100 Years Ago


Robert E. Lee Centennial Celebration, 1907


Note: The following speech is taken from The Spirit of the South: Orations, Essays and Lectures, by Colonel William Henry Stewart (New York and Washington, 1908), pp. 98–102.




[An address before the United Daughters of the Confederacy, January 19, 1901.]


The centuries have given many men to measure up to the standard of greatness; many men worthy of a place in the temple of fame; many men of prodigious valor; many of thrilling chivalry; many of brilliant intellectual attainments; many of splendid virtues; but, as I see, no single character is or has been so deeply loved by the people whom he served, and few more generally admired by the world, than Robert Edward Lee. His very name is inspiration to the hearts of Southerners; his conduct a model for their children; his great goodness like a ceaseless prayer for their welfare.

General Lee was great and good, brilliant and modest, humble and true, faithful to his God and fellows. His life is a picture of love and beauty; and all his actions from youth to old age were infused with the highest ideals of duty. No considerations could turn him from its path; no inducements could swerve his inflexible devotion to truth.

A cavalier ancestor of the eleventh century left him lessons of true pride, honor, self-sacrifice, and generous nature, and a father like “Light Horse Harry” gave a light, which must have in a measure guided his conduct.

Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807, in the same house and same room in which Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, two signers of the Declaration of Independence, were born.

It might be said that he inherited honor and fame; nevertheless, he held them not as an idler’s toy, but applied his vigorous energies and imperial intellect to emulate his forefathers in all their courageous, virtuous, and noble characteristics.

He commenced his boyhood in the line of meritorious manhood. When he entered West Point he took the head of his class and held it until he was graduated in 1829, never having received a demerit or reprimand during his term there. He entered upon the duties of an army officer with the highest honor of his military school, and afterward, in the fiery rush of battle, held fast to his attainment and was thrice brevetted for gallant and meritorious conduct in the Mexican war.

He served thirty years in the United States army, and was considered by all officers, almost without exception, to be, by many degrees, the most accomplished soldier in the service.

The commander-in-chief, General Winnfield Scott, entertained such an opinion of him, and said: “Lee is the greatest military genius in America.”

He undoubtedly stood highest on the military record of the United States army when Virginia seceded. Had rank, self-aggrandizement, success and wealth been his dream of life, he would have remained in the old army.<./p>

All the allurements of power and place a mighty nation could tender were in the request to unsheathe his sword as commander-in-chief of Lincoln’s armies. But the metal of the man was not poured in that mold which turns out the creature for the dazzling equipments of success at the sacrifice of honor. No place could win and no power could tempt him from that path of duty which led him to draw his sword for Virginia.

Here is mighty character unfolded itself to the world, and it stood the test under every condition.

General Lee was high in the opinion of the people, and their expectations were great when he was ordered to command the defeated army of the slain Garnett; but he failed to retrieve the disasters in western Virginia, and the indignation of the inconsiderate pubic arose against him as the cruel blasts of a destructive cyclone.

His military reputation fell as fevered mercury on Arctic ice, and popular prejudice retired him to the list of inefficient officers. Had its verdict held, no great general, no illustrious military leader, no loved hero for the South, would be personified in Robert E. Lee.

But the hand which guided the helm of the Confederacy knew the man, and the fickle public could not deter or restrain its judgment. Therein was the manhood and statesmanship of Jefferson Davis. He deserves a monument from the South by every consideration of patriotism and justice.

Say what you may of President Davis, we owe to him the rescue of our beloved Lee from the merciless oblivion of unjust and cruel public opinion. Mr. Davis leaves us a great lesson of charity, to restrain our prejudices and govern our judgment. The hero and the man were there, although the shadows of pitiless night concealed the majestic form.

After General Joseph E. Johnson was incapacitated by wounds at Seven Pines, Jefferson Davis made Robert E. Lee commander of the army in spite of misfortune. There began a career so brilliant as to entitle him to be classed with the greatest generals on the lists of renown.

He took but one week to defeat McClellan’s great army, relieve the siege of Richmond, and reinstal himself as the best loved hero in all the South. Then followed in the course of time the great battles of Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, in which his matchless leadership thrilled the world.

But perhaps the true greatness of the man was more vividly displayed after his surrender at Appomattox, when he said; “ I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them fall under my standard. I shall devote my life now to training young men to do their duty in life.“

Lord Wolseley said: “I have met many of the great men of my time, but Lee alone impressed me with the feeling that I was in the presence of a man who was cast in a grander mold and made of different and finer metal than all other men. He is stamped upon my memory as a being apart and superior to all others in every way, a man with whom none I ever knew and very few of whom I have read are worthy to be classed.”

Modesty, gentleness, simplicity, benevolence and Christian humility added to Robert E. Lee’s military genius made him the man whom the South prizes as its individual and national exemplar.

Notwithstanding international edict and national law, to all of which I yield perfect obedience, there is and will be a national South in the hearts of her true people; and may God let it live, because it symbolizes chivalry, truth, honor, pride, patience, and self-abnegation, as the life of Robert E. Lee exemplified; not only by our estimation, but by that of the London Standard: “A country which has given birth to men like him, and those who followed him, may look the chivalry of Europe in the face without shame, for the fatherlands of Sidney and Bayard never produced a nobler soldier, gentleman, and Christian than General Robert E. Lee.”

And the honor of his birthday by the Daughters of the Confederacy must stimulate the virtues of the people, enkindle the patriotism of the men, and make these noble women sponsors of Christian knighthood in our Southland.


Return to 100 Years