Smoky Mountains Sunrise

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, General Lee

Why This Man, and His Era, Merit Our Consideration

By H. Alexander Wise Jr.

On the verge of the 21st century, some may ask, "Why the Museum of the Confederacy" The answer varies with the person. For me, it is that the culture of which the Confederacy was the final expression can teach us many lessons as our country prepares for a new century. We owe it to ourselves and our society to re-examine that culture. Nor can we afford to let stereotypes - either pro or con blind us to the good things.

The culture that gave rise to the Confederacy was imperfect and provincial. But in a way its provincial character was its strength. It was a holistic and cohesive culture, rooted in time and place, both seeking God and remaining close to the soil. It stood in stark contrast to the fragmented, abstract, rootless, and materialistic culture of modern America - a culture unheightened by poetry, continually in search of meaning, and riddled with social pathologies. Look around us at the symptoms: co-dependencies, violent crime, pornography, divorce, latchkey children, and the cult of victimhood, to name but a few.

On Robert E. Lee's birthday it is fitting to note that he represented his culture as its best. Lee was admired and loved by his countrymen precisely because he came close to embodying the ideal of what a man in that culture was supposed to be, For Lee and his time manhood was a positive concept. It was almost synonymous with the concept of the gentleman. Neither was something to apologize for or be chauvinistic about. Both were to be striven for. Both meant having body, mind, and spirit in proper relationship, Most people in the society - both men and women shared in the consensus. Identity and "values" were not up in the air. As journalist Paul Greenberg has said, "The very words Lee used--gentleman, duty, honor, valor-- have a quaint and different sound in these times." We might also add the word "forbearance." Lee wrote:

"The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman."
Lee would have agreed with Atticus Finch, who said, "It's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

Some may say that such a philosophy was paternalistic and therefore unacceptable. But we have to put it in the context of the time and also to realize that his was infinitely better than the attitude so prevalent today: "I'll get mine."

This belief in forbearance was the source of Lee's doubts about slavery. He saw that the "peculiar institution" created too much of a temptation for slaveholders to abuse their power. This objection was an outgrowth of Lee's own code, not something imposed from outside.

In 1861, Lee's fellow Virginian and mentor Winfield Scott offered him command of the Federal forces - a great temptation. Yet Lee stayed with the state and his "people." He wrote his sister, "With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, and my home."

In December 1862, at Fredericksburg, Lee watched "those people"- his remarkably restrained name for people he fought every day - march to almost certain death uphill toward his own massed and waiting army, When Jackson's men charged and nearly drove the Federals into the Rappahannock, Lee remarked, "It is a good thing war is so terrible; else we should grow too fond of it," This was a moment of insight into his own human weakness.

The next year came Gettysburg, the battle that gave rise to what many consider Lee's greatest military mistake, What caused him to order Pickett's and Pettigrew's divisions to attack up the long unprotected sweep toward Cemetery Ridge on the third day of the battle? He asked his men to do what "those people" could not do at Fredericksburg: Take an open slope with a frontal attack. Was Lee seduced by the seeming invincibility of his army? Did he forget the lesson of Fredericksburg: that he was dangerously close to becoming addicted to the beauty of heroism and the excitement Of victory? Or was it knowledge that Jackson was gone, time was running out, and his chance to demoralize "those people" and end the killing in a single bold stroke might never come again? Lee took the gamble, knowing that its outcome was in the hands of the Almighty he relied upon so completely...

We are touched by his fatherly concern for his men and his willingness to accept responsibility when the attack failed. As the remnant of Pickett's shattered division came streaming down the hill after the fateful charge, General Lee was waiting for them at the bottom of the hill, saying, "It is all right, men. It is all my fault," He offered to resign his command...

One of Lee's greatest moments came at Appomattox when he wrote his General Order No. 9 on April 10, 1865, announcing his decision to surrender his army.

The conclusion of the order reveals deep feeling and profound Christian faith. He closed with these lines:

"You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection. With an unceasing admiration at your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell."

General Order No. 9 is the ultimate expression of a leader who loved his men as much as they loved him.

After Appomattox, when presented with the opportunity to become financially comfortable for the rest of his life merely by allowing an insurance company to use his name, he declined. Instead, he served as president of a tiny, destitute college in the mountains of Virginia (now Washington and Lee University), where he led by example in the business of sectional reconciliation. He wrote:

"I have a self-imposed task which 1 must accomplish. I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them die on the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life."
I am pleased to be a part of the Museum of the Confederacy, In the era of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Donald Trump, it is a place where my children can see that such a man as Lee, and the culture that produced him, once existed, We cannot live in the past or recover it, But perhaps in a small way the Museum can help us all - young and old, rich and poor, black and white -- become aware of the nobility, community, and poetry we have lost; and Once aware, perhaps we can build a new civility in our own time.

Alexander Wise is a lawyer at McGuire, Woods, Battle, and Boothe and has served as president of the Confederate Memorial House of the Confederacy in Richmond. This article first appeared in The Richmomd- Times Dispatch, and was reprinted in The Star on Lee's birthday in 1994.

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