Thoughts on the Anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s Birth

January 18th, 2013

By Dan Miller

This is a “revised and extended” re-post of an article I wrote in 2011 to mark an anniversary of General Lee’s death. It celebrates the two hundred and sixth anniversary of his birth on January 19, 1807, a happier occasion.

Robert E. Lee

Today, January 18th, is also Lee – Jackson Day in Virginia, as proclaimed by Governor Robert F. McDonnell.  

We have changed as a nation, often not for the better.

We, as a nation, seem to have done with heroes of his type. Yet he inspired a fledgling nation, the Confederate States of America — young, old, rich and poor alike. Those who reminisce about him do so mainly because of his devotion to duty, honor and integrity as well as his compassion and wisdom. He had those qualities in rare abundance.

General Lee was not “hip” as Victor Davis Hanson uses the term to describe most of our modern leaders and heroes. Hipness rejects all but caricatures of devotion to duty, honor, integrity, compassion and wisdom.

America has always been a country of self-invention. Yet there used to be some correlation between the life that one lived and the life that one professed. It was hard to be a phony in the grimy reality of the coal mine, the steel mill, the south 40 acres, or atop a girder over Manhattan. (Emphasis added.)

No longer in our post-modern, post-industrial, metrosexual fantasyland. The nexus of big government, big money, and globalization has created a new creed of squaring the circle of being both liberal and yet elitist, egalitarian-talking but rich-acting, talking like a 99 percenter and living like a 1 percenter. And the rub is not that the two poles are contradictory, but that they are, in fact, necessary for each other: talking about the people means it is OK to live unlike the people.

Hip is like “cool”, whose power I wrote about not long ago: a general sense of tapping into the popular youth culture of music, fashion, food, electronics, easy left-wing politics, and adolescent habit. Hipness is a tool designed to justify enjoying the riches and leisure produced by the American brand of Western market capitalism by poking fun at it, teasing it some, dressing it up a bit to suggest ambivalence over its benefits without ever seriously either understanding their source or, much less, losing them. We feel hip at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, but not so much in the organic section of Safeway.

Hip also plays out as professed caring — worrying in the abstract about all sorts of endangered species, starving peoples, or degraded environments. It is being loudly angry at retrograde forces — white males, the rich, gun owners, Christians, family types, and suburbanites, the sorts who ostensibly crafted the toxicity of Western civilization that you are forced to use and enjoy. Yet embrace hip, and all things become possible. A Martian would see the modern university as an elitist enclave, where life-long tenured professors make lots of money overseen by hordes of even better-paid administrators, that together cause tuition for cash-strapped and indebted students to rise faster than the rate of inflation without any promises that their eventual certifications will result in commensurate good jobs. A non-Martian would instead appreciate the hip nexus of diversity, eco-caring, and gender-neutral inclusivity.

Hip is a sort of Neanderthal mentality that is terrified of serious thinking, and thus substitutes the superfluous for the profound. (Emphasis added.)

When I read what passes for “news” about our CongressCritters of both parties, our President and his administration — and indeed about our now popular role models — I scratch my head and wonder where the decidedly non-hip qualities of General Lee and others of his generation went. Are they now dead to America or only hibernating? If not dead, will they be reawakened by anything less traumatic than another Civil War? Someday?

I hope so. However, there is substantial interest today in the causes of our first Civil War which, as I argue at the following link, was precipitated on the Southern side by concern over Federal emasculation of the Constitution. That article, posted on December 27, 2011, continues to be the most popular ever on my little blog. It has had 26,406 views, 18,728 of them in 2012 and 7,636 so far this month. Most came via Google and other search engines, suggesting broader interest than only in the “violent far-right” conservative blogsphere.

Might reports such as a recent one by a West Point think tank create even more interest in the Civil War? Entitled Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right, it “lumps limited government activists with three movements it identifies as ‘a racist/white supremacy movement, an anti-federalist movement and a fundamentalist movement.’” Here’s a bit more about how it

paints a broad brush of people it considers “far right.”

It says anti-federalists “espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights. Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government. Extremists in the anti-federalist movement direct most their violence against the federal government and its proxies in law enforcement.”

The report also draws a link between the mainstream conservative movement and the violent “far right,” and describes liberals as “future oriented” and conservatives as living in the past. (Emphasis added.)

“While liberal worldviews are future- or progressive -oriented, conservative perspectives are more past-oriented, and in general, are interested in preserving the status quo.” the report says. “The far right represents a more extreme version of conservatism, as its political vision is usually justified by the aspiration to restore or preserve values and practices that are part of the idealized historical heritage of the nation or ethnic community.” (Emphasis added.)

The report adds: “While far-right groups’ ideology is designed to exclude minorities and foreigners, the liberal-democratic system is designed to emphasize civil rights, minority rights and the balance of power.”

The report says there were 350 “attacks initiated by far-right groups/individuals” in 2011.

The report “was written by Arie Perliger, who directs the center’s terrorism studies and teaches social sciences at West Point.” I don’t understand why even “far right” domestic conservatives need be a concern at West Point or how they could be relevant to what young Army officers of the future are being trained for. But gee whiz, there’s probably no need for worry. I hope wish.

Back to General Lee

The present article is to some extent based on Rod Cragg’s Robert E. Lee,  A Commitment to Valor. Otherwise unattributed quotations and other material generally come from it.

General Lee’s father, “Light-Horse Harry Lee,” had distinguished himself as a cavalry commander in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He later served in the United States Congress and eventually as Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. On the death of President Washington, under whom he had served during the Revolutionary War, he was asked by the Congress to deliver a tribute:

First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen…second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life.

Robert E. Lee secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was graduated in 1829. He eventually rose to the rank of Colonel as Commander of the U.S. Army’s Texas Department in 1860. Although he considered slavery a “moral and political evil,” he declined a field command of U.S. forces when Virginia seceded and resigned from the U.S. Army to take command of Virginia’s military forces. Compelled by his sense of honor, he felt that it was his duty to do so. “I did only what my duty demanded; I could have taken no other course without dishonor.” On April 20, 1861, he wrote to the Secretary of War:

Sir, I have the honor to tender my resignation of my command as colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry.

Very respectfully your obedient servant,

R.E. Lee, Colonel First Cavalry

In a letter to General Winfield Scott, Commanding, United States Army, Lee wrote on April 20, 1861:

General: Since my interview with you on the 18th instant, I have felt that I ought not longer retain my commission in the army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has caused me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life, and all the ability I possessed.

During the whole of that time — more than a quarter of a century — I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, and the most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, General, have I been as much indebted as to yourself, for uniform kindness and consideration, and it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame will always be dear to me.

Save in defence of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me, most truly yours, (Emphasis added.)

R.E. Lee.

Lee had served as a captain on General Scott’s staff during the Mexican War.

Here are some insights into the views of General Lee and his brother Sydney Smith Lee:

Neither Smith nor Robert wanted to see Virginia join the Confederacy. They agreed, nevertheless, to make their decision jointly if Virginia chose to leave the Union. On April 18, 1861, Smith and Robert met with their cousin Samuel Phillips Lee to discuss what to do if Virginia seceded. Phillips Lee, a naval officer, made it clear he would stay with the Union, and Smith promised to blow him out of the water by placing a battery on the Virginia shore. Phillips was the son-in-law of Francis Preston Blair Jr., one of the most influential figures in the United States, with a father and brother then serving in Lincoln’s Cabinet. He later attempted to obtain the U.S. Army commanding general’s position for Robert and an equally important position for Smith, but it was in vain, as both brothers refused to desert their native state.

When substantial numbers of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy left to join their States and the Confederate Army at the outbreak of the war, a retreat ceremony at which Dixie was played in their honor is said to have been held at West Point. Accurate? I don’t know but it is a pleasant story whether true or fictional. Here is a scene from a motion picture version:

Captain Fitzhugh Lee, as portrayed in the movie, was probably intended to represent a nephew of General Lee. “In May 1860, he was appointed instructor of cavalry tactics at West Point, but resigned his commission upon the secession of Virginia.”

Following many military successes and some defeats, Lee was promoted to General-in-Chief of all Confederate armies in early 1865.

His depleted army could not maintain its defensive line at Petersburg, however, and he was forced to abandon Richmond and make the retreat that ended in his surrender at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1965.

Colonel Ives, an officer who served on General Lee’s staff, wrote

His name might be audacity. He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South.

Another wrote, “His soldiers reverenced him and had unbounded confidence in him, for he shared all their privations.”

General Lee was compelled to surrender to General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865.

Richard Bales’ Confederacy also includes a recitation of General Lee’s farewell address. I heard that recording back in 1958 or ’59 when Mr. Bales visited one of our high school (then St. Stephen’s School for Boys) history classes. I vaguely recall a comment by Mr. Bales that one of General Lee’s descendants, an Episcopalian clergyman from Virginia, had read the farewell address for his Confederacy production. The soundtrack in the YouTube video sounds as I recall the recitation in Mr. Bales’ Confederacy. More than half a century later, the once familiar south-western Virginia accent seems strange, more similar perhaps to proper English than to what is often heard now in the United States.

A Northern officer who observed General Lee at Appomattox wrote, “In manner, [Lee was] grave and dignified … which gave him the air of a man who kept his pride to the last.” A private soldier who had served with General Lee throughout the war wrote,

As Lee came riding alone into Richmond [after his surrender], his old followers immediately recognized him and followed him to his home where, with uncovered heads, they saw him to his door. Then they silently dispersed.

And another:

“Howdy do, my man.” Lee – responding to a “feeble-minded” soldier who ignored military protocol and greeted him with “Howdy do, dad.”

And another:

General Lee reproving a youthful courier for neglecting his winded mount: Young man, you should have some feeling for your horse, dismount and rest him.

And another:

“In the rush of this age, a character so simply meek and so proudly, grandly strong is scarce comprehensible” — An elderly Confederate veteran, reflecting on Lee in the early twentieth century.

Shortly after surrendering, General Lee wrote in reply to an English correspondent who had offered a place to escape the destruction of Virginia following the war: “I cannot desert my native State in the hour of her adversity. I must abide by her fortunes, and share her fate.”

Robert E. Lee, A Commitment to Valor, contains many other quotations from General Lee. Here are two of my favorites:

Duty … is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things…. You cannot do more — you should never wish to do less. (From a prewar letter to one of his sons.)

Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or to keep one; the man who requires you to do is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. (From a letter to one of his sons.)

How might General Lee fit in with the United States of today?

Would he fit the description of a dangerous far-right conservative from the West Point think tank report quoted above?

believing it [the Federal Government] to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights. Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government.

Would he be favorably disposed toward this apparently successful advertisement from the Obama-Biden campaign?

What, for that matter, would General Lee think of President Obama and his administration in general? Their foreign and domestic policies? President Obama’s penchant for Executive Decrees Orders?

General Lee may have been unique to his time and to a world vastly different from ours. Then, the individual States were seen as sovereign entities, more important for most domestic purposes than the Federal Government. Now? Apparently not by our betters in Washington or by the heads of many States.

We could perhaps benefit from a moment or two spent in reflecting on General Lee’s character while also evaluating those who are now our State and national leaders as well as those whom we might want to replace them. January 19th would seem an appropriate time for such reflections.

Perhaps inspiration may be found in this old Scots ballad.

General Lee’s Commonwealth of Virginia still has blue mountains, far away from Northern Virginia and the Seat of Government in Washington, D.C. Perhaps there are still at least a few people there and in other States who recall General Lee’s memory fondly and cherish his old fashioned, un- “hip,” notions of what States are for. Perhaps they also cherish his now quaint ideas of duty, honor, integrity, compassion and wisdom. I hope so.

Did I mention that there seems to be renewed interest in the Second Amendment as it may be fading into official obscurity? Oddly and doubtless merely a coincidence, a Guns Across America “protest against ANY and ALL future gun legislation” is scheduled for January 19th. The event may necessitate an addendum to Arie Perliger’s treatise on far right fundamentalists.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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