Life of Robert E. Lee as General in the Confederate Army
Henry E. Shepherd
LEE AS A MAN
It is the special purpose of the present work to exhibit the life and achievements of Robert E. Lee as revealed in those distinctive forms and relations through which character asserts itself—the Man, the Father, the Husband; as well as in his professional capacity, Lee as a General, the whole to be succeeded by an outline of his career as a College President, the final phase of his brilliant and versatile story. We do not contemplate a mechanical biography, abounding in details which have no essential relation to the main current of our narrative: it is the colossal figure of the man, the embodiment of moral grandeur, as well as intellectual power, amazing strength, tempered by gentleness and grace, a magnetic charm in itself sufficient to place him among the foremost files in the courtliest circles, or in those ideal assemblies of knightly men created by the shaping spirit of chivalric romance. We can recall no parallel to our Confederate chief in the perfect symmetry of his characteristic features. He stands before us like a matchless harmony; the Greek vision of rhythmic symmetry illustrated in the living type and embodied in the peerless blending of physical energy and grace with moral and intellectual power. The supreme captains of the world come back to memory: there stands Gustavus Adolphus, “Lion of the North,” the prototype of our own Stonewall Jackson; then appear Cromwell, Fairfax, Turenne, Eugene, Marlborough, Frederick of Prussia, Napoleon, Wellington, the acknowledged world masters of the art of war. Yet with the splendor of their achievement, the brilliance of their fame, which of them approaches the moral harmony, the standard of Christian manhood exhibited in the daily walk and converse of Robert E. Lee? Upon nearly all of these titanic figures the taint of innocent blood, the sin of inordinate ambition, or hopeless lack of human sympathy rests like the shadow of an obscuring cloud. The government of the United States has recently received from the Emperor of Germany a statue of his famed predecessor, Frederick called the Great, and erected it with stately pomp and blare of trumpets not far from the long delayed monument which perpetuates the memory of Washington. By an official recognition, this supreme type of incarnate brute force, regardless of human right and callous to human suffering, is enrolled in the list of heroes, and accepted as an inspiration, an object-lesson that speaks to coming generations. And yet within the memory of all now living, a suggestion emanating from one of the foremost oracles of New Englandculture, a name whose historic continuity has never been sundered from the dawn of our national life to this present hour, intimating that a statue of Lee might with grace, propriety, and adaptation adorn the slopes of Washington, and a chorus of lamentation shivered the tingling stars, a frenzy of outraged loyalty at the very thought of the contemplated desecration. The statue of Cromwell has been placed in the hallowed precincts of Westminster as a memorial to one of England's foremost sons, regardless of the traditions of party, or the rancorous prejudices of race. We accept the image of Frederick, impersonating absolutism in its most destructive and effacing forms: we exclude with untempered indignation the mere suggestion proceeding from the most cultured representative of New England in public life, that Lee be deemed worthy of recognition in the Pantheon which guards the fame of our illustrious dead.
Still we doubt not that with the flow of time the serene and august face of the great Confederate wrought in bronze or marble by the touch of some Michael Angelo yet to be, will grace the national capital, and be recognized as one of its especial or distinctive sources of attraction, drawing to its site visitors from all lands to render homage to a fame that, despite disaster, overthrow, and partisan vindictiveness, has long since passed local limitations or geographical circumscription, and become the rich inheritance of our universal race.
In contemplating the character of Lee as a man no one phase impresses the student more profoundly than the invincible fidelity to his convictions of right which marked him under all the mutations of his history, adhering to him through good and through evil report, at the climax of triumph and in the overwhelming agony of Appomattox. In the hour of final overthrow, and in the day when the command of the armies of the Union was placed at his disposal, he was alike impenetrable to those sordid and venal motives which dominate the typical human soul. When stations of dignity and importance, accompanied by rich emoluments, but involving merely nominal duties, and designed to adorn commercial schemes with the luster of his renown were tendered him, he replied, “Nothing is left me but my name, and that is not for sale.”
Forty years have passed since Lee's sun went down in seemingly hopeless eclipse at Appomattox, April 9, 1865. The issues for which he struggled until his army was reduced to a fragment are associated with the idea of final loss—untempered defeat. The phrase “The Lost Cause” has become a current synonym for the Southern Confederacy. Yet to the discerning mind, the researcher in the movements of the ages, who rises above the merely mechanical conception of history, the tendency of our development in every sphere of national life—political, social, constitutional—has presented a most signal vindication of Lee and of the principles linked with the cause for which he strove. That this may not be apparent to the unreflecting mind, habituated to reckon and determine by material standards, conflicts in no degree with the accuracy of our generalization. The cause is vindicating its own righteousness, and the man grows in moral sublimity as we move through the unceasing cycles. “Without haste,” still, “without rest,” the great world “goes on spinning down the ringing grooves of change,” and with the process of the suns the figure of our Confederate chief grows not only in magnetic charm, but in ideal grandeur.
No one feature of Lee's character stands out in more impressive light than his sense of reverence for the forms and usages, and above all for the spirit of religion. Without a trace of sectarian temper, exalted above the possibility of bigotry or intolerance, he “lived as ever, in his great task-master's eye.” No more forceful illustration can be cited than an incident which occurred during a military review while he was in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Troop after troop, brigade after brigade, passed before their chief. There were in array men who had encountered the shock of war in a score of battles, and who had rarely tasted the bitterness of defeat. As they approached their Leader, bearing the cause of the South upon their banners, he gave no evidence of more than the professional or conventional interest that marks the gentleman and soldier. At length a chaplain of one of the commands, clad in the white robe of his office, passed near the place occupied by the General and his staff. Immediately seeming indifference was changed into one indicating the utmost reverence, and lifting his hat he said, “I salute the church of God.”
In the ordinary functions, as well as the most complex relations of life, his intuitive delicacy and discernment were equal to every emergency, however unforeseen or difficult to confront. A simple incident will illustrate. Very soon after the close of the war, General Lee was sojourning at one of the watering-places of Virginia. A party of Northern ladies was frequenting the same resort. The bitterness of the struggle, and the agony of defeat rested like a dark cloud upon the land. No one approached the visitors, and their isolation was marked and conspicuous. The General, however, proved not only equal but superior to the occasion. He introduced himself to the strangers, broke down the wall of reserve, and contributed essentially to their enjoyment during their sojourn in Virginia. His nobility of soul displayed itself in this little unheralded, nearly forgotten deed of courtesy and of kindness. It was not in the nature of Robert Lee to be capable of rudeness or incivility to women, even in the climax of suffering, when the burden of disaster was pressing out the heart. Not the agony of despair could efface the knightly consciousness which ran through his life in minutest detail. In this preeminent attribute he is an exemplar and ideal to the contemporary generation. Our hope for social regeneration is the conservation and the culture of the type illustrated in the life and character of Lee. Let the men of the South adhere to him as their supreme standard of excellence, the concrete expression of those dreams and aspirations that thrilled the chivalric imagination, but were unrealized save in symbol or in prophecy, in mythic vision or romantic legend.
Robert E. Lee was born at Stratford, Westmoreland County, Va., the original home of the Washingtons, and the native county of George Washington, January 19, 1807. His father was Col. Henry Lee, “Light Horse Harry” of Revolutionary fame, the friend and trusted agent of Washington, and author of the phrase which has passed into the consciousness of our American speech, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” His mother was Annie Carter. All the charm and inspiration of long descent in each line were blended in his person. His father was a Revolutionary-hero and cultured gentleman of the ancient Southern day; his mother illustrated the purest ideal of womanly excellence developed in the early and unchecked period of our civilization. “Light Horse Harry” died in then far-distant Georgia in 1818, when Robert was a lad of eleven years. His devotion to his mother, and his tender solicitude for her comfort, exhibiting itself in every detail, was the prelude to the rich knightliness of soul that was so characteristic of our hero. Here, as in the instance of his prototype, George Washington, the boy was father of the man.
Of Robert's early days we have no exact or special record, only vague and general statements. The same lack of minute or precise information exists with regard to the majority of those who have propelled the world along its course, have heralded the incoming of new eras, have glorified God in the relief of man's estate through the agencies of science, or have wrought our plastic speech into forms of imperishable beauty. The very silence of Lee's childhood years is suggestive; for “genius is nursed in solitude—character is built in the stream of the world.” He entered the Military Academy at West Point in 1825 and graduated with the second honor in a class of forty-six, more than one of whom was marked out for a career of unwonted brilliance. During the four years of his life as a cadet he did not receive a single demerit. On June 30, 1831, he married Miss Mary Randolph Custis, step-great-granddaughter of George Washington, and heiress to the estate of Arlington. His record in the Regular Army, his achievements during the episode of the Mexican war,—that training-school for the chiefs of the future conflict,—his resignation of his command as colonel of cavalry and espousal of the cause of the South as supremely embodied in the cause of his native State, are part of our history. The tempting prize offered Lee in the shape of supreme command of the Army of the Union did not swerve him from his integrity for an instant. It was currently reported at the time, April, 1861, that Gen. Winfield Scott implored him, “For God's sake, don't resign!” Every argument that power, luxury, limitless resources and the untrammeled control of the situation could devise was brought to bear upon our chief. All the glory of the world and the kingdoms that compose it could not allure our modern Epaminondas from his course.
GENERAL LEE AT THE AGE OF 24
Lee was soon in Richmond, commander of the forces of the Confederacy and adviser to the President. It need hardly be added that the struggle in which he was to plav the supreme part was not one of his own seeking. Like the typical Virginia gentleman of the former age. he was devoted to the Union, which was in so eminent a degree the creation of his own State. He contemplated the dissolution of the national bond, not only with reluctance, but with regret akin to positive grief. His attitude of mind is abundantly attested by his letters to members of his own family, which have become almost proverbial, but preeminently by his ingenuous and explicit address of acceptance of the command of the Virginia forces. Lee reached Richmond on the 22d. of April, the address was delivered on the 23d. Its simplicity and directness recall the style of Washington, his very rhythm and tone is there, and as we hear the voice of Lee, his revered prototype seems to rise from out the vanished years and assume once more the guidance of our hosts in the crisis of our fate. The contemplated coercion of the South by military power left him but one alternative, nor did he hesitate for an instant. His address closed with the historic passage in which piety and patriotism, faith in God and consecration to his ancestral and native State blended into a sovereign harmony: “Trusting to Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I will devote myself to the defense and service of my native State, in whose behalf alone would I have ever drawn my sword.”
It was not, however, until the second year of the war that Lee's star began to rise into the foremost heaven. His campaign against Rosecrans in West Virginia, for the unfortunate outcome of which he was in no just sense accountable, had obscured his fame, if it had not with the undiscerning world impaired confidence in his power and adaptation as a military commander. His energies, too, during this initiative stage of the war, were in a measure concentrated upon the oversight and inspection of the coast defenses in North and South Carolina and he was at Charleston upon the occasion of the great fire which desolated that city, December, 1861. For at least a year after the beginning of the struggle an adverse fate seemingly intervened to repress his powers and obscure his greatness. Vindication came at last, and Lee's fame grew rapidly. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was wounded at Seven Pines on May 31, 1862, and General Lee assumed command of the army in front of Richmond. From that event till the consummation at Appomattox, April 9, 1865, the name and achievements of army and commander are inseparably blended. Upon the overthrow of the Confederacy in the spring of 1865, General Lee, after a brief period of inaction, was elected president of Washington College—now Washington and Lee University—at Lexington, Va., and died there, October 12, 1870, at the comparatively early age of sixty-three. Such is a faint outline of his life. Our distinctive Southern civilization began with George Washington, it attained its climax in Lee. It arose at Mount Vernon, it passed into eclipse at Appomattox. If we base our decision upon the character of achieved results, what phase of the world's development has produced a Washington and a Lee?
The life of Lee abounds in incidents illustrating the nobility of his nature. If Lee had lived before Shakespeare, the master would have seized upon him as the embodiment of all the graces that blend in the creation of the ideal soldier. Robert Lee, not Henry V, would have stood first in the poet's hero roll. We recall the skill and impressiveness with which the dramatist portrays the sympathetic or human side of his heroic nature, his kindly relations to his troops, his amiable attitude toward the lowliest private in the ranks of England. Yet the portraiture which art has wrought of the Plantagenet king, in his nobler and tenderer aspects, is a mere reflection of the knightly gentleness and invincible human-heartedness revealed in Lee's character. Let us illustrate this comparison by an incident drawn from the closing agonies of the great conflict—1864–65. The sufferings from hunger endured by Lee's army during the final stages of the siege of Richmond and Petersburg can never be exaggerated, perhaps never adequately described. Nearly all avenues of communication were cut off, and the country was transformed into a desert with the advance of Sherman's and Sheridan's barbarous hosts. In his time of exigency, General Lee assured the business men of Richmond that unless he could secure a thousand barrels of flour for his starving troops “he would disband the army” whose thin gray line alone stood as the barrier between them and hopeless overthrow. Despite the serious nature of the emergency, the flour was speedily forthcoming and at least temporary relief was afforded to the suffering men. In all phases of his character this supreme regard for the welfare and happiness of others impresses the student of Lee's story. In every sphere of action he displayed the “sublime repression of himself” which Tennyson attributes to his chosen type of princely and noble manhood. Surely no part of this wonderful record should be suffered to fall into forgetfulness. The life of Lee is the legacy of the South: we are the heirs of this peerless inheritance.
Another example will exhibit the qualities we have described perhaps more impressively than any that we have related. The record of our Confederacy does not preserve a name more worthy of reverent and affectionate regard than that of Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew of North Carolina. All the muses seemed to smile upon his cradle. In his life and character rare scholarly culture was guided by a native genius which, had it developed its rich potentialities, would have ranked him among the great men of history. Yet his military career was pursued by a malignant fate. Wounded at Seven Pines in 1862, he was again struck down in the carnival of blood which marked the world-renowned charge of Pettigrew and Pickett at Gettysburg. Rallying from the shock, and resuming the field, his evil fate overtook him again in the progress of the encounters that occurred in connection with Lee's crossing the Potomac upon his retirement into Virginia. In a short time his pure spirit had passed beyond the sphere of war-like strife, in the mere dawn of his versatile powers, in the white flower of his early manhood. While being carried in an ambulance to the point at which he died, General Lee rode up, and with a gentleness worthy of womanhood expressed his sympathy, inquired minutely as to his condition, and leaned with characteristic tenderness over the form of the fast-fading Carolina hero. The moral grandeur of the scene, the chief burdened with disaster, Pettigrew, like Arthur upon the lake, vanishing into light, have at times, by a not unnatural association of ideas, recalled an incident in the career of the father of our Southern civilization—George Washington, a young colonial officer, in the hour of crushing defeat reading the burial service at the improvised grave of England's fallen commander, Braddock, July, 1755. It is true that Braddock stood m most essential traits at the pole of contrast to our rising Carolina star, but the incident exhibits a moral sublimity as well as a moral affinity between the two highest incarnations of our Southern character. It hardly savors of hyperbole to affirm that of the two sovereign types the Confederate hero appeals more intensely to our affection and more nearly approaches the perfect flower of all the ages. As for General Pettigrew, we may recall with rare propriety and relevancy the words of our master of verse, applied by him to the hero of the poem upon which his own fame most securely abides:
His leaf has perished in the green,
And while we breathe beneath the sun,
The world which credits what is done,
Is cold to all that might have been.
The charm acted upon the greatest as upon the lowliest; few could withstand the spell. Like some subtle influence it has passed into remote lands, and the suggestion of his name, or the recital of his achievements, will arouse an enthusiastic interest in cultured centers, in the cloistered circles of Oxford, or by the lake of Geneva thrilling with a thousand memories, and resonant with heroic association.
During a recent sojourn at Geneva I was struck with the remarkable likeness to the face of Lee revealed in a statue in the halls of the University which perpetuates the fame of an eminent master in the literary annals of Switzerland. I commented upon the likeness to another representative of Swiss culture, who was so much gratified by the comparison that he at once communicated it to the son, living at a distance from Geneva, and as renowned as the father in whose image wrought in bronze I had discerned the features of Lee. When Professor Tyndall was lecturing in Baltimore in 1872 I had an interview with him. In that interview, which I shall never cease to recall as an inspiring memory, he dropped the thread of scientific continuity to pay a tribute to Lee as soon as I incidentally mentioned that I had served under his standard. “Your General was a very great man,” said the oracle of conservation and correlation of energy and peerlees manipulator, whose magical skill abides like a revelation from the world of dreams.
There, too, is James Bryce, historian of the Holy Roman Empire, and masterful interpreter of our American political genius, the ideal illustration of the scholar as in politics, and the finest flower of the catholic and far-ranging culture which is the distinctive glory of Oxford. Mr. Bryce was not in accord with the South in regard to the issues involved in our struggle, but his point of view did not blind his judgment or mar his characteristic clearness of vision in reference to the greatness of Robert E. Lee. I speak from personal knowledge, for it was my good fortune several years ago to discuss with Mr. Bryce at his own home in London, not the constitutional issues, but the historic record, the battles, sieges, fortunes that mark the story of our American conflict. It was in this connection that his genuine appreciation of Lee was impressed upon my memory. I remember that he asked me with seeming astonishment if any one regarded a certain hero of the civil war as “a greater general than Lee”—as if the mere suggestion exceeded not only the truth of history, but the possibilities of imagination.
No feature of the critical struggle still pending in the east appeals more powerfully to the historic sense of our Southern race than the tributes to the skill and genius of our Confederate chiefs which have already found utterance in the enlightened and cultured journals that reflect the judgment of our mother country. The London Standard, in a leading editorial reviewing the military situation in the east, declares, “The sole hope for Russia is that some heaven-born general like Stonewall Jackson should arise as her deliverer,” adding almost pathetically, “the man has not arisen, and the outlook—for Russia—is apparently unrelieved by a ray of hope.” To the type of commander illustrated in the achievements of the Confederate hero, Lee's lieutenant, the discerning eye of the English critic looked as suggesting the only possible mode of deliverance for the humble pride and dismantled power of the arrogant Muscovite. Not Wellington, not Napoleon, not Grant, but another Jackson, wrought in God's own likeness, “with troops that would not be denied,” held out the remedy against irrevocable defeat and despair.
Yet Lee with all his gentleness was unsurpassed in firmness and decision. When occasion rendered it requisite he spared not the highest more than the lowliest. His admonitions and rebukes were always phrased in terms of courtesy, for he never ceased upon the intensest provocation to bear “the grand old name of gentleman.” The rebuke which he is said to have administered to that brilliant master of horse, Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, at the battle of Brandy Station, June 9, 1863, is perhaps not yet faded out of memory. One sentence has fixed itself in my recollection. Expressing his dissatisfaction with the direction of the cavalry upon that day, General Lee said, “I was afraid, General Stuart, that I should be obliged to bring my infantry into action.” While President of Washington College an illustrious scholar had been requested to lend his aid in the arrangement of the classical courses for the guidance of the students. A certain member of the faculty was disposed to play the obstructionist, and to interfere with the progress of the work by indulging his propensity for gratuitous and unprofitable dissertations. At length, President Lee, whose patience was finite, was exhausted, and remarked, not to the offender, but to the professor whose advice had been solicited: “Mr. — is too fond of talking. Do you arrange the classical department as you think best, and I will see that your plans are carried out.” The rebuke which he administered to one of his generals during the siege of Petersburg has been not infrequently related, but there is a fine touch of personality associated with it that renders it worthy of another repetition. The general in question was extolling the fine points of a mettlesome horse which he intended for the use of his wife. General Lee, with the utmost courtesy in his manner, remarked, “General —, this horse is hardly safe for Mrs. —. You had better ride him around these lines a few times before Mrs. — undertakes to use him.” That this delicate rebuke was effective we can scarcely doubt.
With all his loftiness of demeanor there was in Lee not a trace of assumption of arrogance. The tribute of Tennyson to the Duke of Wellington might be applied to our hero with more of propriety as well as truth—“In his simplicity sublime.” During one of his accustomed rides while Lexington was his home, he suddenly encountered a party of little girls who were seemingly disconcerted by his presence. The General reassured them and immediately set them at ease. “Certainly,” he said, “no little girl has any cause to be afraid of General Lee.” It was a failure to recognize that produced the momentary embarrassment. For of him it might be said,
And manhood fused with female grace
In such a sort, the child would twine
A trustful hand, unask'd in thine
And find his comfort in thy face.
A notable feature in Lee's symmetrical character was the absence of acrimonious spirit, or partisan temper. In the hour of adversity, as in the season of most brilliant triumph, this serenity of nature never failed to reveal itself. The armies of the Union were referred to as “those people,” or as “our friends across the river.” The demon of malignity never entered into the soul of
Robert Lee. How marked the contrast to the attitude of Sherman indulging in unsuppressed delight at the tortures which himself was inflicting upon Confederate prisoners, or insulting in person the wife of the commandant of the arsenal at Fayetteville, N.C, during his occupation of that town, March, 1865, feeling her pulse in derision, and asking how she liked the desolation, the carnival of ruin that marked his famed march through the Carolinas? Or what an abysmal difference from the tone of Grant in his “Memoirs,” commenting upon the austere and impassible nature of Lee, denouncing the cause of the South as one of the worst that the world has seen, and justifying that colossal political crime, the enfranchisement of the blacks, as a means of restraining and repressing the white people of the South by the transfer of political control to the hands of the negro. Let the incredulous skeptical reader examine in detail the closing chapters of Grant's “Memoirs” and compare the utterances of this model of magnanimity with the ideal loftiness of Lee, of whom not an evil or malevolent word spoken of his enemies has found a place even in their own records, or been preserved to mar his perfect fame. There was none of that prevailing infirmity of our humanity which so often leads the irritated or offended party to wreak his malice upon the innocent, and make him a vicarious sufferer. General Lee on one occasion being annoyed almost beyond endurance by some accident or miscarriage, remarked to a member of his staff, “Now, Colonel —, don't lose your temper because I have lost mine.” Solicitude for others, their comfort, welfare, happiness, ran through all his actions, and was the inspiring motive of his life. Upon a critical occasion, a member of his staff on whom he leaned especially for aid and support, was struck in the eye by a shot of the enemy, his glasses broken and his face covered with blood. General Lee immediately sent him to the rear.
An incident signally illustrating the innate chivalry of Lee's character occurred during the advance of our army into Pennsylvania in June, 1863. As our hero was passing a Pennsylvania town, a young girl rushed to the front and planted the Stars and Stripes in his face. Without comment or protest Lee raised his hat, saluted the flag with his inimitable grace, and rode on. To one of his staff who was disposed to criticise his action, he replied, “We were always taught to salute the enemy's flag before a battle.” So the young and aspiring “Barbara Frietchie” was foiled, and Lee remained master of the field. Not long after the war, while the agony of death still brooded over our land, a Virginia lady, associated by ancestry and in ideals with all that is noblest in our Southern story, met Lee at Lexington, and the war was the topic of conversation. The lady, impressed beyond the power of language with the desolation of the Valley by Sheridan and Hunter, asked General Lee why he had never retaliated for the wanton atrocities inflicted upon this masterpiece of creation by the Federal commanders, to which Lee replied, “Yes, it was under consideration, it was discussed in our councils, but I could not do it, I could not do it.”
Lee's amazing versatility of genius adapted itself to all phases of development, from the child in arms to the sage and the oracle, or the famed characters from beyond the seas who sought him in the seclusion of his home at Lexington. During the critical stage of one of our principal encounters, a company of ladies was expressing apprehension as to Lee's possible defeat. “Oh, don't be uneasy,” said a niece of his, who was one of the party, “Uncle Robert knows how to manage them; for when we were children and he was stationed at Baltimore, he used to play a game of strategy with us and have us all shut up in rooms so that we couldn't get out until he let us out.” The subtlety of strategy was turned into a recreation for the little ones by its foremost living master.
[GENERAL LEE AND TRAVELER]
One of the most touching and impressive incidents of Lee's life occurred during the retreat of our army into Virginia after our disaster at Gettysburg. The General, exhausted beyond endurance by the tension of the long-drawn struggle, had fallen asleep by the roadside as the army, unfortunate but unsubdued, was passing by its adored chief. By some strange process of transmission the news spread like magic along the line that General Lee was asleep. At once all soldier boisterousness and uproar hushed into stillness, and the troops moved on with “measureless tread, like the step of the dead,” while their commander was enjoying his grateful rest.
One of the most forceful elements in the character of Lee as a man and a general, was his clearness and accuracy of judgment. His estimates of men were almost unfailing and his power in this regard asserted itself in every sphere of his multiform activity as commander of an army, head of a household or president of a college. While invested with absolute discretion as chief of the Confederate forces, February, 1865, one of his first acts was to restore Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, his former classmate, to the command in which he had been superseded by General Hood. When called to the presidency of Washington College he made it a condition of his acceptance that Colonel William Allan, whose brilliant record in the Army of Northern Virginia justified his trust and regard, should be a member of his academic faculty. The history and the work of the McDonough Institute near Baltimore are the vindication of his fine insight in this conspicuous instance. The spirit of Allan is impressed, let us hope, for all time, upon the famed school which was his special creation, which he fashioned and nourished into vigorous life, and transmitted with its rare potentialities to succeeding ages.
The comprehensive tenderness attributed by Tennyson to Hallam marked every phase of Lee's character, no less than the subtilizing intellect. Let us illustrate. A soldier of the Army of Northern Virginia received news that his wife and children were dying of starvation in the distant South, as he was serving in the trenches in front of Petersburg. The man's record was above praise, his courage phenomenal. On one occasion an immense shell, thrown from a Federal mortar, had fallen into our lines, the fuse still burning as the monster lay on the point of exploding in a group of Confederates. Without an instant's hesitation our soldier picked up the death-dealing missile and hurled it back across the earthwork. The agonized cry of wife and child, appealing for bread, was an ordeal to which his fearless soul was not equal, and he said to his comrades, “Boys, you know I'm no coward, but I'll be d—d if I'm going to stay here and see my family starve.” So he left his post, went to his far-off home in the South to minister to their relief, was arrested, brought back, tried by court martial and condemned to be shot for desertion in the face of the enemy. At this critical juncture the great human heart of Lee revealed itself. The record of the court pronouncing the sentence was scrutinized with the utmost minuteness, and the technical objection was urged that one of the witnesses for the prosecution had not been properly sworn. Upon this alleged ground the sentence was not confirmed, and the heroic soldier escaped the ignominious death of a deserter. The real inspiration, however, came from the commander-in-chief, whose all-embracing sympathy and gentleness triumphed over the extreme rigor of martial procedure. The lowliest private felt a perfect assurance of Lee's kindliness, of his righteousness and equity as applied to himself. A common soldier on one occasion, ignoring the forms and restraints of military etiquette, presented himself at Lee's headquarters and appealed to the General for protection against the brutal treatment he was accustomed to receive at the hands of his commanding officer. To which our chief, with that far-ranging courtliness which was never “haughty to the humble nor humble to the haughty,” replied, “My good man, tell your captain that General Lee says, the commander of the army says, he must treat you better.” All sorts and conditions of men, the prince, the peer, the poet, the scholar of affluent culture in great centers of learning across the seas who had never looked upon his face, the humble rustic fresh from the remoteness and isolation of his cot upon some far-off mountainside, the infant in arms and the refractory child who brooked not discipline nor submitted to restraint, fell under the wand of the magician and yielded to the spell which without effort, perhaps without consciousness, he laid upon heart, intellect, and will.
Lee's fine sense of humor sometimes stood him in good stead when it was necessary to convey a delicate rebuke or give utterance to some expression of disapproval. On one occasion, observing a suspicious looking jug in the tent occupied by some of his staff, as a sudden but unsuccessful attempt was made to conceal it, he remarked, “Ah, gentlemen, a mathematical problem, I suppose. You are endeavoring to discover the capacity of that jug.”
In its religious attitude the mind of Lee was eminently catholic and tolerant. A consistent member of the Protestant Episcopal church, the traditional and historical communion of the Virginia cavaliers, his mind was incapable of bigotry, or exclusiveness. “It is my especial aim to feel that I am a Christian,” he remarked to a friend. The consecrated heart, the life hid with Christ in God, was his test, rather than a rigid conformity to creed or ritual, which transfers to uncovenanted mercies, and excludes from the benefits of redemption all those who dissent from its prescriptive standards and find refuge in “the larger hope.” No purer illustration of the spirit which heralds the coming of Christian unity has been set before the world than the life and walk of Robert E. Lee.
The last public occasion upon which he was present, the last meeting that he ever attended, was a session of the vestry of his church at Lexington just before the beginning of the illness which resulted in his death. That he was a visible type of that redeemed citizenship whose heritage is the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness, it has been the aim of the present chapter to set forth. Our purpose has been in every phase of our narrative to let Lee speak for himself—a process of continuous revelation, not mere description or abstraction, is the ideal of the biographer. We trust that the narrative will present to the dawning generations upon whom rest the hopes and glories of the future an impression, by no means perfect but at least accurate, of that peerless gentleman and soldier in whose life and character our olden Southern civilization attained its highest point of greatness, and with whose overthrow it forever hasted to its setting. An Irish orator, in responding to the toast, “Robert E. Lee,” spoke more wisely than he knew when he declared “the solitude of George Washington was broken as Lee crossed the threshold of heaven.” When the two sovereign types of our Southern life met in the redeemed sphere
Thought leaped out to wed with thought,
Ere thought could wed itself with speech.
And of the one as of the other,
The great intelligences fair
That range above our mortal state,
In circle round the blessed gate,
Received and gave him welcome there,
And led him through the blissful climes,
And showed him in the fountain fresh,
All knowledge that the sons of flesh
Should gather in the cycled times.
While cherishing for Washington a reverence which, so far from abating, broadens and intensifies with the advance of the years, the character of Lee assumes more and more an ideal likeness and, contemplated in its steadily expanding light, is invested with a charm and radiance to which our history presents no parallel.
OUR HERO—THREE PEN PICTURES
[Kate Mason Rowland, in The American Home Journal.]
The widow of an old army officer, whose husband was afterwards a member of General Lee's staff under the Confederate Government, writes her recollections of General Lee when stationed in San Antonio, Texas, in 1858:
General Lee lived about a square and a half from us, near the river. He had a bath-house where L. and E. went to bathe every day or two. General Lee was very fond of them, and would say, “Now, little girls, when you come back all fresh and rosy, you must stop and see me, and I will give you a box of guava jelly.” He came to see us very often, as he was keeping house all alone, none of his family being with him. He would come to supper frequently, and was very fond of clabber, and our ginger cakes. General Lee had many visitors, officers passing through San Antonio, and others. Once two gentlemen from Philadelphia came to see him, and he told them he was going to give them some of his nice corn bread for supper, as they did not know what Southern corn bread was. He had a negro servant, Ive, who made the corn bread and was also the butler. The cook was an Irish woman and very ignorant of Southern cooking. The corn bread came on the table, and General Lee, after seeing that his guests were helped, took some himself. But he found it had a very peculiar taste, and, turning to Ive, said, “What's the matter with the corn bread? It is bitter and not good at all.” Upon investigation it turned out that the cook had taken the yeast cakes and baked them for corn muffins. In Virginia and throughout the South in those days, yeast was always made with a batter of corn meal, in which the hops were put, and these cakes of meal were laid aside to dry, then pieces broken off as they were needed for the bread.
General Lee told the story to his friends and laughed heartily over it. “But I was very much mortified, of course,” he added, “and I told the gentlemen that they must come to see me again, and I would give them real corn bread next time.”
A lady in Warrenton, Virginia, whose brother, a gallant young officer, was killed in a skirmish early in 1861, thus recalls her introduction to General Lee:
Soon after my brother's death my mother received a package containing a crape veil, a black mantle, and perhaps some other articles I do not now recollect, and the following unsigned note:
“Will the mother of Captain Marr permit a friend to contribute some small articles of mourning which may be acceptable in these hard times? She sympathizes deeply in your affliction, and has three members of her own family—her husband and two sons—engaged in this war. Your son died nobly in defense of his State, and his grave will be honored by the tears of all true patriots. Her prayers are offered that the God of all consolation may bless and comfort his family.”
We had no idea who the writer could be. My mother wore the articles. We had no difficulty in getting mourning. It was the first death of the war, and mourning goods, though high, could be obtained in the stores. There was the greatest sympathy expressed for us by every one, strangers as well as personal friends and acquaintances, and every one tried to help us in some way. We bought crape veils and crape for bonnets, and Miss Sinclair, who had a brother in the rifle company (commanded by Captain Marr), made our bonnets for nothing. And I wore that bonnet four years.
About the time of the second battle of Manassas, one morning just after breakfast, we heard an unusual commotion, and my sister and myself ran out to see what was the matter. We were told that the Confederates were in town. Then we thought we would go up the street a little way and hear all we could. So we went on, just as we were, without any bonnets or hats. Very soon we were told that General Lee was in town. We determined to go on, hoping to get a distant glimpse of one of whom we had heard so much. Then it was said, “He is holding a reception in Judge Tyler's house.” We kept on with the increasing throng, and when we reached the house we were met by our pastor, Mr. (now Dr.) Barten, who insisted upon our going in and being introduced to the General.
Somewhat awed, we unwillingly went in. The Tyler house is a large one, with a spacious hall and two parlors opening into each other. The hall was crowded with people of the town, coming and going. In the front parlor General Lee was receiving the callers, and in the back parlor General Ewell was doing the same.
“Come on,” said Mr. Barten; “come on. I'll introduce you first to General Ewell.”
We went in and were presented in due form. The General was very kind and cordial to us on account of our brother. After some little talk he asked if our mother had ever received some dress articles of mourning and a note, and said that he knew they were sent by Mrs. R. E. Lee; that the General was in the adjoining room; that he would give himself the honor and pleasure of introducing us, and we would then have an opportunity of making an acknowledgment of Mrs. Lee's thoughtful kindness. This action of General Ewell was an unusual honor, and we felt it deeply.
When we entered, General Lee was standing by a small table on which there was a high pile of presents the people had brought him. The only thing I distinctly remember was a pair of handsome gauntlet gloves. I thought the General the handsomest and noblest looking officer I ever saw of both armies. We were introduced as sisters of the late Captain Marr, and the General greeted us most graciously and gracefully. We sent our grateful thanks and acknowledgments to Mrs. Lee and “passed on.”
There was a very eccentric person living in Warrenton at this time, Miss Polly Porter. She was our near neighbor, and was very fond of my brother. She was an ardent Southerner, and had many a skirmish of words with the Yankees. She was homely in features, tall and large, had very white hair, and was loud and boisterous in her manner. The first time the Yankees came to Warrenton they, of course, stationed pickets all around, and several of them rode into town through each street. Miss Polly, standing on her porch, saw two of them riding up Culpeper street, and. mistaking them for Confederates, cried out, “That's right! Come on and keep the Yankees away!”
“We're Yankees ourselves,” they replied, “as we will soon let all you white heads know!”
Well, as we stood in the throng around General Lee, we heard a murmur, “Here's Miss Polly! Miss Polly is coming! Do let me see and hear!”
The people gathered around in a circle, and in stalked Miss Polly, tall and gaunt, with a wine bottle in her hand.
“General,” said she, “here is a bottle of fine wine I have kept for many years, and have always said none should have it but General Lee. And here,” she continued, raising her voice and extending her right hand, “here is a hand that has never yet shuck the hand of a Yankee.“
The people laughed, the General's eyes twinkled merrily, but with all his own sweet grace he thanked her in kind, pleasant words, took the bottle and placed it on the table with the other gifts.
That was the only time I ever saw General Lee. I was told that he sent for a gentleman, our neighbor, and questioned him about the roads. This gentleman, who had always lived in the place, said afterward, “I very soon found out that General Lee knew a great deal more about the roads than I did.”
“Doctor,” said General Dick Taylor to the Rev. Kensey Johns Stewart one day, just after a battle, as a group of officers and the chaplain, who was invited to join them, were making their frugal breakfast off of ears of roasted corn, “what is your rank in the army, and what is your office?”
“You must guess,” replied the Doctor.
“Higher yet,” and so on with the same reply each time. Finally, when they had reached the rank of commander-in-chief and Dr. Stewart had still answered “higher yet,” the General asked him to explain what he meant.
“Answer this question, Which is the highest in rank, he who calls or he who obeys the call?”
The officers replied, “Why, of course, he who calls.”
Then said Dr. Stewart: “Well, at Leesburg the other day I was seated in the drawing-room of a house there, with the family, officers staying there and others, collected for prayers. Generals Lee and Jackson were in an upper room, in close consultation, with the door locked. I sent a message to them to come down to prayers. General Chilton, who was Lee's adjutant-general, took the message to them. I had before me the family Bible, which had been brought in and placed on a little stand before me, and I went on with the service. The two generals came down and took seats a little behind me. And I heard afterward from a lady who was present and sat near them that as they rose from their knees the traces of tears were on the faces of both Lee and Jackson. Many wondered at my having the boldness to interrupt them in their consultation. Not an officer present would have dared to do it.”
The Rev. Mr. Stewart had married a first cousin of General Lee, and partly owing to this connection, partly on account of his own character and faithful services, this gentleman had much influence with General Lee, so that when, in camp, any one wanted to ask a favor of the General, it would be said, “Get Dr. Stewart to do it.”
About the time of the battle of Sharpsburg, General Lee was encamped near the big spring at Antietam. Two ladies came out from Hagerstown and asked to see him. The officers who were standing about said they could not disturb the General, but if there was any one who could get the ladies an interview it would be Dr. Stewart. The clergyman was applied to and consented to try, thinking that General Lee would be rather pleased to have this little diversion. He went forward alone to speak first to the General, and a little girl, about ten or twelve, carrying a basket of peaches, who had come up beside him. unobserved, said, “Let me go, too.” Dr. Stewart took the child bv the hand and led her to the table where the General and his staff were eating dinner under a beautiful wide-spreading tree. The little girl handed the basket to General Lee and said, “General Lee, here are some peaches I have brought you. Some of them were planted early, and when they ripened we thought them very good indeed, and we called them the General Beauregard. These others came later, and we liked them very much also, and we named them President Davis. But these which were ripened last we think the best of all, and we have called them General Lee.”
The General was much gratified, and his officers were delighted at this pretty compliment. General Lee then came forward to see the two ladies, seats were brought to them, and they conversed pleasantly for some minutes. The General, walking bare-headed, holding the little girl's hand, escorted the ladies back to the road, some distance off, before taking leave of them.
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