Some of our readers south of the Mason-Dixon line no doubt have perhaps felt left out in my many posts regarding Abraham Lincoln. I am fully aware that great Americans fought on both sides of the Civil War, and one of the greatest of Americans, of his time or any time, was Robert E. Lee.
Always outnumbered, with troops often dressed in rags, ill-fed, ill-supplied, he led his men to magnificent victories in the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Fighting another great general, Grant, he achieved a stalemate in 1864 against an army that had more than a two-to-one advantage, and prolonged the life of his country by almost a year. A fighting general with a propensity for taking huge risks, he was also a humane man with unfailing courtesy for both friend and foe. A true Christian, he did his best, in turbulent times, to live the teachings of Christ.
In regard to the great issues of his day, he was opposed to secession as he indicated in this letter to his son “Rooney” on January 29, 1861: ”Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for ‘perpetual union’ so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession.” When Virginia seceded however, he decided that he had no choice but to fight in her defense.
As to slavery, before the Civil War Lee condemned it in private correspondence, viewing it as an unmitigated evil. While not an abolitionist he hoped that Christianity and education would eventually end slavery.
Pursuant to the terms of his father-in-law’s tangled pro se will, he manumitted his father-in-law’s slaves.
For years prior to the Civil War, Lee and his wife financially supported black families in Liberia, part of their efforts to encourage freeing slaves to participate in setting up a free black state in Liberia. Lee and his wife led by example, freeing their slaves and offering to pay the expenses of all of his former slaves who wished to settle in Liberia.
Lee was in favor of enlisting blacks in the Confederate army from the moment that it was proposed in 1864, and stated that in simple fairness the black soldiers should be guaranteed freedom for themselves and their families. His thoughts on black troops are set forth in these letters. I have little doubt that if it had been in his power Lee would have used black troops from the beginning of the war with freedom being their reward for volunteering to fight.
After the war Lee stated that rather than fighting for slavery he rejoiced that the outcome of the war had ended slavery. That this was no idle comment was demonstrated by Lee while at Church one Sunday morning soon after the war.
Lee after the Civil War opposed immediate suffrage for former slaves, but only on the ground that they currently lacked the education to exercise the franchise responsibly. He led a successful campaign to remedy this by championing the public funding of schools for blacks in 1869-70. He repeatedly expelled white students from Washington University, of which he was President after the war, who engaged in attacks on blacks.
In the midst of defeat Lee gave a great gift to all Americans. By not starting a guerrilla war against the occupying Union troops Lee ensured that the Civil War was not merely the prelude to an endless cycle of wars between the states. In devoting his remaining years to education in a defeated and devastated South he was a shining example to the veterans who followed him of dignity and courage in the face of adversity. There have been greater generals than Robert E. Lee, there have been few greater men.
“The man was loved, the man was idolized,
The man had every just and noble gift.
He took great burdens and he bore them well,
Believed in God but did not preach too much,
Believed and followed duty first and last
With marvellous consistency and force,
Was a great victor, in defeat as great,
No more, no less, always himself in both,
Could make men die for him but saved his men
Whenever he could save them was most kind
But was not disobeyed was a good father,
A loving husband, a considerate friend. ”
Stephen Vincent Benet