The Unvanquished General Lee


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