Monday, January 19, 2009

Birthday of a Great American


For more than a century, Southerners in particular have celebrated the Birthday of Robert E. Lee as a holiday - in many Southern states as an official observance. In Virginia (the home state of General Lee and his compatriot General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson - whose birthday is January 21), the official state holiday for many years was "Lee-Jackson Day).

For a century, it has been the custom in many Southern states and communities to fly the battle flag of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in tribute to Lee on January 19 in honor of his birthday. Some folks from the North are shocked, even scandalized, to learn that many Southern states give state employees the day off for Confederate Memorial Day - which few realize actually predated the Federal version of Memorial Day (which later was added to the list of holidays in the Southern states as well).

Robert Edward Lee was always a man of extraordinary character and talent.

He was born January 19, 1807, the son of Revolutionary War hero and Governor of Virginia, Gen. Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee. The Lees are among the oldest and most venerable families in Virginia. Robert's father died while Robert was eleven, leaving the family in disarray - and Robert grew up in Arlington, Virginia, raised by his devout Episcopalian mother.

He went to the USMA at West Point (class of 1829), and was one of the very few cadets to graduate with no demerits on his record. He finished second in his class. He served in the Corps of Engineers, and worked on Mississippi River levees (New Orleans has a prominent traffic circle near the river downtown named for Lee that features a towering column with a statue of General Lee atop). He later distinguished himself as an officer in the Mexican War (1847-49).

One of his last duties as a U.S. Army officer involved the "war on terror" of his day. Colonel Lee was put in charge of a detachment of U.S. Marines to arrest a terrorist named John Brown, a fanatic and mass-murderer, who, along with a small militia of extremists, had overtaken an army arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in an attempt to seize arms for a planned slave uprising. Brown was captured, and later executed for treason. Today's history books largely (and shamefully) overlook his murderous spree of violence and even justify his terrorism based on his abolitionism.

Following the secession crisis of 1860-61, as seven states of the deep South had seceded (which did not include Lee's native Virginia), Northern President Abraham Lincoln offered Col. Lee command of all military forces of the United States. This was only three weeks after Lee had been promoted to full colonel - a remarkable offer. Though he opposed secession, Lee understood that his own state was poised to secede from the United States should the North invade the seceded states. True to his principle of honor over careerism, and in patriotism for his beloved Virginia, Lee declined the promotion. Virginia did later secede in indignation toward the refusal of the Lincoln administration to allow the seceded states to leave the Union in peace. Lee resigned his Federal commission to take command of the military forces of the newly-independent Commonwealth of Virginia.

After Virginia joined the other ten seceded states (as well as two other disputed provisional state governments and several U.S. territories that had likewise seceded) in forming the Confederate States of America, General Lee would find himself commanding one of the three major armies of the CSA: the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV).

Lee's ANV would rack up a remarkable record of victories, being noted not only for their military prowess, but courage, audacity, discipline, strategic and tactical brilliance, and innovation. As the ANV's commander, Lee insisted that his soldiers act with gentlemanly military bearing and chivalry toward civilians - whether Northern or Southern. Lee's reputation, both as a general and as a man of honor, was unquestioned - even by his opponents.

Lee wrote many letters to his family, and was deeply committed to his Christianity, to chivalric honor, to patriotism, to duty, and to ethical rigor.

As a general, Lee was concerned for the welfare of the common soldier. While on the march, he typically slept in a tent rather than in a house. The affection with which Lee was held by both grateful civilians and fighting men alike is shown by the anecdote (I believe recounted in Michael Shaara's Killer Angels) of how Lee was sleeping in his tent as a large detachment of Confederate soldiers tiptoed by as silently as possible so as not to disturb the general. Anyone who has participated in reenactments - being laden down with a clanging tin canteen, heavy musket, foot-long bayonet, bags of supplies, ammunition, and shod in noisy metal-heeled brogan shoes - realizes how comical and touching this scene must have been.

Lee and his indefatigable warriors beat the overwhelming odds for four long years. My own Confederate ancestors fought in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and participated in some of American history's greatest battles. But in the end, the Confederates were defeated by sheer numbers in a war of attrition. In April of 1865, Lee surrendered his forces and laid down his arms. He was determined to partake in whatever misery lay ahead for his fellow Virginians. The now penniless General Lee, whose Arlington home was confiscated by vindictive federal bureaucrats, was a "man without a country." He was offered several lucrative contracts to do nothing more than allow his name (and thus his reputation) to be listed on corporate boards of directors - which General Lee felt would be dishonest. He turned down all such offers.

Instead, General Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College, believing education to be the best path to rebuilding the infrastructure of the demolished South. He insisted that every Washington College student be first and foremost a gentleman. After the war, General Lee showed respect and compassion to the veterans who were mostly common soldiers on both sides. He continued to exhort his fellow Southerners to patiently endure the insults, brutality, and outright political plunder of their post-war Northern countrymen, and get on with rebuilding their families and society.

General Lee died October 12, 1870, and was buried in a tomb beneath the chapel of Washington College (today known as the Lee Chapel of Washington and Lee University).

Wikipedia's article on General Lee, which in places is quite deliberately insulting, includes the following quote from the great Georgia Senator and orator Benjamin Harvey Hill delivered four years after the General's death, an opinion shared by Americans in the North and South alike:
He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbour without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward.
In a day and age when "role models" are selected based solely on things like athletic ability, being in a rock band, having wealth, or artificially and arbitrarily based on race, sex, or perceived "gender identity"; even as character and nobility are overlooked, as trashiness is exalted, as scandal and sometimes criminality are no longer barriers for making a person worthy of emulation by young people - continuing to remember and honor Robert E. Lee on this, his birthday, is a refreshing act of rebellion against the forces of political correctness.

Robert Edward Lee was a man who stood for principles. He was a Christian, a patriot, a warrior, an educator, a peacemaker, and a man whose life was quietly ruled by the ever-present desire to do what is right. It is fitting that Americans, especially Southerners and most especially Virginians, remember this heroic man on this auspicious holiday commemorating his birth. And though fewer and fewer recall his ideals and example as the years go by, those who do continue to be edified by true greatness as opposed to manufactured mythmaking and the politically-correct collective overlooking of "inconvenient truths" that cannot be wished or ignored away.

Here is a tribute to General Lee written by Fr. Abram J. Ryan, the Roman Catholic priest who served as a Confederate chaplain and as a prolific and beloved American poet:

The Sword of Robert Lee

Forth from its scabbard, pure and bright,
Flashed the sword of Lee!
Far in the front of the deadly fight,
High o'er the brave in the cause of Right,
Its stainless sheen, like a beacon light,
Led us to Victory!

Out of its scabbard, where, full long,
It slumbered peacefully,
Roused from its rest by the battle's song,
Shielding the feeble, smiting the strong,
Guarding the right, avenging the wrong,
Gleamed the sword of Lee!

Forth from its scabbard, high in air
Beneath Virginia's sky --
And they who saw it gleaming there,
And knew who bore it, knelt to swear
That where that sword led they would dare
To follow -- and to die!

Out of its scabbard! Never hand
Waved sword from stain as free,
Nor purer sword led braver band,
Nor braver bled for a brighter land,
Nor brighter land had a cause so grand,
Nor cause a chief like Lee!

Forth from its scabbard! How we prayed
That sword might victor be;
And when our triumph was delayed,
And many a heart grew sore afraid,
We still hoped on while gleamed the blade
Of noble Robert Lee!

Forth from its scabbard all in vain
Bright flashed the sword of Lee;
'Tis shrouded now in its sheath again,
It sleeps the sleep of our noble slain,
Defeated, yet without a stain,
Proudly and peacefully!

6 comments:

saxoniae said...

Wow. January 19 was my grandpa's birthday too.

pois de senteur said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Father Hollywood said...

Dear Saxoniae:

Fly the flag! :-)

Father Hollywood said...

Dear "Comment Deleted":

I hope you can make it back home to NOLA one day. I don't think the Lee Circle monument faces North (of course, the points of the compass mean absolutely nothing here!), but you are right that most Confederate monuments (and most Southern courthouses have them) typically face north. We all know why.

Deo vindice!

Stoleman said...

Father Hollywood,

One fact that seems to be left out about Robert E. Lee and other Southern Generals is their belief and pre-war spoken message that 'slavery' was wrong and not the reason for the 'War Between the States'. This is something that most people gloss over, because it doesn't fit into their 'understanding of the South'!!

YIC,
Darian L. Hybl
Citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Stoleman:

Indeed. An "inconvenient truth."

Robert E. Lee was a vocal opponent of slavery long before Ft. Sumter, and he manumitted his wife's inherited slaves as quickly as he legally and practically could.

Stonewall Jackson was known to purchase slaves in order to free them, and ran a Sunday school for black children at a Presbyterian church that, to this day, honors Jackson in a stained glass window.

General Patrick Cleburne proposed emancipation and recruitment of black soldiers (which actually was adopted very late in the war, too late to really be implemented).

The much maligned General Nathan Bedford Forrest freed slaves who would fight in his cavalry, and commended them as some of his best and bravest Confederate troopers.

President Davis was a believer in gradual emancipation after education of the slave population - so they could participate in public and political life - a notion Lincoln utterly disagreed with (Lincoln proposed repatriating all blacks to Africa, having no hope that the races could function on a basis of social equality). Davis implemented many reforms on his plantation so slaves could govern themselves and be prepared for emancipation.

But none of these men will ever be honored as prototypical civil rights heroes - which they definitely were.

By contrast, Generals Grant and Sherman were themselves slave-owners, as was Mary Lincoln. Sherman was particularly harsh, bitter, and crass in his assessment of blacks. But this is seldom discussed.

At very least, those who would turn American history into mythology have way oversimplified manners in such a way as to lionize some really rather wicked men and to demonize some really noble men - as part of an agenda.

I suppose an analogous situation would be if the U.S. were invaded by, say, a united army of our former allies - maybe Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, and Afghanistan - and let's say that during their invasion, they closed down American abortion clinics along the way.

Would those of us who would take up arms to protect our homes and defend our country me maligned in future history books as defending abortion? And if the United Arab Army were to overthrow our government, would future generations honor them for correcting the terrible evil of abortion? Would court historians claim the war was "about abortion" and see the U.S. flag as an offensive symbol of killing the unborn?

I would defend my home and country, even from an army and a government that wrapped itself in a noble cause like the abolition of abortion - simply because as horrific as abortion is (and slavery was), it simply can't be used as a pretense (or later justification for) the overthrow of our government and the destruction of our homes and land.

It really isn't rocket science - except the fact that it is a bitter pill for Northerners to swallow that their noble crusade may not have been so noble after all. And, after all, victors write the books. But it doesn't mean the victors (or their books) are right.

The invasion of the South and the overthrow of the will of the people to secede and establish a new federation (the very right the U.S. itself was founded upon!) was the start of the era of Big Government, of the federalization of everything, and the creation of a massive permanent federal bureaucracy. The loss of states rights affects every aspect of life in America - be it the people of California's inability to allow medical marijuana or the people of Mississippi's lost right to outlaw abortion.

Until people see where their rights under the Constitution were lost, until they come to grips with the ramifications of the war of the 1860s and the period of reconstruction, they will have no roadmap to restore a proper and constitutional federalism in the 2000s. And that's the danger of changing history from a schoolmaster from which to learn and refashioning it into a self-serving propaganda to make us all feel good about ourselves.

Thanks for writing!