The man, the myths and mystery surrounding an American hero.
As I began to prepare my thoughts on the subject at hand, an awareness of the controversy over this man’s life and legacy settles like a thick fog on a cool autumn evening. Those that feel more astute will think me uneducated, uncultured or racially insensitive for even attempting to defend the Confederate General.
I’m certain Lee would be grieved greatly at the country’s current state of affairs, abuses by the federal government upon the states, and now, the war on history, itself.
Lee took up arms to defend the Southern Cause and I now attempt to defend his rightful place in American history.
Last week, America should have honored two men. There were two important birthdays to note. One was a civil rights leader, and the other a Southern general. One we celebrated with a national holiday. The other was hardly mentioned. Both were great men, and make up the fabric of the American story. For that reason alone, we should remember.
Robert Edward Lee was the commanding officer of the Army of Northern Virginia, and later, general of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War.
He was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on January 19, 1807. Son of Henry “Light Horse” Lee III who was an officer in the Revolutionary War, and the ninth governor of Virginia. The Lee family was one of Virginia’s first families to settle in the territory dating back as early as the 1600’s.
Not much is known about Lee’s childhood. He was one of six children and grew up in the city of Alexandria. Through an unfortunate turn of events, Lee lost his father at the age of 11.
In the summer of 1825, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. Four years later, he graduated second in his class. Lee married Mary Anna Custis, who, interestingly, was the great granddaughter of Martha Washington.
The next seventeen years of his life, Lee never set foot on a battlefield. As an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, he was supervising construction projects. That changed in 1846 during the war with Mexico. During these years, Lee began to prove himself as a soldier earning distinction for his service.
He returned to West Point in 1852 where he served as superintendent, given the task of educating the men that would later serve with him and against him during the Civil War. Word came that Lee had been promoted, and he joined the Calvary in Texas. He was called to put down an uprising at Harper’s Ferry led by abolitionist, John Brown and a band of 21 others. Lee led the attack. Brown and his men were captured. The fighting lasted three minutes.
By 1860, America was gripped in bitter debate. Socially, economically, and politically, we were a nation divided. The South largely was agricultural. The North had its industry. States’ rights versus a strong federal government. Slavery and non-slaves states.
Then, came the election of Abraham Lincoln. Even before he had taken office in 1861, seven states had seceded from the union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The time for discussion had ended. America was going to war.
Lee never approved of secession and considered it a betrayal to the founding fathers. In a letter to his son, he stated, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the union.”
President Lincoln offered Lee the command of the Union’s field forces in April, 1861. The following day the state of Virginia seceded. In a letter to Lee’s sister he said, “With all my devotion to the Union and feeling of loyalty and duty as an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the Army, and save in my defense of my native state, with sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed.”
Lee resigned from the U.S. Army and took command in the Virginia state forces. His first combat engagement was at Cheat Mountain, Virginia, followed by the Seven Days Battle, both were Union victories resulting in heavy Confederate casualties. But the losses were largely due to failings of his commanders. Lee was successful, however, in driving General George McClellan from Richmond through his aggressive attacks gaining him the respect of his peers.
The war slowly shifted with victories at 2nd Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville where Lee demoralized General Joseph Hooker. These victories came at a high cost of life. The casualties for North and South were extensive. Lee’s famous quote came after the battle of Fredericksburg. “It is well that war is terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
The turning point in the war began with the battle of Antietam. Lee fought George McClellan to a stalemate. September 17th 1862 was the bloodiest day in battle in American history. 22,717 men were dead, missing or wounded. Both sides suffered huge losses, but Confederate troops were battered and exhausted. President Lincoln, sensing a window of opportunity made the decision to announce his Emancipation Proclamation (January, 1863) not only giving the Union moral high ground, but also freeing slaves in the rebel states. Those slaves living in border or northern states would be set free at a later date by further legislation. Lincoln’s tactical decision dealt the South a deadly blow.
July 1863 was the Civil War’s most famous battle at Gettysburg. Lee had decided to make a bold move marching into Pennsylvania. The first two days were marked by intermittent action. On July 3rd, under Major General George Pickett, Lee decided to attack. Some 15,000 Confederates moved through an open field. Gunfire echoed across the ridge as Union forces ravaged Pickett’s men. Pickett’s charge was an utter failure, and recognizing the battle was lost, Lee ordered his men to retreat.
The following day word came that Vicksburg had fallen to Ulysses Grant. Lee sent his letter of resignation on August the 8th, 1863. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, refused his request.
Lee’s mistakes at Gettysburg proved fatal. His army was outmanned, lacked supplies, and desertions among Confederates became a growing problem.
In a small village of Appomattox Courthouse, Lee’s troops were surrounded. The day was destined for peace. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, Palm Sunday.
Later that day, Lee met with Union General Ulysses Grant to surrender his troops. The terms were generous. Officers could keep their horses, luggage, side arms and an allotment of Union Army rations.
As Lee left the conference he walked to the door hesitating at the Union troops drawn to attention. Celebratory cheers rose from the crowd of men, but were quickly quieted by Grant ordering that there would be no celebration. “The war was over and the rebels are our countrymen again.”
Lee’s reputation and admiration spread throughout the country making him a legend even before his death. A man of character, devotion to duty, and brilliant tactician in battle.
Many years later in an address before the Southern Historical Society in Atlanta, GA (1874) Lee was described as follows:
He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. A public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick without tyranny; Napoleon, without selfishness, and a Washington, without his reward.
Lee was not without criticism. Like any man, he was flawed. Most notable, were Lee’s poor decisions during the Battle of Gettysburg. Southern historian, Shelby Foote stated the loss at, “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Robert E. Lee as commander.”
Lee spent the rest of his life as an example to ex-Confederates. He was a man of prayer, a man of humility, and an example to all.
Lee died on October 12, 1870, at the age of 63.
Lee, like many men, was on the wrong side of history when he became a symbol for the cause of the South. As the expression goes, the more things change the more they remain the same. A hundred and fifty years have passed, yet Southerners and much of the rest of America are still fighting the over-reach of federal government.
Black Americans are still struggling against a system that in many ways is set up for failure. The Southern plantation system has been replaced by Washington, D.C. leaving many blacks searching for answers.
Lee was given an impossible assignment, fighting a war he didn’t completely believe in, but like all great men, he rose to the task.
Robert E. Lee. Southerner. Confederate general. American hero.