100 Years Ago
Robert E. Lee Centennial Celebration, 1907
Note: The following is taken from General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox, edited by Franklin L. Riley (New York, 1922), pp. 196–202.
TRIBUTE TO GENERAL LEE AS A MAN
By MR. WM. A. ANDERSON, Rector of Washington and Lee University
Extract from remarks made at a banquet at Washington and Lee University upon the Centennial of the birth of Robert E. Lee, January 19th, 1907.
WE presented to us here to-day a striking and most gratifying evidence of the restoration of good feeling between the sections in the pilgrimage to this Mecca of the South of a distinguished son of Massachusetts who worthily bears a name honored and illustrious in the history of our country, through five generations, to lay upon the tomb of Lee the tribute of his just praise and admiration.*
*Reference is here made to the visit of Mr. Charles Francis Adams and his address at the centennial celebration of General Lee's birth, which celebration was held in the chapel of Washington and Lee University, January 19, 1907. In after years Mr. Adams wrote: “The Lee Centennial is my one effort . . . which I now regard as having been somewhat better than a mere waste of time and force. Indeed, from the literary point of view, I should put it in the forefront of anything I may have done.” It has “since been for me one of the pleasantest things in life to look back on. . . . This occasion was in every way a success and constituted a very grateful incident in life—good and altogether pleasant to look back on. It was not marred, as I afterwards realized, by a single untoward incident. . . . What I offered was received with a warmth of applause which I have never elsewhere or on any other occasion had equalled. Most of all, I gratified a large number of most excellent people. Altogether pleasant at the time, it was in retrospect an occasion yet more pleasant.” See Charles Francis Adams, 1835–1915, an Autobiography, 206–208.
In June, 1916, there was placed on the wall of the Lee Memorial Chapel a bronze table which bears the following legend:
Charles Francis Adams
Presented by Southern Men
In Appreciation of
His Friendship for the South
And His Noble Tribute to
Robert Edward Lee.
Above the inscription is a profile of Mr. Adams in bas relief.—Editor
Those who were once his enemies in war, and their descendants, have come to recognize the greatness and goodness of him who was the very incarnation of the Confederate cause, and whom the educated civilized world is beginning to regard as the greatest man of the century which gave him to mankind.
While they begin to discern the beauty, the symmetry, and the majestic proportions of his character, they can never see or know him as the Southern people saw and knew him, in all the grace, and manliness, and glory of his perfect manhood; for to us he was what a true and loving father is to his children, guide, counselor, benefactor, and devoted friend.
And it is this which measurably explains what is, as well the most marked feature of his career as one of the strongest proofs of his true greatness, namely, that he was and continues to be the most beloved man among the masses of the people among whom he lived and whom he served, that this land has ever known.
Not only his soldiers, but the people of the South loved him and still love him with a devotion which is very nearly akin to adoration. Thousands of his soldiers would have esteemed it a privilege to die for him. The world would understand this, if the world could have seen and known him as we saw and knew him.
It would be difficult to conceive of a nobler presence or a more attractive personality than his! A form “of noblest mold” crowned by a countenance perfect in its calm benignity, and manly beauty. Large lustrous dark brown eyes, kindly eyes—honest, earnest eyes—which you saw at once were the windows of a great soul. Eyes that gleamed with a high unfaltering purpose, and a dauntless courage, and could serenely look impending disaster and death in the face; and anon would beam with a loving sympathy and a tenderness which were almost divine. A bearing, simple, graceful, and natural, in which there was modesty without diffidence, and supreme dignity without self-assertion.
It was this actual personal Lee whom his soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of the women and children of the Southern States knew and loved as no leader of men, certainly none of this continent, has ever been loved, before, or since his day.
And this was the Lee who made his home here in Lexington for the last five years of his life on earth, and whom it was the priceless privilege of the men, women and children of this community to see and know, and to honor and to love as no man has ever been loved by the generous and devoted hearts of a loyal and a grateful people.
This was the Lee who, while the people whom he had led to victory after victory, had been compelled, by exhausting, to surrender to overwhelming numbers and resources, sitting amid the ashes of their homes and their hopes, still benumbed by the shock of their great disaster, were slowly gathering up their energies to wrest a livelihood for their children from a wasted and desolate land, bade them to trust in God, take hope, and be of good cheer. It was even then that with a prescience which stamps him not only as a statesman, but as a prophet, he saw clearly that immeasurably the most important interest of the South was the education of her children; that through their right training and education alone the people of these states could regain their preëminence and attain to a degree of surpassing prosperity, power and usefulness.
He determined to devote, and he did devote, what was left to him of strength and energy and enthusiasm for the remaining years of his life, to this great cause—the cause of education, and primarily to the education of the young men of the Southern States.
This was the Lee who then accepted the presidency of Washington College.
The institution had then already been enriched by patriotic associations and memories, and appropriately bore the name of the Father of his Country, till then its greatest benefactor; but its walls had been dismantled, its apparatus and educational appliances destroyed, and its small endowment diminished in value, so that the work of its regeneration was almost ad difficult as the building up of a new school would have been.
Here he came on that lovely autumn day of 1865, and from that moment till now, and for all coming time, if the custodians of this university are faithful to their high trust, the influence of his personality, of his character, and his name, is, and will be, a part of the very atmosphere and life and being of this university, as it is now, and must ever be, its most precious possession.
His life and the lessons of his example served while he was here, and will serve for all time, to inculcate in the minds of the ingenuous youth of the country who, if we are true to his memory and his teachings, shall in increasing numbers gather here as the years and the centuries go by, not only the lessons of devotion to civic duty, of duty to man,—but the higher lessons of piety, and religion, of duty to God; for of all the Godly and Christian men who have been connected with this venerable institution as academy, college and university, none were more Godly, none more devout, none more sincere, consistent and humble followers of the meek and lowly Jesus, than the modest Christian gentleman who lies buried over yonder by the chapel for the worship of the living God, which he caused to be erected there.
Well may we cherish his memory.
Well may we again and again recall the lessons of his life and repeat those lessons to our children and our children's children.
Well may we remember the measureless debt of gratitude which the people of this whole land, but particularly the people of Virginia and the Confederate South, and most of all the alumni, students, faculty, and trustees of this university owe to him who was their greatest benefactor.
I have spoken of Lee as a prophet. His was the optimism which came not merely from hope, but was founded in faith,—faith in God, faith in his countrymen, and faith in the free institutions of his country.
In perhaps the darkest hours which followed the surrender of the armies of the Confederacy, when the vials of sectional wrath were being poured out upon a helpless and almost defenseless people, and dark and darkening clouds seemed to cover the political and commercial horizon of the lately Confederated States, General Lee wrote as follows:
Although the future is still dark, and the prospects gloomy, I am confident that if we all unite in doing our duty, and earnestly work to extract what good we can out of the evil that now hovers over our dear land, the time is not distant when the angry clouds will be lifted from our horizon, and the sun in his pristine brightness shine forth again.
And here to-day, and for all coming time, we who are Virginians can have no nobler motto and no more inspiring call to patriotic duty than the eloquent reply which our immortal commander made to a despairing young Virginian who had inquired of him, “what the future had in store for us poor Virginians,” an answer which deserves to live forever in the hearts of all Virginians:
You can work for Virginia, to build her up again. You can teach your children to love and cherish her!
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