Lee the American, by Gamaliel Bradford, Chapter 10

Lee the American


LEE had, of course, a liberal education, though we do not know much of his early studies. Those pursued at West Point were largely technical; but before going to that institution he must have had a good grounding in the classics, for long after, when he was president of Washington College, he used to visit the Greek classes and astonish the students by his familiarity with that language. His general ideas as to educational matters were both broad and solid. During his college presidency, while sustaining as far as possible the old traditions of culture, he seems to have taken decided steps in modern directions,—that is, towards practical training and individual development,—steps which meant far more in the South than in the North. “Nothing,” he wrote after the war, “will compensate us for the depression of the standard of our moral and intellectual culture.”1 And again, “The education of a man or woman is never completed till they die.”2

If Lee had written his proposed memoirs, we should be better able to judge whether he had literary gifts. As it is, his only bit of formal writing is the brief sketch prefixed to his father’s “Memoirs.” Here, as in so many other matters, we see curiously the inheritance of the eighteenth century, its dignified finish, its determination to clothe even common things in lofty phraseology. The elder Lee takes cold because “a slight, but driving snow which was falling, insinuated itself among the wrappings encircling his throat.”3 Where it is more appropriate, this breadth of expression often attains real beauty and grandeur, as in some of the addresses and general orders to the army. “Soldiers! You tread with no unequal step the road by which your fathers marched through sufferings, privations, and blood to independence. Continue to emulate, in the future, as you have in the past, their valor in arms, their patient endurance of hardships, their high resolve to be free, which no trial could shake, no bribe seduce, no danger appall, and be assured the just God who crowned their efforts with success will, in His own good time, send down his blessing upon yours.”4

The reports, and especially the dispatches written in the field, contain no such literary effort. They are terse, and clear, saying what is needed and only what is needed. The familiar letters are less successful as mere writing. They are loose and hasty and not always correct in grammar and syntax. They are charming, however, so far as they show the intimate character of the man.

In spite of his deep respect for education, I do not find that Lee had any great love for books or for things purely intellectual. In later years he expressed “his lifelong regret that he had not completed his classical education (in which, however, he had a respectable scholarship) before going to West Point “;5 and he thanks Worsley for the translation of the “Odyssey” in terms which indicate pleasure in the perusal of the original. Judge Tyler tells us that he could talk “in the most interesting manner about the beauty of the tongue and the richness of the literature of Spain.”6 Among English authors he is said to have been partial to Macaulay, especially the essays, which can hardly be considered the sign of a literary temperament, and in writing of his father he once quotes Burke. But it is really remarkable that in so varied and extensive a correspondence there should be so little reference to literature, even in its historical aspects. This seems the more curious when we turn to the letters of Harry Lee,—surely as much a man of action as his son,—and find a spirit keenly alive to literary questions, ready to criticize Racine and to delight in Sophocles.

So with science. In Lee’s army the soldiers discussed Darwin and concluded that “Marse Robert” was sufficient proof that man was not descended from apes. But I find no evidence that Lee himself ever gave a thought to the vast speculations that were unhinging the world. Perhaps it is worth while to refer in this connection to Mrs. Putnam’s shrewd remark that the Southern slaveholding planter was almost obliged in self-defense to adopt this attitude towards all modem thought.

Even as to his profession there is no record of Lee’s making it a passionate study. He stood well at West Point, and results would certainly indicate that he did more. But nothing is said of his ever spending feverish days and nights, as did Jackson, over the campaigns of Frederick and the battles of Napoleon.

Nor do I see that he was in any way sensitive to æsthetic pleasures. While one child assiduously tickled his toes and another narrated the story of the “Lady of the Lake,” he would occasionally break in with the recitation of long passages of the poem, disconcerting the narratress and boring the tickler. This shows that he liked the poetry of Scott. (Mark Twain, by the way, believed that Scott’s false chivalry was largely responsible for the Civil War.) But of other poetry no mention and no trace. I do not remember that the name of Shakespeare occurs once in all he wrote. Novels he disapproved of, as many of us do—for others. “Read history, works of truth, not novels and romances. Get correct views of life, and learn to see the world in its true light. It will enable you to live pleasantly, to do good, and, when summoned away, to leave without regret.”7 The world would, indeed, be much less regrettable, if there were no novels in it. With painting and with music it is as with poetry. Lee may have enjoyed such things, but he makes no mention of his enjoyment.

The nineteenth century had one æsthetic delight peculiarly its own, appreciation of the beauty of nature. This seems to have made somewhat more appeal to Lee; yet even here his language certainly gives no indication of ecstasy. A quiet Virginia farm life, in the fields and woods rather than in cities, pleased him best—that is all. “You do not know how much I have missed you and the children, my dear Mary. To be alone in a crowd is very solitary. In the woods I feel sympathy with the trees and birds, in whose company I take delight, but experience no pleasure in a strange crowd.”8 “I enjoyed the mountains as I rode along. The views are magnificent and the valleys so beautiful, the scenery so peaceful. What a glorious world Almighty God has given us. How thankless and ungrateful we are, and how we labor to mar his gifts.”9

In short, the bent of Lee’s character was absolutely moral and practical. It is not to be inferred from this, however, that he was a man of no passions or that his staid decorum resulted from a lack of sensibility. We have seen that Longstreet thought his weakness as a general was an excessive fury of combat. At any rate, there is plenty of evidence that he had a good hot temper, which came to the surface on provocation. Colonel Venable, of his staff, says: “No man could see the flush come over that grand forehead and the temple veins swell on occasions of great trial of patience and doubt that Lee had the high, strong temper of a Washington.”10 He disliked very much to have officers with a grievance allowed to make their way to him. At times this would happen. Immediately after one such occurrence, “General Lee came to the adjutant’s tent with flushed face, and said warmly, ‘Why did you permit that man to come to my tent and make me show my temper?‘”11 In the same way he had a great dislike to “reviewing army communications” and his aides spared him when they could. On one occasion Colonel Taylor had made matters as easy as possible; but the general “was not in a very pleasant mood; something irritated him and he manifested his ill-humor by a little nervous twist or jerk of the neck and head, accompanied by some harshness of manner.” Taylor became impatient and showed it; whereupon the general said, “Colonel Taylor, when I lose my temper, don’t let it make you angry.”12

It is a curious coincidence that one of Lee’s few violent explosions of wrath occurred when he found an artilleryman brutally abusing a horse and that one of the rare recorded outbreaks of Grant was owing to the same cause. Apropos of Grant also, Lee is said to have once spoken sharply after the war, though not in the connection we should expect. One of his university faculty had been criticizing the Union general with some harshness. “Sir,” said Lee, “if you ever presume again to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this university.”13

A particularly interesting example of Lee’s indignation, because we see it, as it were, bursting forth and passing at once under control, is his reference to the desecration of Arlington: “Your old home, if net destroyed by our enemies, has been so desecrated that I cannot bear to think of it. I should have preferred it to have been wiped from the earth, its beautiful hill sunk, and its sacred trees buried, rather than to have been degraded by those who revel in the ill they do for their own selfish purposes. You see what a poor sinner I am, and how unworthy to possess what was given me; for that reason it has been taken away.”14

It was by considerations of this nature that Lee dominated his passions and secured the high temperance and triumphant control which were among his most marked characteristics. His temperance, however, was no less a spiritual grace than a moral victory. Here again the resemblance to Grant is striking. Every one knows Grant’s quiet remark when some one prefaced a dubious story with the familiar “I believe there are no ladies present “: “No, but there are gentlemen.” It is said of Lee also, “I dare say no man ever offered to relate a story of questionable delicacy in his presence. His very bearing and presence produced an atmosphere of purity that would have repelled the attempt.”15

Evidence of Lee’s supreme self-control in other directions is hardly needed. The final disaster, surely as overwhelming as could befall a man, hardly broke his calm or wrung from him a complaint except for others. In good and evil fortune alike he strove to maintain the same stoical—or no, I should say, as he would have wished, Christian—fortitude. A striking instance of this is narrated by Taylor. Doubtless it could be paralleled in many other lives. Something similar is told of Stuart, of Cox on the Union side, and may remain untold of many a private soldier in the armies of the Potomac and of Northern Virginia. It is none the less noble and beautiful in Lee. The general had just received and read his mail, when Colonel Taylor appeared with the usual list of matters of army routine as to which the commander’s judgment was desired. “The papers containing a few such cases were presented to him; he reviewed and gave his orders in regard to them. I then left him, but for some cause returned in a few moments, and with accustomed freedom entered his tent without announcement or ceremony, when I was startled and shocked to see him overcome with grief, an open letter on his knees. That letter contained the sad intelligence of his daughter’s death. . . . His army demanded his first thought and care; to his men, to their needs, he must first attend; and then he could surrender himself to his private, personal affliction.”16

The force of will which appeared as self-control in great matters showed in little as exactness, system, accuracy. It is said that in his youth his mother taught him rigid economy; and throughout life he continued to exercise it. He was as scrupulously punctual as Washington, for himself and for others. When young men called on his daughters, he began his locking up exactly at ten o’clock and the callers were expected to conform.17 A member of his faculty once came to his office and asked for a certain paper. Lee told him where it could be found. Afterwards he said to him, “Did you find the paper?” “Yes, General.” “Did you return it to the place where you found it?” “Yes, General.”18 Mrs. Lee said of her husband that “he could go, in the dark, and lay his hand on any article of his clothing, or upon any particular paper, after he had once arranged them.”19

This minuteness seems to have been inborn. At any rate it appeared in early youth. “His specialty was finishing up. . . . He drew the diagrams on a slate; and although he well knew that the one he was drawing would have to be removed to make room for another, he drew each one with as much accuracy and finish, lettering and all, as if it were to be engraved or printed.”20 The biographer quotes this as an admirable trait; but I have my doubts. A high authority has said, “Never finish a thing after it is done.” And I am inclined to think that a prime attribute of greatness is disregarding the unnecessary. In commanding the Army of Northern Virginia for three years Lee must have sacrificed a world of intellectual if not moral scruples, and it is the more remarkable in him, since—like Jackson, if in less degree—he certainly had the germs of what is sarcastically termed the New England conscience. Imagine Cromwell or Napoleon, shortly after such a battle as Gettysburg, writing the following: “I have been much exercised as to how I can pay my taxes. I have looked out for assessors and gatherers in vain. I have sent to find collectors in the counties where I have been, without success, I wish to pay the amount as a matter of right and conscience, and for the benefit of the State, but cannot accomplish it. . . . In addition, I own three horses, a watch, my apparel, and camp equipage. . . . See if you can find some one that can enlighten me as to what I am to pay.”21

The same self-control, precision, economy of resource marked Lee in speech as in other things. There is no abandon in his letters, no freedom, no outpouring; and this unquestionably makes them somewhat colorless. So with his reports. He avoids the first person, wherever possible, and says, “It was decided,” “It was thought best.” How different this from the vivacity of Hooker or Sherman. Very rarely does he use brusque expressions, “It may be only a Yankee trick”;22 or criticize his opponents freely: “His [Grant’s] talent and strategy consists in accumulating overwhelming numbers,”23 Even his recorded conversations contain little that seems like unrestrained confidence. Thus, one is startled when one finds him supposed to have said, “I have never understood why General Sherman has been commended for that march, when the only question was whether he could feed his army by consuming all the people had to eat”;24 and the tone of his remarks to Badeau is even more unusual: “He spoke very bitterly of the course of England and France during the war and said that the South had as much cause to resent it as the North; that England especially had acted from no regard to either portion of the Union, but from a jealousy of the united nation and a desire to see it fall to pieces. England, he said, had led the South to believe she would assist them, and then deserted them when they most needed aid.”25

Bancroft speaks admirably of “the wonderful power of secrecy of Washington in which he excelled even Franklin; for Franklin sometimes left the impression that he knew more than he was willing to utter, but Washington seemed to have said all that the occasion required.”26 Lee, I think, resembled Washington in this and had an excellent faculty, when he was interrogated, of seeming to say much and saying little. Thus he answered a question about McClellan, “I have always entertained a high opinion of his capacity, and have no reason to think that he omitted to do anything that was in his power.”27 And when one of his officers tried to draw him out by speaking somewhat freely about another, Lee answered, “Well, sir, if that is your opinion of General —, I can only say that you differ very widely from the general himself.”28

Reserve of this character is always liable to be misinterpreted, and so we get what foundation there is for Badeau’s charge of duplicity. His complaint of this in reference to Lee’s reports seems rather absurd, for the unhappy necessities of war always involve some departure from candor if not from veracity. But Badeau also criticizes Lee’s last correspondence with Grant, probably read and reread as much as any letters ever written in the world. To accuse Lee of intentional deception in any of these is preposterous; but the letter especially singled out by Badeau, that of April 8, 1865, is certainly not direct, simple, and straightforward, any more than is the other important letter in which Lee discusses Jackson’s share in the tactics of Chancellorsville.

So far as Lee’s reserve is concerned, however, it must not in any way be attributed to haughtiness or aristocratic superiority. It is true that he, like Washington, found it difficult to throw off his dignity, to mingle freely with his fellows in common intercourse; but there never was a man who believed more heartily in American liberty, in the absolute equality of all men before the law and before God, who would have more entirely accepted Mr. H. D. Sedgwick’s noble definition of democracy—noble especially because it levels by exalting instead of lowering: “The fundamental truth of democracy is the belief that the real pleasures of life are increased by sharing them.”29 Lee hated parade, display, and ceremony, hated above all things being made an object of public gaze and adulation. His idea of high position was high responsibility, a superior was one who had larger duties as well as larger privileges, and the mark of a gentleman was a keen sense of the feelings and susceptibilities of others.

This attitude has rarely been expressed more delicately than by Lee himself in a memorandum found among his papers after his death (italics mine): “The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman. The power which the strong have over the weak, the magistrate over the citizen, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly—the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He can not only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.30 It reminds one of Dekker’s

First true gentleman that ever breathed.

The thing that puzzles me, as it has doubtless puzzled many, is how much personal ambition had Lee under this august reserve, this firm moderation, this constant sacrifice of self to duty. What led him into the army first? He is reported to have said in later years: “The great mistake of my life was taking a military education.”31 Why did he make that mistake? Was it merely the desire to follow his father’s profession? Had he a love of adventure and excitement? Did he—like Jackson—in his early days cherish dreams of distant glory? Glimpses of such a passion may be caught in Washington’s youthful letters. I find no trace of it in Lee’s. When his friends display anxiety for his advancement, he discourages them. “I hope my friends will give themselves no annoyance on my account, or any concern about the distribution of favors. I know how those things are awarded at Washington, and how the President will be besieged by clamorous claimants, I do not wish to be numbered among them.”32 And again: “Do not give yourself any anxiety about the appointment of the brigadier. If it is on my account that you feel an interest in it, I beg that you will discard it from your thoughts.”33

By the time the Civil War came, this indifference to honors had grown to be a fixed habit. No one can doubt the sincerity of Lee’s repeated expressions of willingness to serve in any capacity where he could be useful. It is said that when Virginia first joined the Confederacy, he made arrangements to enlist as a private in a company of cavalry.34 Later he observed to a restless subordinate, “What do you care about rank? I would serve under a corporal if necessary.”35 And to Davis he wrote, after Gettysburg: “I am as willing to serve now as in the beginning in any capacity and at any post where I can do good. The lower in position, the more suited to my ability and the more agreeable to my feelings.”36

But there is a harder test of self-sacrifice in these matters than even the willingness to forego rank; and that is patience under criticism. Here, too, Lee is conspicuous. To be sure, Grant asserts that his great rival was not criticized. Less than some others, perhaps, but enough. And I think his immunity from it was partly due to the temper in which it was received. One of the finest passages in all his letters relates to this. “My whole time is occupied, and all my thoughts and strength are given to the cause to which my life, be it long or short, will be devoted. Tell her not to mind the reports she sees in the papers. They are made to injure and occasion distrust. Those that know me will not believe them. Those that do not will not care for them. I laugh at them.”37 And laughing at them, in his own sunny, kindly fashion, he told B. H. Hill that the great mistake of the war was in making all the best generals editors of newspapers. “I am willing to serve in any capacity to which the authorities may assign me. I have done the best I could in the field and have not succeeded as I could wish. I am willing to yield my place to these best generals, and I will do my best for the cause editing a newsaper.”38

The more widely one reads in the literature of the war, the more one appreciates the greatness of Lee’s indifference to glory, his absolute freedom from jealousy and self-justification. Doubtless there were other eminent examples of this on both sides; but one grows heartsick over the petty disputes, the ignominious wrangling which identifies a grand cause with a little man. In many cases injured merit is only trying to get its rights and perhaps does not deserve blame. But here is precisely the hardest lesson of all. To abstain from justifying one’s self at the expense of others when one is wrong is not always easy. To abstain when one feels one’s self to have been right—that is the labor and the difficulty indeed. Even in this Lee succeeded, when so many failed.

As to his love of adventure and excitement, we have seen in a previous chapter how rarely it appears. Beside the significant Fredericksburg phrase, “It is well that war is so terrible, or else we might grow too fond of it,” I like to put the quiet words, written after the war and very different from what we should expect from a soldier homesick for far-off battle and glory, “I much enjoy the charms of civil life.”39 Altogether, a man to whom the ambitions of this world meant very little. Yet it was he who wrote of his daughter, “She is like her papa—always wanting something.” I wonder what he wanted.

It is said that Darwin confessed that all he required for happiness in life was his scientific pursuits and the family affections. It might equally well be said that all Lee needed was the family affections and religion. And now, what about his religion?

Assuredly it was not a religion of sect. It was broad enough to go even beyond the bounds of Christianity and recognize earnestness of intention in those of a different creed altogether. “An application of a Jew soldier for permission to attend certain ceremonies of his synagogue in Richmond was indorsed by his captain: ‘Disapproved. If such applications were granted, the whole army would turn Jews or shaking Quakers.’ When the paper came to General Lee, he indorsed on it, ‘Approved, and respectfully returned to Captain —, with the advice that he should always respect the religious views and feelings of others’.”40 Lee was an Episcopalian, but he had no narrow belief in the power of rituals or formulas. One of his friendly enemies, General Hunt, records that at the time of the excitement over Puseyism, efforts were made in the parish to which Lee belonged to enlist him on one side or the other of the controversy. He resisted these steadily, and on some public occasion, when the appeals were urgent, he remarked audibly to Hunt: “I am glad to see that you keep aloof from the dispute that is disturbing our little parish. That is right and we must not get mixed up in it; we must support each other in that. But I must give you some advice about it, in order that we may understand each other: Beware of Pussyism! Pussyism is always bad, and may lead to unchristian feeling; therefore beware of Pussyism!”41 He seems to have had ready always in controversy, whether religious or military, some pleasant turn of this kind, which assuaged bitterness and broadened bigotry. Thus, when a lady once complained to him that little Lenten food—fish, oysters, etc.,—was obtainable in Lexington, he said to her, “Mrs. —, I would not trouble myself about special dishes; I suppose if we try to abstain from special sins, that is all that will be expected of us.”42

Nor was Lee’s religion a matter of dogma or theology. Some speculative doubts appear, indeed, to have beset him in his earlier years, and it is extremely curious to find the shadow of Unitarianism hinted at by one of his devout biographers as keeping him for a long time from the church (italics mine): “Although at that time, and for a score of years thereafter, his estimate of his own unworthiness, and some mistaken views of Christ, perhaps, prevented his making an avowal of the Christian faith and becoming a communicant of the church, he was, nevertheless, all the while guided and restrained by belief in the Bible, reverence for its Author as revealed therein, reliance more or less implicit upon the Saviour, and prayer secret, but sincere.”43 When once these difficulties were overcome, his acceptance seems to have been complete and unquestioning. He liked sermons to be simple and practical. “It was a noble sermon, one of the best I ever heard—and the beauty of it was that the preacher gave our young men the very marrow of the Gospel.”44 He liked prayers to be brief and to the point. “You know our friend —— is accustomed to make his prayers too long. He prays for the Jews, the Turks, the heathen, the Chinese, and everybody else, and makes his prayers run into the regular hour for our college recitations. Would it be wrong for me to suggest to Mr. — that he confine his morning prayers to us poor sinners at the college, and pray for the Turks, the Jews, the Chinese, and the other heathens some other time?”45 He avoided the discussion of speculative points, whenever possible. Some one asked him once whether he believed in the apostolic succession. He said he had never thought of it, and on another, similar occasion, “I never trouble myself about such questions; my chief concern is to try to be a humble, sincere Christian myself.”46

That humility is the key to this as to many other problems in Lee’s character is indisputable, a genuine humility. Others might explain the universe and probe the mysteries of God. Surely he need not. Indeed, it is recorded that he was reluctant to commit himself on any general matter of intellectual interest. “He studiously avoided giving opinions upon subjects which it had not been his calling or training to investigate; and sometimes I thought he carried this great virtue too far.”47 Too far, perhaps. But there are so many in these days, in all days, who do not carry it far enough. I think it is this entire and unconscious humility of Lee’s that saves him more than anything else from the wild doings of some of his biographers. He has no thought of his own excellences, nor of intruding them upon us. No one would have shrunk more than he from being held up as a model of perfection.

Even in military affairs, where he knew his ground, the humility is always obvious. “I could not have done as well as has been done, but I could have helped and taken part in a struggle for my home and neighborhood. So the work is done, I care not by whom it is done.”48 But in matters of the soul the great warrior’s self-abasement is as touching as it is manifestly sincere. “As we were about to leave his tent, Mr. Lacy said: ‘I think it is right that I should say to you, General, that the chaplains of the army have a deep interest in your welfare and some of the most fervent prayers we offer are in your behalf.’ The old hero’s face flushed, tears started in his eyes, and he replied with choked utterance and deep emotion: ‘Please thank them for that, sir—I warmly appreciate it. And I can only say that I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ for salvation, and need all of the prayers they can offer for me’.”49

Lee’s religion was, therefore, mainly practical. He was most devout and constant in all religious observances, though his son does not conceal a human propensity to slumber during sermon time. He was ardent in worship both private and public. Such a curious religious democracy as prevailed in his army has probably not been seen in the world since the days of Cromwell. On one occasion he was hurrying with his staff to battle. The firing had begun and the shells were flying. But the cavalcade happened to pass a camp meeting where some ragged veteran was holding forth in prayer. At once the commander-in-chief dismounted and he and all his officers, with bared heads, reverently took part in the simple worship.50 Again, as the army was being moved rapidly across the James in 1864 to meet Grant at Petersburg, Lee, with a thousand cares and duties on his shoulders, turned out from the road and knelt in the dust beside a minister, to ask for guidance and blessing.51

All that I have written of Lee has indeed been written in vain, if it is necessary to point out that his religion was practical not only in form and observance but in the deeper touching and moulding of the heart. Perhaps the final test of this is utter and complete forgiveness of those who have injured or are trying to injure us, not the forgiveness of the lips (“I forgive you as a Christian,” said Rowena; “which means,” said Wamba, “that she does not forgive him at all”), but the forgiveness of broad tolerance, of perfect understanding and sympathy, that is, of love. After the war a minister expressed himself rather bitterly as to the conduct of the North. “Doctor,” said Lee to him, “there is a good old book which says, ‘Love your enemies.’ . . . Do you think your remarks this evening were quite in the spirit of that teaching?”52 On another occasion a general exclaimed, “I wish those people were all dead!” “How can you say so?” answered his chief. “Now, I wish they were all at home attending to their own business, and leaving us to do the same.”53 And he summed up the whole matter more generally: “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 bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”54

The belief that “the real pleasures of life are increased by sharing them “certainly finds application more completely in religion than in anything else. No missionary ever had more ardent zeal than Lee for bringing the knowledge of God to all about him. Not that he had any air of being holier than others, of that reaching down a saving hand from vast heights of perfection which evokes a perverse desire not to be saved. Here as elsewhere his sweet humility averts any charge of too aggressive saintliness. “He one day said to a friend in speaking of the duty of laboring for the good of others: ‘Ah, Mrs. P—, I find it so hard to try to keep one poor sinner’s heart in the right way, that it seems presumptuous to try to help others’.”55 Nevertheless, one almost feels as if he cared more for winning souls than battles and for supplying his army with Bibles than with bullets and powder. Even this solemn aspect of things he could color occasionally with the gentle sunshine of his humor, as when he remarked, on hearing that many of his soldiers were taking part in a revival, “I am delighted. I wish that all of them would become Christians, for it is about all that is left them now.”56 But under the smile there was a passionate earnestness which appears not only in his private talk, but in his public orders. “The commanding general . . . directs that none but duties strictly necessary shall be required to be performed on Sunday, and that all labor, both of men and animals, which it is practicable to anticipate or postpone, or the immediate performance of which is not essential to the safety, health, or comfort of the army, shall be suspended on that day. Commanding officers . . . will give their attention to the maintenance of order and quiet around the places of worship, and prohibit anything that may tend to disturb or interrupt religious exercises.”57 These might be general orders of Cromwell or of Moses.

When it came to the guidance of the young at Washington College in later years, Lee’s fervor grew even more marked. “We had been conversing for some time respecting the religious welfare of the students. General Lee’s feelings soon became so intense that for a time his utterance was choked; but, recovering himself, with his eyes overflowed with tears, his lips quivering with emotion, and both hands raised, he exclaimed: ‘Oh, Doctor! if I could only know that all the young men in this college were good Christians, I should have nothing more to desire’.”58 You will remember that this man surrendered a great army and saw a nation sink to dust without a tear.

The central fact of all religion is the personal relation to God, prayer. And it is here that I have followed Lee with the deepest interest. In our modem busy life most of us set God so far apart that we are in danger of losing sight of Him entirely. This springs in great part from reverence. We are afraid of soiling sacred things with the dust of every day. The mediaeval Christian had no such timidity. God was his companion, his friend, to be called on every hour, every moment, if needed. Go back two thousand years to the sweet, simple piety of an Athenian gentleman, Xenophon,—some call it degrading superstition,—and see how he summons the divine to direct his comings and goings, to cast down his enemies and support his friends. Just so Lee. God gives the victory. God permits the defeat. God sends rain to mire the Virginia roads. He sends his sunshine to make them passable again. If God is appealed to passionately enough, devoutly enough, humbly enough, we win. If we lose, it is because we have not honored God sufficiently. But—but—what if your cause is wrong and the other right? What if millions on the other side are praying, as honestly, as humbly, as zealously as you are? To set out to kill, to pray God to help you kill, those who are devoutly praying God to help them kill you—it inevitably recalls the eternal contradiction put with such vividness by the poet,—

“For prayer the ocean is where diversely
   Men steer their course, each to a several coast;
Where all our interests so discordant be
   That half beg winds by which the rest are lost.59

These are old difficulties, but war always gives them a fierce and startling significance. I trust it will be believed that I do not bring them up in any spirit of mockery. My one interest is to know what Lee thought of them. Did he meet them? Did he consider them? Or did he put them aside with the simple concreteness of his practical temperament? “I had taken every precaution to insure success and counted on it. But the Ruler of the Universe willed otherwise and sent a storm to disconcert a well-laid plan, and to destroy my hopes.”60 Does he never ask why? “I hope we will yet be able to damage our adversaries when they meet us. That it should be so, we must implore the forgiveness of God for our sins, and the continuance of his blessings.”61 Does this never sound strange? Apparently not since he repeats it and repeats it with an inexhaustible and, I cannot help adding, an at times exasperating piety.

As to prayer on its more spiritual side, Lee’s use of it is naturally less revealed to us. That a relation to God so constant and so intimate as his should be turned to only for worldly advantage and material benefit is wholly unworthy of a nature so finely touched, and we must believe that the sweetest part of his religion lay in the high rapture and forgetfulness of spiritual communion. He was not one to speak of such experience, however, or to write of it. And we are only told that “he was emphatically a man of prayer and was accustomed to pray in his family and to have his seasons of secret prayer which he allowed nothing else—however pressing—to interrupt”;62 and again, “I shall never forget the emphasis with which he grasped my hand as, with voice and eye that betrayed deep emotion, he assured me that it [knowledge of prayer] was not only his comfort, but his only comfort, and declared the simple and absolute trust that he had in God and God alone.”63

So I think we may conclude that the cardinal fact of Lee’s life was God. Schleiermacher said that Spinoza was God-intoxicated. It would be indecorous to speak of Lee as intoxicated with anything. But everywhere and always he had God in his heart, not so much the God of power, or the God of justice, or even the God of beauty, but the God of love, tempering the austerity of virtue, sweetening the bitterness of failure, above all, breathing loving kindness into the intolerable hell of war. There have been fierce saints who were fighters. There have been gentle saints who were martyrs. It is rare to find a soldier making war—stem war—with the pity, the tenderness, the sympathy of a true follower of Christ.


1. Jones, Rem., p. 214.

2. Jones, Life, p. 117.

3. H. Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, new edition with a biography of the author by Robert E. Lee, p. 50.

4. O.R., 60, p. 117.

5. Professor Joynes, in S.H.S.P., vol. XXVIII, p. 246.

6. Judge D. Gardner Tyler, in Address at William and Mary College, 1911, p. 10.

7. R.E.L., p. 248.

8. Jones, Life, p. 35.

9. R.E.L., p. 39.

10. Battles and Leaders, vol. IV, p. 240.

11. Ibid.

12. W. H. Taylor, Four Years with General Lee, p. 16.

13. McCormick, in Outlook, vol. LVI, p. 586.

14. Jones, Life, p. 156.

15. Collyar, in Confederate Veteran, vol. I, p. 265.

16. W. H. Taylor, Four Years with General Lee, p. 76.

17. R.E.L., p. 263.

18. R.E.L., p. 317.

19. Ibid.

20. Old Teacher, in Long, p. 28.

21. R.E.L., p. 289.

22. O.R., vol. 117, p. 843.

23. Jones, Life, p. 307.

24. D. Maury, Recollections of a Virginian, p. 239.

25. Adam Badeau, Military History of U. S. Grant, vol. III, p. 615.

26. History of the Untied States (ed. 1876), vol. V, p. 389.

27. Jones, Rem., p. 239.

28. Jones, Rem., p. 288.

29. Essays on Great Writers, p. 343.

30. Jones, Life, p. 444.

31. Professor Humphreys, in E. S. Joynes, Lee the College President, p. 23.

32. Jones, Life, p. 57.

33. Jones, Life, p. 81.

34. Jones, Rem., p. 168.

35. S.H.S.P., vol. XXV, p. 179.

36. O.R., vol. 108, p. 1076.

37. R.E.L., p. 37.

38. Jones, Life, p. 150.

39. Jones, Life, p. 423.

40. J. W. Jones, Christ in the Camp, p. 79.

41. In Long, p. 67.

42. R.E.L., p. 317.

43. Pendleton, in Southern Magazine, vol. XV, p. 605.

44. J. W. Jones, Christ in the Camp, p. 59.

45. Christ in the Camp, p. 60.

46. Christ in the Camp, p. 79.

47. B. H. Hill, in Jones, Rem., p. 283.

48. Jones, Life, p. 144.

49. Jones, Christ in the Camp, p. 50.

50. Jones, Life, p. 468.

51. Ibid.

52. Jones, Rem., p. 196.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. J. W. Jones, Christ in the Camp, p. 66.

56. Jones, Rem., p. 323.

57. O.R., vol. 60, p. 1150.

58. Jones, Christ in the Camp, p. 79.

59. Among the innumerable Lincoln anecdotes is this one told by General James F. Rusling, in his Men and Things I saw in the Civil War Days (p. 15). Lincoln said to him: “The fact is, in the very pinch of the campaign there, I went into my room one day and got down on my knees, and prayed Almighty God for victory at Gettysburg. I told Him that this was His country, and the war was His war, but that we really could n’t stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. And then and there I made a solemn vow with my Maker that if He would stand by you boys at Gettysburg, I would stand by Him.”

60. R.E.L., p. 45.

61. R.E.L., p. 108.

62. J. W. Jones, Christ in the Camp, p. 60.

63. Jones, Christ in the Camp, p. 52.

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