He has been called the greatest general ever produced in America, even though he was on the losing side in the greatest military conflict of his life.
Today is the 203rd birthday of Robert E. Lee. And, while history does remember him as the commander of the losing side in the Civil War, he easily could have led the winning forces. He was approached about being the general of the Union troops, but he would not fight against Virginia, his home state, after it seceded.
So he commanded the Army of Northern Virginia. But did you know that he never wore the insignia of a Confederate general? He only wore the three stars worn by a Confederate colonel, which was equal to the last rank he had achieved in the U.S. Army.
Lee was a patriot, and, like Abraham Lincoln, he wished to keep the Union intact. "I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union," he wrote in a letter to his son.
Yes, Lee was a patriot. But he was somewhat soft–spoken by today's standards. Much of what he said was expressed in letters, like one he wrote to one of his generals several months after Lee surrendered. "True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them — the desire to do right — is precisely the same."
Lee's desire to do right led him to say, "We must forgive our enemies. I can truly say that not a day has passed since the war began that I have not prayed for them."
When the war was over, a woman spoke to him of her hatred of the North. He replied, "Madam, don't bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans."
And, on one occasion several years after the war, Lee responded, after hearing Ulysses S. Grant insulted by a faculty member at what is now Washington & Lee University, "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."
There are people who believe his love for and devotion to his home state trumped his instincts about slavery. Some attempt to apply 20th and 21st century standards to a 19th century man.
It is true that, before the war began, Lee had freed the slaves his wife had inherited. But a letter he wrote to his wife five years before the outbreak of the war can be interpreted in several ways:
"In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise merciful Providence."
Journalist Douglas Freeman wrote, in 1934, that Southerners of faith in the 19th century, like Lee, "believed that slavery existed because God willed it and they thought it would end when God so ruled. The time and the means were not theirs to decide, conscious though they were of the ill–effects of Negro slavery on both races."
Nevertheless, it is true that, after the war, Lee spoke of his "willingness that blacks should be educated." It would, he said, "be better for the blacks and for the whites," but it was nearly a century before Southern schools were integrated.
It is beyond dispute, as far as I can see, that Lee believed in education. "The education of a man is never completed," he said, "until he dies."
It would hardly be fair to expect anyone from the 19th century to live up to the standards that prevailed a century or two later. Even so, some have applied those standards to Lee's contemporaries, like Abraham Lincoln, as I observed nearly a year ago on the eve of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth.
Presumably, through the application of similar logic, some people who have never lived in the South have harbored a prejudice against all white Southerners — because of slavery, because of the Civil War, because of the Ku Klux Klan, because of racist politicians, because of racism in general.
But not all white Alabamians were George Wallace, not all white Arkansans were Orval Faubus, not all white Georgians were Lester Maddox. The Wallaces, Faubuses and Maddoxes made it harder for progressive Southerners to be visible, but they were there. I know because I saw them.
It is important to remember — the day after Martin Luther King Day, the day of Massachusetts' special election to choose Ted Kennedy's Senate successor — that no region of this country has a monopoly on racism. School busing, as a means to achieve school desegregation, is maybe the best example.
When I was growing up, my hometown in Arkansas was much smaller than it is today. In those days, it was a rural community with many families, including mine, living outside the city limits. The likelihood of any family living outside the city limits had little to do with race. It was more of an economic thing, in both a positive and negative sense. There were places where lower–income families lived, and there were areas where middle– and higher–income families, in which the parents were better educated and had better jobs, bought land and built homes.
School segregation existed in my hometown before I enrolled in first grade, but integration was in effect by the time I did so I have no first–hand memory of segregated schools. There was never a time when there were no blacks in school with me. And there was never a time — at least that I can recall — when anyone, white or black, resisted school integration in my hometown.
But I do have a first–hand memory of riding school buses. As far–flung as the families were in my hometown, everyone except those who lived a short distance from school rode the bus. It was a normal, everyday experience for me.
It was, therefore, stunning for me — and, I presume, others my age, although I don't remember speaking at length with any of my friends about it — when places like Boston erupted in race riots over school busing. I couldn't really comprehend the issues that were involved. All I could see was adults getting into fights over something that I saw as a fact of life.
Well, it's tough enough to do the right thing in your own time. Never mind what the folks 100 or 150 years from now will think.
Lee himself seemed to comprehend that simple fact.
"After it is all over, as stupid a fellow as I am can see that mistakes were made," he said. "I notice, however, that my mistakes are never told me until it is too late."