Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 15

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner

CHAPTER XV
LEE IN DEFEAT

AND now, having adverted thus hastily to those glorious campaigns which must, to the future student of military skill, place Lee among the first captains of history, I shall not invite attention further to Lee the soldier—not to Lee the victorious general of the Seven Days’ fights; of Second Manassas; of Fredericksburg; of Chancellorsville; of the Wilderness; of Spottsylvania Court House; of Cold Harbor—not to Lee the Strategist, who relieved Richmond in three campaigns. Not to Lee the Victorious, shall I ask further attention; but to a greater Lee—to Lee the Defeated.

As glorious as were these campaigns, it is on the last act of the drama, the retreat from Petersburg, the surrender at Appomattox and the dark period that followed that surrender, that we must look to see him at his best. His every act, his every word, showed how completely he had surrendered himself to Duty; and with what implicit obedience he followed the command of that

Stern daughter of the voice of God.

“Are you sanguine of the result of the war?” asked Bishop Wilmer of him in the closing days of the struggle. His reply was:

“At present I am not concerned with results. God’s will ought to be our aim, and I am quite contented that His designs should be accomplished and not mine.”

On that last morning when his handful of worn and starving veterans had made their last charge, to find themselves shut in by ranks of serried steel; hemmed in by Grant’s entire army; he faced the decree of Fate with as much constancy as though that decree were Success, not Doom.

“What will history say of the surrender of an army in the field?” asked an officer of his staff in passionate grief.

“Yes, I know they will say hard things of us; they will not understand that 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 of the responsibility.”

It was ever the note of duty that he sounded.

“You will take with you,” he said to his army in his farewell address, “the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection. With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”

“We are conscious that we have humbly tried to do our duty,” he said, a year or more after the war, when the clouds hung heavy over the South; “we may, therefore, with calm satisfaction trust in God and leave results to Him.”

The sun, which has shone in the morning, but has become obscured by clouds in the afternoon, sometimes breaks forth, and at its setting shines with a greater splendor than it knew even at high noon.

So here. Sheathing his stainless sword, surrendering in the field the remnant of an army that had once been the most redoubtable body of fighting men of the century, the greatest captain, the noblest gentleman of our time, expecting to slip into the darkness of oblivion, suddenly stepped forth from the gloom of defeat into the splendor of perpetual fame.

I love to think of Grant as he appeared that April day at the surrender: the simple soldier, the strenuous fighter, who, though thrashed, was always ready to fight again; who, now though he had achieved the prize for which he had fought so hard and had paid so dearly, was so modest, and so unassuming, that but for his shoulder-straps and that yet better mark of rank, his generosity, he might not have been known as the victor. Southerners generally have long forgiven Grant all else for the magnanimity that he showed that day to Lee. By his orders no salutes of joy were fired, no public marks of exultation over his fallen foe were allowed. History contains no finer example of greatness. Not Alexander in his generous youth excelled him.

Yet, it is not more to the victor that posterity will turn her gaze than to the vanquished, her admiration at the glory of the conqueror well-nigh lost in amazement at the dignity of the conquered.

Men who saw the defeated general when he came forth from the chamber where he had signed the articles of capitulation say that he paused a moment as his eyes rested once more on the Virginia hills; smote his hands together as though in some excess of inward agony, then mounted his gray horse, Traveller, and rode calmly away.

If that was the very Gethsemane of his trials, yet he must have had then one moment of supreme, if chastened, joy. As he rode quietly down the lane leading from the scene of capitulation, he passed into view of his men—of such as remained of them. The news of the surrender had got abroad and they were waiting, grief-stricken and dejected upon the hillsides, when they caught sight of their old commander on the gray horse. Then occurred one of the most notable scenes in the history of war. In an instant they were about him, bare-headed, with tear-wet faces; thronging him, kissing his hand, his boots, his saddle; weeping; cheering him amid their tears; shouting his name to the very skies. He said, “Men, we have fought through the war together; I have done my best for you; my heart is too full to say more.”

Thus, with kindly words, as of a father, and a heart that must have felt some solace in such devotion, he bade them farewell, and left them like the devoted band that wept for the great Apostle to the Gentiles, weeping most of all that they should see his face no more.

The cheers were heard afar off over the hills where the victorious army lay encamped, and awakened some anxiety. It was a sound they well knew:

The voice once heard through Shiloh’s woods,
    And Chickamauga’s solitudes,
The fierce South cheering on her sons.

It was reported in some of the Northern papers that it was the sound of jubilation at the surrender. But no! Some of those who are still here know what it was; for they were there. It was the voice of jubilation, yet not for surrender: but for the captain who had surrendered their muskets, but was still the commander of their hearts.

This is Lee’s final victory and the highest tribute to the South: that the devotion of the South to him was greater in the hour of defeat than in that of victory. It is said that Napoleon was adored by the men of France; but hated by the women. It was not so with Lee. No victor ever came home to receive more signal evidences of devotion than this defeated general.

Richmond was in mourning. Since the Union army had entered her gates, every house had been closed as though it were the house of death. One afternoon, a few days after the surrender, Lee, on his gray horse, Traveller, attended by two or three officers, crossed the James and rode quietly up the street to his home on Franklin Street, where he dismounted. That evening it was noised abroad that General Lee had arrived; he had been seen to enter his house. Next morning the houses were open as usual; life began to flow in its accustomed channels. Those who were there have said that when General Lee returned they felt as safe as if he had had his whole army at his back.

His first recorded words on his arrival were a tribute to his successful opponent. “General Grant has acted with magnanimity,” he said to some who spoke of the victor with bitterness. It was the keynote to his after life.

Over forty years have gone by since that day in April when Lee, to avoid further useless sacrifice of life, surrendered himself and all that remained of the Army of Northern Virginia and gave his parole d’honneur to bear arms no more against the United States. To him, who with prescient mind had long borne in his bosom knowledge of the exhausted resources of the Confederacy, and had seen his redoubtable army, under the “policy of attrition,” dwindle away to a mere ghost of its former self, it might well appear that he had failed, and, if he ever thought of his personal reputation, that he had lost the soldier’s dearest prize; that Fame had turned her back and Fate usurped her place. Thenceforth, he who had been the leader of armies; whose glorious achievements had filled the world; who had been the prop of a high-hearted nation’s hope, was to walk the narrow byway of private life, defeated, impoverished and possibly misunderstood.

But to us who have survived for the space of more than a generation, how different it appears. We know that Time, the redresser of wrongs, is steadily righting the act of unkind Fate; and Fame, firmly established in her high seat, is ever placing a richer laurel on his brow.

Yea, ride away, thou defeated general! Ride through the broken fragments of thy shattered army, ride through thy war-wasted land, amid thy desolate and stricken people. But know that thou art riding on Fame’s highest way:

This day shall see
Thy head wear sunlight and thy feet touch stars.

Return to Robert E. Lee, The Southerner