Robert E. Lee
Philip Alexander Bruce

CHAPTER XIII
GENERAL CHARACTER

THE very qualities that diminished General Lee’s ability to perform the part of a successful revolutionary leader were such as to adorn his character in private life. Profound religious feeling was the foundation of that character; it gave its complexion to all his thoughts, and, consciously or unconsciously, governed all his actions, whether trivial or important. If Southern independence was to be won only by violating Christian principles or the dictates of humanity, he would never have consented to become the Confederacy’s military instrument in bringing it about, however ardently he might have desired its attainment. No such cynical sentiment as “omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs” could ever have been uttered or approved by him. Never during his invasions of hostile territory would be have inaugurated or countenanced a course of devastation involving the innocent and helpless, even had he thought that such a course would perhaps cripple the enemy beyond recovery. Not even the suggestions of a just and natural resentment provoked him to reprisals, because the indulgence of such a feeling would have imparted to the war a spirit of wanton cruelty and savagery which he abhorred. The burning of Chambersburg by General Early, in retaliation for General Hunter’s use of the torch in the Valley (that city, knowing the alternative, having declined to pay the money tribute levied on her in consequence of those barbarities) was done without General Lee’s knowledge, authority, or approval. As we have seen, he positively refused, during the retreat from Petersburg, to disperse his army in guerilla warfare, because, however effective this might be toward securing more favorable terms in the final pacification, it would lead to courses radically repugnant to the Christian and humane principles which he was determined to uphold to the last ditch.

Indeed, his religious feeling seemed only to be intensified by the Confederacy’s declining fortunes. The profound impression made upon him by the Gettysburg campaign, and his less hopeful outlook on the future thereafter, are clearly revealed in the deeper and more fervent religious tone of his correspondence from that date to the end of the contest. He seemed to lean more on Providence the more Providence appeared to be deserting his cause. When the Confederacy finally sank in ruins, it was this unshaken trust in God, this confidence in Divine wisdom, that inspired him with calm resignation to the inevitable as well as with a sanguine expectation of a happier day for the Southern people. So deep was this trust and so firm this confidence that not even the relentless Acts of Reconstruction aroused in him bitterness or animosity toward the North. That era of submersion was to him but a passing wave of darkness; the light from Heaven would be obscured only for a time.

It was natural that a man guided in his entire conduct by religious principles should, at all costs, and in spite of every temptation, have been loyal to his conception of duty from the beginning to the end of his life. The boy, who, with a gravity beyond his years, devoted every moment not engaged in study, to brightening the hours of an invalid mother, was the father of the man, who, putting aside all proffers of Federal honors, and disregarding the loss of home and estate, obeyed the call of his native commonwealth, defended her soil np to the exhaustion of his last resource, and then used his influence to promote peace and harmony and to spread abroad a hopeful spirit. “I never in my life saw in General Lee the slightest tendency to self-seeking,” said Mr. Davis. “It was not his to make a record; it was not his to shift the blame to other shoulders, but it was his, with an eye fixed upon the welfare of his country, never faltering, to follow the line of duty to the end.” And Mr. Stephens has recorded: “What I had seen General Lee to be at first, childlike in simplicity, and unselfish in his character, he remained unspoiled by praise and success.”

Indeed, no feeling of personal ambition seemed at any time to animate him. When, in the spring of 1861, the Confederate seat of government was removed to Richmond, he lost his position as supreme commander of the Virginia troops, a reduction which the Confederate authorities at first greatly feared would diminish his zeal for the cause. When sounded by Mr. Stephens, he simply replied: “I am willing to serve anywhere where I can be useful.” Before his appointment to the leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia, in succession to Johnston, he occupied the least conspicuous post filled by any Confederate officer of equal rank. His military reputation had been seriously lowered by the campaign in western Virginia, and not advanced by his achievements as an engineer along the south Atlantic coast because unknown to the general public; and yet at no time, in word or action, did he give any sign of dissatisfaction or discontent.

Undepressed by events that clouded his private fortunes, he was never elated by events that covered those fortunes with a dazzling radiance. In either situation, he displayed equal greatness of mind and soul. Which was the sublimer moral act, to attribute, in the intoxicating hour of success at Chancellorsville, all the glory of the victory to Jackson, or in the depressing hour of failure at Gettysburg, to assume all the responsibility for the repulse, which really belonged to Longstreet? This spirit of generosity was shown just as conspicuously in his relations with less distinguished subordinates; the officers of inferior rank who rose to prominence under him were always certain to receive more rather than less credit than was their due for their services to the Confederate cause.

Another phase of the same spirit was exhibited in his attitude toward the enemy: he was never heard to express himself with rancor regarding the North even during the progress of the war. He always spoke of the opposing army as “those people” This spirit of moderation toward his foes was illustrated with singular beauty in an incident that occurred at Gettysburg, after the close of the battle. “I was badly wounded,” says a private of the Army of the Potomac. “A ball had shattered my left leg. I lay on the ground not far from Cemetery Ridge, and as General Lee ordered his retreat, he and his officers rode near me. As he came along I recognized him, and though faint from exposure and loss of blood, I raised up my hands, looked Lee in the face, and shouted as loud as I could, ‘Hurrah for the Union.’ The general heard me, looked, stopped his horse, dismounted, and came toward me. I confess I at first thought he meant to kill me. But as he came up, he looked down at me with such a sad expression on his face, that all fear left me, and I wondered what he was about. He extended his hand to me and grasping mine firmly and looking right into my eyes, said, ‘My son, I hope you will soon be well.’ If I live a thousand years, I will never forget the expression on General Lee’s face. Here he was defeated, retiring from a field that cost him and his cause almost their last hope, and yet he stopped to say words like those to a wounded soldier of the opposition, who had taunted him as he passed by. As soon as the general had left me, I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground.”

There have been few Americans who have had as much reason as General Lee to indulge a spirit of pride. Possessed of an ancestry illustrious for their achievements in both peace and war; able to look back upon a career of his own unsurpassed, perhaps unequaled, in the military history of the English-speaking race; connected by descent and marriage with the family of the New World’s greatest hero; distinguished throughout life by his manly beauty, imposing presence, and courtly manners; and enjoying the worldly advantages of the highest social position, popular respect and admiration, as well as a sufficiency of personal estate even after the loss of his beautiful home,—would it have been surprising had this man, endowed with all these things to stimulate his egotism, shown in one form or another, some conspicuous evidence of self-esteem? Simple, modest, and humble-minded be began; simple, modest, and humble-minded he ended, an unbroken record of the most perfect consistency.

Though decisive in character, and of passions far from weak, it was rare indeed, that he lost control of himself, and then, as a rule, only when provoked by some glaring instance of moral delinquency. Such an instance occurred in the course of his first invasion of the North. A stringent proclamation prohibiting pillage had been issued. Coming suddenly upon a half-starved soldier, who was sneaking off with a squealing pig under his arm, Lee became greatly incensed at so palpable a proof of disobedience to his commands, and having directed the arrest of the man upon the spot, had him sent under guard to Jackson’s corps, to which he belonged, with an order for his immediate execution. Jackson, thinking that the Confederate army was already small enough, placed the unlucky culprit in the front rank at Sharpsburg, where he bore himself with such gallantry that he was afterward pardoned.

Lee was remarkable for an unblemised purity in his conversation as well as in his conduct. One associated with him continuously from boyhood to old age has recorded that, throughout that long intercourse, filled as it was with the most intimate and unguarded moments, he had never heard one word issue from Lee’s lips which might not have been spoken in the presence of the most modest and refined woman. “His correctness of demeanor and language,” says Joseph E. Johnston, a man, who, from his own elevated character, was fully capable of judging his great contemporary, “and attention to all duties, personal and official, and a dignity as much a part of himself as the elegance of his person, gave him a superiority which everybody acknowledged in his heart.”

“I saw strong evidence of the sympathy of General Lee’s heart after the first engagement of our troops in the Valley of Mexico,” remarks the same distinguished commander. “I had lost a cherished young relative in that action known to him only as my relative. Meeting me, he suddenly saw in my face the effect of that loss, burst into tears, and expressed his deep sympathy as tenderly in words as his lovely wife would have done.” Nor did this power of entering into the feelings of others stop at men. From youth upward, he had been particularly fond of horses and dogs. Many of the most interesting anecdotes of his early life relate to the self-sacrificing pains which he took to promote the welfare of his children’s numerous pets. His celebrated horse, Traveler, which bore him through so many of his campaigns, was always treated by him with as much care and affection as if he were a member of the family. “Traveler is my only companion, I may also say, pleasure,” he wrote to his daughter from Lexington, during a vacation when he happened to be alone. “He and I, whenever practicable, wander out in the mountains and enjoy sweet confidence.”

All suffering animals that came under his notice never failed to appeal to his acute sense of compassion. This feeling on his part was beautifully illustrated in a scene which occurred in the lines below Richmond during the siege of Petersburg. “He was visiting a battery,” says a member of his staff, who has related the anecdote, “and the soldiers, inspired by their affection for him, gathered near him in a group that attracted the enemy’s fire. Turning toward them, he said, in his quiet manner: ‘Men, you had better go farther to the rear; they are firing up here, and you are exposing yourselves to unnecessary danger.’ The men drew back, but General Lee, as if unconscious of danger to himself, walking forward, picked ap some small object on the ground, and placed it on the limb of a tree above his head. It was afterward perceived that the object for which he had thus risked his life was an unfledged sparrow that had fallen from its nest. It was a marked instance of that love for the lower animals and deep feeling for the helpless which he always displayed.”

It was but natural that a man whose heart was such a well-spring of kindness, tenderness and sympathy, should have won, to an extraordinary degree, the respectful love of his social inferiors, whether his own servants or not, who were frequently in his presence. It is related that, in early life, he accompanied one of his mother’s slaves to the far South in the hope that the change to a warmer and dryer climate would cure or alleviate the pulmonary disease from which he was suffering. During the darkest hours of the Reconstruction era, when the animosities between the whites and blacks were so much inflamed, the negroes, of their own spontaneous accord, were always eager, on every occasion, to manifest their profound reverence for his person. “When he approached, either walking or mounted,” we are told, “they would stop, bow politely, and stand until he had passed. He never failed to acknowledge their salutes with kind and dignified courtesy.”

Of his devotion and thoughtful consideration for the members of his family, the beautiful record recently given to the world by his youngest son furnishes innumerable examples. “To my mother, who was a great invalid from rheumatism for more than ten years,” writes Captain Lee, “he was the most faithful attendant and tender nurse. Every want of hers that he could supply, he anticipated, and whenever he was in the room, the privilege of pushing her wheeled chair into the dining room or out on the verandas, or elsewhere about the house, was yielded to him. He sat with her daily, entertaining her with accounts of what was doing in the college, and the news of the village, and would often read to her in the evening. For her, his love and care never ceased, his gentleness and patience never ended.“ And what was true of his relations with his wife was equally true of his relations with his children. His family life was rich in all that the heart affords, full of tender yet discriminating indulgence, and marked by an unceasing enjoyment of the pure and simple round of domestic pleasures and amusements. In his own home, he was the embodiment of hospitality, his manner always charmingly affable, his conversation often quietly humorous, and at all times interesting and unaffected. No one would have recognized in the man as he appeared under his own roof, the cold and austere leader who had so recently directed the movements in great battles.

In intercourse with strangers, General Lee’s natural dignity was such that he could repel or attract as seemed to him proper. To them, he often appeared reserved and silent, but no one who approached him without presumption could justly impute to him a want of kindness and consideration. “I shall never forget his sweet winning smile,” says Lord Wolseley, who was introduced to him in camp only a short time after the battle of Sharpsburg, “nor his clear honest eyes that seemed to look into your heart whilst they searched your brain. I have met many of the great men of my time, but Lee alone impressed me with the feeling that I was in the presence of a man who was cast in a grander mould and made of different and finer metal than all other men. He is stamped upon my memory as a being apart and superior to all others in every way,—a man with whom none I ever knew and very few of whom I have read was worthy to be classed. I have met but two men who realized my ideas of what a true hero should be,—my friend, Charles Gordon, was one; General Lee, the other.” “Forty years have come and gone since our meeting,” the same distinguished soldier remarks in his recently published autobiography, “yet the majesty of his manly bearing, the genial, winning grace, the sweetness of his smiles, and the impressive dignity of his old-fashioned style of address come back to me amongst the most cherished of my recollections. His greatness made me humble, and I never felt my own individual insignificance more keenly than I did in his presence.”

No impartial mind can dwell upon General Lee’s character without recalling Washington’s; nor is the similarity to be wondered at, for being natives of the same county and state, the dispositions of both men had been shaped by the influences of the same physical surroundings, the same social life, and the same general ancestry. Each was the consummate flower of all that was most elevated in slave institutions. Earnest, sedate, and studious even in boyhood, both had assumed the duties of manhood when others of their own age were still in a state of dependence. A commanding presence, and an equally commanding personal dignity, were common to both almost from their youth down to their last hours. Both were remarkable for a combination of moral and intellectual qualities so evenly balanced and so exquisitely proportioned that no one quality over-shadowed or dwarfed another. Equally characteristic of both were their perfect integrity and probity in every relation and in every situation of their lives. Both were endowed with that supreme gift of mind and soul, which raises up one man among ten millions to be a historical leader of men. Lee possessed the greater military genius, but it was Lee, not Washington, who was ultimately unsuccessful; strangely alike in their characters and in their careers, they were strangely unlike in their final destinies.

But in spite of his failure to establish their nationality with his sword, and in spite, also, of their own reconciliation with the new order, the memory of Lee remains second only to Washington’s in the affection, honor, and veneration of the Southern people. This is not merely because he sacrificed home, estate, and the prospect of the most dazzling honors to come to their assistance in their most critical hour; nor because he is forever associated with their proudest recollections of the most heroic period in their history; nor because in character and conduct he was a model of all that was lofty, upright, and manly. They love and revere his memory also because the whole spirit of his public and private life (which appears only the more admirable the more carefully it is scrutinized), refutes the indiscriminate aspersions cast upon their social system during the existence of slavery, and vindicates them from the charge that, in the struggle for what they deemed their right of local self-government, they were animated merely by a desire to perpetuate an institution repugnant to the growing humanity of the age.

General Lee’s part in the war was such as to endear his memory to the Southern people alone, but the advice which he gave and the personal example which be set after Appomattox should confine property in his fame to no one division of the Union. The moderation, foresight, and wisdom displayed by him after the close of hostilities swells his figure to the proportions of a hero common to North and South alike. It was Mr. Lincoln’s lamentable fate to be cut off by the assassin before he could fully develop this character; nor is it by any means certain whether, with all his tact, sagacity and patriotism, he could have offered any successful resistance to the policy of that sinister group of men who were responsible for the passage of the Acts of Reconstruction. It was General Lee’s happier lot, on the other hand, to perform a work in reconciling the Southern people to the new conditions confronting them, which, as time goes on, is seen to have had indirectly as deep a significance and influence from a national as from a local point of view. Harmony, repression of rancor, recognition of a common destiny, in short, nationality, was the burden of his counsels even when the South was passing through the exasperating period of Reconstruction. He looked beyond the dismal present to the contented and prosperous future, and was the prophet as well as the leader of his people.

During the time that General Lee was playing this great rôle of reconciler, there was not another man of the first order of distinction, either in the North or the South, who had risen to the same level of patriotism. He anticipated by many years the spirit which has at last produced national peace, concert and unity. His words urging conciliation, forbearance, and oblivion of the surviving hatreds of the past, and his example of a life quietly devoted to the duties of the present hour, were as a guiding light set upon a hill for all men to see and follow. And that light will continue to burn against the background of our national history, because, if for no other reason, it will never cease to lift up and strengthen the minds and hearts of the Southern people, who, under the Providence of God, are destined, with the growth of their states in wealth and population, to be restored to that commanding position in the Union of their fathers which they occupied before the great war.

Return to Robert E. Lee