I will never forget the first issue I received of Civil War Times Illustrated Magazine. Someone who knew our family and knew that I was crazy over the War Between the States told me about a magazine dedicated to the same thing I was dedicated to—reading about and studying the war. I don’t know what deals I cut with my parents – perhaps I agreed to not sin for five years or to treat my sister as if she were a human being or other such unkeepable promise – but they subscribed to it for me. The year was 1965. I was thirteen and had been immersed in the bicentennial of the Civil War for four years. My classmates and teachers thought I was crazy, but that’s often how people think when someone doesn’t agree with them.
My first issue of the magazine came; it was April 1965 and the cover illustration was a beautiful and imposing portrait of Robert E. Lee on his horse, “Traveler.” General Lee was already my hero. When I see that magazine it gives me a strange feeling, the one I had when I received it … a thrill of recognition and pleasure. I probably read it ten times.
Robert Edward Lee of Virginia was perhaps the most respected and admired soldier of the 19th century in America and the same would hold true for most of the 20th century as well. Until just a few years ago, the state of Virginia celebrated Lee-Jackson Day with a day off school with banquets and speeches commemorating the deeds of Lee and his trusted Lieutenant Thomas Jonathan Jackson –“Stonewall” –whose birthday falls on January 21st. The Christian character and leadership of General Lee against long odds has long intrigued military experts in Europe and the United States. He was not just a southern hero in the United States; he was an American hero, celebrated by both north and south for many years. As George Grant has pointed out quoting Samuel Johnson: “Any man honored by both his enemies and his compatriots is a man worthy of our closest attentions – for in him you may be sure to find authenticity.”
Field Marshall Viscount Wolseley, the greatest British general after Wellington in the 19th century, commented in his book on the American war that Lee was the “greatest soldier of his age” and that Lee was “the most perfect man I ever met.” The character of Robert E. Lee was such that Wolsely wrote:
The Field Marshall reminisced that he had met only two men in his entire life worthy to be classed as a true hero – his friend General Charles Gordon (who died at Khartoum) and Robert E. Lee.
If you take for granted the heroism and courage of Robert E. Lee you are in a shrinking minority. The current interpretation of Lee is a racist slave-driving traitor. But that has only been among college professors and historians. Today, if you were to conduct an on the street interview in most places around the United States you would likely find that few have ever even heard of Robert E. Lee.
In fact, he has disappeared from the classrooms of many public schools and most Universities. In his recently published book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American Heroes, Brion McClanahan cites a study done in 2004-2005 among high school students and adults (I presume in New York City or some such place) on the top ten most heroic Americans. They were not allowed to choose a President or President’s wife. Among students the top ten American heroes were: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Benjamin Franklin, Amelia Earhart, Oprah Winfrey, Marilyn Monroe, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein. Decades of multi-cultural education are paying interesting dividends in some of the American schools.
While all of the above characters may have aspects of heroism, I would suggest that Robert E. Lee is one real hero, though not perfect and “only a sinner saved by grace” as he himself said, whose example we can recommend to our children without skeletons in his closet. In a way we are commemorating a long lost world of American heroes, men who fought for their principles, who actually had principles, and were willing to lose everything to stand fast in the day of battle. I would like to remind you of the life of Robert E. Lee and the character and leadership that still speak to us today. Essayist Joseph Epstein says that a good biographer presents his subject at three levels – what others thought of him, what his family thought of him, and what he thought of himself. It would be beyond the scope of this article to read all the quotes that would illustrate a full biography.
We could summarize his family’s thought, that of his three sons and four daughters, they adored their father and were utterly devoted to him though he had to be absent numerous times in his years of service on the frontier in the army. His sons looked up to him in awe. His wife wrote to him frequently and him to her. Their correspondence is loving and intimate and, for his part, full of encouragement and trust in God’s grace. Though she became crippled with arthritis and was sometimes a difficult woman to please, General Lee was always lovingly solicitous of her welfare and condition.
I will comment on what he thought of himself and what his friends and enemies and historians have thought of him over the last century and a half, a little later. First a brief sketch of his early life for those who know little of the life of Lee:
Robert Edward Lee was the fifth child of Revolutionary War hero and ex-Virginia Governor General “Light Horse” Harry Lee and Ann Hill Carter. His father had attended Princeton and sat under the tutelage of John Witherspoon. He was one of the very best leaders of the American army in the War for Independence and the one who coined the phrase regarding George Washington – first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen. Robert’s mother was the great granddaughter of Robert King Carter of Shirley Plantation in Charles City County, Virginia along the banks of the James River, and the wealthiest man in America in his day. She was the 10th of 23 children of Charles Carter. She grew up among the Virginia Tidewater grandees.
Robert E. Lee’s father did not stay the course. He did not persevere in his life. He borrowed money, speculated in real estate and gambled. He went to debtors’ prison. He ruined his reputation and impoverished his family, dying alone on a Georgia island in search of better health, leaving five children and a grieving widow. Robert was 9 years old at the time. Because of this, throughout his life he was frugal with his money. On a soldier’s pay, he never owned his own home and did not try to borrow money to do so.
Robert’s older siblings all left home, leaving him to care for his sickly and aging mother through his early teen years, a duty he took very seriously. His cousin wrote that Robert “was her housekeeper, relieved her of all domestic cares, looked after her horse, rode out in the carriage with her, and did the marketing for the family.” When she became ill, he was her nurse, mixing her medicine and waiting on her. Steve Wilkins remarks, “both the caring for her and the wisdom he gleaned from her molded his character. She saw to it that his education was not wanting and that it was Christian. At the age of 17 he entered the Military Academy at West Point.