Washington and Lee University

100 Years Ago


Robert E. Lee Centennial Celebration, 1907


Note: The following is taken from General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox, edited by Franklin L. Riley (New York, 1922), pp. 182–95.


THE CHRISTIAN CHARACTER OF ROBERT E. LEE.

By REV. J. WILLIAM JONES

This contribution appeared in the “Lee Memorial Number” of the Wake Forest Student, published in January, 1907.—Editor.

THERE is a natural tendency to conceal the faults and exalt the virtues of great men. Those whose lives gave no evidence whatever of Christian or even moral character have been written up, by their eulogists, as saints whom the world should warmly admire if not worship. There have been in these later years some very sad example of this, which might be cited if it were proper to do so. This makes intelligent readers disposed to receive cum grano salis what may be said of the Christian character of any public man.

Some years ago an intelligent minister in one of our Southern States wrote an elaborate article in one of the papers on the question: “Was General R. E. Lee a real Christian?” He seriously doubted whether he was more than a mere formal professor of religion. Now I think I can answer this question from intimate personal acquaintance and observation. During the four years of the great War between the States, as private soldier or as chaplain, I followed the standard of Lee, coming into somewhat frequent contact with him, and learning much of his character and actions.

But especially during his five years' life in Lexington, Virginia, as one of the chaplains of Washington College, over which he presided, I came into almost daily and intimate association with him, and learned to know and love the great soldier as a humble, consecrated follower of the Captain of our Salvation.

I speak, therefore, not from hearsay, or the statements of others, but I speak from intimate personal acquaintance when I write on the Christian character of Robert Edward Lee, the greatest soldier of history, and the model man of the centuries.

I can never forget my first interview and conversation with General Lee on religious matters. It was in 1863, while our army was resting along the Rapidan, soon after the Gettysburg campaign. Rev. B. T. Lacy and myself went, as a committee of our chaplains' association, to consult him in reference to the better observance of the Sabbath in the army, and especially to urge that something be done to prevent irreligious officers from converting Sunday into a grand gala-day for inspections, reviews, etc. It was a delicate mission. We did not wish to appear as either informers or officious intermeddlers, and yet we were very anxious to do something to further the wishes of those who sent us, and to put a stop to what was then a growing evil, and, in some commands, a serious obstacle to efficient work of the chaplain. The cordial greeting which he gave us, the marked courtesy and respect with which he listened to what we had to say, and the way he expressed his warm sympathy with the object of our mission, soon put us at ease. But, as we presently began to answer his questions concerning the spiritual interests of the army, and to tell of that great revival which was then extending through the camps, and bringing thousands of our noble men to Christ, we saw his eye brighten and his whole countenance glow with pleasure; and as, in his simple, feeling words, he expressed his delight, we forgot the great warrior, and only remembered that we were communing with a humble, earnest Christian. When Mr. Lacy told him of the deep interest which the chaplains felt in his welfare, and that their most fervent prayers were offered in his behalf, tears started in his eyes, as he replied, “I sincerely thank you for that, and I can only say that I am just a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation, and that I need all the prayers you can offer for me.”

The next day he issued a beautiful order in which he enjoined the observance of the Sabbath, and that all military duties should be suspended on that day except such as were absolutely necessary to the safety or subsistence of the army.

General Lee always took the deepest interest in the work of his chaplains and the spiritual welfare of his men. He was a frequent visitor at the chaplain's meetings, and a deeply interested observer of their proceedings; and the faithful chaplain who stuck to his post and did his duty could always be assured of a warm friend at headquarters.

While the Army of Northern Virginia confronted General Meade at Mine Run, near the end of November, 1863, and a battle was momentarily expected, General Lee, with a number of general and staff officers, was riding down his line of battle, when, just in the rear of Gen. A. P. Hill's position, the cavalcade suddenly came upon a party of soldiers engaged in one of those prayer-meetings which they so often held on the eve of battle. An attack from the enemy seemed imminent; already sharpshooting along the skirmish line had begun, the artillery was belching forth its hoarse thunder, and the mind and heart of the great chieftain were full of the expected combat. Yet, as he saw the ragged veterans bowed in prayer, he instantly dismounted, uncovered his head, and devoutly joined in the simple worship. The rest of the party at once followed his example, and those humble privates found themselves leading the devotions of their loved and honored chieftains.

It is related that as his army was crossing the James, in 1864, and hurrying on to the defense of Petersburg, General Lee turned aside from the road, and, kneeling in the dust, devoutly joined a minister in earnest prayer that God would give him wisdom and grace in the new stage of the campaign upon which he was then entering.

I was one day distributing tracts and religious newspapers in our trenches below Petersburg when I noticed a brilliant cavalcade approaching. Generals Lee, A. P. Hill, and John B. Gordon, with their staffs, were inspecting our lines, and reconnoitering those of the enemy. I stepped to one side, expecting simply to give them the military salute as they passed. But the quick eye of Gordon recognized me, and his cordial grasp detained me as he eagerly inquired after my work. General Lee reined in his horse, the others also stopped, and the humble chaplain found himself surrounded by a group of whose notice he might well be proud. A. P. Hill, my old colonel and life-long friend, said: “John (as he always familiarly addressed me), don't you think the boys would prefer ‘hard-tacks’ to tracts just now?” “I have no doubt that many of them would,” I replied, “but they crowd around and take the tracts as eagerly as they surround the commissary when he has anything to ‘issue’; and besides other advantages, the tracts certainly help them to bear the lack of ‘hard-tack’.” “I have no doubt of it,” he said, “and I am glad that you are able to supply the tracts more abundantly then we can the rations.”

General Lee joined in the conversation, and presently asked if I ever had calls for prayer books. I told him that I frequently had, and often distributed them. He replied, “Well, you would greatly oblige me if you would call at my quarters, and get and distribute a few which I have. I bought a new one when in Richmond the other day, and upon my saying that I would give my old one, which I had carried through the Mexican war and kept ever since, to some soldier, the bookseller offered to give me a dozen new prayer books for the old one. I accepted, of course, so good an offer, and now I have a dozen to give away instead of one.” The cavalcade rode away, and the chaplain felt a new inspiration in his work.

I called at headquarters at the appointed hour. The General was absent on some important duty, but he had (even amid his pressing cares and responsibilities) left the prayer books with a member of his staff, with directions concerning them. In each one he had written in his well-known handwriting, “Presnented to . . . by R. E. Lee.” Had I been disposed to speculate I could easily have sold these books, containing the autograph of our great chieftain, for a large sum, or have traded each for a dozen others. I know that the soldiers to whom I gave them have treasured them as precious mementos, or handed them down as priceless heirlooms. I saw one of these books several years ago in the hands of a son whose father was killed on the retreat from Petersburg. It was not for sale. Indeed, money could not buy it.

I could fill pages with quotations from General Lee's orders and dispatches, expressing his “profound gratitude to Almighty God”—his “thanks to God”—his “gratitude to Him who hath given us the victory”—his sense of the “the blessing of Almighty God”—his “grateful thanks to the only Giver of victory”—and his “ascribing unto the Lord of Hosts the glory due unto His name.” And I regret that my space will not allow me to quote in full his beautiful Thanksgiving-day, and fast-day orders, which breathed the spirit of the humble, devout Christian, and were not mere official proclamations. But as a specimen of them I quote the conclusion of his order for the observance of the 21st of August, 1863, after the Gettysburg campaign, as a day of “fasting, humiliation and prayer.” He says:

Soldiers! we have sinned against Almighty God. We have forgotten His signal mercies, and have cultivated a revengeful, haughty, and boastful spirit. We have not remembered that the defenders of a just cause should be pure in His eyes; that our times are in His hands, and we have relied too much on our own arms for the achievement of our independence. God is our only refuge and our strength. Let us humble ourselves before Him. Let us confess our many sins and beseech Him to give us a higher courage, a purer patriotism, and a more determined will; that He will convert the hearts of our enemies; that He will hasten the time when war, with its sorrows and sufferings, shall cease, and that He will give us a name and place among the nations of the earth.

R. E. Lee, General.

He was emphatically a man of prayer, was accustomed to have family prayers, and had his season of secret prayer which he allowed nothing to interrupt. He was a devout and constant Bible reader, and found time to read the old book even amid his most pressing duties. He became president of the Rockbridge County Bible Society, and in his letter of acceptance spoke of “the inestimable knowledge of the priceless truths of the Bible.”

In a letter to the Hon. A. W. Beresford Hope, acknowledging the receipt of a Bible form friends in England, he speaks of it as “a book in comparison with which all others in my eyes are of minor importance, and which in all my perplexities and distresses has never failed to give me light and strength.” In a letter to Col. F. R. Farrar, who presented a Bible to the college chapel, he speaks of it as &8220;a book which supplies the place of all others, and one that cannot be replaced by any other.”

As I was watching all alone by his body the day after his death I picked up from the table a well-used pocket Bible, on the fly-leaf of which was written in his well-known and characteristic chirography, “R. E. Lee, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S.A.” As I turned its leaves and saw how he had marked many passages, especially those teaching the great doctrines of Salvation by Grace, Justification by Faith, or those giving the more precious promises to the believer, I thought of how, with simple faith, he took this blessed book as the man of his counsel and the light of his pathway; how its precious promises cheered him amid the afflictions and trials of his eventful life; and how its glorious hopes illumined for him the “valley and shadow of death.”

He was a very “son of consolation” to the afflicted, and his letters of this character were very numerous and very beautiful. I can give only several specimens. On the death of Bishop Elliott of Georgia, he wrote his wife a touching eulogy on one “whom for more than a quarter of a century I have admired, loved and venerated,” and concluded by saying, “You have my deepest sympathy, and my earnest prayers are offered to Almighty God that He may be graciously pleased to comfort you in your great sorrow, and bring you in His own good time to rejoice with him whom in His all-wise providence He has called before you to heaven.”

To the widow of Gen. Geo. W. Randolph he wrote on the death of her husband:

It is the survivors of the sad event whom I commiserate, and not him whom a gracious God has called to Himself; and whose tender heart and domestic virtues make the pang of parting the more bitter to those who are left behind. . . . For what other purpose can a righteous man be summoned into the presence of a merciful God than to receive his reward? However, then, we lament we ought not to deplore him, or wish him back from his peaceful, happy home. . . . Mrs. Lee and my daughters, while they join in unfeigning sorrow for your bereavement, unite with me in sincere regards, and fervent prayers to Him who can alone afford relief, for His gracious support, and continued protection to you. May his abundant mercies be showered upon you, and may His almighty arm guide and uphold you.

He wrote Rev. Dr. Moses D. Hoge, of Richmond, Va., the great Presbyterian preacher, after speaking of matters connected with the Virginia Bible Society, the following concerning the death of his wife:

And now, my dear sir, though perhaps inappropriate to the occasion, you must allow me to refer to a subject which has caused me great distress and concerning which I have desired to write ever since its occurrence; but to tell the truth I have not had the heart to do so. I knew how powerless I was to give any relief and how utterly inadequate was any language that I could use even to mitigate your suffering. I could, therefore, only offer up my silent prayers, to Him who alone can heal your bleeding heart that in His infinite mercy He will be ever present with you; to dry your tears and staunch your wounds; to sustain you by His grace and support you by His strength. I hope you felt assured that in this heavy calamity, you and your children had the heartfelt sympathy of Mrs. Lee and myself, and that you were daily remembered in our prayers.

With best wishes and sincere affection, I am very truly yours,

R. E. Lee.

General Lee did not believe in forcing the students to attend chapel, but sought to influence them to do so, and I have known no other college where the simple exercises—singing, reading the Scriptures, and prayer—seemed to be so warmly appreciated or so thoroughly enjoyed.

At the faculty meeting one day a member of the faculty, who rarely attended himself, made an eloquent speech on the importance of inducing the students to attend chapel, and when he closed General Lee quietly remarked, “The best way that I know of to induce students to attend is to set them the example by always attending ourselves.”

Accordingly, his own seat, near the front, was always filled. I never knew a college president to exert himself more actively for the religious good of the students than did General Lee. I give herewith one of the letters he was accustomed to address to the pastors of Lexington, asking their co-operation:

Washington College,
Lexington, Virginia, 11th September, 1869.

Rev. and dear Sirs:—Desirous of making the religious exercises of the College advantageous to the students, and wishing to use all means to inculcate among them the principles of true religion, the Faculty tender to you their cordial thanks for your past services, and request you to perform in rotation the customary daily exercises at the College Chapel. The hour fixed for these services is forty-five minutes past seven o'clock every morning, except Sunday, during the session, save the three winter months, December, January and February, when the hour for prayer will be forty-five minutes past eight. The hours for lectures are fixed at eight and nine o'clock respectively during these periods. On Sundays the hour for prayer during the whole session is fixed at nine o'clock.

The Faculty also request that you will extend to the students a general invitation to attend the churches of their choice regularly on Sundays, and other days, and invite them to join the Bible classes established in each; that you will, as may be convenient and necessary, visit them in sickness and in health; and that you will in every proper manner urge upon them the great importance of the Christian religion.

The Faculty further ask that you will arrange among yourselves, as may be convenient, the periods of the session during which each will perform the Chapel services, and that during those periods the officiating minister will consider himself Chaplain of the College for the purpose of conducting religious worship, prayers, etc.

The present session will open on the 16th, inst. and close on the 25th June, 1870.

I am with great respect, your obedient servant,

R. E. Lee.

To the Ministers of the Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches of Lexington, Va.

I prize beyond price the following autograph letter:

Washington College,
Lexington, Virginia, 4th March, 1868.

My Dear Sir:—I enclose fifty dollars of he fund contributed by the Faculty and students for the religious exercises of the College, not in compensation for your voluntary services, but in grateful testimony of them.

With great respect, your obedient servant,

R. E. Lee.

Rev. J. Wm. Jones.

He wrote similar letters to the other pastors of the town, and frequently talked with us about the religious interest of the students. He was accustomed to make lists of the denominational preferences of the students, giving each pastor a list of the members of his church, and of the men whose parents belonged to his church, and would ask him afterwards if he had visited them, and if they attended his Bible class and his church, and thus he would seek to promote the interests of each student.

He said to Rev. Dr. W. S. White soon after coming to Lexington: “I shall be disappointed, sir, I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless these young men become real Christians, and I wish you and others of your sacred calling to do all in your power to accomplish this.”

He said to Rev. Dr. Brown, one of the trustees of the college, “I dread the thought of any student going away from the college without becoming a sincere Christian.”

At the “Concert of Prayer for Colleges” in 1869 I made an address in which I urged that the great need of our colleges was a genuine, all-pervasive revival, which could only come from above by the power of the Holy Spirit. At the close of the meeting General Lee came to me, and said with more than his usual warmth, “I wish, sir, to thank you for your address; it was just what we needed. Our great want is a revival that shall bring these young men to Christ.”

During the great revival in the Virginia Military Institute in 1869, when there were over one hundred professions of faith in Christ, he said to me with deep emotion, “That is the best news I have heard since I have been in Lexington. Would that we could have such a revival in our college, and in all of the colleges.”

He said to Rev. Dr. Kirkpatrick, the able and honored professor of moral philosophy in the college, when they were conversing about the religious interests of the students, his voice choking with emotion and his eyes overflowing with tears, “Oh! Doctor, if I could only know that all of the young men in the college were good Christians, I should have nothing more to desire.”

He sent for me one day to consult about organizing a Y.M.C.A. in the college, and after we had organized it he took the liveliest interest in its success, and contributed to it every year $50 from his own scant resources. With the first money that he raised after he went to the college he built a substantial and beautiful chapel, as, in his judgment, the most important building needed (more important than a president's house, he insisted), and it seems a fortunate providence that he lies beneath that chapel, which he builded almost with his own hands, for he almost saw every block of granite placed in position, every brick laid, and every nail driven.

General Lee was an Episcopalian, and sincerely attached to the church of his choice, but his large heart took in Christians of every name, and not a few will cordially indorse the remarks made by the venerable Dr. W. S. White,—Stonewall Jackson's old pastor,—who said with deep feeling during the memorial services, “He belonged to one branch of the church, and I to another. Yet in my intercourse with him—an intercourse rendered far more frequent and intimate by the tender sympathy he felt in my ill health—the thought never occurred to me that we belonged to different churches. His love for the truth, and for all that is good and useful, was such as to render his brotherly kindness and charity as boundless as were the wants and sorrows of the race.”

If I have ever come in contact with a sincere, devout Christian—one who, seeing himself to be a sinner, trusted alone in the merits of Christ—who humbly tried to walk the path of duty, “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith,” and whose piety was constantly exemplified in his daily life, that man ws the world's great soldier, and model man, Robert Edward Lee.

His illness was of such as character that he left no “last words,” but none were needed—his whole life was “a living epistle” known and red of men, and there can be no doubt that he laid aside his cross and went to wear his crown—

That crown with peerless glories bright,
     Which shall new luster boast
When victors' wreathes and monarchs' gems
     Shall blend in common dust!


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