“General Robert Edward Lee was legend incarnate – tall, gray, one of the handsomest and most imposing men who ever lived, dressed that day in his best uniform, with a sword belted at the waist.” – Bruce Catton’s description of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse. –
Before I begin this column, I would like to say that I firmly believe that slavery, the slave trade, and the treatment of slaves were borne of an evil that was so egregious that no moral person could possibly defend. Enslaving a person is worse than any crime a man could commit.
The early to mid 1800’s were a tumultuous and horrible period in the history of the United States. Our country was fatally divided. Unfortunately, war was the only way to bring stability to our fledgling nation.
The American War of Secession began with the first artillery shell that landed at Fort Sumter, SC on April 12, 1861. What followed was massive suffering, brothers killing brothers, and the premature death of a president.
Since the delusional and evil man who walked into a predominately black church in South Carolina, many men who fought for the Confederacy have been defamed and had their historical monuments removed.
The White House – 1861 – As war loomed over America, President Abraham Lincoln summons General Robert E. Lee to meet with him in his chambers. The president begs him to lead the entire United States military force. But, the southern gentleman, with pain in his eyes, feels that there is a more important obligation; his duty to defend his native Virginia. He tells the president, “I cannot fire upon my fellow citizens in my home state. To do so, would be an act that would be more than dishonorable.” Lincoln is devastated because he knows that he will have to rely on weak and arrogant military commanders to save the Union.
Robert Edward Lee was born in Virginia in 1807, the son of a Revolutionary War hero. Lee graduated from West Point Military Academy in 1829. Interestingly, his roommate, a man who could not be more different than Lee, would become the President of the Confederate States of America. His name was Jefferson Davis.
After his distinguished record at West Point, Lee was assigned to build dams and dikes along the upper Mississippi. He later served as a cavalry officer on the Texas frontier. He was tested in battle in the Mexican War, and had attained the rank of Army Lieutenant Colonel when he successfully rousted a domestic terrorist named John Brown and his men from Harper’s Ferry in 1859. This heroic act would cement his name in history.
While Lee had the most capable commanders, the Union had the superior advantage in resources, the number of soldiers, and the industrial strength provided by Northern States.
During the war, President Lincoln fired a number of military commanders. Finally, he was desperate enough to turn to a drunken and failed businessman to challenge Lee and end the war.
Ulysses S. Grant was appointed as the commander of all Union forces. This risky move paid off. Grant, with his superior manpower, munitions, and time, forced a battle at Sailors Creek in early 1865. By using pincher maneuvers, he surrounded Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. A brutal and bloody battle ensued.
Sailors Creek – April 9, 1865 – General Lee knows that he has been defeated. His remaining soldiers are battle fatigued, his supply lines are severed, and he knows that further resistance will be futile and only bring more bloodshed. He says to his lieutenants, “There is nothing for me to do but go and see General Grant even though I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
Appomattox, VA – April 15, 1865 – General Lee leaves Sailors Creek dressed in his finest military uniform. Grant, suffering from a severe hangover, shows up late, half drunk, and with whiskey on his breath.
Nevertheless, the men meet and Lee surrenders. During his travel to Appomattox, the road is lined with thousands of Union soldiers. For the first time in history, enemy soldiers stand at attention and salute a defeated general.
After Lee departs Appomattox Courthouse, Grant sternly tells his own troops, “The rebels are our countrymen again.”
General Robert E. Lee was not charged with any criminal offense against the United States. He was never imprisoned. He died on October 12, 1870, respected in the North for his character and beloved in the South for his fighting ability.
America – Present Day – Lee is vilified and “prosecuted” well over 100 years after his death in 1870. Based on political calculations, revisionist leaders have removed or destroyed monuments dedicated to Lee in a similar way that the corporal and future chancellor of Germany did to monuments while rising to power in the 1930’s. I have no doubt that Lee would be indicted by a federal grand jury if he was alive today. It would be known as U.S. vs. Lee.
Yet, I cannot imagine any jury in America convicting a man with the character, sense of duty, and honor that were possessed by General Robert E. Lee.