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.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.