The Soul of Lee, by Randolph H. McKim, Chapter 11

The Soul of Lee


“It is our duty to live.”—Robert E, Lee.

“Abandon all these local animosities and make your sons Americans.”—Robert E. Lee.

“I must abide the fortunes, and share the fate of my people.”—Robert E. Lee.

“The death of a hero convinces all of Eternal Life; they are unable to call it a tragedy.”—A Student in Arms.

“I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of the war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”—Robert E. Lee.

“1 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 fall under my standard. I shall devote my life now to training young men to do their duty in life.”—Robert E. Lee.

The story of Lee’s life after the war is an epic in itself. Those five years are radiant with a serene light undimmed by one word or act which his devoted people would wish to blot from the record. As a commander, though the greatest of his time, he had made mistakes, which none would be more ready to acknowledge than himself; but as the uncrowned king of a defeated people,—as the exemplar and mentor to whom the people of the South looked for guidance and inspiration under the cruel conditions of the Reconstruction period, he committed no error that any keen-eyed critic has yet been able to discover.

Promptly and bravely he took the lead in counselling loyal submission to the government. Writing to Gov, Letcher he urged that “all should unite in an honest effort to obliterate the effects of the war and restore the blessings of peace.” He advised “the healing of all dissensions.” Again he writes:

I believe it to be the duty of every one to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony.

And what he advised others to do he did himself, setting a public example of submission to the authority of the government by applying to President Johnson for amnesty and pardon. His military secretary, Col. Chas. Marshall, writes:

He set to work to use his great influence to reconcile the people of the South to the hard consequences of their defeat, to inspire them with hope, to lead them to accept, truly and frankly, the government that had been established by the result of the war, and thus relieve them from the military rule.

When some of the soldiers, encouraged to emigrate to Mexico by a decree of the emperor of that country, sought his advice he bid them remain in their homes and share the fate of their States. As we read his correspondence and listen to the accounts of his conversation given by those who were closest to him, we hear no word of repining at “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”—no lamentations over his misfortunes—no complaint of the failures of his subordinates, or the inefficiency of the Confederate Government, which were jointly responsible for his final defeat after so many victories in the field. No, he resolutely turned away from the past, and set his face to the future. One thing absorbed his thoughts and his energies, the restoration and rehabilitation of his people,—the comfort and relief of the heroic men who had fought under his banner.

Even the harsh and cruel measures of Reconstruction scarcely draw from his lips a word of remonstrance. When indicted for treason, he declared himself ready to answer the charge and wrote to his son, “We must be patient, and let them take their course.”

The only record of any criticism of public men is the following:

“I never heard your father discuss public matters at all, nor did he express his opinion of public men. On one occasion I did hear him condemn with great severity the Secretary of War, Stanton. This was at the time Mrs. Surratt was condemned and executed, At another time I heard him speak harshly of Gen, Hunter.”[1] Hunter was a Virginian and had devastated his native state with fire and sword. This, and the hanging of an innocent woman, were the only events which, even in the familiarity of daily intercourse were sufficient to break that reserve which Gen. Lee had made his constant rule. Writing to Gen. Early he said, “I would recommend that you would omit all epithets or remarks calculated to excite bitterness or animosity between different sections of the country.”

As to his own course after the surrender his son Capt. R. E. Lee writes, “My father had been offered houses, lands and money, as well as positions as president of business associations and chartered corporations.”

The incident of the English nobleman who offered him a country seat in England and an annuity of £300 is well known, His reply was simple and worthy of his noble soul, “I must abide the fortunes and share the fate of my people.” Equally characteristic was his answer to a proposal to head a colony which was to emigrate to Mexico:

The thought of abandoning the country and all that must be left in it is abhorrent to my feelings, and I prefer to struggle for its restoration and share its fate, rather than give up all for lost.[2]

When offered the presidency of an insurance company at a princely salary he excused himself on the ground that he knew nothing of insurance business; and when he was told in reply that no duties would be required of him—nothing was asked but the use of his name, his answer was that his good name was about all he had saved from the wreck of the war, and that was not for sale. To another gilt-edged business proposition; he made this sublime reply:

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.[3]

At length, however, in August, 1865, came an offer which he was glad to accept—the offer to become the president of Washington College, Lexington, Va. The institution, founded in 1749, had suffered many vicissitudes and at this epoch “had reached the lowest point of depression it had ever known. Its buildings, library and apparatus had suffered from the rack and plunder of Hunter’s soldiers. Its invested funds were for the time being unproductive and their real value most uncertain. It boasted four professors and forty students. It was very poor, indifferently equipped with buildings, and with no means in sight to improve its condition.[4]

This was the institution which the soldier who had for years carried the destinies of a nation on his sword, and who was then and till he died the idol of the Southern people, was now asked to take under his care. It was characteristic of his lofty soul that Lee was not for a moment affected by the small and obscure position he was invited to fill, or by the pitiful salary the trustees were able to offer,—$1,500 per annum.

Bishop Wilmer, of Louisiana, gives the following account of an interview with Gen. Lee when he came to tell him of the offer he had received:

I named other institutions more conspicuous which would welcome him with ardor us, their presiding head. I soon discovered that his mind towered above these earthly distinctions; that in his judgment the cause gave dignity to the institutions, and not the wealth of its endowment or the renown of its scholars; that this door and not another was opened to him by Providence, and he only wished to be assured of his competency to fulfil his trust and thus to make his few remaining years a comfort and blessing to his suffering country. I had spoken to his human feelings; he had now revealed himself to me as one “whose life was hid with Christ in God.” My speech was no longer restrained. I congratulated him that his heart was inclined to this great cause and that he was spared to give to the world this august testimony to the importance of Christian education. How he listened to my feeble words; how he beckoned me to his side as the fulness of heart found utterance; how his whole countenance glowed with animation as I spoke of the Holy Ghost as the great Teacher, whose presence was required to make education a blessing, which otherwise might be the curse of mankind; how feelingly he responded, how eloquently as I never heard him speak before—can never be effaced from memory; and nothing more sacred mingles with my reminiscences of the dead.[5]

The journey to his new field of labor occupied four days on horseback. With what ambition he entered upon his duties as president of the college may be gathered from one of his letters:

Life is indeed gliding away, and I have nothing of good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honor of God.

From September, 1865, until his death in October 12, 1870, he filled the office of president of Washington College, and gave himself to its duties with all the ardor of his noble nature. I t is a rare phenomenon to see a man of fifty-eight years take up a new profession with the zeal of youth and attain such marked success as he did. He was no figurehead in the college but its active, vital head. In spite of his age he entered into every detail of administration, and soon gave a new impetus to every department of the institution. He was as laborious in his exertions in its behalf as he had been in planning and executing his great campaigns. It is evident that he regarded his new work as a calling from God—as a God-given opportunity to do a service to the young men of the South and to the Country.

His first care was to develop and equip the scientific departments. Three new chairs were added, physics, mathematics and modern languages, “with a subordinate classification of correlated studies, which embraced engineering, astronomy and English philosophy.” He planned also a school of commerce, and a chair of applied chemistry. Later the Lexington Law School was taken into the collegiate jurisdiction. His idea evidently was to give a practical direction to the education of the young men, in view of the peculiar needs of the young men of the South at that time. This did not imply, however, a lack of sympathy with the study of the classics, which he found already provided for.

Two very fundamental changes he soon introduced. The studies were made elective, and the system of discipline was placed on the principle of appealing to the honor and self-respect of the students,—banishing entirely the old method of espionage, so fruitful of evil in the relations between the young men and the faculty. “Young gentlemen, we have no printed rules. We have but one rule here, that every student be a gentleman.” In both these respects Gen, Lee was in harmony with Thomas Jefferson, who had established the University of Virginia in 1824 broadly on the elective system and the honor system.

As he had known thousands of his soldiers by name, so now Lee was personally acquainted with every student in the college, and followed their course both in conduct and in their studies, with a personal, fatherly interest. “He weekly examined the reports of absences and failures in recitation, and retained clearly in his memory the standing of each student.” Gen. Long tells a story which illustrates this: “When a certain name was called, Gen. Lee remarked in faculty meeting, ‘I am sorry to see that he has fallen back so far in his mathematics.’ ‘You are mistaken, General,’ said the professor, ‘he is one of the very best men in my class.’ ‘He only got fifty-four last month,’ was the reply. On looking at the report, it was found that there had been a mistake in the copying, and that Gen. Lee was correct according to the record.’[6]

The same writer gives an example of Gen. Lee’s grave satire. Upon a visitor enquiring how a certain student was getting on, Gen, Lee replied, “He is a quiet orderly young man, but seems very careful not to injure the health of his father’s son. He got last month only forty on his Greek, thirty-five on his mathematics, forty-seven on his Latin, and fifty on his English, which is a very low standing, as one hundred is our maximum. Now, I do not want our young men really to injure their health, but I wish them to come as near it as possible. This young gentleman, you see, is a long way from the danger line.”

The college soon expanded from five professors and sixty students to twenty professors and four hundred students.

So toiled on this great soul in the obscure little mountain town in Virginia those last five years of his life,—with the same unwearied patience, with the same steady concentration of his energies, and with the same courageous determination to conquer, as when he was planning campaigns and fighting great battles as the mighty commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. It never occurred to his lofty soul that that oversight of a small college was beneath the dignity of one who had played so great a part on the world’s stage, and who was still constantly receiving tokens of the admiration in which he was held by distinguished men in Europe, and of the love and devotion of the entire people of the South. He would have repudiated such a suggestion with indignation, even with astonishment. For he knew that he was pursuing an aim worthy the best endeavor of the greatest of men—to set before the people whom he loved a high standard of education, moral and spiritual as well as intellectual and practical—to send out from the halls of the college over which he presided year after year, a body of young men prepared to assist in building up the waste places of the South, and imbued with high principles of conduct. He knew the supreme value of education conceived on those broad lines which include the culture of the soul as well as of the mind—that definition of education as “the Georgics of the mind” would have been held by him fatally defective—rather would he have defined it as “the Georgics of the whole man, body, mind and soul.”—He knew that each of the graduates of Lexington would be a missionary to some Southern community to preach that gospel of work which he saw was so greatly needed, and also that gospel of loyal acceptance of the results of the war, which alone could ultimately restore to the States of the South their place and their function as integral parts of the Union.

To quote the beautiful tribute of Mr. Bradford, “What counted with all these young men was his personal influence, and he knew it. In point of fact he was creating or recreating a great nation still. His patience, his courage, his attitude toward the future, his perfect forgiveness, his large magnanimity, above all, his hope, were reflected in the eager hearts about him and from them spread wide over the bruised and beaten South, which stood so sorely in need of all these things. I have referred in an earlier chapter to the immense importance of his general influence in bringing about reconciliation and peace. It is almost impossible to overestimate this.”[7]

Undoubtedly he was during those last years devoting his tireless energies to restoring the unity of the nation.

His daily life was idyllic. All classes in the little community loved him. Beautiful incidents are told illustrating the magnetism he exerted over little children, as when a little girl appealed to him to induce her younger sister to go home, saying to her mother afterwards “I couldn’t make Fan go home, and I thought he could do anything.” Even the freed slaves always paid him every respect.

He was always solicitous for the promotion of religion in the college, and warmly encouraged the work of the Young Men’s Christian Association. He showed more emotion than on almost any other occasion in expressing his fervent wish that the students should all become sincere Christians. He was a devout member of the Episcopal Church and a vestryman of the church in Lexington, but be was no dogmatist, and his interest was chiefly in the practical aspect of Christianity. As one of his biographers remarks, “his religion had a genuine catholicity of character.” His soul was chiefly intent upon the essential, the fundamental truths of spiritual religion. It was while attending a vestry meeting of his church, held in a cold, damp room that he contracted the cold which resulted in his death.

That same disinterestedness which characterized his whole life was conspicuous during his last years, as when he declined to receive from the trustees of the college the gift of a handsome residence and also an annuity of $3000 which they proposed to settle on his family.

His modesty and humility were as marked as his disinterestedness. Asked to furnish material for his biography, he writes, “I know of nothing good I could tell you of myself, and I fear I should not like to say any evil.” Urged in 1867 to accept the nomination for Governor of Virginia, he firmly declined, believing it would be, in the state of public feeling in the nation, harmful to the interests of Virginia, adding, “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.”

We have said that Gen. Lee’s life in. Lexington was idyllic. So it was externally, in the quiet and repose which he enjoyed, in the love and reverence that surrounded him as an atmosphere wherever he went, in the constant expressions of admiration and appreciation which came to him from many sources. But underneath all this,—unseen to men, there was a tragedy; his noble soul was agonizing under the burden of the sorrows and sufferings and humiliations of the Southern people. These pressed sorely upon him. a true crown of thorns, borne silently and uncomplainingly. Sometimes, however, the pain that he carried in secret for his people, found momentary expression, as when he wrote to his son, December 21, 1867.

“When I saw the cheerfulness with which the people were working to restore their condition, and witnessed the comforts with which they were surrounded, a load of sorrow which had been pressing upon me for years was lifted from my heart.”

The death of Gen. Lee was attributed by his physicians to moral causes. Though his serene soul gave no sign of the burden that was breaking down his physical strength, it was clear to those near to him that such was the fact. The end has been thus described by Col. Wm. Preston Johnston:

As the old hero lay in the darkened room, or with the lamp and hearth fire casting shadows upon his calm noble front, all the massive grandeur of his form and face and brow remained, and death seemed to lose its terrors and to borrow a grace and dignity in sublime keeping with the life that was ebbing away. The great mind sank to its last repose almost with the equal poise of health.

For the last forty-eight hours he remained unconscious, but out of the penumbra that enveloped his faculties came two significant words, “Tell Hill he must come up!” and then, as if the great soldier felt he must move to a heavenly camping ground, “Strike the tent!”

So calmly, and with the dignity that was characteristic of the man, closed the career of the greatest American of the nineteenth century, of whom Freeman, the historian, said he was worthy a niche in the temple of fame with Alfred the Great and Washington. Men may continue to say in their shortsightedness that his life was a failure. Weighed in the scales of moral achievement, it is seen to have been grandly successful. He and his gallant compatriots did not fail to make such a protest against the aggressions of power upon the province of liberty as has filled the world with its echo. They did not fail in successfully arraigning by the potent voice of their superb valor and their all-sacrificing patriotism the usurpation of powers which by the Constitution were distributed to the States. We must remember that the dissolution of the Union was not what Lee and his men had chiefly at heart. Nor was the establishment of the Southern Confederacy their supreme and ultimate aim. Both the one and the other were secondary to the preservation of the sacred right of self-government. And we make bold to predict that the future historian will judge that while the armies of the North saved the Union from dissolution, Lee and the armies of the South saved the rights of the States within the Union.

But whether or not this prediction shall be justified by the event, this certainly no man can call in question: Though Lee did not succeed in conquering for the Confederate States a place among the nations of Christendom, yet he did, without seeking it, conquer for himself a place in the hearts of five millions of his countrymen in the South; he also conquered the admiration and esteem of a great company of high-minded men in the North, who had no sympathy whatever with the Southern Confederacy; and he so lived and fought and labored and died that the nations of the world have set him upon a pinnacle of fame whence envy and detraction can never cast him down.

Is it any wonder that his soldiers and his country-men boldly challenge the world to produce from the annals of time another supreme soldier who was also such a supreme examplar of Christian virtue, of spotless manhood, of high chivalry, of unselfish devotion to duty, as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia? Few among the great captains of history have surpassed or even equaled his achievements in the field of war; hut is there one among them all that can compare with this hero of the Southern Confederacy in purity of life, in steadfast lifelong devotion to a high ideal, in modest self-effacement, in freedom from selfish ambition, in sublime patience under adversity, in moderation in victory, in composure in defeat, in Christlike resignation?

As we range in thought through the ages of recorded history and compare Lee with the great soldiers of the world,—Alexander, Hannibal, Cæsar, Henry V, Richard Cœur de Lion, Cromwell, Marlborough,Turemie, Frederick the Great, Wellington, Napoleon, Washington—if in military genius he may be judged of lesser stature than some of them,—some few of them—none of English blood,—yet how plainly he towers above them all in the virtues of pure manhood—Washington alone excepted!

Indeed where shall we find in history the philosopher, or the statesman, or the master of men that reaches the high plane of moral sublimity on which stands this modest Virginia soldier? Not Socrates, or Seneca, or Cato, or Pericles, or Marcus Aurelius; not Cromwell, or Pitt, or Fox, or Chatham, or Nelson, or Jefferson, or Marshall, or Bismarck, or Moltke, or Cavour.

Marcus Aurelius, the stoic emperor, was a pessimist and a persecutor; Cato took his own life; even Socrates had his blemishes; Marlborough had a sordid love of money; Frederick the Great was a misanthrope and a pessimist; the habits of Pitt and Fox and Nelson were deplorable; Bismarck was a new Machiavelli,—we pass the others by. But of Lee no act of littleness, or selfishness, or self-seeking ambition is recorded, though he was no bloodless Cromwell but a man with a fiery soul.

His mortal remains sleep in the chapel of Washington and Lee University, where a Virginian artist has carved in pure marble an impressive effigy of the sleeping warrior. But if, as Pericles declared in one of his greatest orations, “The whole earth is the sepulchre of illustrious men,” then the earth itself is his sepulchre, and through the ages to come the succeeding generations of mankind will continue to honor his memory.

Speak, History! Who are life’s victors?
Unroll thy long annals and say—
Are they those whom the world called
The Victors—who won the success of a day?
The martyrs, or Nero? The Spartans
Who fell at Thermopylæ’s tryst,
Or the Persians and Xerxes? His judges,
Or Socrates?


[1] Letter of Capt. Edmund Randolph Cooke.

[2] Jones’ Life of Lee, p. 445.

[3] Quoted by his son.

[4] See Capt. R; E. Lee’s Life of his father, p. 180.

[5] Quoted by Capt. R. E, Lee, p, 182.

[6] Long’s Memoirs, p. 448.

[7] Lee the American, p. 265.

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