Centennial of the Birth of Robert E. Lee
Massachusetts Historical Society Meeting, February 1907

Note: The following is taken from the 1906–1907 issue of the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (second series, volume 20 [volume 40 of continuous numbering]), pp. 550–86. The proceedings contains a paper read at the meeting by its president, Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (1835–1915), giving an account of his taking part in the centennial celebration of Robert E. Lee’s birth at Washington and Lee University. Adams was a great-grandson of United States President John Adams and a grandson of President John Quincy Adams.


THE stated meeting was held on Thursday, the 14th instant, at three o’clock P.M.; the President in the chair. The record of the last meeting was read and approved, and the Librarian read the list of donors to the Library. . . .

The President read the following paper:—

Before passing to the section of the day, there is a matter, somewhat personal to myself, to which I would like to make reference, with a view of leaving a memorandum in relation thereto on file, as it were, in the Proceedings of this Society.

On the 19th of last month, upon the invitation of the President, Board of Trustees, and Faculty of the Washington and Lee University, I delivered an address at Lexington, Virginia, on the Centennial of the birth of General Robert E. Lee, then widely observed. The observance at Lexington was one of exceptional interest, and, I may add, to me personally of enjoyment; but as, in the notices of the occasion, considerable emphasis was laid upon the fact that, in addition to being the principal speaker, I was also President of this Society, it seems not inappropriate that some mention of it should be here made. I am, moreover, the more impelled to such men tion from the fact that, owing to the peculiar circumstances of the case, it seems not improbable that the address there delivered may be recollected somewhat longer than is usual with such efforts.

For a Massachusetts man, and the President of the Massachusetts Historical Society, to be urged to go to Virginia there to deliver the address on such an occasion before the University over which General Lee presided at the time of his death, certainly has its unusual features. If nothing else, it is suggestive of the great change worked by the lapse of time. The invitation to prepare this address reached me some months ago, immediately after my return from a summer passed in Europe. I felt great reluctance at the thought of assuming the task. Not only had I already delivered a kindred address on the same subject, but I had made up my mind to do no more work of this occasional character. No one who has not been more or less frequently thus called upon appreciates what a dissipation of force it involves; in the present case, I can say without exaggeration, the preparation, delivery, and subsequent correspondence growing out of the effort have consumed no less than three months of my time. I accordingly at once declined the invitation, frankly stating my reasons for so doing. My action was not, however, accepted as final. The invitation was renewed; and renewed in such a way that I felt, rightly or otherwise, that to persist in a refusal would be, to say the least, ungracious. Accordingly I took the matter under further advisement; and, after some weeks of anxious reflecting, most reluctantly, and not without grave misgivings freely expressed, indicated my acceptance. And, now that it is all over, I cannot pretend that I regret having assumed either the labor or the risk my acceptance involved. As I have said, the occasion was, to me at least, thoroughly and exceptionally enjoyable. Lexington is a quiet Virginia town, situated in what is known as the Upper Valley, in the extreme southwestern part of the present State. It so chanced that while during the War of Secession I campaigned with the commands to which I was attached to and fro over a very large portion of what is known as the “Old Dominion,” and though I had repeatedly been in the Shenandoah valley, I yet had never got so far up that valley as Rockbridge County. Lying immediately between the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies, the country thereabouts is mountainous, and extremely picturesque. Lexington, moreover, is only a dozen miles or so from the famous Natural Bridge; and though, because of the season of the year, I did not visit the Bridge, I yet felt under strong inducement so to do. In fact, when I came away, I looked upon it as simply a pleasure deferred. The population of that region is, too, curiously and obviously interesting. It is made up almost exclusively of that strong Scotch-Irish Presbyterian type of which the two Jacksons, Andrew, of Tennessee, and “Stonewall,” of our Civil War fame, seem natural products. I found myself at once sensible of something extremely attractive in such a community dwelling in such a locality. It was distinctly a survival. In contact with it one seemed to leave behind the material, bustling, millionaire environment of our more metropolitan life, and become instinctively conscious of a new atmosphere, and a very refreshing atmosphere,—an atmosphere of quiet, of simplicity, of a certain earnestness and devotion to ideals and conditions—religious, economical, and conventional—belonging to another time. It so chanced also that during the three days I was at Lexington the weather was of the most perfect character,—the best of Virginian winter,—clear, but neither cold nor debilitating. The air was exhilarating; there was no frost in the ground; there were no indications of snow upon the hills; sleeping or waking, one felt the invigorating influence of a genial mountain region. I may also add that, from beginning to end, so far as I personally was concerned, the experience was marred by no single untoward incident. No act or word left behind it even in the slightest that unpleasant flavor in the mouth so apt in some way to make itself felt as one result of occasions of the sort.

Passing, however, at once to the memorandum in relation to this affair which I wish now to put on file, I have a word to say, in connection with the origin and reason of my address. More than once I have been questioned as to what caused me to entertain so high an opinion of General Lee, and to express so frequently and emphatically the regard I felt for him. As usual in such cases, my feeling has been attributed to altogether wrong causes. I can truthfully assert that never, either during the War of Secession or subsequently thereto, until a comparatively recent date, had my attention been peculiarly drawn to General Lee, his character, his motives, or his conduct. In fact, I had been somewhat inclined to question the high place among the world’s great military characters accorded him by foreign critics, and to consider that somewhat scant justice had been done those opposed to him, and under whom it was my fortune to serve. But, feeling no peculiar regard, much less admiration, for General Lee, no occasion had arisen for expressing myself concerning him, one way or the other. The matter, however, presented itself to my thought in an entirely new light in the autumn of 1901, more than twenty-five years after the close of the War, and when Lee had been for a quarter of a century dead. It was during the Boer troubles in South Africa, and in consequence of them. It will be remembered that, after the operations of Lord Roberts resulting in the capture of Pretoria, the South African struggle was almost interminably prolonged. It be came apparently a question of utter extermination on the one side, or of exhaustion on the other; an altogether deplorable alternative, the outcome is now matter of history. That out come presented nothing in any way commendable, either as a condition or as an example.

While in the autumn of 1901 we were receiving almost daily bulletins from the other side bearing upon this state of affairs, I could not help observing that the condition of things—the irregular warfare—there prevailing was very much what would have prevailed with us after April, 1865, but for what then did actually occur, and for which Lee was, at Appomattox, responsible. So much was I impressed with this thought that I felt moved to call attention to it. It so chanced that a meeting of the American Antiquarian Society was at that time about to be held. Acting under a sudden impulse, I prepared a short paper, entitled “Lee at Appomattox,” which I read before that Society at its meeting in

Worcester on Wednesday, October 30. The paper attracted attention, and was printed in full in the Springfield “Republican”; from which paper it was copied into the New York
“Tribune.” In the columns of the “Tribune” it came to the attention of the London “Times,” which reproduced it in full with editorial comments, commending Lee’s course and example in 1865 to the South African leaders of 1901. Thus brought into public notice, my paper was widely reprinted in Great Britain and commented upon, until finally Mr. Chamberlain alluded to it in some detail, and in somewhat striking way, in one of his elaborate defences of the ministry in a House of Commons debate. Republished in London in pamphlet form, the paper next found its way to South Africa, and there contributed to a certain extent towards bringing about the result subsequently reached. A year later I elaborated my paper in a Phi Beta Kappa oration delivered at the University of Chicago on Tuesday, June 17, 1902.1 It was the memory of this Phi Beta Kappa address which subsequently led to the invitation of last autumn from the Washington and Lee University.

The point, however, I wish to make, is that the claim advanced by me on Lee’s behalf to the consideration of the American people, both North and South, did not in any way depend upon his fame as a Confederate military commander, upon the hold he had upon the Southern community, or on the general respect felt towards him as a man. In connection with my utterances all this cut no figure. The single point I made, and which I emphasized, rested on Lee’s essential contribution to the welfare of the common country in the course taken by him at Appomattox; and, subsequently, in the example he set to his compatriots during the period of reconstruction, and up to the time of his death. That attitude then seemed to me, as it now seems, to have been not only inspired by the loftiest motive, and carried forward with a consistency beyond praise, but its actual results were of inestimable value to the country, North as well as South. And in this estimate all must, I think, concur.

Finally, if there was one thing connected with the War of Secession creditable to the American people, and from which an historical lesson of the greatest possible value may be derived, it was the restoration of peace and good feeling after the close of strife, and in spite of the disasters of reconstruction largely incident to the assassination of Lincoln. It all came about, moreover, in the lifetime of a generation. Although marred in the active period by acts of temper and misjudgment, and a mistaken effort at reconstruction which has now been abandoned, those results, taken as a whole, merit and have received a verdict of general approval. It has all passed into history. Everything, however, at one moment depended on General Lee, and the course to be taken after organized Confederate resistance in the field was brought to an end. Such organized resistance was impossible after April, 1865. On the other hand, a disorganized resistance such as was seen in South Africa was confidently predicted and altogether possible. Had it been attempted the result would have been simply appalling. That it was not attempted was due to Lee more than to any or all other persons or influences combined; and, subsequently, the advice he gave and the example he set to his fellow countrymen on both sides were of prime consequence and of inestimable value. As I said in the course of my address (p. 49):—

The service Lee [in this connection] rendered to the common
country, the obligation under which he placed us, whether of the North
or South, has not, I think, been always appreciated; and to overstate
it would be difficult. Again to put on record my estimate of it brings
me here to-day.

And hereafter, when question may possibly be raised why, the President of this Society, I went to Virginia to say what I there said, I wish it to be distinctly understood it was in recognition of the attitude assumed by Lee at Appomattox, and of the precepts he afterwards inculcated, and, by example, enforced. My presence at Lexington had no connection with Lee, the military commander, nor was it in any degree due to the respect I might feel for him as a man, or my sense of the high standard of character maintained by him both in his earlier and in his later life. All that was merely incidental.

In what I said I carefully disavowed being there in any representative character so far as this Society was concerned; but none the less I would like to have this explanation of my real reason for going appear as of record in the Proceedings of the Society. . . .


1 Both paper and oration were reprinted in the second edition of the volume entitled “Lee at Appomattox and other Papers” (Boston, 1902).