The Lost Cause: Robert E. Lee

When finally the smoke of battle cleared, this much was certain: the North had the victory, but the South had Robert E. Lee.

Almost a century after he took arms against the Union, Lee is today viewed as one of our greatest, if not our greatest, soldier, and a personification of the Lost Cause. His military defeats are considered inconsequential compared to his spiritual victories. Of all Americans, he comes closest to our conception of a true aristocrat.

Born in 1807 at Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee led a life that was simple and unswerving--that, of a soldier, a Christian, and a gentleman. After graduating from West Point in 1829, he served as army engineer, an officer in the Mexican war, and the superintendent of West Point. His Federal troops suppressed John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. When offered the field command of the Union army, he resigned his post to lead Virginia's troops in the Confederate army. Brilliant victories took him eventually to Gettysburg, from which he was forced to retreat. Thereafter he was on the defensive. In 1865, two months after being appointed commander-in-chief of all the Confederate forces, he surrendered his army at Appomattox. A civilian again, he became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. In 1870, five years after assuming this academic post, he died. This is the brief history of the most admired Southerner in American history.

Lee legends have an unmatched mellowness and tenderness.

Consider these examples. One Sunday morning after the war, at an elegant Richmond Episcopal church, the Rector invited the congregation to come forward to the communion rail. A newly-liberated negro approached humbly and knelt at the altar. The people gasped. Bitter after the recent warfare, they held back from such an association. Looking up from his meditation, a white-haired figure saw this, walked quietly down the aisle, and took his place beside the former slave. The gentleman's name was Robert E. Lee.

As President of struggling Washington College, Lee urged a student to better his study habits, so he could stay on at the college. "We do not want you to fail," said the former warrior. "But General, you failed," blurted out the youth with a brashness characteristic of sophomores everywhere. "I hope you may be more fortunate than I," Lee replied quietly.

On his last visit to Northern Virginia, Lee was talking with friends who greeted him. A young mother brought her baby to him to be blessed. "What shall I teach him?" she asked. He took the infant in his arms, looked at it and the mother slowly, and said, "Teach him he must deny himself." This was the quality of the man.

While still commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, he was thought by his comrades to have almost superhuman ability and insight. As sober and independent a soldier as "Stonewall" Jackson said he would follow Lee into battle blindfolded. Even when he was retreating from the Northern onslaught, the Confederate Congress expressed its complete faith in Lee, and offered him dictatorial powers over the waning Confederacy. He craved no such power. At the Appomattox surrender John S. Wise said, "You are the country to these men. They have fought on for you without pay or clothes, or care of any sort; their devotion to you and faith in you have been the only things which have held this army together." It was the type of devotion Charlemagne, Arthur, and Napoleon had elicited. At the moment of darkest defeat Lee preserved his legendary aura. Grant's uniform was muddy and spotted; Lee's was immaculate.

Southerners admired his humility and earnestness in peace as much as his audacity and brilliance in war. The sacrosanct Lee was the solitary, noble figure in his twilight years, clad in a gray uniform from which all the Confederate buttons had been removed, making his way to a ravaged Virginia village to begin life anew. The impact of his death, a few years later, was felt by tens of thousands. At Lee's own college the editor of the Southern Collegian wrote: "We stop our paper from going to press in order to make the saddest announcement which our pen ever wrote. Our honored and loved president is no more. He died as he lived, calmly and quietly, in the full assurance of the Christian's faith."

The Lee Memorial Association, formed the day the General was buried, was composed largely of his ex-soldiers. The women would not be outdone in devotion; shortly afterwards feminine admirers met in a Richmond parlor and instituted the Ladies' Lee Monument Association. So successful was it that by 1887 they were able to lay the cornerstone of a sixty-foot statue of the General bedecked with sash and cavalry sword, mounted on Traveller. The twenty years between Lee's death and the statue mark the militaristic period of the hero-worship. Then Lee epitomized for Southerners their military command, their courageous defense, their honor salvaged from defeat.

The earliest Lee book appeared a few months after the surrender. Coming from the Richardson Press in New York, it was entitled Southern Generals, Who They Are, and What They Have Done. The publisher did not list the author, Captain Willian Parker Snow, C. S. A., until a second edition appeared a year later. Post-war anthologies, such as Emily Mason Southern Poems of the War. also played up Lee of the battlefield. While Lee's own history of his campaigns was abandoned in 1866, three former associates, John W. Jones, Jubal Early, and Walter Taylor, wrote reminiscenses. Edward Lee Childe's biography appeared in France as early as 1874. Lee was carefully studied by the Prussian militarists in that decade. On a popular level, too, he proved an apt subject for Judith McGuire, Emily Mason, and James Lynch. The most readable early Lee novel was John Esten Cooke Mohun, or the Last Days of Lee and His Paladins. (We have met Cooke before among the hero-makers of Pocahontas.) His book, begun just after Lee's death, gave a vivid contemporary account of Lee's career and leadership.

The first writer who moulded Lee's reputation sufficiently to deserve the title of hero-maker was an ex-Confederate private, Talbott Sweeney. He sought a line of justification that would satisfy the skeptical Yankees. A native of Williamsburg, Sweeney studied at the College of William and Mary, and in 1849 entered the law school there. When the Civil War came he enlisted in the Williamsburg Guards. Later he served as head of the State Mental Asylum in Williamsburg, which was occupied by the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry in 1862. At sixty he set out to show that on Northern as well as Southern principles Lee's action in joining the Confederacy was justified, and to give him a national rather than a regional standing.

Sweeney's vindication was based on simple premises, though adorned with elaborate generalizations. If by following the dictates of a conscience Robert E. Lee was a traitor, then so were Oliver Cromwell, Patrick Henry, and George Washington. If Lee's interpretation of his loyalty to the Constitution was erroneous, then so were those of the patriots who wrote it and the legislators who adopted it. By reproducing excerpts from the Constitutional Convention in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Virginia, he made a strong case, and concluded with this tribute to the former Confederate chieftain:

"The shades of your patriotic and distinguished Revolutionary ancestors appeared to your vision and pointed out to you the only path which you could and should tread . . . But what shall be said of the reputation of Robert Edward Lee? Steeped in the red and black of Treason and Perjury, as his enemies declare? What monstrous and wicked absurdity and stupidity to think it".

Sweeney was not the first writer to vindicate Lee; but he was one of the cleverest, and the first who got much of a hearing in the North. Influential Republicans wanted to make an example of Lee, the arch-traitor, but some of their colleagues, seeing that this would only create a martyr, opposed the idea. With the gradual emergence of a more tolerant of view, and the healing of the open wounds of battle, Sweeney's Lee came forward. He was a man who had many other non-military claims to fame. Slowly the North came to view him not as a traitor but as a servant to his own high principles. In order to be shown as more than a mere soldier, Lee had to be championed by writers whose interest was not military, and extolled on different levels.

During the 1890's his story began to reach a larger American reading public through four new channels. Lee first appeared in an encyclopedia in 1890, when Nathan Burnham Webster did a sketch for Chamber's Encyclopedia. Appleton Company's "Great Commanders" series, was the first to be included in such a collection. Five years later William P. Trent Robert E. Lee appeared in the "Beacon Biographies" series; during the same year George Marouby's Robert Lee, Generalissime des Etats Confederes du Sud was published in Paris in the Feron-Vrau "Les Contemporains" series.

Significant too were the juveniles. Whenever a hero reaches a position that necessitates his story being presented to children, he has arrived. G. A. Henty With Lee in Virginia was well received and reissued twice in the next decade. Mary L. Williamson The Life of General Robert E. Lee, for Children, in Easy Words, was widely read after 1895. In these and other accounts Southerners, while not belittling the achievement of Lee between 1861 and 1865, accentuated instead his greatness in the period 1865-1870. He had opposed removing Confederate bodies from Northern graves, on the grounds that this would increase antipathy. Whenever he had appeared in parades with officers of the adjoining Virginia Military Institute (where "Stonewall" Jackson had taught) he marched out of step, so as not to seem militaristic. He had even chastised a Washington College faculty member who scoffed at General Grant, and forbad him ever to do so again in his presence. Thus he won a spiritual victory.

The North, which after 1876 rejected the radical Republicans, sensed the importance of Lee's gestures and the extent of his magnanimity. Such a realization was expressed by a former Federal soldier who faced Lee's soldiers at Gettysburg, and represented the quintessence of New Englandism. He stands with the leading Lee hero-makers. Charles Francis Adams was a member of the only American family whose continuous leadership rivalled that of Lee's --a fact to be kept in mind here. Like Lee, he was trained to think and act in terms of family; like Lee, he was to know defeat more often than triumph in his life.

Son of the Union's Civil War Ambassador to Great Britain, Adams entered the U. S. Army as a first lieutenant. He was released to civilian life in 1865, a physical wreck, with the brevets of a brigadier general. No one would have expected him to call the country's attention to the genius of the leader of the Rebellion. Yet on October 13, 1901, Adams read to the American Antiquarian Society a paper called "The Confederacy and the Transvaal: A People's Obligation to Robert E. Lee." By prohibiting guerrilla warfare and preaching reconciliation, Lee had saved both North and South much misery, and avoided a possible repetition of Boer War tactics. The personality of Lee intrigued Adams, who during the next year prepared three papers which shocked Massachusetts; "Shall Cromwell Have a Statue?" "Lee at Appomattox," and "The Constitutional Ethics of Secession." If Fitzhugh Lee's acceptance of a major generalship in the United States Army during the Spanish American War helped bring together the South and the North, these studies by an Adams helped reconcile the North to the South.

Adams saw that the public attitude towards Lee was changing very rapidly, and said so in Lee at Appomattox and Other Papers. The criticism which his essays had drawn forth in his own section, Adams noted, "was in no case couched in the declamatory, patriotic strain, at once injured, indignant, and denunciatory or vituperative, which would no less assuredly than naturally have marked it thirty years ago."

George H. Denny, then president of Washington and Lee University, invited Adams to make the Lee Centennial address on January 19, 1907. A large crowd, including many who had studied under the General at Washington College, gathered to hear a former enemy of Lee praise him. "The situation," as Adams told his audience, "is thus to a degree dramatic."

In a carefuly phrased speech, a high point in Lee oratory, Adams placed him among the greatest Americans, not for his triumphs in the battlefield, but for those of his own mind. If Lee-the-soldier had been unable to save the Confederacy, Lee-the-citizen had helped preserve the United States. To overestimate this service would be difficult. The Yankee closed his speech with a quotation from another hero worshipper, Thomas Caryle: "Whom shall we consecrate and set apart as one of our sacred men? Whom do you wish to resemble? Him you set on a high column that all men looking at it may be continually appraised of the duty you expect from them." As he spoke, his audience gazed past him to the Lee monument.

Adams was Lee's most effective Northern apologist. Competition for such a distinction was keener in the South since most Confederates who could put pen to paper wrote something about the noble Lee. If one Southern hero-maker must be chosen, it should be Thomas Nelson Page. Born on a Virginia plantation in Hanover County, son of a Confederate officer and great-grandson of two state governors, Page grew up with praises of Lee ringing in his ears. He entered Washington College while Lee was still president there. To Page, the South was the recognized field of romance. Robert E. Lee, astride his white horse, led the field. He wrote his popular Lee biography "in obedience to a feeling that as the son of a Confederate soldier, as a Southerner, as an American, I owe it to my country." Never has a hero been more lovingly presented. "His monument," Page concluded, "is the adoration of the South: his shrine is in every Southern heart." At least in Page's heart, this statement was verified.

Between 1910 and 1930, Lee was metamorphosized from a figure idolized wherever the Stars and Bars had flown, to one admired everywhere. It is hard today to understand the stir caused in 1912 when the Massachusetts biographer, Gamaliel Bradford, published his Lee, the American. Bradford indicated Lee was no longer a mere military hero. No Southerner could have handled his subject with greater sympathy and warmth. Die-hard Yankees winced when they read it.

Lee's admirers considered him a man of infinite dignity and almost ascetic self-effacement. That Bradford, so different from Lee in training and experience, could grasp this was quite an accomplishment. Literary figures flocked to Lee's banner in the twentieth century, as historians had done in the nineteenth. Playwright John Drinkwater depicted Lee as a latter-day English country squire. Mary Johnston approached the General, who "exhibited sunny shreds of the Golden Age," with reverence. Lee was the impeccable hero of Ellen Glasgow The Battleground, a soldier who held an army together with his personality. Most Southern magazines, and many Northern ones, published Lee poetry. Of all the literati who dealt with him, Stephen Vincent Benet has left the deepest mark. Once again it was a Yankee who best stated Lee's case.

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