General Robert E. Lee
"He stood in the Shadow of Greatness"
A birthday address in Atlanta 1999
We are gathered today to remember the birthday of the worlds greatest General, a man who is the standard for all of us to measure ourselves. A man who is a hero, not only a Confederate Hero but also truly an American Hero. He forged a way of life that can only be emulated; he set a standard for all of us to follow. He led our ancestors through the hardest four years that have ever been experienced by citizens of this country. His understanding of the common soldier and the hardships that the families suffered can only now be imagined. For us to understand him, we need to look at the background that shaped him.
In today's society, the blame for many crimes and misdirection of our youth is often blamed on the breakdown of the family unit. Single parent families have almost become the norm in the 1990's. A single parent working to provide the necessities and some of the luxuries that we have become accustomed to is often used as the scapegoat for most of the problems and crime that now abounds in this country. What I would like to do today is look at this man we all love and admire; look back into his early days and offer some comparisons to these "modern day" problems.
The Lee family had been in America for over 100 years when Robert Edward Lee was born in 1807 (192 years ago) into money from a bloodline that had fought in the first American Revolution. His father, General "Light Horse" Harry Lee, was an American patriot, a war hero and served as Governor of Virginia. Harry Lee was on the committee that approved the final draft of the United States Constitution; two great uncles, Richard and Francis Lee were signers of the Declaration of Independence. (Just stop for a moment and think of the importance this family had in the establishment and shaping of this country) But the parts that are often overlooked are the hardships of young Robertss life. While his father was regarded as a hero of the revolution, there is little financial reward in being a hero; Harry Lee was not one to be conservative with money or with his life.
While the Lee family had at one time been wealthy Harry Lee had spent most of it on various ventures, which never seemed to work. He would become politically controversial at the drop of a hat; this characteristic eventually led to his leaving the country. Young Robert, his peers and mother were left pretty much to fend for themselves and, you might say, fatherless. Ann Carter Lee, his mother, had a small inheritance that gave them a meager income and for the most part only kept them going. As noted by one historian, that "while they never went hungry the variety of the meals sometimes left a lot to be desired."
In 1813, Harry Lee left the country that he had fought to free and went to the Caribbean Islands, where he remained until 1818, when in failing health, he decided to try and return home to die. While aboard the ship, his health deteriorated to the point that he had to be put ashore on Cumberland Island, Georgia. He sought refuge at the home of his Revolutionary Comrade Nathaniel Greene, who was deceased but his daughter and son-in-law, Louisa and James Shaw, "took him in" and cared for him. "Light Horse" Harry Lee died at about 6 P.M. on the evening of 25 March 1818. He was buried there in Georgia, in the Greene family cemetery. The Lee family was informed of his death by letter. General Lee didn't see the grave of his father for 42 years until he was in Georgia in 1862. Since then "Light Horse" Harry Lees body has been moved to Virginia.
So as we can see, in his formidable years, the prime influence on the life of Robert E. Lee was his mother, Ann Carter Lee.
General Lee entered West Point in 1825, and from the beginning demonstrated all the qualities of leadership and command, which would characterize his career in the military. When he graduated from the U.S. Military academy, Lee was 2nd in his class. He also graduated without receiving a single demerit, which is almost impossible to do (a feat that hasnt been matched to this day).
His demeanor was that of a gentleman, a trait he retained his entire life. Lee's career as a U.S. Army officer began with assignments in Georgia and Virginia.
By the time of his commissioning, Lee had developed traits of character, which would distinguish him from his contemporaries and make him a legend in life and after death. Of these traits, moderation, self-control, duty, sincerity, consideration of others, courage, special regard for ladies, courtesy, honor, and a deep religious conviction. He believed duty and honor to be especially important. Lee once stated, "There is true glory and true honor, the glory of duty done and the honor of integrity and principles." He also wrote, "Duty is the sublimest word in the language. You cannot do more than your duty; you should never wish to do less."
In 1831, Lee married Mary Custis, a great granddaughter of Martha Washington. The relationship between Mary and the family of the Father of our Country was to be one of many that would possibly influence Lees life and career. The extent of Marys influence on Lee may never be known, but we know that his regard for her was without parallel. Her role with his decision making was probably involved many times throughout their marriage because weve heard that Mary was an outspoken woman. The combination of these two patriotic families had great and far-reaching implications. Just think about it, Lee married a step great granddaughter of the "father of our Country". He was the son of one of the outstanding Generals of the First American Revolution who had served with George Washington during this countrys first war and the formation of our country and the original government. This had to be an influencing factor on the love for liberty that was so evident in this great man and his family.
Mary Custis Lee, heiress to extensive properties, owned Arlington, a massive white columned home dominating a hill overlooking Washington, D.C. from the Virginia side of the Potomac.
For the next 30 years, Arlington was Lee's beloved home--where he and Mary raised three sons and four daughters and where he always returned from military assignments.
After an appointment as assistant to the chief of engineers in Washington, D. C., Lee supervised projects near St. Louis, Missouri, in New York Harbor, and on the Atlantic coastal defenses. Lee wasnt completely satisfied with the engineering aspect that had fallen his lot after graduation from West Point but true to his word and reputation, he continued to perform his assigned duties. Some of his engineering projects still stand today.
In August 1846, Lee learned of military expeditions that were being sent to Mexico. In a short while, he was sent to join these expeditions. Now at the age of 40, Robert E. Lee was riding with troops toward battle for the first time and into the pages of history. In January of 47, Lee was in charge of the placement of batteries that soon had the city of Vera Cruz under bombardment and within a week General Winfield Scott led the way as troops marched victoriously into the city along a route scouted by Lee. He was also given credit for his reconnaissance in the campaign in the Valley of Mexico, which led to the opening of the walls to Mexico City. On September 13 of 1847, Robert E. Lee was slightly wounded during a daring assault. In a report General Scott described Lee "as distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring". The Mexican War had won Lee three brevet promotions bringing him to the rank of Colonel in only 20 months. Afterward, he was Superintendent of West Point for three years and held commands in Missouri and Texas. While in Texas, Lee was involved with putting down Indian forays. In 1859, while in Washington on a brief visit, he was summoned to report to the Secretary of War. The message was delivered, at that point in time, by Lieutenant J.E.B Stuart of the U.S Army. Lee was ordered to Harpers Ferry where John Brown and other insurgents had captured the arsenal and were holding hostages. He attracted national attention when he successfully suppressed John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia and effected the safe release of eleven hostages.
This was yet another of the many events which led to his recognition as a true American Hero. After the success at Harpers Ferry, Lee returned to Texas where he would remain until the onset of the War of Northern Aggression.
As the 1850s drew to a close, Lee was deeply concerned about the dangerous sectional antagonisms gathering momentum and threatening to disrupt the nation. Dreading the thought of civil war, he fervently hoped solutions could be found to settle the issues that troubled our country. However, when the secession crisis developed in 1860-61, and war between the North and South seemed imminent, Lee, compelled by his great sense of duty, resigned his commission with the United States Army and followed his native Virginia out of the union. In making this decision, he declined Lincoln's offer to command the federal armies.
As a full general in the Confederate Army, Lee contributed his considerable talents and experience as a military leader.
His skill as a strategist and capacity to rapidly analyze a combat situation, combined with his ability to arouse intense devotion in troops, furthered the Confederate cause. But, Lee and the South faced a foe with overwhelming numerical superiority, production capability and unlimited supply sources.
The struggle of the War Between the States was a tragic American epic with heroism, sacrifice and anguish on both sides. Through four years of war, Lee moved down the long, bloody road that led from the Seven Days' Battle and Second Manassas, past Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg, to Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Petersburg, Richmond, ending at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, due to Lees great compassion for his brave men in gray.
The end of the War brought dramatic change to Lee's life. The Custis-Lee fortune was greatly reduced and Arlington was lost. The federal army was determined that General Lee would never return to Arlington. To prevent this, fallen union soldiers were buried on the grounds around the home that Lee and family loved so well. His military career terminated, General Lee was barred from public office, for which he was eminently qualified. Although he was among the first to accept the results of the War and apply for amnesty, his petition was not acted upon until more than a century after his death. However, Lee held no bitterness, nor did he indulge in self-pity. Determined to set an example for fellow Southerners, he hoped the emotions of war years would be forgotten and the work of rebuilding the South and creating a great, unified America could be accomplished. His superb dignity, courage, and noble character in the difficult post-war years intensified admiration for Lee, earning him the respect of even his former enemies. If youve been to the Gettysbury battlefield and saw the massive beautiful monument from Virginia, you saw how well his home state thought of him for there he is, on top of an awesome monument of great significance.
While historical revisionists have stated that General Lee wasnt fighting so much for the freedom of the Confederacy as he was fighting for his native state, he made many statements that have been overlooked or simply disregarded by these "historians". Examples can be found in a letter written to Lord Acton in December of 1866, where he referred to himself as a "citizen of the South". Lee went on to state that he believed the maintenance of the original Constitution was essential to "the continuance of a free government" and that concentration of too much power in a central government would result in a nation that would be "aggressive abroad and despotic at home". Did General Lee, in that letter, foresee the nation that we experience today? Did this great man, in his knowledge foretell of what we are faced with today? I, for one, believe that he did. The people of Lees time knew full well the details of the U.S. Constitution, classes were taught on this subject; therefore they were well studied on the Constitution and knew when these practices were being abandoned.
How many of us today have studied the Constitution? Of course the 14th amendment pretty much changed this document from its original intent.
Something for all of us to remember is that while General Lee accepted the loss that "those people" had imposed on the Southern Nation, he remained "a citizen of the South". In August 1870, when Union General Rosecrans asked Lee to make a statement on behalf of the Southern people proclaiming they were now glad to be back in the union and loyal to the old flag, General Lee declined to make such a statement. After the meeting was over, General Lee paused for a moment before departing and made the following statement to Governor Stockdale (who had been the Confederate Lt. Governor of Texas):
Now listen to General Lees words.
"Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no, sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in this right hand."
So its easy to see while General Lee was a man of vision and peace, he saw something that we as Southerners seem to have lost sight of over the years. The so-called victory of the union at Appomattox was not the end of the war, but the beginning of the subjugation of our Southern Nation known as reconstruction.
In the summer of 1865, the Board of Trustees at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia voted unanimously to offer the college presidency to Lee. The College was in a precarious position with a very small enrollment and its buildings and facilities were seriously damaged from a wartime raid. Although he could have filled any number of honorable and lucrative positions available to him, the college presidency most appealed to Lee.
The offer combined the opportunity to serve others, to guide young men in rebuilding the shattered South, and to educate them for the purpose, as he said, of being "good Americans." Accepting the trustees' offer, Lee moved to Lexington in October. Thus, the final phase of his career began--that of a gifted and innovative educator and inspirational leader of youth.
Lee's acceptance of the presidency was the salvation of the College. The mere word that Lee was heading the institution caused enrollment to triple, from about 50 to 146 in the first year. Enrollment more than doubled the following year. His name attracted funds to rebuild the College and expand programs and curriculum.
Lee preserved traditional education, but added technical subjects such as agriculture, commerce and mechanical and civil engineering. Most important of all was Lee's ability to inspire his faculty and students to excel. "Excellence" applied not only to academics, but also to general conduct, as illustrated by Lee's statement, "We have but one rule here and that is that every student must be a gentleman." One of the hallmarks of his administration was his personal interest in every student, and students returned his interest with the same affection, devotion, and respect.
So the stories about General Lee being of the upper class, while having some validity, indicate that the majority of the "historians" today aren't really doing their homework. As we look at the life and times of General Robert E. Lee, we need to remember that we cant use todays misguided standards of behavior and misplaced morals of this 21st century political establishment to measure the greatness of this man. How can we compare a man of unquestioned morals and ethics with what we see going on all around us today? There is no way to measure this great man by the unethical, immoral, self-serving standards that we are subjected to today. So when you hear some of the latter day so called historians cast disparaging remarks on our late Southern Heroes, remind them of what we have leading us today.
A Commander in Chief of our armed services who never served in the military. A president who spends more time trying to clear up his marriage infidelities than he does trying to correct the inequities that have been placed on the tax paying individuals in this country. A man who has admitted "misleading" the public and Congress. Remind them that our Southern heroes were truly leaders, men of high moral standards, men who have been in "harms way". These heroes cant hire a league of high priced attorneys to defend themselves from the grave against slanderous remarks that are heaped upon them by the historical revisionist of today. (Then one has only to look at the standard they are following to see why they choose to attack those who cant defend themselves)
We need to look at General Lees life in its entirety to see this hero, a Southern hero yes, but in all aspects an American Hero. A man whos destiny was forged by adversity, and the love of his country. A man who overcame privations to become a leader of men. A man who despite "hard times" in his youth led the way for many. A man who stood in the shadow of greatness and became greater than those who cast the shadow. This was a man who truly grew up in the shadow of the founders of our country being born only 5 miles from George Washingtons home at Mount Vernon.
Where do we, as Southerners, stand today if we use Robert E. Lee as a comparison? Are we deserving of the name "citizens of the South" or are we simply inhabitants of the South? Are we truly deserving of the blood that runs through our veins, that of true heroes? Does the DNA that shaped Lee and his men still hold true in us, the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Veterans, or are we simply a mere shadow of the greatness that once was?
As this century comes to an end, let us remember who we are, let us stand tall in the shadow of greatness, let us remember who we are. We should always strive to be "Citizens of the South".
Let us stand in the shadow of greatness and do our ancestors justice as we uphold the memory of our heroes and the Cause. Let us uphold the honor of these great men proudly. Remember the man who we honor today said,
"There is true glory and true honor, the glory of duty done and the honor of integrity and principles."
Let us try to uphold these timeless values that General Robert E. Lee left for us. Let us be deserving of the heritage left to us. Let us remember, we are the last of the thin gray line. At no time in history have we faced a more trying time to preserve our heritage. Lets stand like General Lee would want us to stand - tall, - proud, - and as true Southerners.
In closing I want to share something with all of you today, General Lee once stated and I quote" Every one should do all in his power to collect and disseminate the truth, in hope it may find a place in history and descend to posterity. History is not the relation of campaigns and battles, and generals or other individuals, but that which shows the principles for which the South contended and which justified her struggle for those principles." Thats something we all should stop and think about, collect and disseminate the truth, not the Politically correct version of history that were force fed today but collect the truth, and tell it to others. Its up to all "Citizens of the South" to make sure that the truth is known; that the principles for which the South fought was just. Its up to this generation to make sure that the revisionist history is corrected.
As a parting thought to the Sons of Confederate Veterans here today, remember it is our Duty to stand for these fallen heroes, we took an oath to do no less. Remember these words of General Lee "You cannot do more than your duty; you should never wish to do less".
For a further historical information to help celebrate General Lee's Birthday visit this page www.scv674.org/leeday.htm
©2003 John K. McNeill SCV Camp #674, Moultrie, GA