Eulogy of Robert E. Lee

By Charles E. Fenner

Note: Attorney and judge Charles Erasmus Fenner (1834–1911) was born in Jackson, Tennessee, but lived most of his life in Louisiana. During the Civil War he served as captain of a Louisiana battery of light artillry that served with the Army of Tennessee. Jefferson Davis died at the New Orleans home of Fenner, who was by then Associate Justice of the Louisian Supreme Court. The following is taken from American Oratory of To-Day, edited by Edwin DuBois Shurter (Austin, Texas, and San Francisco: South-West Publishing Company, 1910, pp. 162–65).


Of the New Orleans Bar

(Extract from an oration delivered at the unveiling of the statue of General lee, at Lee Circle, New Orleans, Louisiana, February 22, 1884.)

BOUNTIFUL nature had endowed Robert E. Lee with exceptional gifts of physical beauty. The eye of the South Carolina poet, Hayne, once rested upon him in the first year of the war, when he was already on the hither verge of middle age, as he stood in the fortifications of Charleston, surrounded by officers, and he has left the following pen picture of him: “In the middle of the group, topping the tallest by half a head, was, perhaps, the most striking figure we had ever encountered, the figure of a man seemingly about fifty-six or fifty-eight years of age, erect as a poplar, yet lithe and graceful, with broad shoulders well thrown back, a fine, justly proportioned head posed in unconscious dignity, dear, deep, thoughtful eyes, and the quiet, dauntless step of one every inch the gentleman and soldier. Had some old English cathedral crypt or monumental stone in Westminster Abbey been smitten by a magician’s wand and made to yield up its knightly tenant restored to his manly vigor, with chivalric soul beaming from every feature, some grand old crusader or Red Cross warrior, who, believing in a sacred creed and espousing a glorious principle, looked upon mere life as nothing in the comparison, we thought that thus would he have appeared, unchanged in aught but costume and surroundings. And the superb soldier, the glamour of the antique days about him, was Robert E. Lee.”

If such was the Lee of fifty-six years, what must have been the splendid beauty of his youth? The priceless jewel of his soul found fit setting in this grand physique, marked by a majestic bearing and easy grace and courtesy of gesture and movement, sprung from perfect harmony and symmetry of limb and muscle, instinct with that vigorous health, the product of a sound mind in a sound body.

Such was the magnificent youth who graduated from West Point with the honors of his class, and dedicated himself to the service of his country. It was easy to see that “Fate reserved him for a bright manhood.” Not his the task, by the eccentric flight of a soaring ambition, to “pluck bright Honor from the pale-faced moon,” or with desperate greed to “dive into the bottom of the deep and drag up drowned Honor by the locks.” This great engineer laid out the road of his life along the undeviating line of duty, prepared to bridge seas and scale mountains; to defy foes and to scorn temptations; to struggle, to fight, to die, if need be, but never to swerve from his chosen path. Honor and Fame were not captives in his train. Free and bounteous, they ambuscaded his way and crowned him as he passed.

It is fitting that monuments should be erected to such a man.

The imagination might, alas! too easily, picture a crisis, in the future of the republic, when virtue might have lost her seat in the hearts of the people, when the degrading greed of money-getting might have undermined the nobler aspirations of their souls, when luxury and effeminacy might have emasculated the rugged courage and endurance upon which the safety of states depends, when corruption might thrive and liberty might languish, when pelf might stand above patriotism, self above country, mammon before God, and when the patriot might read on every hand the sure presage:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay!

In such an hour let some inspired orator, alive to the peril of his country, summon the people to gather round this monument, and, pointing to that noble figure, let him recount his story, and if aught can arouse a noble shame and awaken dormant virtue, that may do it.

The day is not distant when all citizens of this great republic will unite in claiming Lee as their own, and, rising from the study of his heroic life and deeds, will cast away the prejudices of forgotten strife and exclaim:

We know him now; all narrow jealousies
Are silent, and we see him as he moved—
How modest, kindly, all-accomplished, wise,
With what sublime repression of himself—
Wearing the white flower of a blameless life.