As the country agonizes about dishonesty on Wall Street and in Washington, and the contentious election cycle, there is a powerful lesson from our history about the need for conciliation and coming together. The current political situation threatens to divide our country even more deeply than it was during the Vietnam era. We as a people need guidance. Our nation’s civil war provides many lessons about conciliation as well as the results of failing to reconcile. Possibly the greatest single positive example from that war was the life of Robert E. Lee.
For most Americans today, if they think of Lee at all, he was someone we read about in high school history. Perhaps we saw a portrait of him astride his horse, Traveler. To most, he is a figure from an ancient and hopelessly retrograde culture, who could not possibly have any relevance in the new millennium.
He was indeed a product of his time and his culture, a man who tolerated human slavery even as he deplored it. He led an army, which was the martial instrument of a racist and repressive society, though one which held itself to be civilized and indeed enlightened. While he did hold such a post, and indeed held it with incredible energy, creativity, and resolve; at the same time he was by all accounts kind-hearted, humble, and sincerely religious.
History itself seems mostly irrelevant to the vast majority today. “Why should we dwell on the past, when it is dead and gone? This is the Twenty First Century!” I would submit that history has exquisite relevance for this and any other generation. The people who passed before us with their combination of heroism and butchery, triumphs and foibles were, after all, made of the same stuff as you and I. The culture has changed, as have attitudes, but the human animal in most ways has not. We have the same desires, hopes, aspirations, and we all still have our prejudices, as much as we may protest to the contrary.
Lee, if he were alive today, I believe, would have a very different message from many of our contemporaries who like to wave the Confederate battle flag. Many of these “neo-Confederates” talk a lot about heritage and pride. However, the messages on both sides of the flag and heritage debates are divisive, and often sown with arrogance and resentment.
Lee was indeed a respecter of heritage, with a noble lineage and family ties to George Washington. His actions after the Civil War demonstrated, however, character of a type, which is very rare indeed. After a humiliating and devastating defeat, he refused to call out bands of diehards to fight a vengeful guerilla war in the mountains and backwoods of the South, as many of his subordinates and various firebrands remonstrated. He most certainly could have done that and it would have divided the country to this day in a way, which would make what happened in Northern Ireland look like a Sunday School picnic.
Neither did Lee attempt to cash in on his name, which was venerated almost as deity in the South. One insurance company offered him $50,000 per year (a king’s ransom in 1865) to be its President. When he protested that he knew nothing about the insurance business, he was informed that he did not need to – they just wanted to use his name. To this, he quietly replied that his name was not for sale.
He also did not become bitter and lash out verbally at his former foes. Instead, he took the helm of the nearly defunct Washington College in Virginia and spent his last years in training the young to deal with the realities of the new United States of America, building what today is Washington and Lee University.
He urged his former officers and men to put aside hatreds and return to their farms and shops and to rebuild the society, which had been destroyed, to put behind them the bloody and bitter struggle. He was a voice of conciliation and forgiveness. He neither said nor did anything to encourage the voices of discord. He put his Christian faith into practice under the most difficult of circumstances.
It is safe to assume that were Lee alive today, he would counsel the same in our society. He would encourage the races to be done with hatred and to move on in harmony; to cease and desist from the continual one-upsmanship that pervades our social and political life today; to give more and demand less.
He was a man who subsumed his own selfish desires and ambitions to do his duty as he saw it. As war became imminent, he rejected the honor of leading the Union Army, which had all the advantages necessary for success, to cast his lot with his countrymen and kin in a dangerous and desperate struggle, because he could not lift his arm against his own. It is highly probable, given his considerable abilities, that had Lee accepted the command of the Union Army, the war would have been shortened by two years or more, and that Lee would occupy a place in history alongside Washington and Lincoln. Lee was no fool; he knew this very well. Still he chose what he believed to be his duty over self-promotion.
This is a key for Americans today. Our commercial and capitalist society, with all its advantages still encourages self-interest and greed at the expense of compassion and generosity. Our competitiveness tends to stifle the higher impulses to conciliation, which many consider a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes far greater strength to conciliate than to confront, to forgive than to hate. It is easy to show hatred and lack of compassion. It takes strength to reach out.
I believe we should learn from our past, take the best from history and from its protagonists, and use it to move humanity beyond the petty hatreds of race, class, or region. Having studied the life of General Lee, I believe there is very much about him which is truly exemplary, a pattern for modern man.
It is patently criminal that in our effort toward political correctness, we have virtually expunged his name from public school history books. I can hear the naysayer’s chorus now. “He should have fought a defensive war...he had slaves...he alone was responsible for losing the war...he should have done this and he should have done that, etc.”
Intentional, malicious criticism of Lee is becoming sport among some so called scholars, as they sit on their duffs in their comfortable Monday morning quarterbacking chairs, whilst ensconced securely within their tenures. The vast majority of them could not lead a group in silent prayer; much less lead a rag tag army to immortality on the battlefield, as did Lee.
Spare me the jealous character assassination. The truth is that Lee was one of the best military commanders our country ever produced. More importantly, after the tragic and untimely death of Lincoln, and after the war was over, he did in fact do more to promote harmony in this country than anyone of that era.
We owe a supreme debt to him for that, not insipid criticism 135 years after the fact. Heroes are in short supply, we need to revere the greatest and learn from them, not excoriate them for their failures. However, Lee was far nobler than I, and he would have said to ignore the carping critics and move on with the work at hand. He would have said to build bridges, not entrenchments. He would have said to put duty above self. Now there is truly a lesson for today.