THE DETERIORATION OF VIRTUE
CONSIDERING THE STERLING CHARACTER OF ROBERT E. LEE
“These people delight in destroying the weak and those who can make no defense; it just suits them!” Robert E. Lee
To have a hero in our time is a mockery in itself, and considering a man from a dysfunctional family for the honor of being one of our greatest heroes is additionally ironic.
Robert E. Lee is such a man.
His father, Harry Lee, of distinguished lineage, graduated from Princeton University in 1773. He was a Revolutionary War hero and an adroit horseman (“Light Horse Harry”). He signed the Declaration of Independence, was a Congressman and Governor of the State of Virginia, a colonel in the Revolutionary army and later a general, a writer, a friend of the rich and famous, the sire of two families, a pauper, spendthrift, and an inmate in two debtors prisons.
Harry Lee had served under President George Washington in the Revolutionary War and following his death in 1799, fell on hard times. His son, Robert, was born in 1807 and shortly after his birth Harry Lee was forcibly removed from the home and taken to the Montross debtors prison. While in prison he wrote a history of the Revolutionary War. Out of prison in 1810, the family moved to Alexandria where financial support came from his father in law. In 1812 he was badly beaten and permanently disabled in a Baltimore riot. In the summer of 1813 he left the family to recover in the West Indies. He never returned. Harry Lee died in 1818 on Cumberland Island, Georgia, at the home of the daughter of his former commander, Nathanael Green.
The Lee family was impoverished during Robert’s childhood. With his father and older brothers away, he became head of the household at the age of 12. He was an exemplary child who cared for and endeared himself to his mother, Ann Carter Lee.
He inherited sterling qualities from both sides of the family. He was handsome and possessed with rare physical strength and endurance. With a vivid sense of duty, a gentle spirit, and a meticulous and prudent demeanor he showed great promise.
His elder brother, Charles Carter Lee, had studied at Harvard. Money was not available for Robert to follow so instead he embarked on a military career by attending West Point.
Robert E. Lee’s life was punctuated by a stream of superlatives. In 1829, he was graduated second in his class from West Point and was without a single demerit. In his Senior year he lead the Cadet Corps. In 1831 as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army, he married the daughter of an adopted grandson of President George Washington. Following several years working as an Engineer, at the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846, General George Winfield Scott asked that Captain Lee be assigned to his Command.
Though his flawless performance as an engineer had involved a number of years and several noted projects, prior to the Mexican-American war his advancement had been slow.
He was a remarkable warrior. General Scott attributed his own success in the Mexican War to the, “skill, valor and undaunted energy of Robert E. Lee” and called him, “the greatest military genius in America”. In an unprecedented outpouring of adulation, every general officer with whom he personally served made special mention of him in their reports: “I want to record my particular admiration for Captain Lee”; “in whose skill and judgment I have the utmost confidence”; “his gallantry and conduct deserve the highest praise”; “intrepid coolness and gallantry”. In a speech at the Lee Memorial meeting in 1870 Jefferson Davis said of Lee, “He came from Mexico crowned with honors, covered with brevets, and recognized, young as he was, as one of the ablest of our country’s soldiers”. During the War he was breveted to the rank of Colonel.
Thirty six years had passed since Light Horse Harry Lee’s son had matriculated at West Point. During this long period of time, he patiently dispensed distinguished service to the Army of the United States. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln through Secretary Francis Blair and General George Scott offered him the command of the Union Army. He replied that though he detested slavery, was opposed to secession and to deprecating war, he would take no part in the invasion of the Southern States.
Robert E. Lee resigned from the Army of the United States and returned to Virginia where in 1862 he assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Victories over McClellen, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker followed. His tenure with the Confederacy was, however, not without a downside. In 1861 an abortive incursion into West Virginia created a niche in his reputation which postponed his deserved elevation to General and resulted in extensive labor for President Jefferson Davis in the field of engineering and building defenses for the Confederate States. It was not until 1865 on the eve of the Southern surrender that Lee was elevated to Commander-in-Chief.
After the War in 1866 he wrote, “All that the South has ever desired was that the Union as established by our fathers should be preserved, and that the government as originally organized should be administered in purity and truth.” Six months later he wrote, “I had no other guide, nor had I any other object than the defense of these principles of American liberty on which the constitutions of the several States were originally founded, and unless they are strictly observed I fear there will be an end of Republican government in this country.”
In describing Robert E. Lee and the character of his life, words that are no longer used in relation to our society resonate with grief. Words like faith in God, stately bearing, dignity without stiffness, courtliness with women, Christian humility, self control, self denial, and kindness.
Lee abhorred Total War as it was practiced by the Union Army. It was inconceivable to him that women, children, and the elderly might be involved in the conflict. Rape, pillaging, murder, and the atrocities attendant to an illegitimate victory were not allowed in his Army. Robert E. Lee could not have released the atomic bombs on Japan. His character would not have allowed it.
Ann Carter Lee said of her son as he left for West Point, “How will I get on without Robert? He is both a son and daughter to me”. In our day, he would have been a candidate for a foster home or the abomination of Freudian counseling.
Can you imagine a man like William Jefferson Clinton being satisfied to serve the country quietly following the adulation Lee received after the Mexican-American War? Lee was bound by duty and honor. He was a man that could be trusted to produce his best efforts whether abounding or being abased.
Could a man whose integrity required the sacrifice of both the money and fame that command of the Union forces would have brought, could that man have desecrated the highest office of the land and then lied about his conduct? What would the men of that generation have thought of fifty United States Senators who breached their oath of office to exonerate a guilty President?
Can you imagine a man of Lee’s courtliness facing the vituperation of the National Organization for Women, the profanity of the ACLU, the homosexual rights movement, rampant pornography, or the charade we call Democracy?
How alien he was to our nihilistic culture. How hard to imagine his character in the youth of today.
The Civil War was indeed a blow to the Republic. Lee’s prophetic statement about the end of Republican government has been substantially fulfilled. Terrorism known as “Total War” became standard, Federal Government reigned supreme and its roots have ever since been moistened with tyranny.
Northern victory set the stage for a pervasive harshness which was fostered by agnostic enlightenment. Lee was criticized for his failure to return total war to the North and Northern history was written to enforce the maxim that might makes right. Christian virtue which characterized the life of Robert E. Lee was replaced by faith in a mighty humanistic army.
During the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee summarized what we, today, have lost, “It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom benevolence belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain”.