Thursday, 7 September 2017

Who Was Robert E. Lee? by E.W.C. Junner

As American children start their new school year, what will they be reading in their history books now that many States are launching an attack on some heroes of American history? It is not the purpose of this blog to dwell on the recent ugly incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia, but to write about General Robert E. Lee does seem appropriate. I’d like to find the reasoning behind the Charlottesville mayor and council’s desire to remove the statue of General Lee.

I know nothing about America’s Civil War other than that it followed a bare seventy-eight years after the War of Independence from Great Britain, and pitted followers of Abraham Lincoln in the North against those of Jefferson Davis in the South. I have read a little about heroes from both sides. Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman turned the tide of battle to victory for the North, yet it is the Generals from the South, Robert E. Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson  whose are the names most often heard, spoken almost with reverence.

Why should the town worthies of a Southern State be so adamant in their desire to remove the statue of their champion General Lee, seated on his famous horse Traveller, from its position? Doesn’t this amount, at the very least, to wanton destruction of an important piece of art? The mayor and town councillors are not only removing a statue which adds a measure of distinction to the town, they are in effect dismissing as irrelevant one of the most important figures from a major episode in the history of the United States. 
General Lee on Traveller

This is America’s history; for good or bad. I quote from Robert E. Lee here, “Everyone should do all in his power to collect and disseminate the truth, in the hope that it may find a place in history and descend to posterity.”
So I checked to see what was so heinous about General Lee. 

Robert Edward Lee was born 19th January, 1807, the son of Colonel Henry Lee and his wife Ann. When Robert was eleven years old his father died of injuries sustained in the Baltimore riot. Raised by his mother, he entered West Point military academy from where he graduated second in his class, without one demerit and with perfect scores in artillery, infantry and cavalry.

Lee married Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington through her first marriage. His army duties took him all across America as he rose from Assistant to the Chief Engineer of the Army to Captain. In 1846 he rendered distinguished service in the war with Mexico. For this he received glowing praise from his commander.1848 saw Lee stationed in Mexico, then for three years he was Superintendent of West Point Academy. As Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Cavalry he served against Indians in Texas. He suppressed John Brown’s insurrection, and was appointed Colonel of the First Cavalry.

Then came the rumblings of war, North against South. Again I quote General Lee, ‘There is a terrible war coming, and these young men who have never seen war cannot wait for it to happen, but I tell you, I wish that I owned every slave in the South, for I would free them all to avoid this war.’ 

On 16th April, 1861, Abraham Lincoln summoned Lee and offered him the command of the United States Armies. This Lee refused, and on 20th April he resigned his commission in the army. He stated, ‘with all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relative, my children, my home. I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the Army’ Three days later he accepted command of the Virginia forces under President Jefferson Davis.

‘What a cruel thing war is…to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbours’ and the Christian Lee was always evident, ‘I have never cherished towards (the people of the North) bitter or vindictive feelings. And I have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.’ 

Robert E. Lee exhibited his astute military command, winning many victories against a vastly superior force. Always, he considered the ordinary people – he took care to intrude upon their lives as little as possible. He had in General T.J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson a most able military man and good friend. Jackson’s death, from friendly fire, affected Lee grievously. 
A weary and despondent-looking  General Lee after the death of Jackson. "I have lost my right arm."

In the end, his small band severely depleted due to death on the battlefield and death from disease, General Robert Edward Lee lost his last battle when Richmond fell on April 3rd, 1865.
 “I suppose there is nothing for me to do but go and see General Grant,” he told an aide. “And I would rather die a thousand deaths.” 

Pardoned by Lincoln and Grant, Lee ended his days as President of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University. This was a man who exhorted Americans to “Abandon your animosities and make your sons American.” What’s to revile? What not to respect? Or, to quote the Bard in finish:
…Nature might stand up And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’
General Robert Edward Lee

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