Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 17

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


NO part of his life reflects greater honor on his memory than that which was now to come. Here, as in everything else, he addressed all his powers to the work in hand. He found the institution merely an old and denominational college, dilapidated and well-nigh ruined, without means and without students. The mere fact of his connection with it gave it at once a reputation. He changed the little college, as if by an enchanter’s wand, from a mere academy to a great institution of learning. He instituted or extended the honor system—that Southern system which reckons the establishment of character to be at once the basis and end of all education. Students flocked there from all over the South. He knew them all—and, what is more, followed them all in their work. He was as prompt at chapel as the chaplains; as interested in the classes as the professors and certainly more than the students.

“I have led the young men of the South to battle,” he said on one occasion; “I have seen many of them die on the field. I shall devote my remaining energy to training young men to do their duty in life.” And nobly he performed this high task. The standard he ever held up was that of duty.

His old soldiers, often at great sacrifice, sent their sons to be under his direction, and to learn at his feet the stern lesson of duty. But it was he who made the college worthy of their confidence. He elevated the standards, broadened the scope, called about him the most accomplished professors to be found and inspired them with new enthusiasm. No principle was too abstruse for him to grasp; no detail too small for him to examine. He familiarized himself alike with the methods employed at the best institutions, and with the conduct and standing of every student at his own.

An educational official has stated that of a number of college presidents to whom he addressed an inquiry relating to educational matters, General Lee was the only one who took the trouble to send him an answer. He who had commanded armies, “the lowliest duties on himself did lay.” He audited every account; he presided at every faculty meeting; studied and signed every report.

In fact, the chief stimulus to the students was the knowledge that General Lee was familiar with every student’s standing, and to some extent, with every man’s conduct. An invitation to visit him in his office was the most dreaded event in a student’s life, though the actual interview was always softened by a noble courtesy on the President’s part into an experience which left an impress throughout life and ever remained a cherished memory.

To one thus summoned, the General urged greater attention to study, on the ground that it would prevent the failure which would otherwise inevitably come to him.

“But, General, you failed,” said the youth—meaning, as he explained afterward, to pay him a tribute.

“I hope that you may be more fortunate than I,” replied the General quietly.

On another occasion, a youth from the far South having “cut lectures” to go skating, an accomplishment he had just acquired, was summoned to appear before the president, and having made his defence was told by the General that he should not have broken the rule of the institution, but should have requested to be excused from attendance on lectures.

“You understand now?”

“Yes, sir. Well, General, the ice is fine this morning. I’d like to be excused to-day,” promptly replied the ready youngster.

It was occasionally the habit of the young orators who spoke in public at celebrations to express their feelings by indulging in compliments to General Lee, and the reverse of compliments to “the Yankees.” Such references, clad in the glowing rhetoric and informed with the deep feeling of youthful oratory, never failed to stir their audiences and evoke unstinted applause. General Lee, however, promptly put a stop to this. He notified the speakers that such references were to be omitted. “Those to me are embarrassing to me; those to the North tend to promote ill feeling and injure the institution.”

Among the students at this time were quite a number who had been soldiers and were habituated to a degree of freedom. Pranks among the students were, of course, common, and were not dealt with harshly. One episode, however, occurred which showed the strong hand in the soft gauntlet.

Prior to General Lee’s installation as president, it had always been the custom to grant at least a week’s holiday at Christmas. This custom the faculty, under the president’s lead, did away with, and thenceforth only Christmas Day was given as a holiday.

A petition to return to the old order having failed, a meeting of the students was held and a paper was posted containing many signatures declaring the signers’ determination not to attend lectures during Christmas week. Some manifestation appeared on the part of certain of the faculty of giving in to the students’ demand. General Lee settled the matter at once by announcing that any man whose name appeared on the rebellious declaration would be expelled from the college. And if every student signed it, he said, he would send every one home and simply lock up the college and put the key in his pocket.

The activity displayed in getting names off the paper was amusing, and the attendance at lectures that Christmas was unusually large.

I cannot forbear to relate a personal incident which I feel illustrates well General Lee’s method of dealing with his students. I was so unfortunate while at college as to have always an early class, and from time to time on winter mornings it was my habit “to run late,” as the phrase went. This brought me in danger of meeting the president on his way from chapel, a contingency I was usually careful to guard against. One morning, however, I miscalculated, and as I turned a corner came face to face with him. His greeting was most civil, and touching my cap I hurried by. Next moment I heard my name spoken, and turning I removed my cap and faced him.

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell Miss —— (mentioning the daughter of my uncle, General Pendleton, who kept house for him) that I say will she please have breakfast a little earlier for you.”

“Yes, sir.” And I hurried on once more, resolved that should I ever be late again I would, at least, take care not to meet the General.

Craving due allowance alike for the immaturity of a boy and the mellowing influence of passing years, I will try to picture General Lee as I recall him, and as he must be recalled by thousands who yet remember him. He was, in common phrase, one of the handsomest men I ever knew and easily the most impressive looking. His figure, which in earlier life had been tall and admirably proportioned, was now compact and rounded rather than stout, and was still in fine proportion to his height. His head, well seton his shoulders, and his erect and dignified carriage made him a distinguished and, indeed, a noble figure. His soft hair and carefully trimmed beard, silvery white, with his florid complexion and dark eyes, clear and frank, gave him a pleasant and kindly expression, and I remember how, when he smiled, his eyes twinkled and his teeth shone. He always walked slowly, and even pensively, for he was, without doubt, already sensible of the trouble which finally struck him down; and the impression that remains with me chiefly is of his dignity and his gracious courtesy. I do not remember that we feared him at all, or even stood in awe of him. Collegians stand in awe of few things or persons. But we honored him beyond measure, and after nearly forty years he is still the most imposing figure I ever saw.

Even here, in his seclusion, while honored by the best of those who had bravely fought against him, he was pursued by the malignity of those haters of the South, who, having kept carefully concealed while the guns were firing, now that all personal danger was over endeavored to make amends by assailing with their clamor the noblest of the defeated. It was a period of passion, and those who, under other conditions, might have acted with deliberation and reason, gave the loose to their feeling, and surrendered themselves blindly to the direction of their wildest and most passionate leaders. Those against whose private life the purity of his life was an ever-burning protest reviled him most bitterly. The hostile press of the time was filled with railing against him; the halls of Congress rang with denunciation of him as a traitor: the foolish and futile yelping of the cowardly pack that ever gather about the wounded and spent lion. And with what noble dignity and self-command he treated it all! To the nobility of a gentleman he added the meekness of a Christian. When, with a view to setting an example to the South, he applied to be included in the terms of the general amnesty finally offered, his application was ignored, and to his death he remained “a prisoner on parole.”

He was dragged before high commissions and was cross-examined by hostile prosecutors panting to drive or inveigle him into some admission which would compromise him, but without avail, or even the ignoble satisfaction to his enemies that they had ruffled his unbroken calm.

From this time he gave all the weight of his great name to the complete re-establishment of the Union, and as his old soldiers followed and obeyed him on the field of battle, so now the whole South followed him in peace. Only the South knows as yet what the Union owes to Lee.

Happily, as we know, his serene soul, lifted too high to be disturbed by any storms of doubt, was untroubled by any question born of his failure. “I did nothing more,” he said to General Hampton, one of his most gallant lieutenants, “than my duty required of me; I could have taken no other course without dishonor, and if it were all to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner.”

Thus, in the lofty calm of a mind conscious of having tried faithfully to follow ever the right; of having obeyed without question the command of duty, in simple reliance on the goodness of God, the great captain passed the brief evening of his life, trying by his constant precept and example to train the young men of the South as Christian gentlemen.

He read little on the war, and though he at one time contemplated writing a history of, at least, some part of it, he put aside the temptation and contented himself with writing a brief memoir of his honored father to accompany a new and revised edition which he edited of the latter’s “Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.”

It was his diversion to ride his old war-horse, Traveller, among the green hills of that beautiful country about Lexington, at times piloting through the bridle-paths the little daughters of some professor, sun-bonneted and rosy, riding two astride the same horse; or now and then meeting an old soldier who asked the privilege of giving for him once more the old cheer, which in past days had at sight of him rung out on so many a hard-fought field.

One of his biographers* relates that seeing him one day talking at his gate with a stranger to whom, as he ended, he gave some money, he enquired who the stranger was. “One of our old soldiers,” said the General. “To whose command did he belong?” “Oh, he was one of those who fought against us,” said General Lee. “But we are all one now, and must make no difference in our treatment of them.”

Thus, in simple duties and simple pleasures, untouched by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, he passed life’s close among his own people, a hallowed memory forever to those who knew him, an example to all who lived in that dark time, or shall live hereafter; the pattern of a Christian gentleman, who did justice, loved mercy, and walked humbly with his God.

No more devout or humble Christian ever lived than he.

His last active work was done in a vestry meeting of his church, whose rector was one of his old lieutenants, the Rev. Dr. Wm. N. Pendleton, formerly his chief of artillery; his last conscious act was to ask God’s blessing at his board. As he ended, his voice faltered and he sank in his chair.

Surrounded by those who honored and loved him best, he lingered for a few days, murmuring at times orders to one of the best of his lieutenants, the gallant A. P. Hill, who had fallen at Five Forks, till on the 12th day of October, 1870, he that was valiant for truth passed quietly to meet the Master he had served so well, “and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”

Many places claimed the honor of guarding his sepulchre; but to Lexington it was fittingly awarded. Here he lived and here he died, and here in the little mountain town in the Valley of Virginia his sacred ashes lie hard by those of his great lieutenant, who, in the fierce sixties, was his right arm.

Happy the town that has two such shrines! Happy the people that have two such examples! Both have forever ennobled the soldier’s profession, where to face death in obedience to duty is a mere incident of the life. Both were worthy successors of that noble centurion of whom Christ said, “I have not found so great faith; no, not in Israel.” Well may we apply to him his own words, written about the proposal to remove the remains of the Confederate dead from Gettysburg: “I know of no fitter resting place for a soldier than the field on which he has nobly laid down his life.”

To those of us who knew him in the impressionable time of our youth, as, untouched by the furious railing of his enemies, he passed the evening of his life in unruffled calm, he seems the model of a knightly gentleman, ever loyal to duty and ever valiant for truth.

Well might he have said with that other Valiant-for-truth: “My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder.”

No sooner had he passed away than the ignoble enemies of the South, safe at the moment from her resentment, set forth anew to insult her people by the rancor of their insults to her honored dead. While her bells were tolling, the halls of Congress and the hostile press rang anew with diatribes against her fallen leader.

But the wolfish hatred that had hounded him so long and now broke forth in one last bitter chorus was soon drowned in the acclaim of the world that one had passed away whose life had honored the whole human race.

The world had already recognized and fixed him forever among her constellation of great men, and the European press vied with that of the South in rendering him the tribute of honor. Thus, the only effect of the attacks made on him by the enemies of the South was to secure for them the hatred or contempt of the Southern people.

“As obedient to law as Socrates,” wrote of him one who had studied his character well, and the type was well chosen. All through his life he illustrated this virtue; and never so fully as when he put aside high preferment in the profession he so passionately loved and so nobly illustrated to obey the laws under which he had been reared and cast in his lot with his people, though the sacrifice cost him tears of blood. Among the foolish charges made by some in the hour of passion was this: that he believed the South would win in the war and achieve its independence, whereupon he would be its idol. In other words, that he was lured by ambition. Only ignorance wedded to passion could assert so baseless a charge. Even had he thus imagined that the South might win its independence, Lee was, of all men, the last to be swayed by such a consideration. But as a fact, we know that it was at great sacrifice he made his choice and that only the purest motives of love of Liberty and obedience to Duty influenced his choice. The entrance of Virginia into the Confederacy of the South threw him out of the position to which his rank entitled him. But while others wrangled and scrambled for office and rank, he with utter self-abnegation declared himself “willing to serve anywhere where he could be most useful.” And it is known to those who knew him well that at one time he even thought of enlisting as a private in the company commanded by his eldest son, Captain G. W. C. Lee.* Such simplicity and virtue are antique.

Field Marshall Viscount Wolseley, referring long afterward to his first meeting with Lee, in the summer of 1862, says: “Every incident in that visit is indelibly stamped on my memory. All he said to me then and during subsequent conversations is still fresh in my recollection. It is natural it should be so; for he was the ablest general and to me seemed the greatest man I ever conversed with, and yet I have had the privilege of meeting Von Moltke and Prince Bismarck. General Lee was one of the few men who ever seriously impressed and awed me with their inherent greatness. Forty years have come and gone since our meeting and yet the majesty of his manly bearing, the genial, winning grace, the sweetness of his smile, and the impressive dignity of his old-fashioned style of dress, come back to me among my most cherished recollections. His greatness made me humble and I never felt my own insignificance more keenly than I did in his presence. . . . He was, indeed, a beautiful character, and of him it might truthfully be written, ‘In righteousness did he judge and make war’!”


* Rev. J. Wm. Jones.

* Jones’s “Life and Letters of Robert E. Lee,” p. 164.

Return to Robert E. Lee, The Southerner