Robert E. Lee

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Within the long arms of the Rio Grande, the Potomac and the Ohio, and in scattered gatherings beyond the great rivers, Southerners in January will lift a glass of buttermilk to toast the birthdays of two of the greatest Americans who ever lived.

Robert E. Lee was born on Jan. 19, and Thomas J. Jackson was born on Jan. 21. Stonewall Jackson’s fame lay on the battlefield where he died. Lee’s fame was of a broader nature. If ever a human being approached perfection, it was Lee.

Appointed to West Point, he finished second in his class (Sen. John McCain finished in the bottom five at Annapolis). Lee never received a single demerit during his four-year stay at the Point. So far as I know, it is a record that still stands.

He and Jackson both distinguished themselves during the Mexican War. Jackson became a teacher at Virginia Military Institute. Lee was appointed superintendent of West Point and afterward served with the 2nd Cavalry on the Texas frontier.

Home on leave, he was asked to lead the troops against John Brown and his renegades. So well thought of was he that when the secession crisis arose, Lee was the first choice to lead the Union army. Now think about this. Here is a man who chose the profession of arms as his life’s work. He did not approve of secession, and he thought slavery was a moral evil. Here he was offered the apex of a professional soldier’s ambitions.

Yet, after much anguished thought, he turned it down and resigned his commission in the U.S. Army. He could not take up arms against family, friends and his home state.

In a letter to his sister, Lee wrote: "With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of 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."

Gen. James Longstreet summed up what was unique about Lee. "As a soldier, his men respected him," Longstreet said, "but as a man, they loved him." This was illustrated time and again on the battlefield. Southerners expected to be led from the front, but they made an exception in Lee’s case. On several occasions when he rode to the front, enlisted men blocked his way and set up a chant: "Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!" I don’t think before or since have enlisted men loved a general. Some they’ve respected, but Lee they loved.

That’s because they knew Lee cared for them. He never spilled their blood to win glory for himself. He never claimed credit for victory nor avoided responsibility for defeat. Luxuries sent to him by family and friends went to the wounded. He lived in a tent or slept on the ground. Most days he was on horseback.

After the war, Lee was more famous in defeat than Grant was in victory. Lucrative offers poured in, and Lee turned them all down. He refused to profit from the sacrifice of so many men on both sides. That, of course, is in stark contrast to today’s generals, who grab book contracts, speaking fees and corporate directorships all based on a mediocre career and a good public-relations agent.

The best book to read about Lee is Recollections and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee, by his son, Capt. Robert Lee. That would be a good book to give to any young man still in school. The advice Lee gives his children in various letters is needed more now than ever.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

© 2007 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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