The Magazine

Gentleman at Arms

What the South and North can learn from General Robert E. Lee.

Feb 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 21 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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When Lewis Powell, who was to become an esteemed Supreme Court justice, came as a freshman to Washington and Lee in the mid-1920s, he noticed a striking photograph in the hallway of his boarding house. The face of Robert E. Lee was instantly recognizable. But who, he asked, was the pretty little girl sitting on the General's knee? It was his landlady, as she herself was still there to explain.

Not everyone can boast of so close a degree of intimacy with the demigod of the Lost Cause, whose 200th birthday was observed this past month. Not even in Lexington, Virginia. But among those with ordinary claims mine are far from negligible. My great grandfather, the colonel of a Georgia unit in Wright's brigade, campaigned with Lee through most of the Civil War and was killed at the second battle of Deep Bottom on the James River in August 1864. There can be no better testament of loyalty. Years later, his fellow townsmen in the hamlet of Gibson, Georgia, raised a handsome obelisk in his memory in the town square and my uncle, a Navy surgeon, was there to speak of him as one who had opposed what he deemed "an unconstitutional invasion of his homeland."

Friends who have visited recently tell me that the monument is now neglected, choked by vines and weeds. Sic transit gloria armis, perhaps, though that isn't the end of the connection.

His granddaughter, my mother's elder sister, a generation older than she, thought so highly of Robert E. Lee that she put Lee in the names of all three of her sons, my cousins, and sent them all to Lexington, to imbibe the heritage at its source. Indeed, my aunt was so stern a guardian of that heritage that she fretted to see small children, black or white, frolicking about the Confederate monument on Broad Street in Augusta. (It was an attitude her sisters thought a bit extreme.)

Finally, I taught for ten years (1992-2002) at Washington and Lee University, whose journalism department boasts that Lee, as president, established the world's first chair of journalism. No one knows just why, though there are many theories. Perhaps Marse Robert was aware that southerners are often natural storytellers and aimed to sharpen their skills at a time when most reporters and editors emerged from printing shops. Or perhaps, as I liked to imagine, he was grateful to the reporters who had trumpeted his remarkable victories to the world. In that he was unlike his great adversaries, Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, who loathed newspapermen. Loathed them so heartily that, according to Shelby Foote, they once danced a little jig on the banks of the Mississippi when they heard that a steamboat loaded with reporters had blown up. (The rumor, alas, was false.)

During my pleasant decade at Lee's university, I considered it a duty, in the light of this unearned legacy, to brush up on Lee. The most engaging account of the postwar Lee (who suffered from severe cardiovascular disease and lived only five years) is Charles Bracelen Flood's Lee: The Last Years. My colleague Holt Merchant, sometime chairman of the W&L history department, has forgotten more about Lee than most mortals will ever know. He tells me that Flood romanticizes too much for strict historical tastes. But I begged Holt not to discredit the best Lee story I know.

It is in Flood's book and goes as follows. When Lee, saddened and aged to judge by a famous Mathew Brady photograph, was living in Richmond between the surrender and the presidency of Washington College, he attended a service of Holy Communion at St. Paul's church--the place whence Jefferson Davis had been summoned one Sunday months earlier by the news that the Confederate lines had been broken, making Richmond's fall inevitable. On this Sunday, at the elevation of the host, a lone black man, possibly a former slave, advanced down the aisle and knelt at the communion rail. The congregation froze. Lee calmly arose from his pew, descended the aisle and knelt beside the newcomer, certifying with impeccable manners and Christian charity that times had changed.

According to Professor Merchant, the story is plausible but unverifiable. I hope it is true, because that gesture of Lee's is of iconic importance. He had been a staunch unionist before Virginia seceded, a foe of slavery and of secessionism, which he regarded as rash and revolutionary. With this magnanimous gesture, he intimated what the white South needed but would be slow, too slow, to learn: that the two races which had lived in such intimacy for so long were separated only by flawed ideas--a psychological, not a physical, distance.