Washington and Lee University

Sketch of General Robert E. Lee

By C. B. Richardson

Note: The following is taken from the 1886 issue of The Old Guard, A Monthly Magazine, Devoted to Literature, Science, and Art, and the Political Principles of 1776 and 1787 (New York, vol. 4 pp. 56–58). After the Civil War Richardson procured books for Robert E. Lee after contributed to Washington College. The many books that he published include Edward A. Pollard's multi-volume Southern History of the War (New York, c.1863–1866); Julia Deane Freeman's Women of the South Distinguished in Literature (New York, 1865); and military biographys of Generals Grant and Sherman.


The excellent likeness which we give of General Lee in this number of THE OLD GUARD, will, we are sure, be a source of gratification to our readers.*

*We are indebted to C. B. Richardson, No. 540 Broadway, Publisher of “Southern Generals,” for the excellent likeness of Gen. Lee, in the present number.

It is a remarkable fact that, even in the northern States, this foremost man of the military power of the so-called Rebellion is regarded with sentiments of respect by all, except a small number of the very basest and most fanatical of our population. It is the deference and admiration which human nature, under all circumstances, pays to a really splendid character. Character is something greater than talent—greater than the sword—for it survives, in the adoration of mankind, when the achievements of the sword are obliterated by the wear of time. After all, character is the test of real power in an individual.

“He was a man, take him all in all,”

is the highest praise a mortal can win or wear. We behold the triumph of character in the plaudits which the Roman people declared when they said, “The victorious cause might please the gods, but the vanquished cause pleased Cato.” In the light of a truly great character, the vanquished cause often shines more conspicuously and more gloriously than the victorious. What is often called failure, is the greatest success in the way of fame.

The assassination of the usurper, Cæar, was a failure, so far as bringing back the lost liberties of the Roman people was concerned; but the undertaking was gilded with the splendor of Brutus' virtues, and it has ever since occupied one of the proudest points in the admiration of mankind. After the lapse of two thousand years, its glories are undimmed; and they will shine brighter and brighter as the ages pass away. The name of Brutus will be synonymous with virtue and liberty, as long as the memory of man survives.

“Rebel” is a word which, however mountainous in the imagination of ignorance and roguery, need have no terrors for a truly virtuous and patriotic man. The “rebel” of to-day is, oftener than otherwise, the greatest hero and the most splendid character of history; while the most “loyal” man of the hour, if his name survives long enough to get into history, is quite as apt to pass there as the meanest specimen of a wretch that ever sneaked through an inglorious existence. When the impartial historian comes to narrate the events of the last four years of American history, he will be confronted with the pregnant fact that what was called “rebellion” was led by such characters as Lee, and Stephens, and Bishop Polk; while the other side was represented by a Ben. Butler, a Stanton, or a Milroy! The patriotism and virtue of General Robert B. Lee stand unquestioned today by all parties whose reputation for intelligence and candor renders their opinion desirable. When the unhappy conflict began, General Lee bore a reputation that was untarnished by a single spot, and the following letters, one to Gen. Scott and the other to his sister, show that, in taking the step he did, he was moved by no motive that was not inspired by a sense of duty, arid by the most earnest impulses of patriotism and virtue:

ARLINGTON, VA., April 20, 1861.

GENERAL—Since my interview with you on 18th instant, I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the army. I, therefore, tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed.

During the whole of the time—more than a quarter of a century—I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, and the most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, General, have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration, and has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame will always be dear to me.

Save in defence of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me, most truly yours,

R. E. LEE.

Lieut.-Gen. Winfield Scott, Commanding U. S. Army.

A copy of the preceding letter was enclosed in the following letter to a sister of the General. Mrs. A.M.:

ARLINGTON, VA., April 20, 1861.

My DEAR SISTER—I am grieved at my inability to see you. . . . I have been waiting for “more convenient season,” which has brought to many before me deep and lasting regret. Now we are in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, alter a long struggle, has been drawn, and though I recognize no necessity for such a state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I would take part against my native State. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have net been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the army, and save in defence of my native State, with a sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.

I know you will blame me, but you must think of me as kindly as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right. To show you the feeling and struggle it has cost me, I send a copy of my letter to Gen. Scott, which accompanied my resignation. I have no time for more.

. . . May God guard and protect you and yours, and shower upon you every blessing, is the prayer of your devoted brother,

R. E. LEE.

Of course it will be said that Gen. Lee committed a fatal error in resolving to follow the fortunes of his State. But would it not have been astonishing if he had arrived at any other conclusion? He bad been instructed by Jefferson, the Father of our Declaration of Independence, that “States can wholly withdraw their delegated powers.” He had also been instructed by President Madison, the father of the Constitution, that “a delegated is not a surrendered power,” and that “there is no power above that of a State to judge in the last resort,” &c. This doctrine neither he, nor any body else, had ever heard called in question by any respectable statesman from the foundation of the government to the election of Lincoln. Arid more than this, he knew that Virginia had ratified the Constitution, and became a member of the Union, only on condition that she should have the right to resume her delegated powers whenever, in her opinion, it should become necessary for her own safety. More still, he knew that from time to time, for more than a quarter of a century, various northern States had petitioned Congress for a dissolution of the Union, and that the New England States had several times taken steps to withdraw, “peaceably if they could, forcibly if they must.” Under these circumstances, was there any depravity on the part of the judgment of Gen. Lee in the course he pursued? We dare answer this question in the negative. We dare go further, and say that we believe it will be the verdict of history that his act involved no crime, and was not in the least inconsistent with the loftiest patriotism, and the most illustrious virtue. We should despise ourself if we were wanting in the integrity and courage to thus plainly utter our honest opinions in relation to a public character whorn we believe to be one of the foremost men as well as one of the purest patriots of his age. And it is a question which impartial and inexorable history will have to settle, whether a success on his part would not have proved a benefit to his country, by preserving the grand principle of self-government and liberty which was established here by our fathers. The Union, as it was established by our fathers, was dear to General Lee, as it was to everybody in the land, except the negro-equalizing revolutionists now in power. The were and are the real foes to the Union. They, not men like Gen. Lee, are the traitors to the great American principle of government. And we have quite as little respect as patience for that by no means small number of northern journalists, who fully understand this question, who know that the obstructions to the lasting peace of this Union are even now, as they ever were, not in the South but in the North, and yet most culpably fail in rebuking that impudent, noisy, and senseless public farrago, which would regard men like Lee and Stephens as traitors, and men like Ben. Butler and Stanton as patriots. Shame! eternal shame! There is not a single leading statesman in the South, nor indeed a single southern man, who is not a believer in, and an admirer of; the principles of the Constitution and the Union but there is not a single leader of the northern faction now in power who does not hate, and who is not laboring to overthrow, those principles! Disunionism, i.e., enmity to the principles of the Union, is at this moment confined to the northern States. Here it scowls and sneers, and mumbles its infernal incantations in the face and eyes of honest patriotism, and there are not twenty editors to be found, in all the country, who have the pluck and manhood to strip the false covering from the foal and seditious monster. They venture to utter some timid, doubtful protests, but they leave the monstrous usurpation, the shameless fraud in the full possession of the field. When every Democratic editor will speak out his real thought, and say boldly and defiantly that he believes men like Gen. Robert B. Lee to be patriots, and men like Stanton and Seward to be seditionists and traitors, there will be more honest men in the land than there are now, and there will be a better hope for liberty—for our country's lasting peace and honor!