The Unvanquished General Lee

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The year 2007
promises to be like no other. For it represents the bicentennial
of Robert E. Lee. I won't bore you with tales of political correctness.
We all know the days are evil. We are all subjects of an ideological
regime: Not surprisingly, Lee, along with George Washington and
Thomas Jefferson, is a main target of the evildoers. To others,
Lee is not so malevolent. Rather, he remains a strange figure, a
man out of place in American history. He is forever the Man in Gray,
a figure who achieved glory in defeat, all in a nation defined by
Progress Unlimited. Defeat, occupation, poverty — Americans would
rather not think about it.

Lee is not
forgotten — at least to those who look hard enough. There are Lee
Counties in 10 Southern states. (The "Lee Counties" in
both Georgia and Virginia are for his father, Henry "Light
Horse Harry" Lee, the famed Revolutionary War cavalryman.)
There are 80-plus schools — and not all of them in the South — that
bear his name, not to mention those streets, boulevards, parkways,
plus the numerous monuments in his likeness, especially Stone Mountain,
the largest outdoor sculpture in the Western Hemisphere. A previous
generation was nostalgic for life "befoah de wah." Me,
I'll take life before the Interstate, when the Old Lee Highway,
the Jeff Davis Highway, and the Dixie Highway were the main byways
running through the Southland. For the Old South, Lee was an icon
on which folks could nurse their wounded pride. The South lost —
but look at what men it produced. In that age, from 1876 to 1941,
the first great bulk of Lee scholarship was being produced. Starting
in modern times, around the 1930s, Lee became a puzzlement to some.
Biographers, novelists, poets, and historians have all struggled
to "get Lee right." Robert Penn Warren thought that Lee
was too smooth, too refined a character to ever be a subject for
fiction. Warren's fellow Agrarian, Allen Tate, quit a planned biography
of Lee in frustration: He thought Lee was too image conscious (to
borrow a modern term) to gather much sympathy. For decades, restless
historians have sought to upend Douglas Southall Freeman's contention
that unlocking Lee's true nature — specifically his ceaseless devotion
to Christian morality — involved no great mystery.

Is understanding
Lee that hard? Lee was stoic like the Roman, but that was the way
of the gentleman. Still, he was human, plenty human. Lee's life
was marked by great ambition, legendary victories, only to face
enormous frustration and finally, defeat. He was, in his own words,
a man "always wanting something."

Lee was reared
in Alexandria, Virginia, at a time when the legacy of George Washington
dominated the local culture. Lee's father, now sent into exile for
failing to meet his debts, was a friend and contemporary of Washington.
Lee grew up idolizing Washington. As fate would have it, Washington's
adopted granddaughter also lived in Alexandria. The families were
acquainted with each other. And you just knew that Lee would
marry Mary Custis. One can imagine the young Lee laying eyes on
Mary and resolving right there to marry her. You'd almost like to
be a fly on the wall for that courtship.

In his youth,
Lee also cared for his mother. He burned equally to redeem the family
name. At West Point, Lee would become the only cadet to graduate
without receiving a single demerit — an astounding achievement that
stands to this day. After West Point, Lee began his life on the
road. The coming decades would see Lee stationed at among other
places, Savannah, St. Louis, Brooklyn, New York, and West Texas.
Ambition followed by frustration. Lee disliked being away from his
family, even though he had no real home. Arlington, the mansion
where his children were reared, was in fact the home of his father-in-law,
George Washington Parke Custis. In between West Point and Fort Sumter,
there was the Mexican War, in which Lee served with great valor
and vigor. His performance caught the eye of General Winfield Scott,
who now declared Lee the finest soldier in the entire U.S. Army.

Lee, of course,
opposed secession, even labeling it as a "rebellion."
"The only song I long to hear is u2018Old Columbia,'" he exclaimed
as the Deep South seceded. However, wearing the blue and invading
Virginia was asking too much. You had to wonder what the boys in
Washington were thinking. "Having plowed her fields, he had
a new sense of oneness with her," wrote the perceptive Freeman
of Lee's special attachment to Old Dominion. In addition, Lee, during
the war, became convinced of the South's rightness in not just moral
terms, but constitutional ones as well.

And so, came
Lee's greatest challenge, greatest glory, and greatest frustration.
I am not a military historian. Lee excelled through those lighting
quick offensive operations, the ones with Jeb Stuart conducting
cavalry rides around the opposition, Stonewall Jackson striking
the first blow, and James Longstreet's forces delivering the decisive
follow-ups. After Jackson fell at Chanceslorsville, Lee still took
the offensive at Gettysburg. After that epic battle, Lee assumed
a more defensive posture, one that kept Ulysses S. Grant's mighty
forces at bay all throughout 1864. I would only add that the Western
theater was important, too. Jefferson Davis's decision to relieve
Joe Johnston in Atlanta with John Bell Hood was as significant as
the loss of Jackson. Hood abandoned Johnston's successful defense
of Atlanta for an heroic, but ill-conceived assault on Nashville.
The Army of Tennessee was lost at a time when Lee's men were still
in the field. Plus, there is the story of Nathan Bedford Forrest
and all the missed opportunities.

So why Lee?
There is that constant fascination with the underdog, with Lost
Causes, with how the losing side manages to endure. There also was
Lee's conduct, both during and after the war. He did win great battles
against enormous odds. Plus, Lee was magnanimous in victory. He
did not gloat or brag when a major battle was won. He knew the odds
his army struggled under and the cruel reality of war — thousands
of young men robbed of life at an early age. He referred to Federal
forces as "those people" and even at times, "our
friends." Finally, in defeat, Lee was regal. At Appomattox,
he dressed in his full general's uniform while Grant showed up late,
chomping on his ever-present cigar and wearing only a colonel's
outfit. One can only recall James R. Robertson's unforgettable description
of that scene: "[It] was one of those rare moments in history
when the vanquished commanded more attention than the victor."

After the war,
Lee's demeanor changed little. There was anger in private, the conciliatory
stand in public. "How that great heart suffered," his
son Robert Junior also observed. There was more, however, to his
postwar life than melancholy. At Sulphur Springs, Virginia, Lee
confided to Fletcher I. Stockdale, a former governor from Texas,
that if he had foreseen the ravages of Reconstruction, he would
not have surrendered, but instead died with his men right there
at Appomattox.

Indeed, at
Washington College, where Lee served as president, he truly was
a man without a country. The descendant of two signers of the Declaration
of Independence, the son of a governor of Virginia, the husband
of the adopted granddaughter of George Washington, Lee was now a
mere spectator to the tyranny of Reconstruction and all the graft
and corruption in Washington City. It couldn't have been easy.

In all, I'd
say such pro-Lee scribes as Dr. Freeman and the Rev. J. William
Jones read the man correctly. Rev. Jones might not have been an
academic, but he was an intimate of Lee during the Lexington years.
Self-denial and duty were the cornerstones of Lee's life. He loved
the latter word, declaring it to be "the most sublimest word
in the language. Always do your duty. Never do less."

"Teach
him he must deny himself," the elderly Lee told the mother
of a young child. Here again, is the code Lee strived to live by:
Self-denial, the determination to live for others. That does lead
to frustration. At Washington College, Lee posted only one rule:
All students must behave as Christian gentlemen. Lee fell short,
as do all who take up the cross. The effort, however, is important.
In that sense, Lee is hardly a failure. His life remains a fascination
to millions around the world. Two hundred years later, the controversies,
the adulation, and the debates rage on. Every year, the books tumble
out of the presses. General Lee lives.

December
16, 2006

Joe
Scotchie [send him mail]
is a regular contributor to various conservative publications and
the author of several books, including Revolt
From The Heartland: The Struggle for An Authentic Conservatism

(Transaction) and Street
Corner Conservative: Patrick J. Buchanan and His Times
(Alexander
Books).

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