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Remembering Robert E. Lee

We shouldn't let the month of January slip by without paying our respects to one of finest men our country has produced; Robert E. Lee. January 19, was the 195th anniversary of the birthday of Robert E. Lee; a very special day, not only for Southerners but for all Americans who admire true heroes.

Unlike media created heroes, Lee doesn't have a hint of scandal that has to be covered up. The facts of his life may be recounted without modification. Theodore Roosevelt characterized Lee this way: "the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth." Lee is also venerated in Europe as evidenced by this tribute by Winston Churchill: "one of the noblest Americans who ever lived."

In 1998, a Midwestern college decided to publish a book about the persons they considered to be six authentic heroes of our nation. They selected George Washington, Daniel Boone, Louisa May Alcott, George Washington Carver, Robert E. Lee, and Andrew Carnegie. Excellent choices; a group of outstanding people and a selection made without kowtowing to current political trends.

Robert E. Lee's father was a Revolutionary War hero, a three-time governor of Virginia and a congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives. Two members of the Lee family risked their lives by signing the Declaration of Independence. Lee married Mary Custis, great-granddaughter of George Washington and she inherited Arlington House, Washington's antebellum estate in Virginia that eventually became home to Lee, Mary, and their seven children, before being confiscated by Lincoln. He turned it into a Union cemetary with an eye to making a return to its owners impossible.

After graduating from West Point, Lee became a member of the U.S. Army and began a long and remarkable military career. He distinguished himself in the Mexican War earning three honorary field promotions. His accomplishments were many including Assistant to the Chief of the Engineer Corps and Superintendent of West Point. In later years he was appointed president of a college in Lexington, Virginia that was later renamed Washington and Lee University in honor of his outstanding years of service.

Interestingly, when the Civil War started, Robert E. Lee was offered the command of the Union forces, but after his home state, Virginia, seceded, he resigned from the U.S. Army and joined with the Confederates. Many people wonder why Lee would turn down the command of the Union forces and support the Confederacy. But loyalty was one of Lee's bedrock traits and he couldn't wage war against Virginia and the South. Also, recent historians are presenting a more balanced view of the long festering and complex events leading to the Civil War. (An example being inequitable tariffs – the South paid 87% of the nation's total tariffs in 1860 alone.) The new research contained in these books puts a new light on Lee's decision to fight for the South.

I suspect that another reason Lee decided to support the South was President Lincoln's refusal to meet with Southern representatives to try to reach a compromise to avoid war. Although members of Lincoln's own cabinet as well as newspapers in America and Europe encouraged the President to attempt a negotiated settlement, he remained adamant. Lincoln rejected all requests for discussions that might have led to a peaceful resolution.

Robert E. Lee vigorously opposed slavery and as early as 1856 made this statement: "There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil." Lee also knew that the use of slaves was coming to an end. Cyrus McCormick's 1831 invention of the mule-drawn mechanical reaper sounded the death knell for the use of slave labor. Before the Civil War began, 250,000 slaves had already been freed.

Robert E. Lee did not own slaves, but many Union generals did. When his father-in-law died, Lee took over the management of the plantation his wife had inherited and immediately began freeing the slaves. By the time Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, every slave in Lee's charge had been freed. Notably, some Union generals didn't free their slaves until the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.

During the Civil War, Union commanders pillaged the South, abusing civilians in unspeakable ways, destroying railroads and factories, and burning private homes, public buildings, schools and libraries. Union forces also slaughtered livestock and decimated crops, after they took what they wanted.

Periodic reports detailing their carnage were sent to General Halleck in Washington who shared them with President Lincoln. In a typical report issued on September 17, 1863, Union General Sherman added this comment; "We will remove every obstacle-if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, everything that to us seems proper." Halleck showed this report to Lincoln, who enjoyed it so much that he demanded that it be published.

When Robert E. Lee invaded Pennsylvania, many Southerners hoped that he would give the Yankees a taste of their own medicine. But Lee was a man of integrity. Not only did he prohibit "wanton injury to private property," he also ordered his soldiers to pay for any supplies taken from civilians.

Most histories have treated General Lee kindly, even those written shortly after the Civil War. This respect accorded to Lee infuriates those who want to tarnish his reputation, and they have even managed to force textbook writers to reword their references to Lee and, in many cases, delete any mention of him.

Also, some cities have removed portraits and other Lee memorabilia as a result of pressure from politicos who haven't taken the time to learn the facts about this famous Southern gentleman. Portraits and plaques honoring Lee have been slashed and burned, and statues of the General have been spray-painted with obscenities.

Never the less, current biographies continue to enhance Robert E. Lee's well-earned reputation. One journalist, after reviewing many of these new histories made this comment. "The South may have succumbed to overwhelming military force, but it triumphed in at least one sense. It produced perhaps the greatest symbol to come out of America's most disastrous conflict, someone who combined combat and moral excellence and who, once defeated, worked to heal the wounds of war. It is a record that deserves to be retold constantly."

Years after the war, Lee still commanded respect in both the North and the South. On one occasion he was approached by a group of businessmen concerning a questionable commercial venture. After offering the General $50,000, they told him; "You will have to do nothing. All we want is the use of your name." Robert E. Lee's response was what we would have expected;

"Sirs, my name is the heritage of my parents. It is all I have, and it is not for sale."

If I had to pick one American to represent the best values of our nation, I would choose Robert E. Lee. He stands taller than anyone else. We must continue to honor him every January on the anniversary of his birth because;

"Men of such magnitude are rare in history. They come but once in a century."

January 29, 2002