Lee and His Cause
By John R. Deering


In 1381 A.D.


It is strange to me that I am here to speak to you of Lee and his Cause—the long-lost Cause. A still stranger thing is that you are here to listen to me. My limitations are so limitless! My disabilities are so distressing! As I am a poor preacher, I must of course eschew politics; and I must steer clear of all constitutional questions, for I never studied law or meddled with statecraft; and no matter what was the Constitution, the Amendments 13, 14 and 15, have come to pass and are in force. Why talk about the one, when the others “are it?” (I might reply, simply to know the facts.) Nor dare I mention military matters, for I am unlearned in the science of war, and never practiced the art save as a boy-private on the “far-flung battle line.” The field of history is posted against me, so they say, because it has yet to be written. There is no history of the war, for it must be written by men unborn, because they weren’t in it and know by experience nothing of it! Our schools are now being filled with histories, so called, yet the imen who helped to make history must not dare to write it.

The biographical region is also yet closed, because it is confidently claimed that, we stand too close, we lack the perspective, which posterity will have, of course, in which to view the mighty men of renown, as they should be seen. Just why a man who wasn’t born for a century after Lee had gone to God, will be able to see and know and describe him better than the one who camped, marched and fought under him, does not yet appear to me; but I believe it, of course, because I see it so often in the newspapers! In sheer despair, I thought of Lee himself—it is his birthday, and was his cause, as much as ours—might I not venture to speak of him, but one of our chief captains? Could I not be cautiously critical, or critically cautious, modest and moderate, in this solitary instance, and for a single hour, whilst I should speak of him? Why, yes, but alas for me! “Only an Apelles may paint Alexander;”—and had I the skill to do it, where is the time for the task? It would take a year to do the work, and a week to examine and enjoy it, not an hour. Listen, it has already been done. Buy for your winter nights, for your college and city libraries, such volumes as “General Lee,” by Fitzhugh Lee, his nephew and cavalry commander, and “Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy,” by Alexander White, M.A., D.D., Ph.D., and “Personal Reminiscences of General Lee,” by J. William Jones, D.D., his chaplain in camp and in college; and “Recollections and Letters of Lee,” by his son Robert, and “Four Years Under Marse Robert,” by Major Robert Stiles. In these you will find worthy work from able hands and from ample, original sources, work that has already won world-wide fame, and recognition of Lee as the greatest captain of this country, or era, the idol of his army, and as President Davis well said, “The high model for the imitation of generations yet unborn.”

The Virginia Lees were of early English stock. R. E. Lee was born January 19th, 1807, in Stratford, Westmoreland County. His father was “Light Horse Harry,” Washington’s Chief of Cavalry. His mother was Anne Hill Carter. His father dying when he was but eleven, Robert was her very own. When he left home for the academy, she said of him, “Oh, how can I live without Robert, he is both son and daughter to me?” He grew up in Alexandria and went from there at eighteen to West Point, in 1825. In a class of forty-six, he graduated second, in 1829, and without a single mark of demerit. The young lieutenant was married, June 30th, 1831, at Arlington, to the beautiful and charming Mary Randolph Custis, great-granddaughter of Mrs. George Washington. He was then twenty-four, past. Five years later, he was in Mexico under General Winfield Scott, who said, “My success was largely due to the skill, valor and undaunted courage of Captain R. E. Lee.” Later, General Scott declared, “Lee is the greatest military genius of America, and the best soldier that I ever saw in the field.” He also said that, “If opportunity offers, he will show himself the foremost captain of his time.” It isn’t at all strange, therefore, that Mr. Lincoln, moved by the old commander’s judgment, should have sent Lee, a dozen years later, and when he wanted the best man among men, through Mr. Francis P. Blair, an offer of the command of all the United States forces being organized for the invasion of Virginia; nor that General Scott considered him as worth to the Union cause an army of fifty thousand men; nor can any man wonder that a few days after, Virginia, his noble (mother, put into his hands her sword and gave him command of all her troops.

As he stood in her Convention to accept this trust, he was thus described:—“Tall, straight, strong, brown-eyed, of gentle and benevolent countenance, and of remarkable beauty, of unaffected dignity and gravity. In robust health, and of almost boundless powers of endurance, a perfect and beautiful model of manhood.” Ladies, I am no artist, but I may hold up a sketch that is as lifelike as it is elegant. I do it with pleasure, for you will enjoy it immensely. It is by the Honorable Ben Hill of Georgia: “Lee possessed every trait of other great commanders without their vices. He was a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guilt. He was Cæsar without his ambition, Frederick without his tyranny. Napoleon without his selfishness, Washington without his reward. He was as obedient to authority as a servant, and a royal in authority as a king. He was as gentle as a woman in life, pure and modest as a virgin in thought, watchful as a Roman vestal, submissive to law as Socrates, and grand in battle as Achilles!” Such was our hero—“great in his goodness, and good in his greatness,” far beyond his fellows. A careful writer says:—“Such a character for balance, for charity, for affection, for gentleness, for sufficiency, for restraint, for silence, for simple piety, for unconscious greatness, this world has seldom seen.”

Mr. W. W. Corcoran, of Washington, a name honored, and revered wherever big-hearted benevolence and the graces of the Christian religion are recognized, was invited by the Committee in charge of the laying of the corner-stone of the Lee monument in Richmond to be present on that occasion. The venerable philanthropist, finding that he could not accept, wrote the letter quoted below in which he thus advisedly speaks of General Lee:

It was my good fortune to have been honored with the immediate acquaintance and close friendship of General Lee during the whole period of his public career; and whether I recall him as he moved in the social sphere, which he adorned by his virtues and graces, or as he towered above his contemporaries on that higher stage where the luster of his great qualities shone in the eyes of the whole civilized world, I can truly say, with no small experience of my fellow-men, that of all the men I ever knew, he always seemed to me the most remarkable for the grandeur as well as for the symmetry of the elements which composed the strength and beauty of his peerless character. For such was the natural constitution and such the harmonious blending of these elements that, in the gentleness and benignity of his demeanor, he was seen to be as great in his goodness as he was good in his greatness.

Like all truly great and good men, General Lee had in the highest degree that simplicity of character which springs from purity of heart as well as from the perfect transparency of a clear intelligence. Endowed with an understanding which was as calm as it was penetrating and profound, he always possessed his soul in a patience which never murmured, and a serenity which was never ruffled, whatever might be the duties he was summoned to perform, or whatever might be the perils he was called to face.

No duty ever found him unprepared. No trial ever shook his steadfast mind. Intrepid in all assaults of fortune, and the very soul of honor, he was the Chevalier Bayard of his day#&8212;a knight without fear and without reproach, because in him all that was soldierly in conduct met and mingled with all that was blameless in life. With an integrity which rooted itself in the very fibre of his moral constitution, and which, therefore, never gathered spot nor stain throughout the whole of his long and eventful career, he yet had not the slightest trace of censoriousness in his nature, but walked before men with the modesty and humility born of a deep religious spirit.

It is only those who knew him well in all the serene depths of his mental and moral being, who can account for the heroism he displayed after he had sheathed his sword and bowed, without repining, to the decree of an overruling Providence.

Although the life and example of such a man may justly seem to belong, in some special sense, to the State and section which stood in the clearest sight of all his greatness and all his goodness, yet the whole country may rightly claim its share in the heritage of that renown which all generous minds are quick to accord to exalted virtues wherever found, and to magnanimity of soul wherever it is inspired by a conscientious sense of right.

President Roosevelt, in his life of Thomas H. Benton, says: “The world has never seen better soldiers than those who followed Lee, and their leader will undoubtedly rank as without exception the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking people have ever brought forth; and this, although the last chief of his antagonists may himself claim to stand as the full equal of Marlborough and Wellington.”

Lord Garnet Wolseley, Commander in Chief of the Armies of Great Britain, has said, “I have met with 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 mold, and made of metal different from, and finer than, that of all other men. I believe that all will admit that Lee towered far above all men on either side in that struggle. I believe Lee will be regarded not only as the most prominent figure of the Confederacy, but as the greatest American of the nineteenth century; whose statue is well worthy to stand on an equal pedestal with that of Washington, and whose memory is equally worthy to be enshrined in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Assuming that it takes a great soldier to pronounce a sound judgement upon a soldier’s greatness, I beg leave to close this series of tributes with that of the first Lieutenant-General in the Confederate Armies—the man most nearly Lee’s equal in military genius, in Christian completeness, and in the admiration and affection of the Southern people. He said, “General Lee is a phenomenon. He is the only man I would be willing to follow blindfold.” Such was the estimate of the man whom) the world calls “Stonewall Jackson.” If the cold mute marble of Lee’s tomb shall ever “speak his matchless worth,” then the lines inscribed over the dead body of England’s mighty and illustrious Christian soldier, Major-General Charles George Gordon, who lies in London’s great cathedral, would sum up as truly and express as tersely the virtues of the noblest of all Americans—of our peerless Lee—“who at all times and everywhere gave his strength to the weak, his substance to the poor, his sympathy to the suffering, and his heart to God.”

At least three decisions of General Lee and their consequent events in his life;, were so important, and so illustrative of his character, that they must be recalled here in closing this imperfect account. These were the surrender of his army; the choice of the presidency of Washington College; and his dying without saying a word or leaving a line to vindicate his conduct or enhance his fame.

Whilst moving his army and trains towards Appomattox, the situation (for which Lee was in no wise responsible, because he would, if allowed, have chosen a better line of defense, months before he was forced to leave Petersburg and give up Richmond) became so nearly hopeless through hunger, weakness, marching, fighting, wounds, captures, desertions and the death of brave men, steadfast to the end, that a desperate attack in the early morning of April 9th was ordered upon Grant’s surrounding hosts, in strength, “five times our numbers.” Col. C. S. Venable, at the General’s request, rode to the front at three o’clock that morning to ask General Gordon if he could cut his way through the enemy. He found Gordon with the Chief of Cavalry, Fitzhugh Lee, planning the movement. In reply to the Commander’s inquiry, Gordon said: “Tell General Lee I have fought my corps to a frazzle, and. I fear I can do nothing unless I am heavily supported by Longstreet’s corps.” The last attack by Gordon’s men had routed Sheridan’s cavalry and brought in prisoners and captured cannon, but it also uncovered heavy lines of infantry beyond. When Gordon’s reply was borne back to Lee, he said, “Then there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” A heart-broken subaltern standing near cried, “O General, what will History say of the surrender of the army in the field?” Lee replied, “Yes, I know they will say hard things of us; they will not understand how we were overwhelmed by numbers; but that is not the question. Colonel; the question is. Is it right to surrender this army? If it is right, then I will take all the responsibility.”

For General Lee to know his duty was to do it. At Appomattox, he saw it clearly and did it promptly. What it cost him to hand over to his enemy “that body of incomparable infantry, the Army of Northern Virginia,” that ragged, half-starved, fighting remnant, no words can tell, unless it may be summed up in these two—his life! General Gordon, in a deliberate, carefully prepared address delivered at Richmond soon after Lee’s death, said: “Can I ever forget? No, never, never, can I forget the words which fell from his lips as I rode beside him amid the dejected and weeping soldiers, when turning to me, he said, ‘I could wish that I were numbered among the fallen in the last battle.’ ”

The soldier’s death would have been the easy, the glorious thing. Lee craved it, and spoke of it, but was too great and good to court it. He chose the harder lot of living and working, suffering and sorrowing over his vanquished people and ruined country. During the agonizing hours of suspense and whilst he wus weighing the momentous interests and obligations involved in the question of longer resistance—burdened with the trust laid upon him, and bending under the weight of woe about to fall upon his beloved Southland—he exclaimed from the depth of his tender heart,—so one of his officers tells us,—“How easily I coul4 get rid of this and be at rest! I have only to ride along the lines and all will be over! But, it is our duty to live—for what will become of the women and children of the South, if we are not here to support and protect them?” Fortunately, our splendid leader had the strength to do this; and for five and a half years did it. The one thing that he was determined to die rather than do, was not so much as named to him. General J. A. Early declares that, in his last conversation with Lee, when the surrender was mentioned, Lee told him that he “had only 7,900 men with arms in their hands, but that when he went to meet General Grant, he left orders with Gordon and Longstreet to hold themselves in readiness, and that he had determined to cut his way out at all hazards, if such terms were not granted as he thought his army was entitled to demand.” General Lee had feared to suggest to Grant any willingness to listen to terms, lest Grant should suspect his weakness and ask “an unconditional surrender,” and “sooner than that, I am resolved to die,” so reads the record made by General Fitzhugh Lee. General Grant perhaps knew the Confederate Chieftain too well to mention any “terms inconsistent with the honor of my army.” So far from it, he requested General Lee to state what he regarded as honorable terms, and when it had been done. Grant assented and wrote them, at Lee’s request, and then both captains signed them, and Lee and his aide, Colonel Marshall, rode off, prisoners on parole. He had calmly taken “all the responsibility.” Forty-two years have rolled away, and with them soldiers, great and small, but till now, no voice has been heard in condemnation of the mea pr his deed.

With the close of his career as Commander of the Confederate Armies, there came to General Lee the question of future employment. Many business interests sought his services. Among these, a corporation in Atlanta made him an offer with very fine salary. A wealthy insurance company would have given many thousands for the mere use of his name. His preference, as expressed in a letter to a friend, was a “little quiet house in the woods, where I can procure shelter and my daily bread, if permitted by the victor. I wish to get Mrs. Lee out of the city as soon as practicable.” The curiosity of crowds and homage of admirers was more than they could bear.

Very lucrative business proposals were kindly declined. To one such, his reply was: “I am grateful, but I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish. I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them die on the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life.”

The presidency of more than one university was declined for some one or another reason. On August 5, 1865, he was lovingly urged to accept the headship of “Washington College of Virginia.” There was in the offer, says Professor E. S. Joynes, who knew it best, “absolutely nothing that could have tempted him.” His habits, associations, pecuniary interests and strong desires for privacy and quietude were all against it. The school had merely local reputation and patronage. The salary was only $1,500; hardly half a living for those cruel times. The college buildings, apparatus, libraries, and investments wefe all wrecked by the waves of war. Nor had it credit, patronage, or prospects to speak of. The faculty of four had been only partially paid and the students numbered but forty. There was also considerable debt. Our land was wasted, our people crushed, our hopes buried. Everywhere the struggle was for food and fire and shelter; not for the arts or sciences or literature. The position could confer neither fame nor fortune. Its acceptance by General Lee was due, says Professor Joynes, “to a profound and deliberate sense of duty.” Why! the man who carried him the official notification of his election to the presidency had to borrow the money for his journey’s expense, and also the suit of clothes that he wore, and which had been recently sent to his friend by a son sojourning in New York, in order to appear decently garbed before the greatest of Virginians. The bearer of the honor to be bestowed upon Lee was the Hon. John W. Brockenbrough, Rector of the college, and thus was obtained his outfit for the mission.

General Washington had in 1785, accepted from the State of Virginia $50,000, as a gift in appreciation of his very successful services to the Commonwealth and the Union, upon condition that he might use it “for the education of the children of the poor, particularly of such as had fallen in defense of their country.” This sum he had donated to the school then known as “Liberty Hall Academy,” and thence-forward by his own honored name. The friends of General Lee believe that his desires so far coincided with this deed and desire of Washington as to have determined him in the devotion of his remaining years to the same noble end. To him it seemed, says Bishop Wilmer “the door of Providence.” It was the opportunity to do somewhat by way of compensation to Virginia for the loss of her wealth, strength and manhood. He seized and used it. The Trustees, who having neither silver nor gold, had the wisdom and “happy audacity” to choose Lee for their College’s Head Master, made no mistake. So correct was their knowledge of his character, and so well-founded their faith in his impoverished countrymen, that all the rest worked out rightly. They gave Lee work and bread, and he brought to their College, honor, patronage, and immortality.

If any doubt could have arisen as to the motives of the Christian soldier in taking the President’s place, or as to his fitness for it, it must have been dispelled by his own remark to Dr. W. S. White: “I shall be disappointed, sir, I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless these young men all become consistent Christians.” Again, he said,—“I dread the thought of any student’s going away from the College without becoming a sincere Christian.” And he was not denied the desire of his heart in seeing the salvation of “many of the young men of the South.”

General Lee left nothing in the way of vindication of his choice or career. Conscious of his rectitude, he was unconcerned for his fame. Till his death, he was silent, though often urged to write. For a time, he did think of a narrative of his campaigns, and made a slight effort to collect materials for it, but being denied all use of the records in Government custody, and the destruction in the retreat of his own personal papers still further preventing him, the thought was given up. Nor was it ever in his mind to publish anything to justify himself. In requesting from one of his generals a report, he plainly tells him—“I shall write this history not to vindicate myself, or promote my own reputation. I want that the world shall know what my poor boys, with their small numbers and scant resources, succeeded in accomplishing.” To another, he wrote—“My only object is to transmit the truth to posterity and to do justice to our brave soldiers.” And more than anything else, let it be ever remembered, that the fear of bringing blame upon some whose failure to obey orders had been most disastrous to our cause prevented Lee from writing in honor of the men whose devotion, gallantry, endurance and achievement have become the wonder of the world.

An extract from a letter written to General J. A. Early in Mexico, March 15, 1866, shows clearly how very reluctant he was to speak or write, even in his own defense. He refers first to attacks being then made upon President Davis, and later says—“The accusations against myself I have not thought proper to notice, or even to correct misrepresentations of my words and acts. We shall have to be patient, and suffer for a while at least; and all controversy, I think, will only serve to prolong angry and bitter feelings, and postpone the period when reason and charity may resume their sway.”

A month later, to another friend, he writes;—

Your letter of the 5th inst., inclosing a slip from the Baltimore American, has been received. The same statement has been published at the North for several years. The statement is not true, but I have not thought proper to publish a contradiction; . . . believing that those who know me would not credit it, and those who do not would care nothing about it. I cannot now depart from the rule I have followed. It is so easy to make accusations against the people at the South upon similar testimony, that those so disposed, should one be refuted, will immediately create another; and thus you would be led into endless controversy. I think it is better to leave their correction to the return of reason and good feeling. Thanking you for your interest in my behalf, and begging you to consider my letter as intended only for yourself, I am, most respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. Lee.

There is scarce an end to such expressions of repugnance to speak upon the platform or write for the press, either in behalf of himself or in defense of his people. He longed for peace and good will, regardless of reputation, past, present or to come, and hence could not be moved by love or lucre to break his self-imposed silence. Thus he lived and died, the unpardoned patriot, the paroled prisoner, the citizen without a country, or the right to vote in the State which his fathers and he had fought to liberate, establish, enlarge and ennoble. Two of his utterances can never be forgotten; “I determined at the outset of her difficulties to share the fate of my people.” Once in replying to Hon. Robert Quid’s letter proposing to him to accept the nomination for the Governorship of Virginia, in deference to the wishes of the leading men of the Commonwealth, Lee concludes his refusal of the honor in this language;—“If my disfranchisement and privation of civil rights would secure to the citizens of the State the enjoyment of civil liberty and equal rights under the Constitution, I would willingly accept them in their stead.” How noble! How like the magnanimous Soul, who riding about on the bloody field of Gettysburg to rally his retreating troops after that murderous repulse, for which certain subordinate commanders were alone to blame, said so cheerfully —“Never mind, men; all this has been my fault. It is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it, the best wiay you can.” Was ever nobility so noble?

In sheer despair, my comrades, I leave Lee for your leisure, and to your library, whilst I turn to topics which have not been so often presented, or so eloquently depicted—to the cause and consequent war, matters so much misunderstood; so often misrepresented.

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