Robert E. Lee

By Charley Reese

January 19 is the birthday of one of the greatest Americans, Robert E. Lee. He was as close to perfect as any human being can get. A brilliant soldier, a superb educator, a loving husband and father, a Christian gentleman and a tall, athletic and strikingly handsome man.
One of the first things Lee told a class at Washington College after he became its president was that they would find no large book of rules for behavior, "but each of you is expected to act like a Christian gentleman." To Lee, that included all the virtues.
It's impossible to summarize his accomplishments and virtues in one column, so I will recommend two books. One is a new one, "Robert E. Lee on Leadership," by H.W. Crocker III. This is an excellent study of Lee's leadership qualities that every American would do well to emulate. Worked into the chapters is a skillfully abbreviated biography.
My favorite book on Lee is "The Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee," by his son, Robert E. Lee. There are some touching stories in this book. One involves a federal soldier who showed up at the door of Lee's Richmond, Va., home after the surrender. He had a big basket of food. Lee's sons came to the door, and he told them that he had served under Lee in the Second Cavalry and had heard that the family was hard-up. As long as he had a cent in his pocket, he said, his old colonel should not suffer.
They said the soldier was Irish, and I always visualize that wonderful old actor Victor McLaglen. Lee came to the door and refused the food, but when the old soldier seemed deeply hurt, Lee said he would accept it, provided he could give it to the wounded soldiers at the hospital. Before Lee's sons could stop him, the old Irishman in his Yankee uniform grabbed Lee and tried to kiss him. "Goodbye, Colonel. God bless ye! If I could have got over in time, I would have been with you."
A few days later, two bedraggled Confederates came to the door, representing, they said, about 60 men. They had found a farm in the mountains reachable only through a narrow pass that they vowed they could defend against the entire Union army. They wanted to make a gift of it and their service to Lee, whom they heard might be tried for treason. Tears came to Lee's eyes, but he declined the offer.
Gen. James Longstreet put his finger on a unique quality of Lee. "As a soldier, his men respected him," Longstreet said, "but as a man, they loved him." Robert E. Lee is the only general I've ever heard of who was genuinely loved by the men who served under him. Time and again when he came to the front, common soldiers would beg him to go back, and the remnants of Pickett's division, seeing his sorrow, begged him to order them to make another charge.
By the end of the war, though defeated, Lee was world-famous, and offers poured in, including the offer of an estate in England, but unlike today's generals, Robert E. Lee did not wish to profit from the sacrifice of so many good men. He finally accepted, for a modest salary and a house, the presidency of Washington College, which was near bankruptcy. Today it is Washington & Lee University.
It was Lee's decision to urge Southerners to accept defeat and to become good Americans, which no doubt saved the country from being forever Balkanized. There were many fine cavalry leaders who could have, with guerrilla warfare, dragged the conflict out for years, but Lee knew that would create ineradicable bitterness, and he chose surrender.
Winston Churchill said Lee was "one of the noblest Americans who ever lived, and one of the greatest captains known to the annals of war." Teddy Roosevelt said Lee was "without any exception the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking people have brought forth."
He is man worth knowing. A father could give a son no finer gift than a book about Robert E. Lee. He was what all men should be but so few are.
© 2002 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.



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