The Left vs. Robert E. Lee

With the revulsion against Confederate symbols that has resulted from shooter Dylann Roof's internet picture with the Confederate battle flag, Robert E. Lee has been put in the gunsights of social radicals. Lee was one of the two great generals of the Civil War and due in part to his good fortune in having an excellent biographer in Douglas Southall Freeman, is generally regarded as the greatest, although it should be noted that Grant won the war.

Lee came from one of the oldest families in Virginia and arguably its most distinguished. His father, Light Horse Harry Lee, was a general in the Revolutionary War and a relative, Richard Henry Lee, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Winfield Scott, general in chief of the Army before the Civil War, thought Lee the best soldier he had ever seen. Lee was offered the command of the Union army but resigned his commission to fight, as he saw it, for his homeland, Virginia. Before the Civil War, the country was referred to as “these United States.” After the Civil War, it was “the United States.” So, ante bellum, there was a different view of the country than we have now.

Lee was a great leader of men as well as a brilliant soldier. He came to represent the heart of the Confederacy. His aristocratic background and bearing, his having sacrificed his fortune for the Cause, and his victories in the field led him to become the ideal, almost the incarnation, of the Confederacy itself.

His leadership in the Confederacy is now considered dishonorable, or at least disreputable, by member sof the adversary culture. It is true, as Grant observed, that the Confederacy fought valiantly for “as bad a cause as there ever was.” But this did not tarnish Lee’s reputation as a man or as a general. His army, the Army of Northern Virginia, was noted both for its ferocious fighting ability and for its rigorous discipline.

This country, the United States, would not be what it is today without Robert E. Lee, although it is also the case that this is not the reason he is revered in the public square in the South. But it is true.

In Lee’s discussions with Grant at Appomattox, Lee requested and Grant agreed, speaking for Lincoln, that soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia would be paroled and would not be molested by the Union so long as they did not violate their parole. This was a critical part of the surrender. If there was to be, as Lee put it, a “Roman peace” whereby the soldiers of the ANV were to be treated as rebels and shot, then Lee and his army would go down fighting.

Lincoln’s objective had always been to preserve the Union and he was eager to welcome the South back into it. He had no intention of making a Carthaginian peace. Also, Lincoln well understood the role that Lee played in the soul of the South, and while Lee could not surrender armies other than his own, Lincoln believed that Lee’s surrender would end the war, as essentially it did.

So that was the agreement. ANV soldiers, after turning in their battle standards and their weapons, were free to go home so long as they observed their paroles. Lee set an example by seeking a parole for himself, and he let it be known that he had done so. He told all of his staff to do so.

During the last days of the ANV, several officers came to Lee proposing to continue the struggle by guerilla war, for which a large part of the South was well-suited. Lee said no. The issue was settled. What soldiers should do now was to go home and resume their private lives.

Lee had such prestige in the Confederacy that his word was considered final. There was no continuation of the Civil War in guerilla form. It would have been easy for this to happen, given the independent nature of Southern soldiers. It has happened in many other countries, to the great detriment of their national experience. Lee’s example of seeking a parole and his refusal to sanction guerilla war, which could have continued for decades, was his greatest service to the Republic and one that nobody else could have made.

There is a famous story. Henry Wise was a former governor of Virginias and a prominent citizen. His son and namesake Henry Wise, Jr. had been on Lee’s staff. At age 19, he returned home from the war expecting a warm welcome. Instead, his father was standing in the door.

“You can’t come in here. You have disgraced the family by asking for a parole from those Yankees.”

“But father, that’s what General Lee said I should do.”

Pause.

“Oh.”

Pause.

“Well, if that’s what General Lee said you should do, then that’s the right thing to do.”

He stepped aside and let his son enter.

And that’s what Robert E. Lee did for the nation.