Having lost his father at the age of 11, Lee spent his teenage years taking care of his mother, who was an invalid. When Lee entered West Point, his mother praised her son’s selfless dedication to her by saying that Lee had been “both son and daughter to me.”
At West Point, Lee distinguished himself by never once receiving a demerit (a formal censure for misconduct) during his four years there. To understand how noteworthy this achievement is, it’s worth quoting future Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who claimed that it was impossible to get through West Point without receiving demerits!
During the war with Mexico in the 1840s, Lee performed a feat of sheer bravery. One dark night, he found his way across a lava field that was full of deep cracks. As Lee later recalled, he traversed this lava field “without light, without a companion or guide, where scarcely a step could be taken without fear of death.”
Lee is often criticized for choosing to command the Confederate Army, even though President Abraham Lincoln had offered Lee command of the Union Army. I would urge those who criticize Lee on these grounds to consider the context of the era during which Lee lived. Lee was opposed in principle to both slavery — which he called “a moral and political evil” — and secession. He decided to become commander of the Confederate Army only after his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union. In one letter, he wrote, "My loyalty to Virginia ought to take precedence over that which is due to the federal government. If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I. But, if she secedes, then I will still follow my native state with my sword, and if need be with my life." In another letter, he explained, "I must side either with or against my section or country. I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children. I should like, above all things, that our difficulties might be peaceably arranged... Whatever may be the result of the contest, I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation perhaps for our national sins."
Today, it might be difficult for us to understand Lee’s intense level of attachment to his home state. After all, the United States of America is a thoroughly consolidated nation. It has a very powerful federal government and is generally considered the world’s only superpower.
It helps to remember that in Lee’s day, the U.S. was a very different country. It was a young nation that had emerged out of the union of thirteen erstwhile colonies. At first, citizens of these new states regarded their states as more or less independent countries. It took a while for a sense of the United States of America as one united country to take hold, and the residual effects of this sense of the USA as a confederation of independent states took a very long time to dissipate. As the Founding Father Henry Lee III — who was Robert E. Lee’s father — once said of his home state, “Virginia is my country; her will I obey, no matter how sad my fate may be.” If one keeps this historical context in mind, it is not difficult to understand — and even to admire — Robert E. Lee’s strong sense of commitment to Virginia. Thus did Lee obey Virginia, even though he was himself opposed to the idea of dismembering the Union and believed that slavery was evil.
As his father had uncannily foreshadowed, Lee’s fate was indeed sad. The Union defeated the Confederacy, Lee had to surrender to Grant, and the federal government rejected Lee’s application for the restoration of his U.S. citizenship.*
Even in defeat, however, Lee maintained his dignity. At the surrender ceremony, Lee showed respect to Grant by wearing a brand new uniform, boots with spurs, and a sword with jewels. For his part, Grant wore a muddy coat. In other words, Lee showed respect to Grant; Grant failed to show Lee the same respect.
Even while maintaining his dignity, Lee began to work that very day for national reconciliation. His last words to his troops were, “Go home and be good Americans.” To the end of his life, he urged fellow ex-Confederates to help bring about reconciliation between the North and the South.
In the final years of his life, Lee served as President of Washington College (today known as Washington & Lee University), which he saved from bankruptcy. As President of Washington College, Lee worked for national reconciliation. For instance, when one faculty member spoke disparagingly of General Grant, Lee replied, "Sir, if you ever presume again to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this university." Under Lee’s leadership, Washington College had a simple, concise student honor code. As Lee himself put it, “We have but one rule here, and it is that every student be a gentleman.” Clearly, Lee was honorable to the end.
Does such a great man really deserve to have his statues removed? Can’t we reject the legacy of the Confederacy while also celebrating Robert E. Lee as a man? I believe that we can and we must. We owe it to ourselves to magnanimously forgive Lee’s flaws and honor his many virtues.
*Happily, in 1975, President Gerald Ford corrected this injustice and finally restored Lee’s citizenship, stating, “General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.”