General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, Chapter 7

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier


HAD General Lee been ambitious, he would have remained in the Union. He was regarded by the whole Federal Government, as well as General Scott, as the most promising officer in the army. General Preston, in the speech already quoted, says he remembered when General Scott used these remarkable words: “I tell you one thing, if I were on my dying bed, and knew there was to be a battle fought for the liberties of my country, and the President was to say to me, ‘Scott, who shall command?’ I tell you, that with my dying breath I should say, Robert E. Lee; nobody but Robert lee, Robert Lee, and nobody but Lee.” Therefore, it is certain that the highest military honors awaited him. It is believed that the President offered him the command of the whole Union army. He also knew that in going South, he was going into a great military struggle which seemed hopeless—and that he must give wealth for poverty, and be proclaimed a traitor to the world by the Government which had been so dear to him.

Arlington, too, the beautiful home of his family, must be left in the hands of the enemy. We have seen it in its wonderful, picturesque beauty, with its sloping lawns, its grand old oaks and maples, its noble portico, from which we enjoyed the view of the blue Potomac, with the cities of Washington and Georgetown laid out before it, Adorning its ample halls were innumerable relics brought from Mount Vernon by the father of Mrs. Lee, the adopted son of Washington. Here were to be found the original portraits of General and Mrs. Washington, painted about the time of their marriage. Here also was the original portrait of General Washington, painted by Sharpless, a distinguished English artist who painted in crayons. Many other pictures, and several pieces of the old furniture from Mount Vernon were there; the candelabra which had given it light; the tea-table at which Mrs. Washington had always presided. The china presented to Mrs. Washington by certain English merchants, on which was her monogram; that given to Genera Washington by the Society of the Cincinnati; a book-case made by General Washington’s own direction; and above all, the bedstead, bed, and pillows on which the Father of his country breathed out his precious life—all these and far more were left to the uncertain future.

Mrs. Lee and her daughters were soon obliged to follow him, and take refuge in the interior of Virginia, among friends, until another home could be provided for them. His two sons, who were officers in the army, like their noble father, soon resigned, to cast their lot in with the young Confederacy; while his younger son, a mere youth, went, with so many of the first young men of the country, into the ranks of the Southern army.

As soon as the news of Lee’s resignation reached Richmond, Governor Letcher conferred on him the rank of Major-General, and the command of the Virginia forces, as authorized by the Virginia Legislature. This appointment was not solicited by Colonel Lee; but he did not feel at liberty to decline it. It was confirmed by the Convention, and the decision of that body was communicated to him on the 23d of April by John Janney, its President.

General Lee stood in the middle aisle of the legislative hall of he capitol, and the president thus addressed him:

MAJOR-GENERAL LEE:—In the name of the people of your native State, here represented, I bid you a cordial and heartfelt welcome to this hall, in which we may almost yet hear the echo of the voices of the statesmen, the soldiers, and sages of by-gone days, who have borne your name, and whose blood now flows in p a r veins. . . .

When the necessity became apparent of having a leader for our forces, all hearts and eyes, by the impulse of an instinct, which is a surer guide than reason itself, turned to the old county of Westmoreland. We knew how prolific she had been in other days of heroes and statesmen. We knew she had given birth to the Father of his country, to Richard Henry Lee, to Monroe, and last, though not least, to your own gallant father; and we knew well, by your deeds, that her productive power was not yet exhausted. . . .

Sir, one of the proudest recollections of my life will be the honor that I yesterday had of submitting to this body the confirmation of the nomination, made by the Governor of this State, of you as Commander-in-Chief of the military and naval forces of this Commonwealth. I rose to put the question; and when I asked if this body would advise and consent to that appointment, there rushed from the hearts to the tongues of all the members an affirmative response, which told, with an emphasis that could leave no doubt, of the feeling whence it emanated, I put the negative of the question for form’s sake, but there was an unbroken silence.

Sir, we have, by this unanimous vote, expressed our convictions that you are at this day, among the living citizens of Virginia, “first in war.” We pray God most fervently that you may so conduct the operations committed to your charge that it may soon be said of you that you are “first in peace;” and when the time comes, you will have earned the still prouder distinction of being “first in the hearts of your countrymen.”

I will close with one more remark. When the Father of his country made his last will and testament, he gave swords to his favorite nephews, with an injunction that they should never be drawn from their scabbards except in self-defence, or in defence of the rights and liberties of their country; and that if drawn for the latter purpose, they should fall with them in their hands, rather than relinquish them.

Yesterday, your mother, Virginia, placed her sword in your hand, upon the implied condition, that we know you will keep to the letter and in spirit, that you will draw it only in her defence, and that you will fall with it in your hand rather than the object for which it was placed there shall fail.

To this address, General Lee replied:

MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN OF THE CONVENTION:—Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred your choice had fallen upon an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword.

General Lee at once began the task of organizing the State forces, and putting the country in a state of defence. The duty was performed within a short time, and with great success. On the 6th of May, Virginia became a member of the Confederate States, and transferred her forces to the Government; and on the 10th, General Lee was ordered by the President to retain the command of the Virginia forces until the military organization of the Confederacy was placed on a firm basis. In July, 1861, he was made a General in the army of the Confederate States. General Lee, with characteristic modesty, sought no notoriety, but was always contented to do his duty in the situation in which he was placed. At a later period of the war he uttered the sentiment which always influenced him, when he said, “I will take any position the country assigns to me, and do the best I can.”

When the war commenced in April, 1861, Lee was fifty-three years old, in the full vigor of his manhood. His figure was erect, with the military air of the professed soldier, derived from his West Point education and service in the army. We well remember the grave dignity of his elegant deportment, increased tenfold afterwards by high command and great responsibilities. He had always been remarkable for manly beauty of face and figure, which was now particularly striking, before time had implanted wrinkles, or care gray hairs; his moustache was dark and heavy; he then wore no beard; and his fresh color was indicative of robust health. His habits were now as they ever were, temperate in all things, rarely drinking so much as a single glass of wine; and his indifference about what he ate became notorious in the army. His abstaining from the “soldier’s comfort,” smoking and chewing, throughout the war, was a matter of intense surprise to the men. He seemed now, as at West Point and in Mexico, superior to those habits to which the soldier is so prone. The truth and frankness of his character, his warm heart, generosity and honesty, were wonderfully expressed in his fine open countenance and simple, unassuming manners. Such was General Lee in person and manner in the beginning of the war. He seemed then a man of great reserve; he was quiet and thoughtful. His mind was evidently full of the responsibilities of his position. How could it have been otherwise? He did not enter upon it lightly, but in the fear of God; he had undertaken a great work, and with God alone for his guide, he must pursue it with diligence and gravity. The truth and honesty of his character seem well expressed in a letter to his eldest son, written many years ago, but which every boy and girl in this country should study until the sentiments expressed become engrafted upon their very natures:

“You must study,” he wrote, “to be frank with the world; frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right. If a friend ask a favor, you should grant it, if it is reasonable; if not, tell him plainly why you cannot. You will wrong him and wrong yourself by equivocation of any kind. Never do wrong to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. Deal kindly but firmly with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not. If you have any fault to find with any one, tell him, not others, of what you complain; there is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man’s face and another behind his back. We should live, act, and say nothing to the injury of any one. It is not only best as a matter of principle, but it is the path to peace and honor.

“In regard to duty, let me, in conclusion of this hasty letter, inform you that nearly a hundred years ago there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness—still known as ‘the dark day,’—a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished as if by an eclipse. The Legislature of Connecticut was in session, and its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on. They shared in the general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day had come. Some one, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Davenport, of Stamford, and said that if the last day had come, he desired to be found at his place doing his duty, and therefore moved that candles be brought in, so that the House could proceed with its duty. There was quietness in that man’s mind, the quietness of heavenly wisdom and inflexible willingness to obey present duty. Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things, like the old Puritan, You cannot do more; you should never do less. Never let me and your mother wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part.”

Such were the sentiments by which he wished his young son to be governed at school, and in his whole conduct during life such were the sentiments which governed the father; hence the greatness, the sublimity of his character; hence his calmness and resolution under his greatest difficulties; hence, when the cause for which he had given up all things, and which was so dear to him, failed; when his heart was near breaking for his country’s sorrow, he stood calm and resigned in the midst of general disaster; for, like the old Puritan, he was in his place, doing his duty. He was a true Christian; his Christianity ennobled him, and made his path clear to him wherever he was, in whatever engaged. He ever felt that God watched over him, and would “make all things work together for good to those who loved him.”

What other feeling would have given rise to that more than noble expression, “Human virtue should be equal to human calamity,” when all was lost, and when the minds of other men seemed sinking under sorrow and disappointment. He knew that he had “done what he could,” and God enabled him to bear the cruel defeat.

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