Washington and Lee University

The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton

THE LIFE OF ROBERT E. LEE.

CHAPTER XV
LEE AND THE NATION

When he had surrendered at Appomattox, Lee gave himself to the South and, in no lesser sense, to the Nation. His very surrender, made against the will and desire of those who believed in retiring to the mountains and drawing out the struggle indefinitely, proved Lee's belief that, the cause being lost, it was for the good of all that it should be abandoned. No man can ever know how great was the temptation to prolong the struggle to the death. The responsibility of the decision rested upon him alone, and it was fortunate for the South and the whole country that he was a man able to face great responsibility.

From out the wreck he now looked across the time when passion, hatred, prejudice, and contention would prevail, to a day of peace, of brotherhood, of real union, of nationality. Though Lee had fought for four years with all his great powers to dissolve the old Union, he became, at the end of the war, together with Lincoln and Grant, one of its preservers. These three great men, combined, gave to us the priceless heritage of a united country, united, not by law and force alone, but by the stronger bonds of devotion and a common patriotism. Each one of the three played his part. Lincoln died too soon to carry out his heartfelt longing “to bind up the Nation's wounds,” but his fine spirit remained to brood over the people of the whole Nation for whom, regardless of their section, he had such a great and abiding love.

Grant's great, generous soul, through his dealings with the South at Appomattox, gave the first impulse toward union, reconciliation, and affection between the North and the South. Had he been less big-hearted, had he been bitter or revengeful, had he demanded such harsh terms as to force the continuation of the war, he would have left a lasting bitterness in the heart of every Confederate soldier. As it was, he did much at Appomattox to replace bitterness and hatred with admiration, respect, and liking.

Lee did his part equally well. It was not only his to bring the war to an end as soon as he knew his cause to be hopeless, but also to reconcile the South to what it had lost, to give it courage for the future, and to encourage a determination in its people henceforth to bear their part in the common fortunes of the United States with courage and with credit. Through his example he became the greatest force in the country toward the creation of a real national spirit. He sought no prominence for himself and longed only for peace and quiet. The truth is that the failure of the Confederate cause had broken his heart. He was never again the same, but in spite of the greatness of his grief, he never gave way to it, nor is there any record of a single word from him of complaint or bitterness.

The life he led in the five years following the war is a priceless heritage to the South and even more to the Nation as a whole. From the first he set the example of loyalty and submission. Nor was that all. Without making himself conspicuous, he threw his entire weight on the side of conciliation and of restoration. He renewed, whole-heartedly, his allegiance to the United States, and he encouraged the whole South to do so, not as a mere act of necessity, but as a guiding principle for the future. He did this purposely, for, in spite of a very real modesty, he could not help knowing the power of his name and the force of his example. As Gamaliel Bradford says:—

When he said that the career of the Confederacy was ended; that the hope of an independent government must be abandoned; and that the duty of the future was to abandon the dream of a Confederacy and to render a new and cheerful allegiance to a reunited government—his utterances were accepted as holy writ. No other human being upon earth, no other earthly power could have produced such prompt acceptance of the final and irreversible judgment.

Grant said of Lee in the same strain, “All the people except a few political leaders in the South will accept whatever he does as right and will be guided to a great extent by his example.” It was partly for this reason that he declined to leave Virginia or to accept any one of the offers of positions which gave no opportunity for the service of his people. In the same spirit he made his application to the President for pardon, saying to his son that it was right for him to set an example of making a formal submission to the civil authorities and that he thought by so doing he might possibly be in a better position to be of use to Confederates who were not protected by military paroles, especially Jefferson Davis. Of course it was true that the outcome of the war had in no wise changed Lee's belief that the course he took was right. His application for pardon was in no sense an admission of guilt, for he felt none; but simply the acknowledgment of authority and therefore the act of a good citizen. In 1869, in speaking of this to General Wade Hampton, he said, “I could have taken no-other course save with dishonor, and if it were all to be gone over again, I should act in precisely the same way.”

While Lee's pardon was not granted until 1868, he had no feeling of being an alien or an outcast. “I believe it to be,” he said, “the duty of every one to unite in the restoration of the country, and the reestablishment of peace.” Again he said: “The interests of the State are therefore the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens, then, appears too plain to me to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and restore the blessings of peace. They should remain if possible in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote, and elect to the State and general legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country and the healing of all dissensions.” Still again, he said, “It is the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the country to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony, and in no way to oppose the policy of the State or General Government directed to that object.” For these reasons Lee also set his face firmly against a proposed wholesale emigration from the Southern States to Mexico or South America.

In the same spirit Lee discouraged all personal bitterness. He said: “All controversy will only serve to prolong angry and bitter feeling and postpone the period when reason and charity may resume their sway. I know of no surer way to exact the truth than by burying contention with the war.” On one occasion, when a minister was expressing in very bitter terms his indignation at Lee's indictment, Lee quickly changed the subject and later said privately to the minister: “Doctor, there is a good old book which I read, and you preach from, which says, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.’ Do you think your remarks this evening were quite in the spirit of that teaching?” The minister apologized for his bitterness, and Lee added: “I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.” When one of the professors at Washington College, in Lee's presence, criticized Grant rather harshly, Lee said, “Sir, if you ever presume to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this college.” To another bitter Southerner he said: “Madam, don't bring up your sons to detest the United States Government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities and make your sons Americans.” These words have since that time been to thousands of Southerners a trumpet call to patriotism. By his life of work, of service, of submission, of loyalty, of patriotic Americanism, during the years after the war, Lee set a standard for Southern men. As one writer has phrased it, “Robert E. Lee was not only the consummate flower of the old South; he is also the beacon and prophet of the new.” His place in national history has probably been best stated by Charles Francis Adams, who closes his essay with these words:—

The bronze effigy of Robert E. Lee, mounted on his charger and with the insignia of his Confederate rank, will from its pedestal in the nation's capital, gaze across the Potomac at his old home at Arlington, even as that of Cromwell dominates the yard at Westminster upon which his skull once looked down. When that time comes, Lee's monument will be educational,—it will typify the historical appreciation of all that goes to make up the loftiest type of character, military and civic, exemplified in an opponent, once dreaded but ever respected; and, above all, it will symbolize and commemorate that loyal acceptance of the consequences of defeat, and the patient upbuilding of a people under new conditions by constitutional means, which I hold to be the greatest educational lesson America has yet taught a once skeptical but now silenced world.


THE END


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