This month, all over the South, Southerners will raise a glass of buttermilk to toast the birthdays of Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Lee was born on Jan. 19, and Jackson on Jan. 21.
No American general comes close to matching their battlefield exploits until we get to Gen. George S. Patton in World War II. Lee, despite being on the losing side, was universally admired the world over and was showered with offers of lucrative jobs and even an estate in England.
Lee — unlike today's lesser generals who leap at book contracts and fat speaking fees despite have no record of any great accomplishment — refused to profit from the fame earned at the expense of so many young men's lives. He turned down the gifts and the job offers and instead accepted the position of president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University). His salary was $1,500 a year.
Americans in all regions would do well to recommend this man's life as a model for their sons. Lee came as close to being perfect as a human being can be. He was tall, handsome and bright, and finished second in his class at West Point without a single demerit. He married a descendant of George Washington and, again unlike some people these days, kept his wedding vows and loved and cherished his wife.
Lee was a hero long before the secession crisis. He was superintendent of West Point. He distinguished himself during the Mexican War and showed such sterling character, courage and leadership that he was the first choice to lead the Northern armies when the secession crisis arose. Now think for a moment what a decision this man faced.
He was by choice a professional soldier, and here he was being offered the highest position a professional could hope for. Furthermore, he thought slavery was a moral evil, and he was opposed to secession. As a professional soldier, he surely knew that if war came, the South would lose. It was outmanned, outgunned, out-railroaded and out-industrialized from Day One. A man who put ambition above all else would have accepted in a New York minute, and no doubt the War Between the States would have been over much sooner. It was Lee's tactical genius that kept the South going.
But Lee could not bear to make war on his native state of Virginia, where all of his family and friends lived. He declined the offer and resigned his commission. He showed such brilliance on the battlefield that he is ranked among all the greats in the history of the world. But it is Lee's character, not his war exploits, that marks him as a man worth emulating.
One of his generals said of Lee, "As a soldier the men respected him; as a man they loved him." Though old for his time (he died at age 63 in 1870), he shared the hardships of the men, often sleeping on the ground. Any presents sent to him were passed along to his men. He wore a plain uniform. He never spoke ill of anyone, even his enemies. He never took credit for victories, but he always accepted personal responsibility for defeats. He was a devout Christian.
His son tells a story that illustrates how revered he was. After the war, Lee's sons answered a knock on the door to find a big Irish sergeant wearing a Yankee uniform and carrying a large basket of food. He had heard that Lee was hungry, and having served with him on the frontier before the war, could not stand that thought. Lee's sons were assuring him that no one was hungry when Gen. Lee came to the door. He convinced the sergeant that he would accept the gift only if he could pass it along to the wounded in the hospital. The sergeant grabbed Lee in a bearhug and said, with tears streaming down his face, "Goodbye, Colonel. God bless ye. If I could have got over in time, I would have been with ye." I doubt any sergeant has hugged a general since then.
January 15, 2005
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on LewRockwell.com. Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.
© 2005 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.