April 10, 2012

Robert E. Lee Stands Tall Among Heroes

This week the Civil War started and ended in the 1960’s.  As bad as this war was, with so many deaths and casualties, it began the process of setting the slaves free and made many men into heroes.  One hero I would like to talk about today is Robert E. Lee.  Although he fought for the Confederacy, he was a man of great principles and honor, perhaps shaped by his difficult childhood.

He was born into privilege in old Virginia, a son of one of the earliest settlers in the area.  He was raised on a tobacco farm which was run largely by slaves.  His father struggled to manage the farm, eventually ending up in debtors’ prison.  That left the family fatherless and unable to support themselves.  Robert’s mother took the children and moved in with relatives.  Robert’s father died when Robert was 11, leaving Robert the responsibility to care for his mother and siblings.  His mother and sister were ill and required care.  Robert missed much school as he cared for his sick family and tried to keep them from ruin.  When it came time for Robert to attend higher school, there was no money for that.  Robert had no choice but to enroll in West Point, a military college.  He began studies there at age 18, graduating 2nd in the class with no demerits on his record.  He was eager to learn and willing to work.  His education prepared him for engineering, which allowed Robert to contribute to the building of forts.  He was able to return home after graduation in time to bid his dying mother goodbye.  

Robert fell in love with a young woman named Mary Custis, but her father refused to let them marry, citing Robert’s father’s failures as evidence of future problems.  As time went on, Robert showed his own merit and he was able to marry her.  Together, they embarked on a long career in the military, marked with long absences from each other due to his assignments.  Children came, making Robert and Mary very happy.

Robert moved up in rank in the United States military, so much so that when the Civil war broke out on April 12, 1862, Abraham Lincoln asked Robert if he would lead the army against the Confederate dissenters.  This should have been an easy decision for Robert.  It was a great honor that he had worked for, the culmination of all of his work to date.  But Robert struggled with this decision.  He felt a strong loyalty towards Virginia, his home, and the home of all of his ancestors and kin.  If he were to accept this commission, he would effectively be taking up arms against his family and friends.  Personally, Robert felt that the Civil War was a terrible idea.  He did not support the Confederate cause in the least.  He hated slavery.  He thought the United States should stand together and work out their problems, not split apart and fight over them.  After a long night deliberating, he decided to resign from the United States Army, which he did on April 20, 1862.  He was appointed commander of the Virginia army three days later.  

Robert showed great tactical genius in the battles his Virginia forces engaged in.  Several years into the war, Robert was given command of the whole Confederate army.  It has been said by many that the Union must have had God on their side, as the Confederates’ successes were so well managed.  One author wrote, “His brilliance as a commander is legendary, and military colleges the world over study his campaigns as models of the science of war. That he held out against an army three times the size and a hundred times better equipped was no miracle. It was the result of leadership by a man of exceptional intelligence, daring, courage and integrity. His men all but worshiped him. He shared their rations, slept in tents as they did, and, most importantly, never asked more of them than he did of himself.”  Eventually, the Union would prevail in spite of Robert’s tactical brilliance.  After General Sherman burned most of the South down as he marched to the sea, the war was decidedly against the Confederates. 

On April 9, 1865, Robert met with US General Ulysses S. Grant to surrender, ending the Civil War.  Robert made sure that the terms of surrender gave his troops the best possible advantage to rebuild their lives after returning home after the war.  Each soldier was allowed to take his possessions with him, including his horse, to aid him in planting his crops to feed his family.  Officers could keep their guns.  They were all to be pardoned and given Union rations of food, as they were starving.  Considering how most wars end, this was very favorable to the South.   

Some of Robert’s advisors wanted to continue the war by hiding troops in the woods to engage in guerilla warfare, but Robert dissuaded them.  He said, "So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South."  

The war was over, but Robert’s home was gone.  His grand home at Arlington Virginia had been taken over by the Union and they had buried Union soldiers all over his acreage.  It was a final slap to the face for his choice to fight with his fellow Virginia Confederates.  

Robert’s final work was to reconcile the north and the south.  He told his southern troops, "Abandon your animosities and make your sons Americans."  He encouraged the northerners to help rebuild the south.  He wanted the nation to be one great whole again.   

Robert faced many complex issues as a child and let them shape him into a strong capable man.  Although he was born rich, he knew hunger and want.  In caring for his invalid mother and sister, he learned compassion and loyalty.  Remember him as a hero, even though he fought with the Confederates.   

Here in the Atlanta Area is Stone Mountain Park, with an enormous carving depicting Robert E. Lee and other southern Civil War leaders.  In the summer, the park puts on a Laser show on the carving.  After several short shows appear, the finale always ends with Robert E. Lee breaking his sword for peace. The crowd always erupts in applause to Elvis singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  He indeed did seek for peace to unite the North and South.  We can do likewise and seek for peace with those with which we don't agree.

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