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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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.