The Soul of Lee, by Randolph H. McKim, Chapter 12

The Soul of Lee


“Lee had one intimate friend—God.”—Gamaliel Bradford.

“A book (the Bible} in comparison with which all others in my eyes are of minor importance, and which in all my perplexities has never failed to give me light and strength?—Robert E. Lee.

“It is an advantage to have a subject like Lee that one cannot help loving. . . . I have loved him, and I may say that his influence upon my own life, though I came to him, late, has been as deep and as inspiring as any I have ever known.”—Gamaliel Bradford.

“From the bottom of my heart I thank Heaven for the comfort of having a character like Lee’s to look at, standing in burnished glory above the smoke of Mammon’s altars.”—Morris Schaff.

We turn now from the story of Lee the great soldier, to the record of Lee the Christian man—from his public life to his spiritual life.

Undoubtedly the truest test of any man’s Christian character is to be found in his home. “Is so and so a Christian?” some one asked of Whitfield, “How can I tell?” was the answer, “I never lived with him.”

Lee’s domestic life was not only beautiful, it was permeated with the unmistakable evidences of simple, unaffected piety. Whoever will read the charming volume given to the world by his son Capt, Robert Lee, Recollections and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee, will find a truly ideal picture of domestic happiness. The letters it gives us vibrate with his passionate love for his children and his deep and constant solicitude for their moral and spiritual welfare. He writes to one of his sons, “When I think of your youth, impulsiveness and many temptations, your distance from me, and the ease (and even innocence) with which you might commence an erroneous course, my heart quails within me, and my whole frame and being trembles at the possible result. May Almighty God have you in his holy keeping!”

This correspondence abounds in incidental references which reflect his Christian faith. Naturally, without effort, without obtrusiveness or ostentation, his never-failing trust in God and submission to his will shines out in his intimate letters to the members of his family. Neither victory or defeat deflects his soul from its constant look upward to the Almighty disposer of events. While at Hagerstown, July 12, 1865, after the tremendous battle of Gettysburg, while confronted by Meade’s great army in front and a swollen river behind him barring his retreat; and when disaster such as befell Napoleon at Beresina or Leipzig might have been feared, he writes a long letter to his wife about some family matters, and then refers to the situation of his army with its “communications interrupted and almost cut off,” and adds, “I trust that a merciful God, our only hope and refuge, will not desert us in this hour of need, and will deliver us by His almighty hand that the whole world may recognize His power and all hearts be lifted up in adoration and praise of His unbounded loving kindness. We must, however, submit to His almighty will, whatever that may be. May God guide and protect us all is my constant prayer!”

When, after the surrender, Gen. Lee received through the Hon. Beresford Hope a handsome copy of the Bible from some English admirers, he wrote a letter of acknowledgment in which he refers to the Bible as “a book in comparison with which all others in my eyes are of minor importance, and which in all my perplexities has never failed to give me light and strength.”

But Lee was not only a sincere and devout Christian, he was in the truest sense a Christian hero. He has a place of right in that noble army of the soldiers of Jesus Christ, who have done heroic service for God and man in their lives. And his right to such a place rests not upon any of his achievements done before the eyes of men, but rather to that spirit of self-renunciation, so often exhibited in his career whereby he turned away from honor and place and ease, and cast in his lot with his people in danger, in trial, in adversity.

We have seen how in the great crisis of his career when the supreme command of the Armies of the United States was tendered him, he declined the offer, although it must have presented a great temptation to him as a soldier. He loved the Union; if he had owned all the slaves in the South, he would gladly have given them all up to save the Union; he “recognized no necessity” for secession; he would have “forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed”; he had a deep feeling “of loyalty and duty as an American citizen”; he was strongly attached to the Service to I which he had devoted the best years of his life, and all the ability he possessed.

How strong then were the motives leading him to I accept the brilliant offer! What a career it opened up to him! He knew the weakness of the South—he knew also the power and resources of the North—and knowing them, the ultimate victory of the North I in the impending struggle must have seemed and at that time did seem to him certain. Thus Victory—Power—Fame—Ambition—all lured him on and urged acceptance, but in vain. No selfish consideration could move him. No ambition could disturb his equilibrium. No promise of glory or promotion could swerve him from the path of duty as he saw it.

Deliberately he chose the weaker side—the side he foresaw would be defeated—the side which must bring him self-denial and loss and suffering and humiliation and failure. He would suffer with his people. Their lot should be his lot, If they failed, he would fail with them, If they sank to the earth in disaster, he would share their fate.

Turn we now to another example of Lee’s self-renunciation. The impossible had happened; Lee had surrendered; his glorious battle flag was furled forever. The war was over.

What now should be the course of this man who had given all his genius, and all his marvellous energy to establish the Confederacy—and given it in vain? Doors of ease and comfort and honor opened to him across the sea. Should he accept them? Why not? Had he not done all that mortal man could do for the Southern people? Had he not sacrificed all he was, and all he possessed, on their behalf? Then why not leave the scene of his defeat and his losses, and rest in peace and quietness in Old England, where he was admired and revered almost as much as in the South itself?

No,—a thousand times no! Lee would not forsake his people in their dire calamity, If he could do no more for them, at least he could do this—he could suffer with them. And so again a great renunciation is made. This hero of faith turned away from a life of ease and chose a life of toil. He refused honor and accepted reproach. He turned his back on the luxurious homes offered him beyond the seas, and chose rather to suffer affliction with his people—in their poverty, in their disfranchisements, in all their dire calamities! He would share their sorrows. He would bear their burdens with them. They were his people still, and he would put his neck under the yoke imposed upon them—however grievous it might be.

But if he was to remain in the South, might he not accept some easy, lucrative post, with only nominal duties—and thus far at least consult his ease? You know that offers of such places were freely made him. Let him allow himself, for example, to be chosen a president of a great business enterprise with a princely salary and practically nothing to do. But again No! This royal soul turned resolutely away from all such offers. Once more the spirit of self-renunciation triumphed, and Lee chose a life of toil, and care, and self-denial. He accepted the presidency of Washington College in its day of small things when it was wrecked and almost ruined by the cruel hoof of war, at a salary which was, in fact, a mere pittance, and gave himself to the task of educating the young men of the South in a little mountain town: far from the haunts of men and the stir and clamor of the busy world.

Why? Because he loved his people. Because he saw that the education of their young men was the first and most pressing task of those trying times. Because he believed in the gospel of work, and would set an example to the Southern people to go to work with all their might to rebuild their shattered fortunes.

In all this we see the embodiment of the deepest principle of the religion of Jesus Christ. Christ, says the Apostle, “died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves.” It may be said of Robert E. Lee that not only in the great crisis of his life was the spirit of renunciation supreme, but that all through his life, from the day when he publicly gave himself to the service of God in old Christ Church, Alexandria, he lived not to himself but to God and his fellow men.

We do not think we are mistaken when we say that this Christ-like spirit of self-forgetfulness and self-sacrifice contributed even more than his military genius to the greatness of Gen. Lee. It is this which gives so pure a lustre to his fame. We do not fear to say that neither William of Orange, nor Gustavus Adolphus, approach the height of moral grandeur that Lee attained, and for the reason that the lives of neither of them incarnated to the same extent as his did, the spirit of self-sacrifice. This virtue it was, which, superadded to his military genius, and his fortitude, and his intrepidity, and his heroic constancy, made him worthy a place in the temple of fame beside Alfred the Great. Without this, however admired and trusted he might have been by his soldiers, he would not have been h e d as he was by every man in that incomparable Army of Northern Virginia.

Nor is this all. Great as Lee was in the eyes of the world at the close of the war, in spite of the fact that he had failed to establish the Confederacy, we affirm that his greatness shone with a far greater lustre when, five years later, his life came to its close.

The world would never have known the full stature of Lee’s greatness, if he had succeeded in his Titanic task of establishing the Southern Confederacy. It was in defeat, and trial, and toil, and reproach, that his greatness stood revealed in its true proportions. If he was great in action, he was greater in suffering. If he was majestic as he led his legions to victory in so many bloody fields of battle, he was yet more majestic when he led his defeated and impoverished people in the path of submission to the will of God and obedience to the laws of the United States,—harsh and unjust as all men now acknowledge that they were. He had been their idolized leader in war,—he was still their leader in time of peace,—or rather in that new conflict now precipitated upon the Southern people (so much more bitter than flagrant war) in which patience and forbearance and self-control were the weapons to be employed. As he had given himself without stint to the soldiers in the camp and on the field of carnage, so now he gave himself without reserve with all his powers to his people in meeting the hard conditions of their lot, in bearing the bitter yoke of those cruel years of what was falsely called “Reconstruction.”

His sublime task now was to “reconcile his people to the consequences of defeat, to inspire them with hope, to lead them to accept freely and frankly the government that had been established by the result of the war, and thus relieve them from military rule.” Nobly he addressed himself to the task, and nobly his people responded. In this great emprise Lee did not fail, and the future historian will recognize the services he rendered the South those last five years of his life as the greatest he ever rendered.

It was not only that his sublime example taught them patience and fortitude under calamity and injustice, and self-restraint under bitter provocation; but he inspired them with the resolve to put away repining at “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,̶ and go to work with courage and determination to build up the waste places of the South. Lee preached “the gospel of work” as well as “the gospel of Reconciliation.” His life and example were the real forces that made for Reconstruction and the Restoration of the Union.

And if today the South is strong and prosperous and rich, holding her place in the Union by as firm a tenure as the North, it is due, more than to any other one influence, to the compelling power of the life and example of Robert E, Lee from 1865 to 1870, informed as they were, always and everywhere, by the Christ-like spirit of self-sacrifice.

But greater than this public service to his people was the influence of his example as a sincere and unaffected Christian.

The light of his faith and of his consistent Christian life shone like a beacon on the mountain top all over the land.

He had always led a pure and blameless life. The searchlight of investigation reveals no moral crisis in his career, as was the case with Stonewall Jackson when he turned from a life of sin and self-indulgence to a life of righteousness; no moment when it could be said of him as of the hero of Agincourt,

Consideration like an angel came,
And whipp’d the offending Adam out of him.

No, from the day when a boy of eleven he became his widowed mother’s mainstay in the home in Alexandria, Robert E. Lee appears to have led a life without spot, or stain, or flaw. But Lee knew himself too well, and had too just an appreciation of the standard by which man must be judged by his Maker, to build his spiritual confidence on the purity of his life or the strictness of his morality. In his four years at the Military Academy at West Point he never received a demerit or a reprimand, and so nearly faultless was his career that we may point to him as a model and exemplar to all the ages of man.

But Lee saw too clearly into his own heart, and knew too well the strictness of God’s Law, to place his hope and his confidence in his own righteousness. No, he felt his weakness, he realized his unworthiness, and he put his trust—his whole trust—for eternal salvation in the merits of his Redeemer, Some time in the year 1863, when told of the prayers that were offered for him at the religious services in the different camps, he said with emotion, “I sincerely thank you for that, and I can only say that I am a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone, and that I need all the prayers you can offer for me.”

May we be permitted to say that this evangelical faith of Robert Lee—this meek and lowly trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified—is the key to his character. He was not a second Marcus Aurelius—the noble stoic, the sad-hearted royal philosopher. No, he was a Christian—a Christian optimist. If ever a pessimistic view of life might have been excused, it was to a man situated as Lee was at the close of the war, But no, he was always hopeful. When evil or misfortune came he was wont to say “it will eventuate in some good that we know not of now.” And again, “Some good is always mixed with evil in the world.” He believed, as the poet says:

There is some soul of goodness in things evil
Would men observingly distil it out.

That was his strong anchor in the stormy days of “Reconstruction,” when the whole horizon was black with trouble.

To the fortitude of the stoic he added the hopeful faith of the Christian; “We cannot help it,” he wrote in a time of affliction, “and we must endure it.” “We must exert all our patience, and in His own good time God will relieve us, and make all things work together for good, if we give Him our love and place in Him our trust.”

Throughout his campaigns he ever expressed, in his confidential correspondence with the members of his family, his unfailing trust in the providence of God. And in the hour of victory he gave God all the glory:

Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride,
Giving full trophy, signal and ostent,
Quite from himself to God.

That correspondence reveals him as a man who lived in the presence of God; who looked to God continually for guidance and strength; whose mind and heart were saturated with faith and trust in God. We see him a man of prayer in the midst of his campaigns, “My supplications continually ascend for you, my children and my country.” Referring to a gallant soldier very dear to him, he utters the aspiration that “God would cover him with His Almighty Arm, and teach him that his only refuge is in Him, the greatness of whose mercy reacheth into the heavens, and His truth unto the clouds.”

That correspondence brings out also most clearly that this indomitable soldier, “the terrible Lee,” was at heart a man of peace. War, of which he was so supreme a master, was to him abhorrent, only possible as a dire necessity, in defense of home and fireside. After his great victory over Burnside at Fredericksburg, we find (see his letters) no trace of exultation over his triumph, but only such utterances as these, “What a cruel thing war is—to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!”

It is characteristic also that to the eye of this great captain “the sublimest sight of war” was not the column of dauntless men charging, as Pickett’s Division charged of Gettysburg, but “the cheerfulness and alacrity” of his shivering, barefooted soldiers “in pursuit of the enemy under all the trials and privations to which they were exposed.”

I do not know in all history a finer example of the broad distinction that exists between the virtues of the stoic and those of the Christian than is afforded by the life and character of Lee.

Take for example two characteristics which were strongly marked in him, especially in his later life, I mean his humility and his forgiveness of injuries, These would not have been considered virtues at all by the stoic; but they hold a prominent place in the category of Christian virtues.

What a supreme evidence it was of the grace of God that such a man as Gen. Lee should have achieved the grace of humility. The man whom Gen. Lord Viscount Wolseley describes as the most kingly man he ever saw—the man of whom Stonewall Jackson said, “Lee is a phenomenon. He is the only man I would follow blindfold𔄭—this man was “clothed with humility.” Yes the modesty which distinguished him from boyhood ripened in his later years into a genuine Christian humility, as beautiful as it is rare. Under any circumstances this grace is difficult of attainment, and is attained, it is to be feared, by very few. But for one possessing such shining qualities of mind and person—distinguished and honored through his whole life—in the latter part of his career occupying the very pinnacle of fame, and (what was far more glorious) reigning still in the hearts of his people when defeat and failure had overtaken him, when his banner was furled, and his sword sheathed forever—for such a man to be clothed with humility would seem a marvel, and that he was so, shows how mightily the grace of God had wrought within him.

Equally wonderful is it to note his meek and quiet endurance of misrepresentation, his refusal to exonerate himself, though justly, at the expense of others. And then see how this king of men put in practice the precept of Jesus Christ. “I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, . . . and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.” Of this I give a single illustration. Not long after the surrender the government decided that Lee should be indicted for treason in the U.S. Court, and a gentleman in Richmond was requested to communicate the fact to him. In doing so, the gentleman expressed his indignation, whereupon Gen. Lee rose, and taking his hand said with a gracious smile, “We must forgive our enemies,” and then added, “I can truly say that not a day has passed since the war began that I have not prayed for them.”

And now we wish to invite attention to a fact of deep interest in the study of this great man’s character. It is this: Parallel with the unfolding of his greatness as a military leader, as a commander of armies, as a devoted patriot, as a model of all manly virtues, proceeded also the unfolding of his piety. As in the other aspects of his character, so in its religious aspect also, there was “a shining more and more unto the perfect day.”

What is the inference, the necessary inference to be drawn therefrom? It is this: The secret of his transcendent greatness is to be found in the fact (to use the language of Jefferson Davis) that “this good citizen, this gallant soldier, this great general, this true patriot, had yet a higher praise than this, or these,—he was a true Christian.

We can frame no satisfactory philosophy of his life except on the principle thus happily enunciated by his illustrious friend. The last ten years of his life are crowded with instances of sublime self-abnegation, patience, meekness, humility, resignation. Whence, we ask, had this man these things? Whence did he draw the inspiration for such grand moral victories? Came it from earth or from Heaven? from man or from God? from philos[op]hy or from religion?

There can be but one answer. These traits of character—contempt of glory, meekness under injuries, forgiveness of enemies,—are not inculcated by human philosophy, are not recognized in “the code of honor among gentlemen,” are even repudiated as mean and unmanly by the world; while on the other hand they are inculcated by the Religion of Jesus Christ (which Lee professed) and by that only. Can there then be any other inference save that Christianity supplied the unseen but mighty power which lifted Lee in the sphere of moral greatness so far above most of the great captains of history; that he drew the inspiration for these his greatest achievements from Heaven, not from Earth; that it was divine grace and not nature that made his life so sublime? He has been called by one of his eulogists “the man who has strengthened our faith in our race by the lofty height to which his own great nature so easily bore him.” Such an estimate must be pronounced radically wrong; it is based on a philosophy which utterly fails to account for the phenomena of his life. From this point of view his character would remain an insoluble enigma. We may say also that it is one which he himself would have utterly repudiated. His whole demeanor and conversation declared that he did not ascribe his virtues to “his own great nature” but to divine grace. “By the grace of God, I am what I am,” is the language of his life.

A far higher, and a juster, encomium than the one just quoted, would be to say of him:

“Gen. Lee was a man who strengthened the faith of mankind in the religion of Jesus Christ by the sublime heights to which Divine Grace so easily bore him.”

This, in our judgment: was the greatest, though not the most conspicuous, service that Lee rendered his people.

Men will continue to differ peradventure for generations, in their estimate of his career in its public and political aspect, but there is today a truly remarkable unanimity in the sentiments entertained by his countrymen, both North and South, concerning the personal character and the Christian virtues of this heroic man.

His sword was sheathed at Appomattox in defeat,—the Confederacy which he had sustained by his genius and his heroic constancy, fell with him to rise no more—his battle flag was furled that day forever. From that hour it was a conquered banner, and he a conquered chieftain.

But today he who was conquered at Appomattox stands forth a conqueror, crowned with laurels as untarnished as ever decked the brow of man. He has conquered the hearts of the American people. Their respect and admiration are his. North and South united the other day on the field of Gettysburg in paying admiring tribute to his memory.

The sign of the Cross was upon his life—especially upon all that epoch of lowly and inconspicuous labor for the young men of the South; as president of Washington College. He bore on his heart the burdens and the sorrows of his people, and inspired them by his example to patience and constancy in bearing the heavy cross the cruel times had laid upon their shoulders. He bade them remember in their darkest hour that “human virtue should be equal to human calamity,” and this noble sentiment he illustrated in his daily life under the pressure of trials and anxieties that entered like iron into his soul, till at last his mighty heart was broken by the burden, and as he had lived, so he died for his people.

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