Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 16

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


THE sternest test of Lee’s character was yet to come. Only those who went through it can know the depth of the humiliation in which, during the next few years, malignity, with Ignorance for ally, strove to strip the South.

Out of it Lee came without a trace of rancor or of bitterness. In all the annals of our race no man has ever shown a nobler or more Christian spirit.

Lincoln, who was of Southern blood and whose passion was a reunited Union, was in his grave, slain by a madman, and after life’s fitful fever was sleeping well, his last message being one of peace and good-will. His successor began by flinging himself into the arms of those who had hated Lincoln most.

On the 29th of May, President Johnson issued a proclamation of amnesty, but General Lee, with all others of rank, was excluded from its operation, and he was indicted for treason, by a grand jury, composed partly of negroes, especially selected for the purpose of returning indictments against him and Mr. Davis. There were those who stood proudly aloof and gave no sign of desiring reinstatement as citizens. Some scornfully declared their resolution to live and die without accepting parole. Not so the broadminded and wise Lee. He immediately wrote (on June 13th) to the President applying for the “benefits and full restoration of all rights and privileges extended to those included in the terms of the proclamation.” This application he inclosed on the same day in a letter to General Grant informing him that he was ready to meet any charges that might be preferred against him and did not wish to avoid trial, but that he had supposed that the officers and men of the army of Northern Virginia were by the terms of surrender protected by the United States Government from molestation so long as they conformed to its conditions.

Grant immediately rose to the demand of the occasion—as he had a way of doing in great emergencies. He informed General Lee that his understanding of the convention at Appomattox was identical with his; and he is said to have threatened Johnson with the surrender of the command of the army unless the indictment were quashed and the convention honorably observed.

Johnson himself, confronted by an ever-strengthening phalanx of enemies within his own party, soon, for his own reasons, underwent a change of heart, and from denouncing against the South measures that should “make treason odious,” began to speak of the South to Southerners in a more conciliatory manner. Governor Letcher, of Virginia, who had been arrested, was treated in Washington with kindness and consideration. It was on learning of this that General Lee declared his opinion that the decision of war having been against the South, it was “the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor to recognize the fact.” The interests of the State of Virginia, he said, were the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity would rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens then appeared to him too plain to admit of doubt. He urged that all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace. That they should remain if possible in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote and elect to the State and general legislatures wise and patriotic men who would devote their abilities to the interests of the country and the healing of all dissensions. “I have,” he asserted, invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practise it myself.”*

He was much disturbed about this time by the tendency of some of his old friends in their despair to emigrate from the South. That constant soul knew no defeat, much less despair, and he had not despaired of the South. He protested against leaving the State for any reason, avowing his unalterable belief in the duty of every man to remain and bear his part in whatever trials might befall. “The thought of abandoning the country and all that must be left in it,” he wrote, “is abhorrent to my feelings, and I prefer to struggle for its restoration and share its fate rather than to give up all as lost, and Virginia has need for all her sons.” And this devotion he exemplified to the fullest extent in his life.

The war had scarcely ceased and his condition of narrow circumstances become known, when offers of places of honor and profit began to come to him: offers of the presidency of insurance companies and of other industrial enterprises—proposals that he should allow his name to be used for the highest office in the gift of the State; even offers from admirers in the old country of an asylum on that side of the water, where a handsome estate was tendered him, as a tribute of admiration, so that he could spend the residue of his life in peace and comfort.

His reply to all these allurements was that which we now know was the only one he could make: a gracious but irrevocable refusal. During the war, when a friend had suggested to him the probability that the people of the South would demand that he should be their President, he had promptly and decisively declared that he would never accept such a position. So now, when the governorship of Virginia was proposed to him, he firmly refused to consider it. With the same firmness he rejected all proposals to provide him with honorable commercial positions at a high salary.

On one of these occasions he was approached with a tender of the presidency of an insurance company at a salary of $50,000 a year. He declined it on the ground that it was work with which he was not familiar. “But, General,” said the gentleman who represented the insurance company, “you will not be expected to do any work; what we wish is the use of your name.”

“Do you not think,” said General Lee, “that if my name is worth $50,000 a year, I ought to be very careful about taking care of it?”

Amid the commercialism of the present age this sounds as refreshing as the oath of a knight of the Round Table.

Defeated in one warfare, he was still a captain militant in the service of Duty: Duty, that like the moon, often shows her darkened face to her votary, though in the future she may beam with radiance.

Duty now appeared to him to send her summons from a little mountain town in which was a classical school which Washington had endowed, and Lee, turning from all offers of wealth and ease, obeyed her call.

“They are offering my father everything,” said one of his daughters, “but the only thing he will accept: a place to earn honest bread while engaged in some useful work.” That speech, made to a Trustee of the Institution referred to, brought Lee the offer of the presidency of Washington College at a salary of $1,500 a year—and after some hesitation, due to his fear that his association with an institution might in the state of political feeling then existing prove an injury rather than a benefit to it, he accepted it.

Thus, the first captain of his time, and almost, if not quite, the most famous man in the world, with offers that might well, in that hour of trial, have allured even him with all his modesty, turned his back on the world, and, following the lamp with which Duty appeared to light his way, rode quietly to that little mountain town in Rockbridge to devote the remainder of his life to fitting the sons of his old soldiers to meet the exactions of the coming time. On his old war-horse, he rode into Lexington alone, one afternoon in the early autumn, and, after a hush of reverent silence at his first appearance, was greeted on the streets by his old soldiers with the far-famed rebel yell which he had heard last as he rode down the lane from Appomattox.

Ah! ride on alone, old man, with Duty at thy bridle-bit: behind thee is the glory of thy military career; before thee is the transcendent fame of thy future. Thou shalt abide there henceforth; there shall thy ashes repose; but thou shalt make of that little town a shrine to which pilgrims shall turn with softened eyes so long as men admire virtue and the heart aspires to the ideal of Duty.

He was sworn in as president on the 2d of October, 1865, and thenceforth his life was devoted to the new service he had entered on, with the same zeal with which he always applied himself to the duty before him.


* Letter of August 28, 1865, to ex-Governor Letcher.

† Letter to Commodore M. F. Maury, September 8, 1865.

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