Hunger and thirst could not depress them. Cold could not chill them. Every hardship became a joke. Never was such a triumph of spirit over matter. . . . One by one Death challenged them. One by one they smiled in his grim visage and refused to be dismayed.
“Human virtue ought to be equal to human calamity,” Lee himself had said. Was he not proving it now in the supreme test? But he was not thinking of himself. Is the Cause lost—the Cause he would give his life for so gladly? Had he not given a thousand lives for it in spirit? What is it his Friend is saying to him? “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” Did Robert E. Lee learn, through this awful experience, that there is something better than dying for country? His patriotism had now become the Religion of Country.
The next day, April 10th, he published his last order, which in the nature of things took the form of a valedictory:
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 stedfast 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 till exchanged.
After this good-bye, Robert E. Lee turned and rode away toward Richmond, leaving them behind him, “sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake,” in “that they should see his face no more.” A few others, going his way, joined him and rode on in silence. At last he was to be permitted to live at home with his loved ones, a private citizen. But no, after sacrificing to his high sense of duty the beautiful Virginia estates that were theirs, he and his invalid wife with their devoted children had no home!
Anyway, he was at last a private citizen. Citizen? No, only a paroled prisoner denied the franchise and other rights and rites of citizenship—like a common criminal? No, more like an uncommon criminal—the brutal murderer of many men! There were cruel, unseeing ones at the North who had said hanging was too good for him. A ribald song sounded in his ears. It I pained him the more because it was a leer against “Jeff” Davis—that sincere Christian gentleman. The fact that they might hang him did not particularly concern Robert E. Lee—except for the sake of his suffering family and friends. That might be the easiest way, after all, to witness for the Cause. Yes, Lowell was right, in “The Present Crisis”:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne—
In contrast with such lofty sentiment, the shallow, spiteful spirit of the worst element at the North sickened Lee. How little they know what spirit we—men like President Davis—are of!
* * * * * * *
The little squad in tattered gray arrived on the bank of the James, opposite Richmond. The bridges had long since been destroyed by his own order—to convert the river into a moat like that of a great castle. Lee's home-coming was described by an eye-witness:
Next morning a small group of horsemen appeared on the further side of the pontoons. By some strange intuition it was known that General Lee was among them, and a crowd collected all along the route he would take, silent and bareheaded. There was no excitement, no hurrahing; but as the great chief passed, a deep, loving murmur, greater than these, rose from the very hearts of the crowd. Taking off his hat and simply bowing his head, the man great in adversity passed silently to his own door; it closed upon him, and his people had seen him for the last time in his battle harness.
Richmond had fallen, and some sections of it had been burned by the inhabitants before leaving the city. Grant had refused to enter there in triumph. Instead, he had said: “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause.”
So, when the Northern soldiers began firing cannon to celebrate the surrender, their chief stopped the salutes with this message: “The war is over, the rebels are again our countrymen, and the best way of showing our rejoicing will be to abstain from all such demonstration.”
When many Southern people heard of these and later kindnesses to their beloved leader, they ceased calling Grant a “butcher.” His terrible measures were more like those of a surgeon in the last extremity. It was a signal proof of Lee's relation to the South, that, as soon as he gave up, the war was ended.
General Chamberlain, who received the surrender of the Confederate arms and colors—as “a tribute of brave men to brave men, and a part of the cementing of the Union”—referred to the silence with which it was achieved:
General Gordon, . . . facing his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us . . . honor answering honor.
In the White House, during the meeting of the President with his Cabinet, the news of Lee's surrender was received. “At the suggestion of Mr. Lincoln, they all dropped on their knees and offered, in silence and in tears, their heartfelt acknowledgments to the Almighty.”
On the night of the day on which General Lee returned to Richmond, a crowd of people gathered around the Executive Mansion, with a band, to serenade the President and hear what he would say. He congratulated them because the cruel war was over, and suggested mild and friendly measures to win the South again to its primal allegiance. As he closed his remarks and was going in, he turned back and called out to the band:
“Play ‘Dixie,’ boys—play ‘Dixie!’ You know we have a right to it now.” Those were the last words Abraham Lincoln spoke in public.
Three days later, the President was murdered at Ford's Theatre, by an irresponsible, crack-brained actor. John Wilkes Booth did not represent the South in that act any more than Charles J. Guiteau stood for the Republican party when he shot President Garfield.
That madman's freak inflamed the North, and did much to embitter again the mollified spirit, all through the trying months and years of so-called Reconstruction.
One Sunday night General Lee was pained by hearing the minister bitterly denounce the North from his pulpit. After the service he took the rector to task. “Doctor,” said he, “there is a good old Book which says, ‘Love your enemies.’ Do you think your remarks this evening were quite in the spirit of that teaching?” The pastor was astonished to hear a soldier who had “suffered many things” at the hands of the North speak without resentment. At another time the General explained his attitude more fully: “I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South dearest rights. But I have never cherished bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”
One cannot help asking, Why should a man who placed such implicit confidence in God be permitted to suffer defeat? His relations with the Almighty were even closer and more personal than Cromwell's—more like the intimacy of Moses, whom he also resembled in meekness and modesty. Some of his orders to his men read like the charges of Moses to the children of Israel in the wilderness. Once, in speaking about prayer, a minister in his army said of the commander: “He grasped my hand as, with voice and eye that betrayed deep emotion, he assured me that it was not only his comfort, but his only comfort, and declared the simple and absolute trust that he had in God and God alone.”
Lee talked with God as a dutiful son with his father. He realized that, while God responds to prayer, He is not bound always to answer in the affirmative. He must sometimes withhold for the good of His child. “Special Providence” with him did not mean special petting. His Heavenly Father did not grant every request as a human parent does when spoiling his child. Robert E. Lee, as with his prototype, Moses, was “choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God. . . . By faith he forsook Egypt. . . . He endured, as seeing Him who is invisible.”
Like Moses, he also recognized the voice of God when it said No, as well as when it answered in the affirmative. Therefore he accepted defeat, as he had welcomed victory, as the will of God. He recognized that God's dealings were not with him alone but with the whole South—yes, with the whole country, for he had prayed daily for the North. He knew that President Lincoln and many thousands of devout men and women among “those people,” as he called them, were praying also to the same God. Not only did Lee believe that slavery was wrong but that it was even worse for the white race than for the negroes themselves. He had come to realize the rank inconsistency of linking—manacling—Southern liberty with Southern slavery. The principles he believed in and had given thousands of loved and precious lives for had fallen upon evil times and into evil company.
Therefore he recognized the hand of God in the final defeat of the Southern armies. From that hour he was never impatient or querulous about what happened. The same sublime sense of Duty that prompted his acceptance of the sword now controlled him in surrendering it. Then whatever came to him he patiently “endured as seeing Him who is invisible.”
He read in his Bible that Moses, who had hoped all things, believed all things, endured all things for forty years, was not allowed to enter the Land of Promise, but he was permitted to see it from afar. He knew also that the “Captain of his Salvation” he was trying so faithfully to follow, had suffered things infinitely worse than death in apparent failure. And Abraham Lincoln's assassination on the eve of the triumph of all his hopes—would not God overrule even that for the good of the greater country—the Promised Land of his own love and of Lincoln's?
There can be no doubt whatever that Robert E. Lee, with his God-given insight into the future, saw in the removal of Lincoln from the work of bringing the South, with all its noble chivalry, back to its earlier loyalty to the greater and better United States, had left so much the more for him to do. It was a work which he alone could do, as the beloved of the Southern people. Lee was permitted to do what Lincoln might have done if he had lived.
Therefore, he looked upon his personal trials as trivial. Great as Robert E. Lee's life had been—even as the rival of Napoleon in military genius—he was now armed and equipped in spirit for the grandest triumph of all. As “he that ruleth his spirit is better than he that taketh a city,” he snatched from the jaws of defeat one of the sublimest triumphs ever compassed by one man.
Of course, he was too modest to see himself as anything other than a “poor old Confederate,” as he ruefully called himself when people crowded round to honor him. All he meant to do was to retire to some quiet spot to pray for his beloved South, to love his enemies and to bless those who persecuted him.
Many stories are told of different propositions made to him, all looking to his own comfort and that of his family. An English admirer offered him a fine estate, with an income of $15,000 a year, if he would only accept it and live abroad. Lee wrote: “The thought of abandoning the country and all that must be left in it is abhorrent to my feelings, and I prefer to struggle for its restoration and share its fate than give up all as lost, and Virginia has need for all her sons.”
He was tendered the presidency of an insurance company with a salary of $50,000 a year. He declined this, saying he knew nothing about the business. “But, General,” said the insurance man, “you will not be expected to do any work; what we wish is the use of your name.”
“Don't you think,” answered Lee, significantly, “that if my name is worth $50,000 a year, I ought to take good care of it?”
The appeal that came closest to his heart was that of an old Confederate soldier who called on him in Richmond with this eager proposal:
“General, I'm one of your soldiers, and I've come here as the representative of four of my comrades who are too ragged and dirty to venture to see you.
“We're all Virginians, General, from Roanoke County, and they sent me here to see you on a little business. They've got our President in prison, and now”—here the poor fellow gasped—“they—talk—about—arresting—you! General, we can't—we'll never stand and see that! Now, we five men have got about 250 acres of land in Roanoke—very good land, too, sir—and if you'll come up there and live, I've come to offer you all of it, and we will do all the work for you as your field hands, and you'll have very little trouble managing it with us to help you. And, General, there are near about a hundred of us left in old Roanoke, and they could never take you there, for we could hide you in the hollows of the mountains and the last man of us would die before we'd let 'em get you!”
Robert E. Lee's deep eyes were wet when he gratefully declined the offer, and took care that the ragged envoy, better dressed than when he came, was loaded with grateful remembrances for the other four who had offered to lay down their lives for him if need be.
In spite of all these requests and appeals, Lee's mind was fixed upon a quiet retreat, as he wrote to a friend: “I am looking for some little quiet house in the woods where I can procure shelter and my daily bread, if permitted by the victor.”
“The victor” now took the form of President (elected Vice-President) Johnson, (a Southern man!) and of a grand jury in beloved Virginia, which indicted Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis for treason. This jury was composed of negroes and low whites who acted under the direction of a malignant mind. Lee regarded this action with supreme indifference, once making this remark: “I have heard of the indictment by the grand jury of Norfolk, and have made up my mind to let the authorities take their course. I have no wish to avoid any trial the Government may order, and I cannot flee.”
But the President's proclamation granting freedom to all the South but Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and all officers in the army above a certain rank, would involve others in expense and danger, and was contrary to the terms of the surrender at Appomattox. So he wrote to General Grant:
I had supposed that the officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia were by the terms of their surrender protected by the United States Government so long as they conformed to its conditions.
In this letter he sent his application “for the benefits and full restoration of all rights and privileges extended,” including those of ordinary citizenship. In doing this he was setting an example consistent with his urging, in every way he could, that “all should unite in an honest effort to obliterate the effects of the war and restore the blessings of peace.”
To the eternal credit of General Grant be it said that he wrote his official indignation to Secretary-of-War Stanton, and added, in a note to President Johnson:
“I have made certain terms with Lee, the best and only terms. If I had told him and his army that their liberty would be invaded, that they would be open to arrest, trial and execution for treason, Lee would never have surrendered, and we should have lost many lives in destroying him.
“Now, my terms of surrender were according to military law, and so long as General Lee observes his parole, I will never consent to his arrest. I will resign the command of the army rather than execute any order directing me to arrest Lee or any of his commanders so long as they obey the laws.” (This is a reminder of the very spirit which Robert E. Lee manifested in resigning his command, four years before.)
The indictment against General Lee was quashed, but President Johnson paid no attention to his application for pardon, so Robert E. Lee went to and fro, himself a “Man without a Country,” yet urging other men to become citizens of that country!
Before he could move to the modest little place where he could live in retirement, General Lee was offered the presidency of Washington College, an institution then more than one hundred years old. “The war had practically closed its doors, its buildings were pillaged and defaced and its library scattered.” It had now only four professors. Even the small salary of the president would depend mostly on his own efforts and influence. Yet as soon as Lee was convinced that the incumbency of a disfranchised prisoner-at-large would not be an incumbrance, he gladly accepted the position, for this stated reason: “I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish. I have led the men of the South in battle, I have seen many of them die on the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life.”
Here was an aged, white-haired man entering upon a new career instead of retiring to rest after an arduous, eventful life in which he had been making history. He was doing all this, too, without any preparation for such work since the school-days of his boyhood in Alexandria, and the few years he was superintendent at West Point. But he was well fitted to follow the great Teacher, as an educator of the heart. His meekness is disclosed in a few lines from a letter written at this time: “Life is indeed gliding away, and I have nothing good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honor of God.”
This was true in a way of which the self-depreciating writer did not dream. Great as his achievements had been, those yet to come were more than great, they were sublime.
Nothing could have been more modest than the elderly, full-bearded man riding alone up into the western mountains on the old white horse which had carried him through the thick of many a fray. His love of his horse never grew old. One Summer, while he was absent, the master wrote back: “How is ‘Traveler?’ Tell him I miss him dreadfully, and have repented of our separation but once—and that is, the whole time since we parted!”Once, as he mounted “Traveler,” while taking leave of some ladies, he saw one of them reaching out to pluck a white hair from the horse's mane. Wishing to spare the animal the least hurt, General Lee doffed his hat, bent his own white head low before the lady, and said, with a beseeching smile, “Please, madam, take one of mine instead!”
The General was inaugurated President of Washington College on October 2nd, 1865, with simple ceremonies, and started, in every way possible, to build up the college. His renown soon attracted students and endowments. Instead of the military regulations one would expect from a man who had spent nearly forty years in the army service, he announced: “We have but one rule here, that every student be a gentleman.”
The young men believed that if there had been a chair for instruction in that popular study, their president was the best possible teacher! Far from being a martinet in matters of etiquet or convention, President Lee once remarked: “I always respect persons and care little for precedent.”
He was called to Washington in March, 1866, to testify before the Congressional committee on Reconstruction. Although he considered the Government policy a hideous blunder, he won the admiration of the whole country by his fairness, candor and fine feeling. After returning home, his daughter remarked upon his new hat. He replied with a laugh: “You do not like my hat? Why, there were a thousand people on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington the other day admiring this hat!” This illustrated the enthusiasm he encountered wherever he went. In the South, whether in city or country, they cheered him, greatly to his embarrassment.
The president of the struggling college was forced to refuse a friend who offered him a salary of $20,000 a year, as president of a substantial company. “I would like to make some money for Mrs. Lee,” he said, “as she has not much left, if it does not require me to leave the college.” But President Lee considered it his duty to give the college all of himself at about one-tenth the additional salary he had declined.
One Summer, while he was away for his health, the trustees of the college, in consideration of the sacrifices he was making, and knowing that nearly the whole of Mrs. Lee's great fortune had been swept away by the war, voted to present him with a house and settle an annuity of $3,000 a year on his family.
Lee emphatically declined this. In thanking the board, he wrote: “I am unwilling that my family should become a tax to the college, but desire that all its funds should be devoted to the purposes of education. I feel sure that, in case a competency should not be left to my wife, her children would never suffer her to want.”
In spite of his limited resources he helped his sons establish themselves on farms, encouraged them to work hard at manual toil, telling them that the land would soon reward their labors, and that the future of the State and the nation depended on the industry and thrift of the farmers. His far-seeing eye had already beheld what the New South was yet to be.
General Lee was invited to become a candidate for governor of Virginia— probably the only civil office he had ever cared to hold, because his father, “Light-Horse Harry,” had filled it. But he refused even to consider it. He still felt the apparent disgrace of disfranchisement, as if he were, in very deed, a criminal! Besides, it would impair his influence with the people of the South if he went into time-serving politics.
Many men, official and military, North as well as South, tried to get expressions of approval from him, but he politely declined to be drawn into any controversy. He carefully abstained from making any remarks or criticism even about those who had been bitterly hostile to him. Having occasion to be in Washington, in 1869, soon after General Grant's inauguration, he called upon him but considerately refused to ask the President to visit Washington College, as had been suggested, lest it embarrass that official, or be made an occasion for hostile remark.
A young professor in the college harshly criticized Grant one day, and President Lee said severely:
Sir, if you ever presume to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this college.
To a Southern lady who inveighed against the national order of things, he replied earnestly: “Madam, don't bring up your sons to detest the United States Government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans!”
One day the college president was seen at the gate talking in a friendly manner with a poor old man to whom he gave some money and sent on his way rejoicing. The observer asked who the stranger was.
“One of our old soldiers,” said the General.
“To whose command did he belong?”
“Oh—he was one of those who fought against us,” said Lee gently, “but we are all one now, and must make no difference in our treatment of them.”
Perhaps there was never a better example of meekness under trying circumstances than the simple story of a sophomore who had been called before the president to be impressed with the fact that he must mend his ways or become a failure in life.
“But, General, you failed!” answered the youth (who, no doubt, regretted that thoughtless remark all through his after life). The great man of his day and generation answered without the least resentment: “I hope that you may be more fortunate than I.”
Because he said least about what he felt most deeply, there can be no doubt that Robert E. Lee suffered keenly under his disfranchisement. The story of “The Man without a Country” had appeared early in the war, and such a tale must have made an abiding appeal to a man who loved Country so much.
General Zachary Taylor, another great military man of the South, had been elected to the presidency without ever having voted in his life. Here, now, was Robert E. Lee—far greater as a man and as a general—who, by his own personal influence, had done more for the country than any other living man in bringing back the Southern States into the Union, yet he was not allowed even to cast his vote which had now become the privilege of the most vicious and ignorant negro!
In his habit of self-depreciation Lee felt all this as keenly as though his home and property had been confiscated and he himself exiled from the country of his birth. No wonder that he yearned for the Home he so firmly believed was prepared for him by the Friend who had gone before him into the Beyond.
This was all the more heartbreaking in that he was too considerate to speak even to his wife of his unutterable loss. His health had not been good after that illness in the Wilderness. He had never seemed quite so strong after the mental anguish before Appomattox. His famous physical heroism in the war was mere indifference beside the moral courage which carried him through the spiritual agony that followed. It was like an internal wound that proved to be mortal, of which no one knew until after he was gone.
The dagger of his disfranchisement was driven deeper into his own heart by the exasperating experiences of his beloved South under the ill-advised measures of “Reconstruction,” often executed by Southern villains of the deepest dye. Unable to cry out against it, lest it add to the anguish of those he loved best, he bore it all in smiling silence. In his age and feebleness, as he witnessed the needless wranglings and recriminations, how he longed, like the homesick Scot in a foreign land, for his “Ain Countrie!”
Early in 1870 his strength finally gave way and he consented to go South with his daughter Agnes in quest of health. They visited his father's “Light-Horse Harry's,” grave on Cumberland Island, and that of his daughter Annie, over whose death he had wept so bitterly in the little tent not far from Fredericksburg.
Everywhere he went he received an ovation, but he could in no wise understand the love that all the people bore him. He returned, hoping against hope that his health had improved, and opened the college as usual that Fall. Coming home one evening after a trying day at his regular work, followed by a three-hour vestry meeting, he became unconscious at the supper table. After lingering for two weeks, he passed away on the morning of October 12th. During his delirium he seemed to have gone back into his greatest battle—Chancellorsville—where he lost his “right arm,” “Stonewall” Jackson, whose last words there had been: “Tell A. P. Hill to prepare for action.” General Lee's last command was, “Tell A. P. Hill he must come up”—then the David and Jonathan of the Confederacy met and embraced in their “Ain Countrie.” They now lie near each other in their home town of Lexington.
Robert E. Lee's name is linked with that of his father's friend in the title of the college he did so much to make—Washington and Lee University. He did not die literally a “Man without a Country,” for Andrew Johnson had, on his last Christmas in the presidential office, extended a formal pardon to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other men of high rank and achievement from whom it had been withheld. But, except in foolish form, it was far beyond the poor power of such a man as “Andy” Johnson to withhold citizenship from, or grant it to, such a man as Robert E. Lee! By his simple refusal to perform an official act, President Johnson had foolishly deprived the country of a legal right to have and to hold a citizen who was even then proving himself a most dutiful son—the greatest man living within her borders since the tragic death of Abraham Lincoln.
Only three men have possessed the country in such a lofty and lawful proprietorship: Washington, the father, Lincoln, the saver, and Lee, the redeemer of his country.
As George Washington, by force of the personal love of all the people, was able to join the States together in a mutual bond, called the Constitution of the United States; and as Abraham Lincoln, who, like Samson of old, conquered more people in his seemingly disastrous death than all those he had won during his lifetime; so Robert E. Lee, through the pure and lofty loyalty of his life, brought back into one the eleven States that had seceded against his will, and locked them into a firm and eternal Union, from which “they shall go no more out forever.”
What, then, did the eye of his sublime faith see from the Mount of Vision? Better, far better than the Promised Land of Moses, Robert E. Lee beheld from afar—not “the Lost Cause,” but his “Paradise Regained”—yet to be, in the highest and noblest sense, his “Ain Countrie.”
“He hath showed thee, O Man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?