Why Robert E. Lee Matters
In our day, many attempt to judge historical figures by modern prevailing values or sentiments. This concept, called “Presentism,” is a fatal flaw in understanding history. Some do it because they know no better; others to promote a political agenda regardless of truth or merit in a hyper-politicized culture.
Robert E. Lee was and remains an iconic gentleman to both revere and emulate - not merely or even primarily on his professional accomplishments, but on living his beliefs and virtues in a heroic manner.
He remains the only person in all of recorded human history to be offered the command of two opposing armies. It exists as an amazing testament to Lee’s conscience and fidelity to duty that as a lifelong and ambitious soldier having toiled for many years with limited advancement that he was offered the command of the largest, most well-equipped Army in the world but declined it because he could not raise the sword against his native Virginia; instead resigning his commission and joining the yet to be formed Virginia militia.
Presently, many attempt to portray Lee as a mythical figure conjured up by “Lost Causers”. While a serious study of Lee is well beyond the scope of this letter; let us view how Lee was considered in his own time to the modern age.
April, 1865. Robert E. Lee at his home in Arlington.
Upon his death, the New York Herald wrote this obituary:
“Not to the Southern people alone shall be limited the tribute of a tear over the dead Virginian. Here in the North, forgetting that the time was when the sword of Robert Edward Lee was drawn against us. Forgetting and forgiving all the years of bloodshed and agony we've long since ceased to look upon him as the Confederate leader, but have claimed him as one of ourselves; have cherished and felt proud of his military genius as belonging to us; have recounted and recorded his triumphs as ours; have extolled his virtues as reflecting honor upon us -- Robert Edward Lee was an American, and the great nation which gave him birth would be today unworthy of such a son if she regarded him lightly.
Never had mother a nobler son. In him the military genius of America was developed to a greater extent than ever before, in him all that was pure and lofty in mind and purpose found lodgment without presumption, affable without familiarity, he united all those charms of manners which made him the Idol of his friends and of his soldiers and won for him the respect and admiration of the world. . . From the hour that he surrendered his sword at Appomattox to the fatal autumn morning he passed Among men noble in his quiet, simple dignity, displaying neither bitterness nor regret over the irrevocable past. He conquered us in misfortune by the grand manner in which he sustained himself, even as he dazzled us by his genius when the trump of his soldiers resounded through the valleys of Virginia. And for such a man we are all tears and sorrow today. Standing beside his grave, men of the South and men of the North can mourn with all the bitterness of four years of warfare erased by this common bereavement.”
Booker T. Washington, America’s great African-American educator, wrote in 1908:
“The first white people in America, certainly the first in the South to exhibit their interest in the reaching of the Negro and saving his soul through the medium of the Sunday school were Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.”
Theodore Roosevelt, a New Yorker, a military historian in his own right and the First President to dine in the White House with a black man stated:
“The world has never seen better soldiers than those who followed Lee, and their leader will undoubtedly rank, without any exception, as the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth; and this although the last and chief of his antagonists may himself claim to stand as the full equal of Marlborough or Wellington”
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Robert E. Lee monument in Dallas, Texas stating:
“I am very happy to take part in this unveiling of the statue of General Robert E. Lee.
All over the United States we recognize him as a great leader of men, as a great general. But, also, all over the United States I believe that we recognize him as something much more important than that. We recognize Robert E. Lee as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”
In fact, Sir Winston Churchill, the great military historian, prime minister of Great Britain during WWII, and the first Honorary Citizen of the United States opined:
“Lee was the noblest American who had ever lived and one of the greatest commanders known to the annals of war.”
1936: President Franklin D. Roosevelt (On steps, hat raised) unveiling the statue of Robert E. Lee in Dallas, Texas.
President Harry Truman held Lee in the highest regard presenting his mother with a small portrait of Lee when he returned from service in WWI. She kept it by her bedside until her death. Truman would eventually visit Lee’s statue at Gettysburg and he wrote to his daughter about Lee being a “great man.”
Upon entering the White House, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had portraits of four great Americans in the Oval Office, one of which was Lee. One must understand that Eisenhower served as Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces. This made him the commanding General of the largest army in the history of mankind (tens of millions of troops). He was not only a military leader but a student of history and possessed a deep understanding of human beings and their nature.
When a citizen, who considered Lee a traitor, asked the President how he could hold Lee in such high regard, Eisenhower responded eloquently and truthfully:
“General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his belief in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.
From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.
Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.”
Even New Englander John F. Kennedy openly expressed admiration for Lee when he stated:
“[A]s a New Englander, I recognize that the South is still the land of Washington, who made our Nation – of Jefferson, who shaped its direction – and of Robert E. Lee who, after gallant failure, urged those who had followed him in bravery to reunite America in purpose and courage.”
In October of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke in New Orleans invoking Lee in support of civil rights:
“If we are to heal our history and make this Nation whole, prosperity must know no Mason-Dixon line and opportunity must know no color line. Robert E. Lee, a great son of the South, a great leader of the South–and I assume no modern day leader would question him or challenge him–Robert E. Lee counseled us well when he told us to cast off our animosities, and raise our sons to be Americans.”
President Gerald Ford once drove to Arlington, the ancestral home of Lee’s wife, great granddaughter of Martha Washington. The Lee’s were also married in Arlington House as well. Once arrived, President Ford issued a pardon to Lee. At the ceremony, he stated:
“In 1865, Robert E. Lee wrote to a former Confederate soldier concerning his signing the Oath of Allegiance, and I quote: 'This war, being at an end, the Southern States having laid down their arms, and the questions at issue between them and the Northern States having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony.'
1975: President Gerald Ford officially restoring Robert E. Lee's U.S. citizenship at Arlington House, Virginia.
As a soldier, General Lee left his mark on military strategy. As a man, he stood as the symbol of valor and of duty. As an educator, he appealed to reason and learning to achieve understanding and to build a stronger nation. The course he chose after the war became a symbol to all those who had marched with him in the bitter years towards Appomattox.
General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.”
President Ronald Reagan, an native Iowan and later a Californian, had effusive praise for Robert E. Lee stating:
“Robert E. Lee, this southerner who criticized secession and called slavery a great moral wrong, would become himself an American legend; yet a man who thought-though he rode off into myth and glory, would suffer cruelly in his own time.
After the dissolution of his cause, he would work to bind up the Nation’s wounds. And to those pessimistic about the Nation’s future, he once said, ‘The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long and that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. ‘It is history,’ he said, ‘that teaches us to hope.’”
The most prestigious award in Literature is the Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer is administered by Columbia University in New York City. Additionally, the Pulitzer Committee, which selects honorees, is comprised of major editors, columnists, and media executives primarily hailing from the Northeast.
In 1935, they awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography to Douglas S. Freeman for his work, R.E. Lee, the 4 volume biography. The Pulitzer committee stated in their review:
“For the best American biography teaching patriotic and unselfish services to the people, illustrated by an eminent example, excluding, as too obvious, the names of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln”
The aforementioned evidence establishes that Lee is an immutable part of the national fabric. He stands among the panoply of national heroes and those who have traditionally been regarded as role models for future leaders.
Lee is not a mascot in for the so-called “Lost Cause” narrative nor a symbol of white supremacy, despite attempts by radicals on both sides of the political spectrum to make him one.
One simply cannot categorize any of the foregoing compelling voices as a mouthpiece for a Southern “Lost Cause.” Instead, these figures have earned their recognition in the annals of history; our unique American history. This type of greatness has seldom been equaled and serves as a light for which we can all follow.