North of the Tweed and South of the Potomac A Tale of Two Roberts and Two Prayers That Changed the Course of History

“Patriotism is the love of a land and its people, nationalism is the love of a government.”

~ Dr. Clyde Wilson

North of the River Tweed, on the border with England, lies the hauntingly beautiful land of Scotland. A land inhabited by a hardy breed of Celts whose history is rich with romantic stories of chivalry, bravery and heroic struggles for freedom – a land so full of legends and myths, it's sometimes difficult to separate true history from the romanticized version. It is said that Scotland and its history are sung more in ballad than any other place on the face of the earth. One thing is certain. For hundreds of years, the Scots fought many bloody and cruel wars with their neighbor to the South, England, in Scotland's struggle for independence. The love of liberty and freedom is always just below the skin of a Scot who knows his history. In recent years there has been a renewed interest about Scottish history, thanks in large measure to Mel Gibson's film, "Braveheart"; the fascinating story about Scottish warrior and hero, Sir William Wallace.

In 1306, another Scottish warrior, and contemporary of William Wallace, was involved in this epic struggle for Scotland's liberty. This warrior was not fighting for Scotland however, but for the English in opposition against his native land. Tradition has it that shortly after a particularly bloody battle, this warrior sat down to eat and celebrate the victory with his English comrades. Robert the Bruce was about to be faced with a decision that would alter the course of history and that of his cherished Scotland.

The torturous death of William Wallace, at the hands of King Edward of England for his rebellion against the throne, tormented the mind of Bruce, preventing him from enjoying the revelry of the victory. Try as he might, his conscience would not let him forget Wallace's courage and steadfastness – two traits that Wallace kept to the end. Traits he kept even as he was castrated and disemboweled alive, the final act of death accomplished by the King's executioner as he reached into Wallace's chest and tore out his still beating heart. This grotesque and cruel execution took place before a jeering, bloodthirsty mob of English peasants and nobles as one of Wallace's men held high his psalter. Prior to his execution, Wallace had made the request to hold the psalter up in plain view so he could gaze upon the instrument, bringing forth distracting memories of happier times when he had serenaded his God with the Psalms of David as he roamed Scotland's green mountains and valleys. Robert had also watched as Wallace’s head was impaled on a spike high on London Bridge and the four quarters of his body were taken to Newcastle, Berwick, Perth, and Stirling to be put on display, lest any other Scottish fool have some vain notion of "freedom." Yet, even in death, William Wallace bedeviled the British and entreated the Scots to fight for their homeland:

"As the flesh rotted away from the right arm and shoulder of the martyred, and the sun-dried sinews tightened, the skeletal hand of Wallace seemed to rise on the gibbet of Newcastle and point longingly to the north. Wallace had been denied the opportunity to die on his native soil…now, it seemed, his mortal remains were directing his spirit remains back to Scotland."

This ghostly scene, along with the image of Wallace's bravery in the midst of an unmerciful execution, was forever etched into Bruce's mind and served as a constant reminder not only of William Wallace's devotion to Scotland's liberty, but of Bruce's own reputation as a traitor. The contrast haunted him. Bruce's decision to fight for the English was a pragmatic one. Though Bruce had once fought with Wallace against the English, he became fearful after Scotland's defeat at Falkirk; fearful that Scotland's quest for freedom was hopeless and that any further struggle against the English Crown was futile and would cost him his vast estate, if not his life.

So Bruce bowed and submitted to Edward while his patriotic brethren continued their resistance toward the English Throne and Bruce raised his sword against his own kin. It was shortly after one of these battles in which Robert the Bruce fought alongside the English, assisting them as he slaughtered his fellow Scotsmen, that he sat with the English noblemen to break bread and celebrate their victory over the rebellious Scots.

Bruce had fought valiantly and proved his devotion to King Edward. He thought he deserved the respect of the English lords, if not of his own conscience. As Bruce sat down to eat, his unwashed hands still stained with the blood of his own countrymen, he noticed snickers among the English nobles. He overheard one of them whisper, "Look at that Scotsman, who is eating his own blood!" The statement pierced his heart like a hot dagger. He was simultaneously overwhelmed with anger and shame – his face first flushing with rage then becoming ashen with self-realization. He was a Judas. Robert the Bruce now had a decision to make. Would he accept the scorn and mockery he deserved and go down in history as a traitor to his native sod, or would he repent, risking his worldly wealth and position, embrace honor and cast his lot with his kinsmen and their uncertain future?

Across the Atlantic and some 555 years later, a descendant of Robert the Bruce paces the floor in an upstairs room of his home. His home lay just South of the Potomac River in another land also steeped in legend and history with gallant tales of bravery, chivalry and a passionate love of liberty. This Robert is faced with a very similar decision. Perhaps Robert E. Lee's soul was haunted by the memory of Bruce's experience as he prayerfully struggles with the most agonizing decision he will ever make. It's the night of April the nineteenth, 1861. Though Lee's humility prevented him from speaking publicly of his ancestry, he was well aware that he was "well descended." Perhaps his mother had recounted the shame of Bruce's conduct to young Robert as she filled the role of an absent father. No doubt he had read the story of Bruce's conflict and Scotland's valiant struggle for liberty. It is also very likely that the young Robert Lee was inspired by the heroic tales of Scotland's best known writer, Sir Walter Scott (1711–1832) and the medieval history of Scott's native land. Scott's influence on Southerners is well known:

"It was due to this universal love of adventure – this hunger for an active and stirring life, – that Sir Walter Scott enjoyed such extraordinary popularity in the homes of the Southern people. There were few libraries of importance among them that were lacking in those splendid volumes in which he has drawn such romantic pictures…"

The struggle that Robert E. Lee was faced with was the same one that confronted Robert the Bruce. Their initial decisions and the ultimate consequences were, however, very different. After Fort Sumter, Lincoln had called upon the several states to provide seventy-five thousand militia for ninety days service to put down the "rebellion." Robert E. Lee's native land, Virginia, answered with a call for secession. The Old Dominion and cradle of liberty that had given birth to the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry would not stand for such heavy-handed oppression. Figuratively speaking, and in the collective memory of Virginians, her soil was still moist with the blood of the British and, if necessary, in the words of Jefferson, additional blood would be fitting:

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Colonel Robert E. Lee, U.S. Army, would now make the decision that would alter the course of history – and that of his beloved Virginia. Second in importance only to Lee's Christian faith, was his sense of duty. To understand Lee's struggle with the decision he would have to make, one must understand the depth of his deliberate commitment to this principle. It guided every decision he made – often at great personal sacrifice.

Nowhere was this commitment and sacrifice more obvious than in its influence on Lee as he struggled with the decision regarding the Union's offer as Commander of their Army. There could be no possible motive for glory, fame, or riches, as Lee was fully aware of the likely outcome of a struggle against the numerically superior North. He was also aware that, contrary to the opinion of many, it would be a long and bloody conflict. His only motive was – what is my duty and, as a Christian, what is the will of God?

Robert E. Lee had given his whole life to the Union for which his father, Henry Lee, the famous, "Lighthorse Harry Lee," had fought. Robert was born at the Lee ancestral mansion, Stratford Hall, and drew his first breath in the same room in which were born two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee. He had married Mary Custis, the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, who was the adopted grandson of George Washington. Lee's strong ties to the Union, and its founding, were both by blood and by choice. The depth of Lee's love for, and loyalty to, the Union is something many students of Lee fail to give due consideration. It makes his decision all the more remarkable. By the age of 54, Colonel Robert E. Lee had fought with honor and distinction in the Mexican War, served as Superintendent of West Point, quelled a domestic insurrection at Harper's Ferry and was well respected as an army officer and engineer. Lee's military prowess was well known. General Winfield Scott credited the United States' victory over Mexico to the “skill, valor and undaunted energy of Robert E. Lee” and once referred to him as, “the greatest military genius in America." Lee and General Scott enjoyed mutual respect and admiration.

President Lincoln was no fool for offering the command of the Union forces to Lee. Not only was it the prevailing opinion that Lee was the most qualified to take command, Lincoln knew that if Lee accepted, his stature alone might bring a quicker end to the conflict. The offer would test Lee's loyalties and lead to the spiritual struggle of a lifetime. Lee's mind was already made up when it came to fighting against Virginia. He could not bring himself to raise his sword against his kinfolk and ancient homeland. On April the 18th, 1861, after declining Lincoln's offer, Lee went immediately to General Scott's office in Washington and informed him of his decision. Lee's friend and comrade in arms responded with a statement Lee had not fully anticipated:

"…I feared it would be so…If you purpose to resign, it is proper that you should do so at once; your present attitude is equivocal."

Until now, Lee had remained hopeful he would not be forced to resign from the Army he loved unless and until Virginia seceded and her citizens affirmed the ordinance of secession. That hope was now dashed. Though Lee had declined the offer of command, he would not be able to deny service if he were called upon for duty once hostilities commenced. Scott had made that painfully clear. At that point, Lee would have to "…resign under orders. That was a disgrace to any soldier."

In fact, Virginia did pass an ordinance of secession on the afternoon of April 17th, but had kept the news secret until Virginia militia units could seize Federal arsenals within it's borders. Lee read the headlines two days later on the morning of April 19th. His heart sank. With great despair in his heart and a feeling of impending doom in the air, Lee rode home to Arlington. He would never again cross the Potomac as an officer in the United States Army. After supper at Arlington that same evening, Lee walked slowly up the stairs to his room knowing full well that he would be wrestling with his God and his devotion to the Union for hours. Lee was facing his Gethsemane. Downstairs, his wife Mary heard him drop to his knees in prayer, then up on his feet again to continue pacing back and forth as the momentous struggle wore on – Oh, how he wished this cup might pass! What of his career? What of his beloved Union? What of his family's well being? What of the future of his native sod, Virginia, in whose soil slept the dust of his fathers?

No doubt Robert E. Lee thought more than once that night of his father. Light Horse Harry Lee was a favorite of General Washington and was chosen by Congress to eulogize our first president. It was in his eulogy of Washington that Lee's father first coined the phrase, "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." It is likely that these were not the only words of Lee's father that came to his mind as he struggled that spring evening. During a debate in 1798 with James Madison, Henry Lee had stated, "Virginia is my country; her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me." Those words burned into his soul as the great warrior weighed his loyalties.

The eminent Virginia historian, Philip Alexander Bruce, expressed this sentiment with these words:

It was this love of home, with its thronging recollections of the past both near and far . . . that nerved many a Southern soldier. . . . Love of the South was inextricably mixed up with this love of the family hearth. . . . Love of one particular spot, of one neighborhood, of one State, was the foundation stone of the love of the entire region which entered so deeply into the spirit of the Confederate soldier.

The Lees were "Virginians of Virginians." How could he raise his sword against his native sod and against his own kin? Mary Lee would later write of her husband's contest with self that historic night: "My husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war." Finally, after midnight, a spiritually drained Lee solemnly descended the stairs to the sitting room where Mary had waited and said, "Well Mary, the question is settled. Here is my letter of resignation and a letter I have written General Scott." ~

Sir: – I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commission as colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry.

Very respectfully, Your obedient servant, R.E. Lee.

In the words of Douglas Southall Freeman, it was "the decision Lee was born to make." The travail of prayer had rendered its fruit. Lee would cast his lot with Virginia, in full measure – there was no other thing he could do. Though he opposed secession and had termed it "revolution," he also would state, "A union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets…has no charm for me." Even after the war, as the South lay in ruin, Lee would affirm the rightness of his decision:

"I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonour. And if it all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner."

Regular readers of this website likely need no further explanation of the consequences of Lee's decision. His glorious victories against overwhelming odds have inspired volumes. Though the South ultimately lost, the Confederacy's greatest general is as much recognizable as any in history, and more admired than any officer the North can claim. Lee became an unwilling Christ figure for Southerners – Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13.

Lee would cringe at such an analogy and certainly no sacrilege is intended. Yet the comparison is undeniable and, if one believes the Bible and our command to be Christ-like, wholly appropriate. God knows we need some Christ-likeness to emulate in our day.

So what of Lee's progenitor, Robert the Bruce? Bruce was so sickened by his own traitorous conduct that he rose from the table, went immediately to a nearby chapel and fell upon the altar. There he wept bitter tears of repentance, praying for forgiveness and vowing to God to never again raise his hand against Scotland. Robert the Bruce kept his vow, ultimately freeing Scotland from the English yoke and became King of Scotland. Thus, Bruce had achieved the dreams of William Wallace.

Though their paths and outcomes were different, both Robert E. Lee and Robert the Bruce are revered in their homelands today. Both men, through the intervention of Divine supplication, chose the path of honor and sacrifice and altered the course of history. Both died heroes bound by ancestry and by Providence. Perhaps it was Providence speaking and reminding humanity of these two warriors' ties as Robert E. Lee met the final enemy.

As Lee lay dying in Lexington, Virginia, the stormy October sky flashed with an unusual light for several nights in a row. According to Douglas Southall Freeman, "some saw in it a beckoning hand" and a Lexington woman took from a bookshelf a copy of The Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers and pointed with eerie assurance to the following verse:

"All night long the northern streamers Shot across the trembling sky: Fearful lights, that never beckon Save when kings or heroes die."

Though dead, both men serve as examples of what true patriotism is. Both men's lives point, as did William Wallace's decaying hand, to what most moderns don't understand – God-inspired love of native-sod.

October 26, 2002