In 1776, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal. Yet it took almost another century – and the bloodiest war in American history – to begin turning that promise into a reality.
I was reminded of this on a trip last month to the famous Gettysburg battlefield, site of the key turning point in the Civil War and the first major loss for General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and, in the eyes of some historians, the most misunderstood man in American history.
When the war broke out, Northern newspapers branded Lee – a distinguished officer who turned down Lincoln’s offer to lead the Union army – a traitorous lowlife, a Benedict Arnold who believed one man could own another as he might own a horse or a set of dishes.
Yet this perception is wrong. For starters, the Civil War was not just about slavery. Abraham Lincoln – who failed to carry a single Southern or border state – campaigned on a platform of not interfering with slavery anywhere it was legal, even pledging to maintain it if it would preserve the Union. Not all slave states joined the Confederacy. And almost ninety percent of whites in the South did not own slaves.
Yes, the Civil War was partly about slavery, but it was also about states rights and the limits of a still-young and newly ascendant federal government. In his conversations and letters, Lee – a committed Christian – consistently condemned slavery as unnatural, ungodly, impractical and morally abhorrent. Nor did he support the Southern states right to secede, calling it “nothing less than a revolution.”
So why did he turn down Lincoln’s offer to lead Union forces? After all, this was America’s highest field command, an opportunity to earn not just the President’s gratitude but unparalleled reward and national glory.
The answer can be found in Lee’s deep Virginia roots. His father, “Light Horse Harry Lee,” was a Revolutionary War hero who fought beside George Washington and was later the state governor and a member of Congress. Yet when Harry defended a friend who published a newspaper opposing the War of 1812, he was attacked by a mob and nearly beaten to death. Disfigured and permanently disabled, he abandoned his wife and children for Barbados, leaving his son to raise his siblings and care for his invalid mother.
Robert was eleven at the time. He quickly learned how to handle responsibility, went on to graduate second in his class at West Point and distinguished himself during the Mexican War in 1847. The American general in chief, Winfield Scott, called Lee the finest soldier he had ever seen.
Yet Lee said he would not raise a sword against his fellow Virginians. As the war approached, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army to head the Virginia state militia, taking command of Confederate troops only after Virginia later voted to secede.
As general, Lee quickly demonstrated that he was a shrewd tactician and battlefield commander, winning numerous battles against larger, better-fed and far better-equipped Union forces.
Lee’s reputation soon became the stuff of legend, as he inspired shoeless, starving soldiers to dig deep within themselves and fight beyond their endurance. At times, his Confederate soldiers marched barefoot through fallen snow, lived on cattle feed, and endured countless other privations. (My Gettysburg guide said Union soldiers claimed they could smell Lee’s troops long before they saw or heard them.)
His soldiers’ devotion was due largely to the way Lee carried himself. He was always impeccably dressed and groomed, never swore, and exhibited superb posture and horsemanship. He was deeply, genuinely humble as well, never seeking adulation or applause or considering that he deserved them.
Lee fought and suffered with his men, always sharing their burdens and discomforts, wintering with his men even during miserable field conditions, for instance, when any number of wealthy landowners would have been honored to host him.
Lee’s troops followed him not out of fear or obligation but out of the greatest respect and admiration. And he returned their devotion, refusing near the war’s end to risk a single man’s life once he recognized the cause was lost. Lee’s farewell address to the Army of Northern Virginia – sometimes referred to as “the Gettysburg Address of the South” – is one of the most poignant moments in American history.
The Civil War cost Lee almost everything. He lost his home, his career, his investments, and virtually all his worldly goods. He suffered the premature death of a daughter, a daughter-in-law, two grandchildren and countless friends and family. He was deprived of his citizenship and liable to be tried for treason. Yet he never abandoned his personal standards or wavered from doing what he thought was right even in the face of devastating consequences.
Perhaps Lee’s greatest service to the nation was his example after defeat. He believed it was his duty to make the best of circumstances, to help rebuild the South and to convince Southerners to become a strong and vital part of the American Union.
He was elected president of struggling Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. Founded in 1749, the school had been nearly destroyed in the war and stood on the brink of collapse. Lee rebuilt it, expanded the curriculum, put the school on solid financial footing, and raised the enrollment eight-fold. He also introduced the honor system. When a new arrival once asked for a copy of the school’s rulebook, Lee explained, “We have but one rule here, and that is every student must be a gentleman.”
There was no doubt that Lee himself was. He considered it a special honor to push his invalid wife in her wheelchair. During the war, he picked wildflowers between battles and pressed them into letters to his family. He once described two dozen little girls dressed in white at a birthday party as the most beautiful thing he ever saw.
Lee’s highest gift to subsequent generations was the example of his own character. He is a reminder that what ultimately matters is not what you have or how much you’ve accomplished but who you are. Lee dedicated himself to the ideals of honor, fortitude, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Teddy Roosevelt cited Lee – along with George Washington – as one of the two all-time greatest Americans. Winston Churchill wrote that Lee was “one of the noblest Americans who ever lived, and one of the greatest captains known to the annals of war.” In Lee: A Life of Virtue, biographer John Perry writes, “To know how he lived, what he thought, and what experiences and legacies defined his life is to know the essence of honor, sacrifice, faith, humility, and ultimate triumph in the face of defeat.”
For some, of course, Lee will be forever tainted by the fact that he fought on the side of those who would preserve slavery and dissolve the Union. But if the poet Alexander Pope was right that “the proper study of mankind is man,” it will always remain essential to understand not Robert E. Lee the general, the military tactician or the educator, but Robert E. Lee, the man.