LINCOLN AND LEE
[Note: The following is from volume 26 of The South Atlantic Quarterly (Durham, North Carolina, 1927), edited by William K. Boyd and William H. Wannamaker, pp. 1–21.]
IT HAS been said that Jefferson Davis is the hero of the South—her William Tell in fact. In this estimate I do not concur. True, in bravery and in loyalty to the Confederacy Mr. Davis was unsurpassed and therein is a real hero. But was not Mr. Davis a bad loser, quarrelsome, partial in his judgment and incapable of inspiring enthusiasm? These defects are neither northern nor southern traits, and to be a people's hero one must posses their characteristics. Who, then, next to Washington, are American heroes, true patriots, worthy models for our youth?
With unanimity history has placed Washington first and Abraham Lincoln next, if not equal. And in this view I concur. Lincoln, though not magnificent like Washington, was more unaccountable and more human, his task more complex, more beset with dangers, his triumph more complete. Now, having in mind the wonderful story of Robert E. Lee, I venture another estimate. Of General Lee must it not be said that during his last years, from April '65 to October '70, from Appomattox to his death, in every element of real greatness he was the superior of both Washington and Lincoln?
These two imperishable names, therefore, emerge from the Civil War period, Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. And though totally unlike in externals, in the essentials they were wonderfully similar: self sacrifice, clearness of vision, common sense, ability to manage those about them, and a deep, abiding sense of responsibility characterizing each. Lincoln was a democratized Lee; Lee was an aristocratic Lincoln.
In March, 1861, when Lincoln was sworn in as President, he had just turned fifty-two; Lee was then fifty-four. Each was a conservative and each had been an old-line Whig with all that that implies,—stability of government, protection of American industries, and love of the old flag. In personal habits Lincoln was as pure as Lee, and neither was ever heard to swear an oath.
In emergencies Lincoln appealed to the God of nations; Lee rarely closed a public document or a private letter without a similar appeal. If, unlike Lee, Lincoln was not able to formulate a creed, this was not for lack of faith in the Infinite. On leaving Springfield to become President and addressing his neighbors assembled to see him off, Lincoln declared that “without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him (Washington) I cannot succeed, with that assistance I cannot fail.” Often speaking of himself as the agent of a Heavenly Father, in a Fast Day Proclamation issued a few years later Lincoln asserted that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.
Finally, when the shadows were lengthening, Lincoln, explaining his faith, asserted that while he had never given his assent to the complicated statement of Christian doctrine which characterized the Articles of Belief and the Confessions of Faith, nevertheless, he would with all his heart and all his soul join any church which would inscribe over its altar this sole qualification of membership: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself.” Upon the death of his little son, Willie, Lincoln sorrowed as Isaac over Benjamin. One day, repeating to Colonel Cannon a dream he had had of his dead boy and of holding sweet communion with him and yet of having a sad consciousness that it was not a reality, Lincoln took from the shelf a copy of Shakespeare's King John and read aloud these words to Colonel Cannon:
“And Father Cardinal I have heard you say,
That we shall see our friends in heaven.
If that be true I shall see my boy again.”
And then the President, bowing his head, burst into tears.1
His early study of Voltaire and of Volney had made of Lincoln a Christian idealist.
Of Lincoln and Lee it must be said that in the advancement of a cause no great characters were ever more self-effacing. Early in Lincoln's first term a characteristic incident in connection with the garrisoning of Fort Sumter occurred. Seward had Lincoln sign without reading an order countermanding a former order of Secretary Welles of the Navy and detaching the steamship “Powhatan” from the Sumter expedition and sending her off to Fort Pickens. The Sumter expedition failing for lack of war vessels, Welles was indignant and the North exasperated. But Lincoln assumed all the blame, laying none of it at the door of Seward; or as Wells wrote in his diary: “Lincoln played the scapegoat.” In the darkest days of the Civil War Lincoln was put to it to find a general of the army. To his friends urging him to retire McClellan from the chief command as he was the President's enemy, Lincoln replied: “I would hold General McClellan's horse if he would win me a battle.” Finally, in 1864, when Lincoln was reëlected President, triumphant over his opponents, John Hay declares that he sympathized with the beaten rather than the victorious party.
Even so with General Lee; he was always ready to be the scapegoat. After the battle of Gettysburg Lee's officers censured Longstreet for failing to obey the order to attack. Indeed, they charged up that defeat to Longstreet's disobedience; but Lee would not have it so. “Never mind, General,” said he to one of the complaining officers, “All this has been my fault, it is I who have lost this fight.”
No heroes of poetry or romance were more tender or humane. When luxuries came to General Lee's camp they were turned over to the sick; when Lee's son was wounded and in prison and a northern officer generously proposed to arrange a special cartel of exchange the General replied: “No, I will ask no favor for my son that I cannot ask for the humblest private in the ranks.”
At Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in June, 1863, Lee issued his immortal order No. 72: “The duties exacted of us by civilization and Christianity are not less obligatory in the country of the enemy than in our own. The commanding General therefore exhorts the troops to abstain with most scrupulous care from unnecessary or wanton injury to private property and he enjoins upon all officers to bring to summary punishment all who shall in any way offend against the orders upon this subject.”
Just before Gettysburg, observing the camp fires blazed unusually bright, Lee noticed that fence rails constituted the fuel; sending for Colonel McIntosh, Lee asked if General Order No. 72 had been published.
“It has, General,” said the Colonel.
“Well, Colonel, it must not only be published, it must be obeyed”; and General Lee left him with dignity. Colonel Freemantle, of the British army, being along at this time, records that he saw no straggling in the houses at Chambersburg but on the contrary witnessed the singularly good behaviour of Lee's troops. At this time, too, the incident of the old woman's cow occurred. The Johnny Rebs had captured the animal and would soon have been broiling her on the coals but for General Lee. Getting wind of the matter the General with his own hands restored the precious cow to the “enemy.”2
These incidents illustrating a phase of Lee's character are fully matched in the life of the humane Lincoln. What is more touching than the letter to Mrs. Bixby when the President of a sorely distressed country, in the midst of a fierce war, paused to beguile her grief! Lincoln could “not refrain from tendering to this mother of five sons who had died gloriously on the field of battle the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. . . . I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement,” Lincoln wrote, “and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
Lincoln pardoned many guilty soldiers because of youth. For pardoning one young fellow he gave this as his reason: “his mother says he is but seventeen.” In another pardon case he wired the officer in command, “I am unwilling that any boy under eighteen should be shot.” In still another case he said to a poor young girl beseeching him to pardon her brother: “My poor girl, you have come here with no Governor or Senator or Congressman to plead your cause, you seem honest and truthful and you don't wear hoopskirts. I will pardon your brother.”
In fact, all through his administration Lincoln's great heart bled for suffering humanity, whether North or South. To an indignant officer clamoring for the death penalty upon a deserter, he replied that he would not sign the death warrant. “General,” said Lincoln to this officer, “there are too many widows in the United States now. For God's sake do not ask me to add to the number, for I tell you plainly I won't do it.” Lincoln indeed was offering full pardon to all southerners who would come back into the Union, together with full restoration of civil rights and property.
Through naturally self-effacing and humble, when duty called Lincoln and Lee were simply terrible. Of Lee a Union general has declared “that no eagle that ever flew, no tiger that ever sprang, had more natural courage,” and that notwithstanding his poise he was naturally “the most belligerent, bulldog man at the head of any army in the war.” In the winter of 1861 Lee, commanding troops in West Virginia, was inactive a whole season. The public clamored for a fight, the press denounced Lee; even Virginia was losing confidence in him. Advised that his reputation was suffering, Lee's face lighted with a sad smile, as he replied: “I cannot afford to sacrifice the lives of five or six hundred men to silence public clamor.” When at Appomat[t]ox Lee surrendered to Grant, a solicitous friend asked what posterity would think of his act of surrendering an army in the field. Lee replied: “That is not the question, Colonel; the question is, is it right to surrender this army? If it is right, then I will take the responsibility.”
Throughout Lincoln's four years as President he never shirked responsibility. In the beginning he assumed great power and thereafter suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus he dealt with the Copperheads as traitors to their country, imprisoning them without judge or jury. When the “Vindictives,” as Stephenson in his Life of Lincoln dubs them, urged on by Ben Wade, insisted that Lincoln should not veto the reconstruction legislation of 1864, humiliating to the Southern States, Lincoln pursued his own course and vetoed the measure. “This bill is unconstitutional,” he declared, “and I will not stultify myself by endorsing it. The Constitution must be preserved. . . . As a war measure the President may do things which the Congress cannot do.” So the bill failed, though Lincoln was warned that his veto would cause his defeat for a second nomination.
Lincoln's tolerance, his love of humanity, has made him very dear to the southern heart, as like qualities make the memory of Lee a blessing in northern households.3 Before he became President, Lincoln had used these words: “I have no prejudice against the Southern people, they are just what we would have been in their situation. If slavery did not exist among them they would not introduce it. If it did now exist among us we should not instantly give it up. When Southern people tell us they are no more responsible for slavery than we are, I acknowledge the fact. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me I should not know what to do with slavery.”
Later in life Lincoln's vision as to the future of the Negro became clearer and he agreed with General Lee that the colored man must be set free and gradual colonization should be arranged.
Mr. Lincoln was nominated for President by the Republicans in 1860 because he was a conservative and not a radical. True, he had declared that a house divided against itself cannot stand. But he did not subscribe to Seward's statement of an irrepressible conflict. In 1852, in an oration on Henry Clay, Mr. Lincoln had made a prophetic statement: “Those abolitionists who would shiver into fragments the Union of these States,” he said, “who would tear to tatters its now venerated constitution and even burn the last copy of the Bible rather than slavery should continue a single hour; together with all their more halting sympathizers, have received and are receiving their just execration.” And then pausing, Mr. Lincoln went on to say that he would array the influence of Henry Clay against “a few but increasing number of men, who for the sake of perpetuating slavery, are beginning to assail and ridicule the white man's charter of freedom, the declaration that all men are created free and equal.”
So, indeed, when Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, warned him against too much conservatism and advised him to come out and advocate the doctrine of abolition, “Old Abe” remarked: “Billy, you are too rampant and spontaneous.”
Lincoln and Lee being nationally-minded, each was a full-blooded American and is now a part of a nation's life. Indeed, by a strange twist of fate Lincoln has become the hero of the South, Lee the hero of the North. It could not be otherwise. There was something about Lincoln essentially southern, a warm-heartedness, a fun-loving rowdiness; whereas the stately Lee more befitted the austerity of the northern climate.
Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, the aristocratic Chase, the showy McClellan, and others of the North observed a certain boorishness in Lincoln which they could not reconcile with true greatness. Surely Daniel Webster had no such characteristics! On the contrary the impulsive, generous South, except the aristocratic class who agreed with Governor Andrew, forgave Lincoln's exterior, looking into the depths of his universal heart.
No doubt there are today as many pictures of Lincoln as of Washington on the walls of southern public schools. Indeed, Mr. Lincoln's terse way of expressing himself, his epigrams and strange paradoxes, his wealth of anecdote, his use of Bible imagery, his rare ability to size up a situation by some apt fable have made him a pattern of many southern writers and speakers. I have a friend of moderate means who lays out much of his modest surplus purchasing biographies, essays, anecdotes, photographs, anything and everything about “Old Abe”—particularly cherishing the horse-back picture of him, in tall beaver hat, reviewing the Union troops. And scarce an ambitious southern country boy studies law and removes to town but has Lincoln's speeches and addresses, costing five cents up, lying open on his desk. With a Lincoln style and a Lincoln joke, sometimes fortified with a faithful fiddle, many a southern boy has raised himself into the Senate or the Governor's mansion.
Like Lincoln, heedless of the value of a dollar, the South is spontaneous, emotional and always out for the grotesque; the North, like Lee, always reserved and caring little for the oddities and whimsicalities of life. The typical southerner is not a reading man, he is a speaking man; there a pat phrase, a telling story with even a dash of salt, a bit of repartee, he greatly relishes. His literary diet consists of Dr. Johnson, Randolph of Roanoke, and Abraham Lincoln. In Lincoln the southern man finds Mark Twain and Bill Arp, Aesop and Solomon, rolled into one—a combination with he has an idea overtops Webster or Edward Everett.
The flippant remark of Lincoln which so disgusted Colonel Sherman that he withdrew from Washington and “abandoned his idea of resuming a military life” would only have amused a fun loving southern colonel. In 1861 Colonel William T. Sherman, just in from Louisiana, had advised President Lincoln of the seriousness of the secession movement in the far South.
“Oh, we'll manage to keep house,” was Lincoln's reply.
How the devil-me-care southern boy chuckles over “Old Abe's” first entrance into Springfield to settle down and practice law! Straggling into a store which chanced to be Joshua Speed's, young Lincoln wanted to buy enough furniture “to do” him. Speed and Lincoln figured close, but the bill was high—$17.00. Finally, Speed suggested he had a big room and a double bed upstairs over the store which he would share with Abe without cost. Abe with saddle bags in hand marches upstairs, deposits his belongings, and in a few minutes returns and says, “Speed, I'm moved.” There is scarce a southern village without just such a waggish fellow today.
This droll fun, this subtle humor of Lincoln's, was it the southern side of him coming through his mother? “To my mother,” said Lincoln, “I owe all I ever was”; with sorrow and yet with a certain confidence adding, “She was the natural daughter of a Virginia planter.” Was Lincoln correct in believing that his mother was the natural daughter of a Virginia planter and that on this account “he had all those qualities that distinguished him from other members of his family?” Was Nancy Hanks, mother of Abraham Lincoln, the illegitimate daughter of a Virginia planter? In truth, was some great-hearted old Virginia gentleman the love-father of Nancy Hanks, the grandfather of America's greatest son?
Looking at the Civil War in retrospect it is seen that the humanitarian spirit of Lincoln and Lee permeated northern and southern armies alike. When certain southern “cruelties” were reported to Lincoln, shaking his head he wisely doubted and quoted the Bible, “Judge not that ye be not judged.” To an irate Confederate Colonel counselling cruelty by way of retaliation to Grant's soldiers then held by General Lee, the noble Lee responded: “You are mistaken, Colonel, these prisoners are not General Grant's, they are mine.”
How proud all Americans were when charges of cruelty and neglect in prison camps were disproved, when it was discovered from the records that the percentage of Union prisoners dying in southern prisons was a trifle smaller than of Confederate prisoners dying in northern prisons. This fact was due, no doubt, to the milder southern climate. As General Lee testified before the committee in Washington in 1866, “My orders were that the whole field should be treated alike.” Once, as Lee was riding over the field at Gettysburg, a Union soldier, desperately wounded, raised himself from the ground and recognizing the Confederate chieftain, in the agony of his soul, shouted out, “Hurrah for Abe Lincoln!” General Lee, riding up, dismounted and said: “My poor boy, can't I assist you in some way,” tenderly placing a knapsack under his head.
Mercy, then, was the prayer of Lincoln and of Lee. More than once Lee urged Davis to compromise4—time and again Lincoln offered to do anything, everything for peace and a restored Union. Hear Lincoln at the last Cabinet meeting just before his death. “I hope there will be no persecutions,” he said. “No bloody work after the war is over.” Going on he added that none need expect him to take any part in the hanging or killing of these men, even the worst of them; enough lives had already been sacrificed. “Frighten them out of the country, let down the bars, scare them off,” said he, throwing up his hands as if scaring sheep!
From April, 1861, to April, 1865, Lincoln performed one of the most delicate and one of the most important services ever entrusted to a human being, that of saving the American Union. After Lincoln's election and the Secession of States that soon followed, the northern cry had been for peace or compromise. “Let the erring sisters go in peace,” said Horace Greely and many another lover of peace. Garrison, Lovejoy and sundry Abolitionists joined in the cry of disunion; “A happy riddance,” they exclaimed. “We will have no union with slave holders—the Constitution is but a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.”
When scarcely seated in his new office as President, the Old Dominion proposed to remain out of the rebellion5 if assured that the Virginia Resolves, allowing any state to secede at its pleasure, should become the fundamental law. Mr. Lincoln standing almost alone, declined the offer and drew the issue sharply. “I am not riding for a fall,” he said. He would not pay the price, even to hold North Carolina and Virginia in the Union; he was not willing that the Constitution should bear the seeds of its own destruction. Then came the Sumter affair and with a clear vision he issued his call for troops. North Carolina, Virginia, and other border states were unwilling to furnish troops to fight their southern brethren, and the Civil War soon followed.
Mr. Seward, the Secretary of State, failing to grasp the situation, was for a do-nothing policy. He confidently predicted that the storm would soon blow over, urging Lincoln not to coerce the South but to leave her alone. New York City added to the confusion. She would become a free city like Venice and Florence in the Middle Ages and set up for herself; and so the voices of confusion grew loud till Lincoln spoke, declaring that the Union should be preserved. To this end he would placate and hold the border Union-loving states and win them back into the Union, one each month—Maryland one month, Kentucky another month, and Tennessee another.
Lincoln's greatest ask was with England, whose attitude towards America at all times during the Civil War is one of the foulest blots in her history. Actuated by jealousy of the great Republic, England undoubtedly longed for its dismemberment. The Mason and Slidell affair greatly tested Mr. Lincoln's endurance. It will be remembered that Captain Wilkes of the United States Navy fired a shot across the bows of the English ship “Trent” and forcibly captured and removed Mason and Slidell, Confederate Commissioners on the way to London. The war-like North was delirious with joy, England retorted that unless Mason and Slidell were set free in a given time America must take the consequences. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, losing his head, joined in the war-like cry. But again Lincoln's wise voice was heard. “One war at the time,” said he, and the storm blew over.
No portion of Lincoln's administration shows greater wisdom than his foreign policy. Mr. Lincoln was in constant communication with John Bright and the few other English friends of America. Well knowing that if the Confederacy was recognized by foreign countries it success was assured, Lincoln exerted every effort to explain to liberty-loving Englishmen that the Civil War was based on slavery. The following resolutions prepared by Mr. Lincoln was passed over to Sumner, by whom it was forwarded to John Bright and the British Parliament:
“Whereas, while heretofore, States and Nations, have tolerated Slavery, recently, for the first time in the world, an attempt has been made to construct a new nation upon the basis of and with the primary and fundamental object to maintain, enlarge and perpetuate human slavery, therefore,
“Resolved that no such embryo State should ever be recognized by, or admitted into the family of Christian and civilized nations; And that all Christian and civilized men, everywhere, should, by all lawful means, resist to the utmost such recognition or admission.”
Perhaps the most critical moment in the Nation's life was the summer of 1864—the year of the Presidential election. An election in the throes of an all-consuming war, was such a thing possible? Could war be fought and a political campaign be waged, at the same time?
Three years now had the Union armies been hammering away at Richmond; McDowell, McClellan, Burnside, Pope, Banks, Hooker, Meade—each had been defeated or checked by southern prowess. And yet Richmond stood uncaptured, no nearer a downfall in 1864 than in 1861; Grant's grinding fight to destroy Lee's army no more successful than McClellan's had been. The cry for peace started up again; the war was a failure. The National Democratic platform of 1864, upon which General McClellan stood as candidate for President, fiercely arraigned the Lincoln Administration; and behind that banner all the forces of disunion, discontent and failure had gathered. Greeley and the New York Tribune, together with the Nation, raised the old cry, “Let the South go.” The Union forces were war weary, hysteria prevailed; Lincoln must be defeated, he too was a failure. His friends even declared that he must not be re-nominated. Union delegations from New York, Maine and other states conferred and decided that Lincoln must go. The Wade-Davis Manifesto, issued by the “Vindictives,” charged that Lincoln was a despot, that he was endeavoring to placate the South and to hold himself in power. To add to the confusion a new army must be conscripted, for Union ranks were depleted—more soldiers were needed, three hundred and fifty thousand of them. To enforce conscription in the midst of an election was unthinkable, it would utterly destroy Lincoln's chances to succeed himself. Urged by his managers not to enforce the conscription law but to wait until after the election in November Lincoln replied: “It little matters what becomes of me but it greatly matters what becomes of the Union.” Standing resolute, therefore, and placing the Union above self or party, Lincoln rigidly enforced conscription. Then Atlanta fell; the southern blockade was made complete, the far South went to pieces, Dixie was s;lit in twain by Sherman's troops; Sheridan ran Early out of the valley; Lincoln's wisdom was vindicated and the Union was saved.
Now the greatness of both Lincoln and Lee, as I see it, is crowded into four or five short years. Before 1861 Mr. Lincoln was not a remarkable man, before 1865 General Lee was not a remarkable man. The greatness of Lincoln is that he saved the Union; the greatness of Lee is that he cemented it.
Prior to Appomattox there was no American nation, there was but a Confederation of States and the threat to secede was not infrequent, North as well as South. But for President Jackson in the thirties, South Carolina would have seceded. At an earlier date New England would have seceded rather than destroy her commerce by engaging in war with England; nearly every northern state of the original thirteen had enacted nullification acts. Nationalizing America is the glory of Lincoln—a work so thoroughly done the Union is no longer a rope of sand, it has become a compact unit. Due to General Lee the South is not pinned to the Union with bayonets, as Poland was to Austria or Ireland to England.
God be praised great men were not always great—how could the average person survive such discouraging and long continued goodness? Jesus himself was great for only three years. Indeed, this teaching that in he child the hall-marks of future greatness are always cropping out in embryo is not only false but highly discouraging. Mr. Lincoln's life work began when he was chosen President—General Lee's, when he laid down the sword and became the wise, patient, considerate guide of a proud, haughty, resentful and war-like people.
In the Illinois Legislature Mr. Lincoln had made little impression; as a Congressman in 1847 he was equally unknown. Twice he had been defeated for the United States Senate, in 1854 by Trumbull, in 1858 by Douglass. As a debater, of course, he was the best rough and tumble specimen that ever mounted a stump—the Lincoln-Douglass debates undoubtedly holding the world record. But Mr. Lincoln did not find himself until he became President.
The suggestion that from the day the boy Lincoln saw certain negroes auctioned off at New Orleans, he laid plans “to hit the abominable thing” is pretty, but is it sustained by the facts? Could any humanitarian with such controlling idealism have been hired by a slave owner in an exciting legal contest to return a Negro mother and her little children to their master? And yet this Mr. Lincoln did. In 1847 in a circuit court of Illinois, he succeeded in winning a case for his client, General Matson of Kentucky, whereby Jane Bryant, a Negro mother, and her infant children were committed to jail till they could be transported to the master's home in Kentucky.6
So human, so like every aspiring young lawyer, was Lincoln that he furnished funds to a delegate to the Chicago Convention of 1860—a circumstance greatly shocking his English biographer's idea of propriety. When, indeed, he offered for the Senate against Trumbull he wrote personal appealing letters to various legislators soliciting support. When nominated for the presidency in 1860, Mr. Lincoln was but an available candidate, a “dark horse.” He had already stated his position on slavery, agreeing to preserve the institution in the southern states and had won the denunciation from Garrison that he was “the slave hound of Illinois.” Immortal as is the name of Lincoln, that immortality is crowded into four years.
So as to General Lee: one cannot think he was among the Immortals till Appomattox. A splendid colonel in the Mexican War, “the best officer in Mexico,” said Scott. Brave, faithful soldier, citizen and Christian, but not yet supremely great. In the war, too, according to the critics, Lee's record was superior to all others. But it is not by this standard that Lee must be measured. The world does not crown its soldiers, unless fighting for freedom. By a plebiscite France agreed that Pasteur was immortal—passing over Napoleon, do doubt the greatest military genius of all time. General Lee is sublime not because of the Civil War, but in spite of it.
Let us again refer to those heart searching April days of 1861, after General Scott at Lincoln's request tendered Lee the command of the Union Army and Lee asked time to consider. Had Lee risen above state boundaries and agreed to lead the Union forces, would secession have blown up, as it did in 1833 when “Old Hickory” was President? Would the powerful influence of Lee have held back all the border states?7 Indeed, the question is even deeper, affecting General Lee personally. Swinging out from the urge of loyalty to kith and kin, from the small concept of states' rights and the letter of the law, had Lee stood for the nation and for freedom, would he have been greater? Slavery, he had called a moral wrong, a social wrong, and yet he was championing it. “The foundation stone of the Confederacy,” the Mississippi Confederate Constitution in substance had designated slavery. Indeed, such it was as there was practically no other quarrel at that time between the sections except slavery.
Pretermitting, therefore, any discussion of the constitutional right of secession—was there not a deeper question at issue: The stupendous folly of creating a slave empire?
True, all historians agree that in 1789 the Union of States could not have been formed but for a constitutional guarantee of slavery. But shall mere human laws and constitutions control a man of Lee's quality and caliber? In a matter of principle can one generation by statute or constitution, bind another—tie it hand and foot? That the South had a right, a legal right to secede is certainly an open question; that nominally General Lee in his choice of the Confederate side was within his legal rights, all will admit. But Lee—the Immortal Lee—must be weighed in no such golden scales. Lee was a man—not a rhetorician, not a mere logic chopper. And after Appomattox he played the man, every inch the man.
See Lee at Appomattox—see him in defeat. Astride “Traveller,” his old war horse, for the last time he passes down the thin Confederate line and is greeted by the old Rebel yell; he stops, speaks to his men, tells them that he has got the best terms from General Grant he could, bids them go home and plant their crops and then adds: “Do your duty as citizens as you have always done as soldiers; remember, this is one country now.” Then riding off into the Wilderness he and old Traveller spend the night alone under the Virginia sky, unwilling to stop at the home of any friend—his presence might breed trouble. In a day or two Lee reaches his family in Richmond. Since the Confederacy fell the city has been as a city of the dead; but with Lee's home-coming life revives, windows and doors which had been shut as in mourning were thrown open; General Lee has come home and all is well. Presently people call and begin to say hard things about Grant. He had been ungenerous, they declared.
“No, no,” Lee replied, “General Grant has acted with great magnanimity.”8
Judah P. Benjamin fled to Europe, Generals Beauregard, Mahone and others got into disfavor, Jefferson Davis wrote his Vindication, a thing of grouches and sore toes, but Lee went nowhere, wrote nothing—he needed no vindication. Virginia, his mother, had called and he had answered her call. That was all. In after years when this noble mother, Virginia, erected at Richmond a monument to this one of her sons, the range of human praise and compliment was reached in the inscription. Quiet and serene the southern hero is seated on old Traveller, one hand holding the reins, in the other his slouch hat—his majestic countenance beguiles all eyes, on the base one wordž“Lee.”
On a lovely day in the spring of 1922 thousands, hundreds of thousands, had gathered on the Mall at Washington. It was the day of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial.
The white column in the distance pointing heavenward and typifying the Father of his Country seemed to bless the occasion; the National Capitol a little further away added its benediction. Just across the Potomac was Arlington, Lee's old home. Standing on the terrace of the Memorial one could almost drive a golf ball to the Lee estate. The President of the United States was there and also a former President. The eyes of thousands gazed upon the face of Robert Lincoln, a son of the martyred President, now old and infirm. Every heart was in tune with the occasion—a united country rejoiced to honor, to do homage to the martyred President. Words of high praise were spoken, patriotic music sounded. Presently the exercises ended, the crowds wended their way homeward, the bugle blew for taps, the sun set over the Virginia hills. Abraham Lincoln was left alone and yet I lingered—I could not tear myself away.
Twilight silently crept upon the earth. Then I looked about and, behold! as I gazed, I could discover in the distance a majestic figure drawing near and nearer. With dignity and stateliness it came—crossing the historic river as though it were empty of water. And now it moves toward the mausoleum and enters the door. It is Lee. The souls of Lincoln and Lee alone! They had never met before. Yet they knew each other and bowed. Lincoln first broke the silence.
“General Lee,” said Lincoln rising from his seat, “I know why you have come and I fully agree with you.”
“Mr. President,” replied Lee, “I knew that you would understand.”
“It shall be done; done at once, General Lee,” said Lincoln. “They stole a march on me, General, took advantage of my absence, so to speak.”
“Mr. President,” replied Lee, “you place me under obligation; foreigners to our shores would not understand your meaning—”
“And deeper than that, General,” Lincoln interrupted, “the sentiment is not just to your noble people nor to you—I acknowledge the corn, I overspoke myself. But you must admit, General, you were hammering the stuffing out of us about that time.”
And the melancholy face of America's great President lighted with a smile while the noblest gentleman of God's footstool, bowing a stately bow, wended his way to Arlington.
Soon thereafter those words of the second inaugural referring to the “wealth piled up for one hundred years by the bondsman's years of unrequited toil,” and declaring that if necessary all this wealth “should be sunk and that every drop of blood drawn with the lash should be paid by another drawn by the sword,” these war-time words were carefully removed from the walls of the Lincoln National Memorial, and in their place these other and more glorious words substituted:
“The mystic cords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”