Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 18

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


THERE is something in all of us that responds to the magic of military prowess. That wise observer, Dr. Johnson, once said: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier or been at sea,” and when Boswell said, “Lord Mansfield would not be ashamed of it,” he replied, “Sir, if Lord Mansfield were in the presence of generals and admirals who had seen service, he would wish to creep under the table. . . . If Socrates and Charles XII. of Sweden were in company, and Socrates should say, ‘Follow me and hear a lecture on philosophy,’ and Charles XII. should say, ‘Follow me and help me to dethrone the Czar,’ a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates.”

Military glory is so dazzling that it blinds wholly most men; and a little all men. An Alexander conquering worlds until he weeps because no more are left to conquer; a Hannibal crossing the Alps and blowing his trumpets outside the very gates of Rome; Caesar and Napoleon oversweeping Europe with their victorious eagles, are so splendid that the radiance of their achievements makes us forget the men they were. Alexander carousing at Babylon; Caesar plotting to overthrow his country’s liberties; Napoleon steeping the world in blood, but bickering in his confinement at St. Helena, are not pleasant to contemplate. There the habiliments of majesty are wanting; the gauds of pomp are stripped off and we see the men at their true worth.

Now, let us turn for a moment to Lee. Had we known him only as the victor of Mechanicsville, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Chancellorsville and Cold Harbor, we should have, indeed, thought him a supreme soldier. But should we have known the best of him? Without Gettysburg, without the long campaign of 1864, without the siege of Petersburg and without Appomattox, should we have dreamed of the sublime greatness of the man?

History may be searched in vain to find Lee’s superior, and only once or twice in its long course will be found his equal. To find his prototype, we must go back to ancient times, to the half-legendary heroes who have been handed down to us by Plutarch’s matchless portraiture; yet, as we read their story, we see that we have been given but one side of their character. Their weaknesses have mainly been lost in the lapse of centuries, and their virtues are magnified in the enhaloing atmosphere of time. But, as to Lee, we know his every act.

There was no act nor incident of his life on which a light as fierce as that which beats upon a throne did not fall. He had in his lifetime what Macaulay, in speaking of Dr. Johnson, terms “posthumous fame.” He was investigated by high commissions; his every act was examined by hostile prosecutors. His conduct was inquired into by those who had every incentive of hostility to secure his downfall and his degradation. Yet, amid these fierce assaults, he remained as unmoved as he had stood when he had held the heights of Fredericksburg against the furious attacks of Burnside’s intrepid infantry. From this inquisition he came forth as unsoiled as the mystic White Knight of the Round Table. In that vivid glare he stood revealed like the angel bathed in light; the closest scrutiny but brought forth new virtues and disclosed a more rounded character:

Like Launcelot brave, like Galahad clean.

Had he been Regulus, we know that he would have returned to Carthage with undisquieted brow to meet his doom. Had he been Aristides, we know that he would have faithfully inscribed his name on the shell entrusted to him for his banishment. Had he been Cæsar, none but a fool would have dared to offer him a crown. Ambition could not have tempted him; Ease could not have beguiled him; Pleasure could not have allured him.

Should we come down to later times, where shall we find his counterpart, unless we take the Bayards, the Sidneys and the Falklands, the highest of the noblest?

So, to get his character as it is known to thousands, we must take the best that was in the best that the history of men has preserved. Something of Plato’s calm there was; all of Sidney’s high-mindedness; of Bayard’s fearless and blameless life; of the constancy of William the Silent, of whom it was said that he was Tranqquillus in arduis. It has been finely said of him* that, “He was Cæsar without his ambition, Frederick without his tyranny, Napoleon without his selfishness and Washington without his reward.”

But most of all, he was like Washington. Here—in that great Virginian—and here only do we find what appears to be an absolute parallel. Something must account for this wonderful development. Character does not reach such consummate flowering alone, and by accidental cause! It is a product of various forces and such a character as Lee’s is the product of high forces met in conjunction. Genius may be born anywhere; it is a result of prenatal forces. A Keats may come from a horse-jobber’s fireside; a Columbus may spring from a wool-comber’s home; a Burns may come from an Ayrshire cottage; but it is a law of Nature that character is a result largely of surrounding conditions, previous or present.

A distinguished scholar* has called attention to the resemblance between the situation of the Southerners in the Civil War and the Southern Greeks in the Peloponesan War. He has further noted the resemblance in certain fundamental elements of character between the Virginians and both the Greeks and the Romans, marking particularly their poise, a poise unaffected by conditions which might startle or seduce. The Greeks and the Romans were both peoples of the South, and like the Southern people whose character Lee illustrated, their successes were founded upon their character as a people, among the elements of which were a passion for liberty and a passion for dominance. It was this poise which Lee illustrated so admirably throughout life, a poise which, as Dr. Gildersleeve has said, gave opportunity for first the undazzled vision, and then the swoop of the eagle.

Whatever open hostility or carping criticism I may say in derogation of Southern life, and it may be admitted that there was liable to be the waste and inertia of all life that is easy and secluded; yet, the obvious, the unanswerable reply is that it produced such a character as Robert E. Lee. As Washington was the consummate flower of the life of Colonial Virginia, so Lee, clinging close to “his precious example,” became the perfect fruit of her later civilization.

It was my high privilege to know him when I was a boy. It was also my privilege to see something of that army which followed him throughout the war, and on whose courage and fortitude his imperishable glory as a captain is founded. I question whether in all the army under his command was one man who had his genius; but I believe that in character, he was but the type of his order, and as noble as was his, ten thousand gentlemen marched behind him who, in all the elements of private character, were his peers.


* By Senator Hill of Georgia.

*Dr. Basil L. Gildersleeve.

Return to Robert E. Lee, The Southerner