The Greatness of Robert E. Lee


Robert E. Lee was something of a paradox. His father, Light Horse Harry Lee had been a hero of the Revolutionary War, but something less than a hero in civilian life, amassing huge debts and eventually deserting his family. This must have conditioned Robert Lee to do better than his father had.
He became a soldier, and spent 32 years serving the United States until the Civil War. He didn’t approve of secession, but also couldn’t see fighting against his home state of Virginia. Having seen war in Mexico (the Mexican War of 1846, where many of the prominent soldiers of the Civil War also fought), he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of Civil War, as many were on both sides, but elected to serve his native state as best he could, as a professional soldier. It wasn’t the war he would have chosen to fight in, but at the same time he knew he was a very good soldier.
Many on both sides thought the war would be over quickly. Lee had no such illusions. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, thought the South could outlast the North. Lee had no illusion about that either. He knew the North was more industrialized, and could therefore produce more equipment for war, could transport it more easily than could the South (the North had more railroads), and the North also had a larger population from which to draft soldiers. He knew that if he couldn’t win the war quickly it would be impossible to win, so that was what he tried to do. He never quite succeeded, but at times came very close.
His role-model as a general was Winfield Scott, whom he had observed at close range during the Mexican War. Scott believed in maneuvering to make the best possible use of his troops, and Lee imitated him in that respect. Scott had also been fighting a war with a disadvantage in manpower, and maneuvering had given him his best chance to beat the Mexican army while losing as few men as possible.
But the Mexican army had been poorly trained, and Lee knew that this would not be true of the Union army. Up until the point that he took command Confederate armies had been almost uniformly unsuccessful, with only one or two exceptions. Lee changed that.
He had help, of course. Generals Stonewall Jackson, Longstreet, Johnston and Stuart all worked well at his direction, Jackson perhaps best of all, so that his death was a particular blow to Lee and the South. And both sides had very large armies. Lee at times had as many as 90,000 or so troops, while the armies he faced often had well over 100,000. It was a very large-scale war. The most publicized actions were in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the latter two invaded by Lee in the hope of not only drawing Federal armies out of Virginia, but of provoking a climactic battle that might decide the war. He came close to doing so in Pennsylvania, but failed at least in part because his various troops didn’t coordinate well enough to fight the Northern soldiers most efficiently. Lee also had the interesting trait, for a soldier, of not liking confrontation. He liked his subordinate commanders to use their initiative, which sometimes brought him good results, but not at Gettysburgh.
After Gettysburgh it rapidly became clear that the South couldn’t continue fighting much longer. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi had given the North control of the river. Fighting continued in Kentucky and Tennessee, but the commanders there weren’t able to follow up what successes they had. Meanwhile, Sherman’s army had entered Georgia and was making its destructive way from there to the South Carolina coast. At the same time Grant was confronting Lee with superior manpower and probably greater skill than the generals Lee had been fighting before. Confederate supplies had also broken down, so soldiers might go several days without food. Southern soldiers began to desert.
At that point came Lee’s surrender to Grant, to stop the fighting and further unnecessary bloodshed. That surrender began a terrible period for the South. Many people felt their cause had been just, and couldn’t understand why they’d lost the war.
And, exacerbating the situation, was the region’s military occupation and its treatment as a conquered territory instead of a part of the Union. There were feelings of resentment on both sides, preventing both from seeing the other’s point of view. Southerners resented not only the conquering Northerners, but the blacks who tried to assert their equality. Lee tried to combat these bad feelings.
Lee was a man of his times, meaning that while he disliked slavery in the abstract, he owned slaves himself. However, he freed those he had, according to his father-in-law’s will, within about 5 years, and 3 days before the Emancipation Proclamation. He said that he believed blacks to be generally not ready for freedom (as most whites did in that time and place), but in an Episcopal church when people were invited to come to the front of the church, and a black man did, no whites would–until Robert Lee did. The biographer, Emory M. Thomas, says that Lee’s actions often contradicted his words, frequently in a good way.
After the war ended Lee became president of Washington College, and showed he was more than just a military leader. He had strong feelings about education and implemented them at Washington College, changing its curriculum from study of the classics (though he didn’t jettison those) to study of mathematics, modern languages and engineering, which prepared his college to become a 20th century university. But his health wasn’t good (Thomas surmises angina pectoris and atherosclerosis), and he lived barely 5 years after the war.
Considering the hardships he’d undergone during the war (he was about 54 when it began, 58 when it ended, old for those times) it’s surprising he had even survived it. He shared the hardships of weather and poor food with his soldiers, and the responsibilities of command added to his physical difficulties, even if those didn’t immediately show.
Thomas emphasizes his attitude as being critical to his success as both a soldier and human being. He tried above all to be realistic, to see things as they were, and make the best of them. He saw failure as bringing as many opportunities as success, so he wasn’t happy with failure, but didn’t let it bother him as much as many, and always tried to learn from it. He also believed that his duty as a human being was to help others.
If Lee had had his way both North and South would have reconciled and let all bitterness go. Of course that’s not the way it happened. You would think the bitterness would be gone 150 years later, but it seems instead to be at least one of the bases of contemporary political bitterness.
The author of New Mind of the South points out that conservatism and racism aren’t exactly the same thing, though they frequently seem to overlap. She says that conservatives could understand when black people were able to buy houses in previously all-white communities that the owners of those houses had the right to sell them to anyone they wanted (though they didn’t care for the result). What they couldn’t understand was not having the right to refuse to sell to anyone they wished. Few people, it seems, can make the leap into understanding another’s point of view.
Lee’s view of democracy was more like that of the Founders than what is current today. He believed the people of the best families and proven competence should rule. An elitist sort of democracy, but very similar to the ancient Athenian practice. But his actions prove that he also had a sense of justice. He may not have had a high opinion of blacks, but didn’t blindly hate them. He wasn’t happy with the loss of the war, in which his family had lost much of their property and savings (as well as at least one grandchild), but found a way to make a living doing something he believed in.
How different from today, when the face of racism changes, but only glacially. Trayvon Martin is probably the mirror image of the white slave-owner who felt free to use the women he owned for his own satisfaction. The opposite picture, of a black man taking advantage of whites in some way was deeply frightening, and remains so. Few whites seem to have been able to make the imaginative leap into the minds of black people to see their point of view.
I used to listen to Michael Savage’s radio program, and some years ago he talked about losing a job he had applied for because of Affirmative Action. After some 35 years he seemed still to be angry about it. Apparently he lacked the imagination to understand that there had been a from of Affirmative Action before, known as segregation, in which any African-American could rarely get a decent job no matter how qualified.
Another man, an aide to Rand Paul, with whom Paul apparently coauthored a book, claims to celebrate the birthday of John Wilkes Booth every year, and compares Abraham Lincoln to Saddam Hussein. Whether or not the Civil War, and Lincoln’s actions within that war, were justified, had he simply allowed the South to secede, or had the South won, Rand Paul’s aide might now be having the opportunity to experience BEING property, as opposed to having it.
Robert E. Lee’s beliefs may have been pretty conventional for his time, though I’d say he was a relatively enlightened man. What separates him from many people then and now, besides his abilities as a soldier, is that his sense of justice didn’t center on himself. Everyone wants a happy life, but many don’t understand or agree as to what constitutes happiness. Lee’s understanding was one that many didn’t share then or now. His actions and demonstrated abilities say he was great, but part of his greatness consists in his refusing to claim greatness.


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