General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, Chapter 19

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier

CHAPTER XIX.
THE LOVE OF HIS SOLDIERS.

NONE who were in Richmond after General Lee’s return thither, can forget how eagerly the citizens availed themselves of every opportunity to do him homage. How they loved him; how their hearts mingled with his in sympathy and sorrow; how they felt the “union and communion of hearts that had been fused by tribulation.” In the hour of success, they had almost idolized him; now they had the sweeter feeling of a love which was purified by suffering. The Northern tourists, who came with hast to see the rebel city which had given them so much trouble, now clustered about the door to see the man whom they had feared, but now honored because of his moral grandeur in adversity. He received most courteously a deputation of Federal officers who had come to show their appreciation of his character and their good feelings towards him. But the expressions of affection which had gratified him more than any others, were those of his soldiers. These soldiers, who were now constantly returning from the Northern prisons, all ragged and dirty as they were, could not, they said, return to their ruined homes without once more seeing their beloved commander.

General Lee often said that those interviews gave him great pain, but he could not avoid them, without “wounding the feelings of those warm-hearted soldiers.”

One day he was called down to see two old soldiers, who advanced towards him with the military salute, and immediately told him that they were sent by “some fellows round the corner,” who were too badly dressed to come before him. They had just returned from prison. “Come, go with us,” they begged, “and a whole army can’t take you from us. We want to take care of you. They have captured our President, and they threaten you. Come to our mountains, where we will die in your defence.”

“But,” answered the General, “you would not have your General run away and hide himself. He must stay and meet his fate.”

He then explained to them that the terms of the surrender ensured his safety, and that he relied on General Grant’s word. He could, however, with difficulty, dissuade them from their generous purpose. He then insisted upon their accepting two suits of his own clothes, as he had nothing else to offer in memory of him, and as an assurance of his gratitude for their disinterested love for him, They pressed the clothes to their lips with warmth, and then returned to their comrades to tell them the result of their mission, and to exhibit their prize. Who can doubt that those clothes are treasured up, to be handed down to their children’s children, as a most precious legacy.

Miss Mason, in her “Poplar Life of Lee,” relates one other well-authenticated anecdote, showing the love with which he inspired the plainest of his soldiers.

A warm-hearted Irishman, one day, appeared at his door, and being told that the General was busy writing, and wished to be excused, replied, “I know he is busy: I will detain him but one moment, I only want to take him by the hand.” At this moment, the General, who was passing through the hall, heard these words, and came forward, offering his hand, which was grasped with intense emotion. “I have come all the way from Baltimore to take your hand. I have three sons born during the war—Beauregard, Fitz-Lee, and Robert Lee. My wife would never forgive me if I should go home without seeing you. God bless you!” And with this outburst he departed.

It is said by those who knew him best, that even while suffering most from the mortification of defeat, he never expressed one word of bitterness against the North, but always set an example of moderation and Christian forbearance, and tried to reconcile others to their fate by bearing his own with equanimity, and even cheerfulness. Many young men, in the bitterness of their disappointment, wished to leave the country. This he always discouraged, and advised them to stay at home, and heal the wounds from which the South was suffering. During the war, he never allowed a word of harshness towards the enemy, without rebuking it by example or word.

After the battle of Spottsylvania Court-House, one of his Generals standing near, looked towards the Federal army, and in bitterness of spirit said, with a scowl, “I wish they were all dead!”

General Lee immediately turned to him and said, with his benevolent smile, “How can you say that, General? I wish they were at home attending to their business, and leaving us to do the same. Let us wish them nothing worse.”

It was this feeling of the purest Christianity which enabled him during the war to resist the appeals made to him to adopt measures of retaliation. Thus, in the hostile portions of Maryland, and in Pennsylvania, when the men longed to turn their horses on the rich fields of grain, and to refresh themselves by forcibly partaking of the good things which were around them in the most tempting abundance, or, as one of the men expressed it, “Just to apply the fagot to one house, to pay for the one burned over the head of my wife and children on the Mississippi,” their General would reply, “No; if I suffer my army to pursue such a course, I cannot invoke the blessing of God on my arms.”

Forgiveness of enemies seems to have been a principle so deeply interwoven with his life as to become a part of his purified nature. This was peculiarly exemplified when a gentleman called upon him, at the request of a Federal officer, to communicate to him that he had been, or would be, indicted in the United States Court at Norfolk for treason. The gentleman could not resist the impulse to express his indignation at such conduct in our oppressors. As he was about to take his leave, General Lee arose, took his hand, and said, with a gracious smile and most kindly tones, “We must forgive our enemies, I can truly say, that not a day has passed since the war began that I have not prayed for them.”

The same spirit induced him to rebuke gently a lady who, having been made a widow by the war, brought her two sons to Washington College to put them under General Lee’s care. In alluding to the past, she expressed herself with great bitterness towards the North. General Lee, with a sympathetic voice, replied, “Madam, do not bring up your sons in hostility to the United States. Remember, we are one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring your children up Americans.”

That he would share his substance with them is attested by a citizen of the North, who thus describes an interview with him.

One day, last summer, I saw General Lee standing at his gate, talking pleasantly to an humbly clad man, who seemed very much pleased at, the cordial courtesy of the great chieftain, and turned off evidently delighted as we came up. After exchanging salutations, the General said, pointing to the retreating form, “That is one of our old soldiers in necessitous circumstances.” I took it for granted that it was some veteran Confederate, when the noble-minded chieftain quietly added, “He fought on the other side; but we must not think of that.” I afterwards ascertained, not from General Lee,—for he never alluded to his charities,—that he had not only spoken kindly to this old soldier “who had fought on the other side,” but he had sent him on his way rejoicing in a liberal contribution to his necessities.

While President of Washington College, General Lee was present, one night, when a party of gentlemen were discussing some recent legislation of Congress on Southern affairs. They spoke with indignation and bitterness of the unjust and ungenerous treatment of the South. He remained silent; but when the conversation was over, wrote the following lines upon a slip of paper and handed them to the gentlemen, saying, “If a heathen poet could write in this way, what should be the feeling of a Christian?”

Learn from yon orient shell to love thy foe,
And store with pearls the hand that brings thee woe.
Free, like yon rock, from base, vindictive pride,
Emblaze with gems the wrist that rends thy side.
Mark, where yon tree rewards the stony shower
With fruit nectareous or the balmy flower.
All nature cries aloud, “Shall man do less
Than heal the smiter, and the railer bless?”*

General Lee had offered his all to his country—his life, his sons, his fortune, his home; but, now that his mighty efforts had proved unavailing, with a Christian spirit rarely attained by mortal mail, he bowed to the decree of his heavenly Father, and set an example to his countrymen of forbearance and forgiveness, which it were well for them to follow. It was not that he loved the South less, but his duty to God more.

He was a devoted member of the Episcopal Church, but most liberal in his sentiments to other sects. An anecdote is told of a Jewish soldier who, during the last day of the army near Petersburg, asked a furlough that he might go to Richmond to attend the feast of the Passover. His captain endorsed on the paper, “If all these applications are granted, we shall have the whole army turning shaking Quakers.”

General Lee sent back the petition with a kind note to the soldier, regretting that the exigencies of the times prevented his acceding to a request so natural and proper. Below the endorsement he wrote: “We should always have charity for those who differ from us in religion, and give every man all the aid in our power to keep the requirements of his faith.”

We find several instances related of his delicacy in giving reproof, which also exhibits his quiet humor. “Late one night, he had occasion to go into a tent where several officers were sitting around a table, on which was a stone jug and two tin cups, busily engaged in the discussion of a mathematical problem. The General obtained the information he desired, gave a solution of the problem, and retired, the officers hoping that he had not noticed the jug. The next day, one of the officers, in presence of the others, related to General Lee a very strange dream he had had the night before. “That is not at all surprising,“ replied General Lee; ‘when young gentlemen discuss at midnight mathematical problems, the unknown quantities of which are a stone jug and two tin cups, they may expect to have strange dreams’.”*

Upon one occasion, while inspecting the lines near Petersburg, with several general officers, he asked General —— if a certain work, which he had directed him to complete as soon as possible, had been finished. General —— looked rather confused, but said that it was. General Lee at once proposed to ride in that direction. On getting to the place, he found that no progress had been made on the work since he was last there. General —— apologized, and said that he had not been on that part of the line for some time, but that Captain —— had told him that the work was completed, General Lee made no reply, but not long after began to compliment General —— on the horse he rode.

“Yes, sir,” replied General ——, “he is a very fine animal. He belongs to my wife.”

“A remarkably fine horse,“ replied General Lee, “but not a safe one for Mrs. ——. He is too mettlesome by far, and you ought to take the mettle out of him before you permit her to ride him. And let me suggest, General, that an admirable way to do that is to rule him a good deal along these trenches.” The face of the gallant General —— turned crimson, and General Lee’s eyes twinkled with mischief. No further allusion was made to the matter; but General —— adopted the suggestion.

The admirable control which he exercised over the army, was probably, in a great measure, owing to his self-control. The habits of self-restraint and self-denial, which he formed so early in life, were most important attributes of his great character. It is said that he never yielded to passion or impulse in dealing with his officers or men. Courtesy and urbanity ever marked his intercourse with them, and though firm, he was always tender-hearted and sympathetic, merciful and just.

[Notes]

* Miss Mason’s Popular Life of General Lee.

* Miss Mason.

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