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.

It is, in any case, the Robert E. Lee of that transitional Sunday in Richmond that I choose to believe in--rather arbitrarily, for my own early tutelage in Lee was sparse. I can't recall that my Carolinian father, a keen historian, ever had anything of note to say about Lee. The silence is perhaps easily explained. His grandfather, chief of a county militia, thought enough of his Civil War record to put "Colonel, CSA" on his tombstone in Grace churchyard near Hickory, North Carolina. But he was a racial liberal before his time and, like Lee, abhorred slavery and believed in (and practiced, at some risk) the education of black people. These views descended intact to my father.

As I have noted, it was another story in my Georgia mother's family, such that my own orientation was contradictory. My conception of the general himself remained undernourished until, in my thirties, I read Douglas Southall Freeman's biography, which his worthy successor Emory Thomas calls "majestic." The word is no stretch. If all four volumes are too much for most attention spans these days, its flavor can be sampled in Freeman's epic treatment of the battle that broke Lee's heart but assured him immortality: Gettysburg.

Specifically, Freeman's account of Pickett's charge (really, Pettigrew's charge, since my fellow North Carolinian and Chapel Hillian commanded the majority of the valiant men on that stricken meadow), where he shows Lee lamenting, "too bad, oh, too bad!"--and, far more essentially, assuming full blame for the blunder. Had he evaded it, had he not recognized that James Longstreet's worries had been right, had he not assumed full responsibility, he would not be the Lee we revere today.

I imagine that many today would find Freeman's Lee a period piece. But it is infused not merely with Freeman's eloquence and historical craftsmanship, but with that conviction of the centrality of character that animates all great biography: Boswell on Johnson, Trevelyan on Macaulay, Morley on Gladstone, Edel on Henry James--character in its full meaning.

But what part of Lee's character do we mean; for he contained many? In Lexington, still haunted in every byway by Lee's ghost, they tell this story: A lady, seeing the general on horseback on Main Street, approached, tugging her small boy along.

"General," she called, "might you say a brief word of wisdom to my little son?"

The general reined up and removed his hat. "Madam," he said from the height of Traveller, "tell him that he must deny himself." The vignette epitomizes the stern and ascetic Lee, the Lee called in one book "the marble man." A man made marble by others, to be sure, though not without truth. Like his lifelong idol George Washington, Lee knew what it was like to be deficient in fatherly care; and like Washington, he had a precocious sense of responsibility. His father, the famous, distinguished, and mischievous "Light Horse Harry" Lee, had run away when Lee was a small boy, leaving his wife and children embarrassed and destitute, far fallen from the magnificent vistas of Stratford Hall.

I myself like the less austere Lee. But the point is obviously that the many Lees noted at the turn of his third century suggest our human capacity for projection. We find in him what we look for, as in all monumental figures. Lee took Washington as his model, but we may be sure it wasn't Washington the foxhunter who liked his toddy, or the bon vivant or splendid dancer or great horseman; it was the self-denying Washington who had set aside vanity and power and given up his sword when he could have been a king. Similarly, Harry Turtledove's amusing novel The Guns of the South, has Lee, victorious in the Civil War, defeating the racist Nathan Bedford Forrest for the Confederate presidency on a platform of emancipation.

And the projection continues. More than 40 years ago my wife and I had arranged one fall weekend to meet close friends in Lexington, a convenient halfway point between Washington and Greensboro, North Carolina, where we then lived. Before setting off for the mountains, we paid a brief visit to Lee Chapel, which our friends had not seen. As we stood before Edward Valentine's evocative recumbent statue--often mistaken for a sarcophagus but, by Mrs. Lee's wish, the general sleeping on the battlefield--our friends, New Englanders, must have wondered what was up.

In what spirit were we making this pilgrimage? Was it obeisance before a saint's shrine, like Becket's at Canterbury? (After all, General and Mrs. Lee are memorialized there in a window as "gathered with thy saints, in glory everlasting.") Was it furtive homage to the Lost Cause? We were amused in retrospect, since for us it was a merely historical moment, not charged with any special veneration beyond the decorum due the great dead.

On the day of the recent birthday observance, a reporter wrote that "there is a new move to reevaluate Lee and his legacy. . . . As the South has become more racially and ethnically diverse . . . perhaps [the region] doesn't need Lee so much anymore." That journalistic dismissal gets the matter 180 degrees wrong. The more various and prosperous the South becomes, the more we shall need Lee as a compass--whether as warrior (who said with uncanny candor and insight, "It is a good thing that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow to love it too much") or as secular saint, educator, or some other epitome of our mixed human qualities.

Against an age glancing compulsively over its shoulder for fear of political incorrectness, Lee will continue to resonate with us and rectify our wanderings. What we see in him is necessarily a part of ourselves, as large or small as we choose to make it.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., professor emeritus of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee, is a former editor and columnist in Washington. His novel Lions at Lamb House about Freud and Henry James will be published in September.