Hundredth Birthday of Robert E. Lee

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. 181–87.


[Speech delivered at the Commemorative Service of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of General Robert E. Lee, Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church, Portsmouth, Va., 12, noon, January 19, 1907.]

We should rejoice on this hundredth birthday of General Robert E. Lee, and thank God for the blessed privilege of assembling here, in His holy temple, to declare the pride we have in the name and fame of our great military commander, who was ever a consistent and broad-minded member of the Protestant Episcopal Church. All of his graces were set in the glorious background of Christian manliness; whether exhilarated by victory or crushed by defeat, God was in his mind, and praise for the All Powerful was on his lips.

If vanity ever entered his heart, no man observed it from his manner or heard it from his tongue. His bearing gave no evidence of boastfulness for his splendid physical development; his language no touch of conceit for his great victories; his brilliant intellect had no cast of self-adulation.

Robert E. Lee, when I saw him in life, was my ideal of a Christian commander and a polished gentleman. No man whom I have ever met has presented to me such a spotless character, and none has impressed me more deeply when the spirit of ambition swells in my bosom. His example tells me that the basis of all true greatness is a Christian spirit. I love you, my Confederate comrades, and at this altar I devoutly pray that you will march down the straight and narrow path that Robert E. Lee followed to the new Jerusalem.

An unbroken thread of Christian faith governed his life from childhood to the end. As a student he was so devoted to duty that he never received a demerit; as a young officer in the army on the Texan frontier his heart was always filled with loving kindness, so beautifully demonstrated when called upon by his sergeant to perform the funeral rites over his child. Describing the scene in a letter to Mrs. Lee, Colonel Lee wrote: “He was as handsome a little boy as I ever saw . . . about a year old; I was admiring his appearance the day before he was taken ill. Last Thursday his little waxen form was committed to the earth. His father came to me, the tears flowing down his cheeks, and asked me to read the funeral service over his body, which I did at the grave, for the second time in my life. I hope I shall not be called on again, for, though I believe it is far better for the child to be called to its Heavenly Creator, into His presence in its purity and innocence, unpolluted by sin, and uncontaminated by the vices of the world, still it so wrings a parent’s heart with anguish that it is painful to see. Yet I know it was done in mercy to both—mercy to the child, mercy to the parents. The former has been saved from sin and misery here, and the latter have been given a touching appeal and powerful inducement to prepare for hereafter. May it prove effectual, and may they require no further severe admonition!”

How deep the faith, how pure the heart of Robert Lee, when glittering military ambition might have been his soul’s idol! Such glamour never shaded his vision; duty was his guiding star, and if it led to promotion, he gave all credit to the Lord God.

It was a trial for him to resign from the national service. He loved the Union, and would have given, if he had owned them, the four millions of slaves to save it; but when its power was invoked to coerce his State, then his fortune and his life were for Virginia. He did not draw his sword for slavery—he gave his slaves their freedom, and fought for principles as he invoked his soldiers in his first field order: “That each man resolve to be victorious, and that in him the right of self-government, liberty, and peace shall find a defender.” When contentions were rife between his generals in southwest Virginia, he counseled them to overlook all till the enemy was driven back. “I expect this of your magnanimity,” he said.

This most exalted virtue always guided the conduct of Robert E. Lee, and the spirit of revenge never touched his stainless sword. When his splendid Army of Northern Virginia marched to the invasion of Pennsylvania, he issued orders that private property should be respected with scrupulous care. “It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered, without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemy, and offending against Him to Whom vengeance belongeth and without Whose favor and support our efforts must prove in vain!” Although his people were stung by the reckless and wanton destruction of private property in our State, he firmly forbade retaliation. He planted his military conduct on the high ground of civilized warfare, and he is to-day honored by civilization for it.

Immediately after the secession of Virginia he was made general-in-chief of all her forces. He at once set about organizing her soldiers and directed fortifications on the harbor of Portsmouth and Norfolk. When Virginia joined her forces with the Confederacy, Lee was made one of five generals, third in rank, and retained in Richmond as adviser to the President. Afterwards he was ordered to the command of the Northwest Virginia Army. When recalled from that field he took command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. On March 13, 1862, he was assigned to conduct the operations of all the armies of the Confederacy under direction of the President, and returned to Richmond. After the battle of Seven Pines, on June 1, 1862, he was assigned to the personal command of the Army of Northern Virginia, and under him a series of splendid victories were gained over McClellan, and the siege of Richmond was raised. I cannot now speak of his matchless campaigns with this army, but whenever he issued a congratulatory order for a victory, he expressed gratitude to the Heavenly Father, the Giver of all blessings.

On April 9, 1865, the sun of all the glorious military victories of the Army of Northern Virginia set forever; and then he bore the burden with all the patient graces of exalted manhood. I had often seen him with this army on great battlefields, but when I saw him amidst the shattered ranks of his hungry soldiers at Appomattox I admired and loved him, if possible, more than before. I heard there his farewell, which has been appointed to be read at this hour in all the celebrations of this centennial birthday of Robert E. Lee, wherever held.

April 10th, 1865.

After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them; but feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. By the terms of the agreement officers and men can return to their homes, and remain there until exchanged.

You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection. With an unceasing admiration for your constancy, and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

R. E. Lee, General.

When some of his men gathered around him to shake hands in farewell, he said: “Men, we have fought through the war together. I have done my best for you, my heart is too full to say more.” I saw him ride away from the scene of surrender, and I witnessed with deep emotion that every head uncovered as he passed through the broken ranks of soldiers on his way to Richmond. Stonewall Jackson, whose birthday we jointly celebrate, had “passed over the river and was resting under the shade of the trees” when this solemn separation came to pass.

After the downfall of the Confederacy General Lee, although tendered a luxurious home abroad and many excellent business offers, declined all to become president of Washington and Lee University, saying: “I have led the young men of the South in battle. I must teach their sons to discharge their duty in life.” And in this noble calling he spent the remainder of his life. After the cessation of hostilities he always advised his people to be obedient to the powers that be, to unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and restore the blessings of peace. He said: “I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South her dearest rights. But I have never cherished towards them bitter or vindictive feelings, and I have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”

He was a firm believer that “truth and justice will at last prevail.” We observe every day that States’ rights are asserted in sections of our country hitherto unknown, and that the fundamental principles of government for which Lee drew his sword are growing stronger and stronger year by year.

Robert E. Lee was born January 19, 1807, and died October 12, 1870. The world paid tribute to his memory and placed him in the highest rank of martial heroes. Our Robert E. Lee stands above Cæsar, above Napoleon, above Wellington, higher than Alexander, Marlborough, or Frederick, greater than our own George Washington, and as long as the race of men, as long as the English-speaking people shall exist, so long will the example of Lee and Jackson give light and glory to the American Commonwealths which sacrificed their children from 1861 to 1865 for constitutional liberty.

In the valley of Virginia, Lee and Stonewall Jackson sleep;
Fame and Memory o’er their ashes aye the guard of honor keep.
There the mountains of marble, and the South wind’s haunting sighs,
And the pine and palm wreaths mingled, mark where knighthood lowly lies.

In the warm hearts of a nation, in the spirit of a race,
There the deathless souls of Chivalry to-day find dwelling-place;
There it breathes and burns forever in our patriotic pride,
Ours, the heirs of Lee and Jackson, while they rest, shrined side by side.

One, the Cavalier ennobled, born to counsel and to lead;
One, the Puritan unflinching, holding fast the ancient creed;
Each a valiant Christian soldier, wearer of a stainless sword,
Deeming, both, in all our language Duty the sublimest word.

They together, men and heroes, to the God of Battles gave
All the faith of high endeavor, for the guerdon of the brave.
Still together, never vanquished, they unfading laurels reap—
In the valley of Virginia, Lee and Stonewall Jackson sleep!”

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