suffered 60,000 losses in the first six weeks of fighting. Lee's casualties also were high and irreplaceable. An agricultural South grew increasingly powerless against Grant's persistence and the might of the industrialized North.
The end for the Confederacy came on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, at Appomattox. Grant at last had brought the "Gray Fox" to bay. Lee's refusal to disperse his army and wage guerrilla warfare, as well as the generous terms offered by Grant, enabled the American struggle to end on a promising note not usually found in civil wars.

College president
Just as Lee's brilliance kept the Southern nation alive in the last three years of the war, his vision after Appomattox shaped the future of the American nation forged by that war.
In autumn 1865, Lee accepted the presidency of impoverished Washington College in Lexington, Va. There was no need for Lee to become involved in the educational problems of a defeated South. Nevertheless, he brought to his work as a college president the same ability and devotion to duty that had marked his 35 years in the military.
He established a new curriculum that offered a balance between classical studies and the more practical disciplines of science and engineering. Elective courses broadened the educational opportunities. Lee also initiated an honor system whereby students were to conduct themselves always as gentlemen.
For five years, Lee devoted his energies to training young men and their parents to let the past heal and to help shape the future. When an irate mother implored the general to talk her two sons out of moving to the North, Lee replied: "Madam, forget your animosities and make your sons Americans."
In October 1870, the old warrior suffered a fatal stroke while blessing the food at dinner. He was buried, appropriately, in the chapel of his college. A flood of tributes came from all across the nation. Julia Ward Howe, whose pen had given the North its most stirring song, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," eulogized Lee with the words: "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."
The name of the school was changed quickly to Washington and Lee.
Many alumni today, however, still proudly call it "General Lee's College."

Unforgettable moment
Lee was no flawless man of marble. Weaknesses are visible in his generalship. His tendency to give verbal and imprecise orders sometimes created disorder. His reluctance to hurt the feelings of an officer who seemed to be doing his best showed confidence that those generals too often, by their actions, did not deserve.
Little interest in the political matters that controlled military decisions, a gentlemanly courtesy rather than a "lack of thunder" in dealing with recalcitrant officers, too much of the "killer instinct" in battle when prudence might have been more advisable, a shortsightedness in military theaters other than Virginia these, too, are some of the criticisms that have been aimed at Lee.
They pale in comparison to his assets. His inherent piety, deep-seated kindness to all, devotion to duty, knowledge of military affairs and his ability to see the big picture rather than what lay immediately in front all put him on a high plane.
Lee was a man "born to make the attack," his principal biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, stated. He also had the enviable ability to instill high morale among his men amid every conceivable hardship. The resulting love between general and soldiers led them to believe the Army of Northern Virginia to be invincible. That is why Gettysburg was such a stunning defeat.
Adoration of Lee increased with the war years. When the end came at Appomattox and Lee returned to his lines from the meeting with Grant, what occurred was unforgettable.
As soon as he entered the avenue formed by his troops, an officer stated, "wild heartfelt cheers arose which so touched General Lee that tears filled his eyes and trickled down his cheeks."
This display of emotion brought forth instant response from the ragged soldiers. "Grim-bearded men threw themselves on the ground, covered their faces with their hands, and wept like children.
"A dirt-crusted soldier embodied the broken heart of the Confederacy when he reached out his arms and shouted: 'I love you just as well as ever, General Lee.'"

An inspiring figure
In America's recent age of negativism, it was almost fashionable to criticize great figures of the past. Lee was a prime target. His detractors, motivated largely by sensationalism and armed with all the so-called research of a lawyer picking and twisting circumstantial evidence, sought to reduce Lee to a blemished figure of overemphasized talents.
The debunkers failed. Their charges deflated. We see this in subtle ways: ongoing references to Lee when the subject of great commanders arises, the spurt in popularity of Freeman's classic four-volume biography, the magnificent performance Robert Duvall gives of Lee in the forthcoming movie "Gods and Generals."
Such positive attitudes hopefully will prevail. The mountain is a mystery when one looks only at the ground. Our generations have tended to have their eyes fixed on where their feet are. We seem at times incapable of looking upward to the peaks for inspiration and guidance. In short, too many of us have grown blind to the vision of Robert E. Lee.
That is sad, not for Lee, but for us.

James I. Robertson Jr. is alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and the author of the prize-winning biography "Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The So
ldier, The Legend."

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