January can be a depressing month. The Christmas decorations come down, the creche is returned to its box (save for those hardliners, like the Crocker family, who leave the nativity set up until 2 February, the Presentation of the Lord), and the tree is dragged unceremoniously from the house. If you’ve had any time off of work, it ends; the spirit of Christmas can deflate pretty fast, if you’re not careful. Even if you are, and you’re returning to a desk job, you might start day-dreaming (as I always do) about whether you could, in good conscience, risk the family finances and try your hand at farming or ranching or doing anything that would get you out of an office and away from the corporate crowd.
But we all have to buckle down to our responsibilities, and as we settle down to it, there comes along another anniversary, another date to mark, another birthday to celebrate. In traditional Southern households, four weeks after Christmas, comes the birthday of Robert E. Lee, icon of the South, “one of the noblest Americans who ever lived, and of the greatest captains known to the annals of war” (according to Winston Churchill).
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Lee’s birth, and yet so far it seems to have been marked largely by silence. How many of you noticed, or celebrated yourselves, Lee’s birthday on 19 January (or Stonewall Jackson’s on 21 January)? Lee’s birthday is still officially marked in some Southern states, but the great and good general seems to be slipping from America’s consciousness, or at least from America’s esteem.
Lee, in the mind of some, has become a sectarian hero, when he used to be a national one. Theodore Roosevelt, scion of a Yankee father and a Southern mother, thought Lee was “without any exception the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth.” On Lee’s death in 1870, a Northern paper, the New York Herald, editorialized: “Here in the North… we have long 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 our own; have extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us — for Robert Edward Lee was an American, and the great nation which gave him birth would be to-day unworthy of such a son if she regarded him lightly. Never had mother a nobler son.”
IT IS IRONIC THAT LEE was so respected as a national hero when the wounds of war were still fresh, but now, a century and a half later, he is considered discredited because of the cause for which he fought. Yet his cause, if anything, is another reason to admire him.
If that last statement sounds controversial, consider, without prejudice, the cause for which Lee sacrificed everything — his life, his family, his career. It was a simple and eloquent one that every humane man should be able to rally round: “With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty as an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” In another letter, he wrote, “a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets has no charm for me. If the Union is dissolved and government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people, and save in defense will draw my sword on none.”
Lee would have endorsed the view of General Richard (son of Zachary) Taylor who said that he and his fellow Southerners had fought not for the preservation of slavery — regret for slavery’s loss, Taylor noted after the war, “has neither been felt nor expressed” — but rather, they had “striven for that which brought our forefathers to Runnymede, the privilege of exercising some influence in their own government.”
That Lee believed that the Confederacy had only exercised its rights as guaranteed under the Constitution, defended by the founders, and invoked by states and statesmen “for the last seventy years,” can be seen in his letter of 15 December 1866 to Lord Acton, in which he says precisely that. He wishes that “the judgment of reason” had not “been displaced by the arbitrament of war,” but concludes it has been, and it is time for the South to move on, to accept “without reserve… the extinction of slavery…. [A]n event that has been long sought, though in a different way, and by none… more earnestly desired than by citizens of Virginia,” and to “trust that the constitution may undergo no [further] change, but that it may be handed down to our succeeding generations in the form we received it from our forefathers.”
This does not sound like a man whose politics should bar him from the admiration that used to be his due.
I THINK, HOWEVER, THAT THERE IS another, deeper reason why Lee makes modern America uncomfortable. It is his Christianity — not the fact the he was a believer, but that he actually knew what it meant to pursue the imitation of Christ. Try reading the Gospel of Matthew and you’ll find that it’s arresting stuff. And Lee, though gentle in demeanor — indeed a thoroughgoing gentleman — could be equally arresting.
When a young mother sought Lee’s advice for raising her infant son, Lee replied, “Teach him he must deny himself.” Or how about this: “Duty…is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things…. You cannot do more; you should never wish to do less.”
Lee always put others first; he believed that to lead is to serve; he believed that the “forbearing use of power does not only form the touchstone, but the manner … of a true gentleman…. A true gentleman of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.”
Today, Self seems to be the great god of most people. They bow before the presumed truth that happiness lies in self-esteem and “self-actualization” — a very self-flattering way of affirming that one’s “inner self” is always right, and the source of all truth. Self-denial, unless it is in the form of a diet (to make us feel better about ourselves), is not much in vogue.
Well, Lee was the great anti-self-actualizer of American history. As Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Douglas Southall Freeman put it: “Had [Lee’s] life been epitomized in one sentence of the Book he read so often, it would have been in the words, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.'”
Today, many find that sentence too bracing, and Lee, who embodied it, becomes an affront, a perfect example of Mark Twain’s apothegm that “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”
And it’s not just that, of course. Ignorance is part of the problem too. For how many Americans today know the real Robert E. Lee or know anything about him at all, save that he was a general “who fought for slavery.”
If we want an America of heroes, we need to cherish our heroes of the past. It is to the advantage of every Southerner, of every American, to renew his acquaintance with Robert E. Lee, because there simply is no finer American hero.