ROBERT E. LEE
THOMAS NELSON PAGE
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
NEW YORK : : : : : 1908
COPYRIGHT 1908, BY
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Published October, 1908
TO THE MEMORY OF
“AS GALLANT AND BRAVE AN ARMY
AS EVER EXISTED”:
THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA:
ON WHOSE IMPERISHABLE DEEDS
AND INCOMPARABLE CONSTANCY
THE FAME OF THEIR OLD COMMANDER
THIS sketch of a great Virginian is not written with the expectation or with even the hope that the writer can add anything to the fame of Lee; but rather in obedience to a feeling that as the son of a Confederate soldier, as a Southerner, as an American, he owes something to himself and to his countrymen, which he should endeavor to pay, though it may be but a mite cast into the Treasury of Abundance.
The subject is not one to be dealt with in the language of eulogy. To attempt to decorate it with panegyric would but belittle it. What the writer proposes to say will be based upon public records, or on the testimony of those personal witnesses who by character and opportunity for observation would be held to furnish evidence by which the gravest concerns of life would be decided.
True enough it is, Lee was assailed—and assailed with a rancor and persistence which have undoubtedly left their deep impression on the minds of a large section of his countrymen; but as the years pass by, the passions and prejudices which attempted to destroy him have been gradually giving place to a juster conception of the lineaments of Truth.
“Seest thou not how they revile thee?” said a youth to Diogenes.
“Yea,” replied the Philosopher. “But seest thou not how I am not reviled?”
Thus, as we read to-day of the reviling of Lee by those who under the sway of passion endeavored to stigmatize with the terms, “Rebel” and “Traitor,” one whom history is already proclaiming, possibly, the loftiest character of his time, the soul is filled, not so much with loathing for their malignity, as with pity for their blindness.
Unhappily, the world judges mainly by the measure of success, and though Time hath his revenges, and finally rights many wrongs, the man who fails of an immediate end appears to the body of his contemporaries, and often to the generations following, to be a failure. Yet from such seed as this have sprung the richest fruits of civilization. In the Divine Economy, indeed, appears a wonderful mystery. Through all the history of sublime endeavor would seem to run the strange truth enunciated by the Divine Mister: that, He who loses his life for the sake of the Truth shall find it.
But although, as was said by the eloquent Holcombe of Lee just after his death, “No calumny can ever darken his fame, for History has lighted up his image with her everlasting lamp,” yet after forty years there appears in certain quarters a tendency to rank General Lee, as a soldier, among those captains who failed. Some historians, looking with narrow vision at but one side, and many readers ignorant of all the facts, honestly take this view. A general he was, they say, able enough for defense; but he was uniformly defeated when he took the offensive. He failed at Antietam, he was defeated at Gettysburg; he could not drive Grant out of Virginia; therefore he must be classed among captains of the second rank only.
Iteration and reiteration, to the ordinary observer, however honest he may be, gather accumulated force and oftentimes usurp the place of truth. The Public has not time nor does it care to go deeper than the ordinary presentation of a case. It is possible, therefore, that unless the truth be set forth so plainly that it cannot be mistaken, this estimate of Lee as a Captain may in time become established as a general, if not as the universal opinion of the Public.
If, however, Lee's reputation becomes established as among the second class of captains, rather than as among the first, the responsibility for it will rest, not upon Northern writers, but upon the Southerners themselves. For the facts are plain.
We of the South have been wont to leave the writing of history mainly to others, and it is far from a complete excuse that whilst others were writing history we were making it. It is as much the duty of a people to disprove any charge blackening their fame as it is of an individual. Indeed, the injury is infinitely more far-reaching in the former case than in the case of an individual.
It is no part of my purpose to undertake to discuss critically the great campaigns which Lee conducted or battles which he fought. This I must leave to those military scholars whose experience entitles their judgment to respect. I shall mainly confine myself to setting forth the conditions which existed and the results of the manner in which he met the forces which confronted him.
It is, therefore, rather of Lee, the man, that I propose to speak in this brief memoir, though incidentally I shall endeavor to direct the reader's thought to one especial phase of his work as a soldier, for it appears to me to illustrate the peculiar fibre which distinguished him from other great Captains and other great men. His character I deem absolutely the fruit of the Virginian civilization which existed in times past. No drop of blood alien to Virginia coursed in his veins; his rearing was wholly within her borders and according to the principles of her life.
Whatever of praise or censure, therefore, shall be his must fall fairly on his mother, Virginia, and the civilization which existed within her borders. The history of Lee is the history of the South during the greatest crisis of her existence. For with his history is bound up the history of the Army of Northern Virginia, on whose imperishable deeds and incomparable constancy rests his fame.
The reputation of the South has suffered because we have allowed rhetoric to usurp the place of history. We have furnished many orators, but few historians. But all history at last must be the work of the orator, but of the historian. Truth, simply stated, like chastity in a woman's face, is its own best advocate; its simplest presentation is its strongest proof.
It is then, not to Lee the Victorious, that the writer asks his reader's attention, but to that greater Lee: the Defeated.
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