The Truth about Robert E. Lee

America is faced with yet another polarizing issue in the destruction of statues and monuments that honor the great men of the Civil War.  The arguments for and against this phenomenon are mostly visceral, lacking a strong factual base, and often reflecting precious little reasoning.  This summer, Sharon and I visited Lexington, Va.,  the home of Robert E. Lee and the legendary general Stonewall Jackson, both buried here.  I am offering a short, factual glimpse into the life of Robert E. Lee, so that folks on both sides of the destruction rage can react with other than hatred and dismissal.

Robert E. Lee was an honorable man, with an impeccable background and education.   The current debate often ignores the General’s true identity, which some may find surprising.  Lee was, first and foremost, an accomplished Army officer.  He was deeply torn over his loyalty to both the Union and his home state of Virginia, declining an offer from Abraham Lincoln to command the Union Army, a position that he deeply wanted.  He correctly predicted, upon his acceptance of command of the Confederate Army, that America was going to pass through a “terrible ordeal”.  The General understood war, once saying,  “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it”.  He was a consummate fighting general, but executed war from a tactical perspective while avoiding the hatred that soon consumed both armies.

Robert E. Lee, although a slave owner, described slavery as a “moral and political evil”. The day after Mr. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect, the General freed his family slaves.  Shortly after the war’s end, the General gave an interview during which he strongly condemned the assination of President Lincoln and stated flatly that some of the best men in the South had long sought an end to slavery.  Indeed the General, who was not taken to offhand commentary, remarked, “I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished”.  The historian, Jay Winik, notes the war’s official end at Appomattox failed to stop the hostilities, the scope of which still threatened the sanctity of the union.  Jefferson Davis, on the run, called upon southerners to take the fight to the hills, guerilla style, and continue the cause.  General Lee soundly rejected this call to guerilla warfare, a point he made emphatically at Appomattox.  He was a revered and trusted leader in the south and his call for a return to normalcy was likely instrumental in avoiding the creation of two countries after the end of the war. General Grant, in response to the character and humility of General Lee, rejected any and all calls for charges of treason on the part of General Lee. 

To those who advocate the destruction of the statues and monuments related to the war, they may have an ally in the General, who declined an invitation to participate in a ceremonial meeting at Gettysburg, some years after the wars end.  The General is quoted as saying, “I think it wiser…not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”  

Robert E. Lee was a gentleman and certainly a scholar.  Like many fine men of that era, he chose to be on the losing side of history as a result of strong loyalties to their home states.  The General understood both sides of the issue, a characteristic we see lacking today in the visceral reaction to the destruction of the concrete and bronze reminders of our history.  The history and character of this great man deserves far more consideration than is currently being accorded him as elements of our society seek to erase him from our past.

Is that too much to ask?  I think not.

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