VIRGINIA seceded on the seventeenth of April, 1861, one day previous to Lee’s critical interviews with Blair and Scott. On the twenty-third of April, Lee was invited to appear before the state convention and was offered the position of commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces. He accepted in a simple and dignified speech, saying, with a sincerity which is beyond question, ‘I would have much preferred that your choice had fallen upon an abler man.’
The newly-appointed general at once made ready to organize the state troops and prepare for a vigorous defense against invasion. But things moved rapidly, and on the twenty-fifth of April Virginia joined the Confederacy. What Lee thought of this step, and what his opinions at this time were in regard to the organization and future policy of the Confederate Government, is in no way revealed to us. But Alexander H. Stephens, the Confederate Vice-President and commissioner to secure Virginia’s adhesion, has given a most striking picture of Lee’s perfect willingness to sacrifice his own position and prospects to the best interests of his state.
Stephens had an interview with Lee. ‘General Lee heard me quietly, understood the situation at once, and saw that he alone stood between the Confederacy and his State. The members of the convention had seen at once that Lee was left out of the proposed compact that was to make Virginia one of the Confederate States, and I knew that one word, or even a look of dissatisfaction, from him would terminate the negotiations with which I was intrusted. . . . General Lee did not hesitate for one moment ... he declared that no personal ambition or emolument should be considered or stand in the way. . . . Nominally General Lee lost nothing; but practically, for the time being, he lost everything. The Government moved to Richmond, and Mr. Davis directed General Lee to retain his command of the Virginia troops, which was really to make him recruiting and drill inspector.’ In this way Lee worked in more or less subordinate or inconspicuous positions during the whole first year of the war; and it was not till the spring of 1862, by the wounding of Johnston, that he was given a fair chance to display his military ability.
We have seen that one of the most striking elements in Lee’s attitude toward Davis was the instinct of subordination, of subjection of military to civil authority. The same thing appears everywhere in the general’s broader relation to the Confederate Government as a whole. Politics were not his business. Even policy was not his business. Let others plan and order, he would execute.
Wellington said to Greville that while ‘unquestionably Napoleon was the greatest military genius that ever existed, ... he had advantages which no other man ever possessed in the unlimited means at his command and his absolute power and irresponsibility.’
Turning from Napoleon’s dispatches to Lee’s, one is instantly struck with the difference in this regard. Napoleon says, Go here, do this, let these troops be on this spot at that date. They are there. It is done. Lee suggests cautiously, insinuates courteously. But his greatest art is to keep still. It is very rare that he goes so far as the reported humorous saying, ‘ that he had a crick in his neck from looking over his shoulder toward Richmond.’ Such military command as is delegated to him he will exercise absolutely, but he draws with watchful care the line between his responsibility and that of others, and is at all times reluctant to overstep it.
An interesting instance of this tendency to disclaim all interference with the civil authority is Lee’s position in regard to prisoners of war. While they are on the field, they are in his charge. ‘He told me that on several occasions his commissary-general had come to him after a battle and reported that he had not rations enough both for prisoners and the army . . . and that he had always given orders that the wants of the prisoners should be first attended to.’ Yet even here mark the reservation when the question becomes more general. ‘ While I have no authority in the case, my desire is that the prisoners shall have equal rations with my men.’
Once in the military prisons, the captives were the care of the War Department, not Lee’s. When he testified before the Reconstruction Committee, he was asked, ‘Were you not aware that those prisoners were dying from cold and starvation?’ He answered, ‘I was not. ... As regards myself, I never had any control over the prisoners except those that were captured on the field of battle. Those it was my business to send to Richmond to the provost-marshal. In regard to their disposition afterwards I had no control. I never gave an order about it.’
The most curious point in this matter of prisoners of war is Lee’s correspondence with Grant in October, 1863, as to recaptured slaves. It is curious as a piece of argument in which, given the premises, both sides were logically right. It is still more curious when we find that Lee, while appearing to speak his own mind, is in reality only a mouthpiece, a department clerk, writing at the dictation of Seddon, — that is, probably, of Davis.
But no matter how submissive a man may be, no matter how rigorously trained in military discipline, he cannot command a great army through a great disastrous war in a republic and not meddle with things that do not concern him. What does concern him, and what does not? It is thus that we see Lee forced to advise and even to dictate sharply to his superiors, more and more as the struggle goes on. In matters semi-military or affecting other military departments, not Lee’s own, this was inevitable. As at the North, the newspapers were troublesome in telling what they should not, and Lee begs the Secretary of War to control them. ‘I am particularly anxious that the newspapers should not give the enemy notice of our intention.’ ‘I beg you will take the necessary steps to prevent in future the giving publicity in this way to our strength and position.’
A commander in the field may do his best to preserve discipline, but he is terribly hampered when the War Department permits all sorts of details, furloughs, and transfers, and is lenient to desertion. Again and again Lee is forced to protest vigorously against abuses of this nature.
A general may wish to confine himself to his own sphere of responsibility; but movements in the northeast are dependent on movements in the southwest, and strengthening one command means weakening another. Therefore Lee is brought, as it were against his will, to make suggestions and requests as to Bragg in Tennessee and Johnston in Georgia. ‘I think that every effort should be made to concentrate as large a force as possible under the best commander to insure the discomfiture of Grant’s army ’ [in the West]. He writes to Bragg for more men: ‘ unless they are sent to me rapidly, it may be too late.’ He urges upon Seddon the utmost activity in general measures of defense: ‘Whatever inconvenience and even hardship may result from a vigorous and thorough preparation for the most complete defense we can make, will be speedily forgotten in the event of success, or amply repaid by the benefit such a course will confer upon us in case of misfortune.’
The best general can do nothing with the best army, unless it is fed and clothed; and food and clothing — the accumulation, the transportation, the distribution — depend upon the energy and capacity of the government. Lee loved his army as if they were his children. He knew they were neither clothed nor fed. He was by no means satisfied that the people at Richmond were either energetic or capable. ‘As far as I can judge, the proper authorities in Richmond take the necessities of this army very easily,’ he writes in February, 1863. How could a commander give his best thought to fighting, when he saw but one day’s food before him? ‘We have rations for the troops to-day and to-morrow. I hope a new supply arrived last night, but I have not yet had a report. Every exertion should be made to supply the depots at Richmond and at other points. All pleasure travel should cease and everything be devoted to necessary wants.’ Sometimes he feels that other armies are preferred to his, and protests vigorously. ‘I have understood, I do not know with what truth, that the armies of the West and that in the Department of South Carolina and Georgia are more bountifully supplied with provisions. ... I think that this army deserves as much consideration as either of those named, and, if it can be supplied, respectfully ask that it be similarly provided.’ He is convinced that supplies are to be had and does not pick — or rather does pick — his words in saying so. ‘I know that there are great difficulties in procuring supplies, but I cannot help thinking that with proper energy, intelligence, and experience on the part of the Commissary Department, a great deal more could be accomplished. There is enough in the country, I believe, if it was properly sought for.’ And finally, in January, 1865, he takes the matter into his own hands and issues a personal appeal to the farmers of Virginia, which, for the time, affords considerable relief.
From the supplying of armies to other things, equally vital, but quite as much civil as military, the steps are imperceptible, but taken with an almost logical necessity. Lee finds his soldiers refused passage on the railways, and insists on their claims being recognized. Passports are given indiscriminately to persons who convey information to the enemy. Lee exerts his authority to control the practice. The illegal traffic in cotton and tobacco is tolerated by the government for its own purposes. Lee gives assistance and advice as to the regulation of such traffic. The greatest difficulty, of all the many difficulties of the Confederacy, was perhaps that of properly managing its finances. Lee has a word about this also, writing to urge the authorities to make treasury notes a legal tender; and elsewhere, in connection with the much-desired reduction of the currency, suggesting payment for certain consignments of wood in Confederate bonds.
Political even more than military was the nice question of retaliation, which was made the subject of hot dispute by persons in authority and out of it. Critics of the administration attacked its lenient policy, to the point of suggesting that Davis opposed violent measures because he wished to keep well with the North in view of possible defeat. In extreme cases Lee does not hesitate to order prompt retaliatory action. ‘I have directed Colonel Mosby, through his adjutants, to hang an equal number of Custer’s men in retaliation for those executed by him.’ But as to the general principle he is thoroughly in sympathy with Davis, both on grounds of humanity and on grounds of policy. ‘I differ in my ideas from most of our people on the subject of retaliation. Sometimes I know it to be necessary, but it should not be resorted to at all times, and in our case policy dictates that it should be avoided whenever possible.’
Lee here frankly and naturally admits that his invasion proclamations, so lauded by Southern writers, were founded as much on common sense as on lofty principle. One can admire the noble tone, and still more the rigid enforcement, of those proclamations, without forgetting that Napoleon also said to his soldiers in Vienna, ‘Let us treat the poor peasants with kindness, and be generous to this loyal people who have so many claims to our esteem; let us not be puffed up by our success, but see in it another proof of the divine justice which punishes ingratitude and treachery.’
Although Lee does not hesitate to go outside of his own peculiar province in many of these special instances, it is very rare indeed to find him making any general criticism of the civil authorities. The following remarks as to the Confederate Congress have, therefore, an exceptional interest and significance: ‘What has our Congress done to meet the exigency, I may say extremity, in which we are placed? As far as I know, concocted bills to exempt a certain class of men from service, and to transfer another class in service, out of active service, where they hope never to do service. Among the thousand applications of Kentuckians, Marylanders, Alabamians, and Georgians, etc., to join native regiments out of this army, who ever heard of their applying to enter regiments in it, when in face of the enemy? I hope Congress will define what makes a man a citizen of a state.’
The most striking of all Lee’s incursions into the realm of civil government was his effort, toward the very end of the war, to have the Negroes enlisted as soldiers. The measure was, of course, in one sense purely military; but it affected so intimately the social organization and the ethical theories on which the whole Confederacy was founded, that the military significance of it was almost dwarfed by the political. As Pollard justly points out, it seemed to imply an equality between the two races which was utterly repugnant to all Southern feeling on the subject, and nothing shows more clearly Lee’s immense influence than the fact that he was able to persuade his countrymen to accept his view. All his arguments are summed up in a clear and forcible letter to Hunter, — otherwise extremely important as showing Lee’s whole position as to slavery, — and in response to this Congress voted briefly, ‘that the General-in-chief be and hereby is invested with the full power to call into the service of the Confederate government, to perform any duty to which he may assign them, so many of the able-bodied slaves within the Confederate government as, in his judgment, the exigencies of the public service require.’
The comment of the Examiner on this is intensely interesting as probably summing up the opinion of hundreds of thousands of Lee’s fellow citizens. After expressing frankly grave doubts as to the expediency of the measure, the editorial concludes, in words of almost startling solemnity: ‘This clothes him with great power, and loads him with heavy responsibility. If he is willing to wield that power and shoulder that responsibility, in the name of God, let him have them.’
In the name of God, let Lee save us, if he will: no one else can. There is no doubt that this was the spirit of a majority of Southerners in February, 1865. There is no doubt that this was the spirit which led to his being practically offered the military dictatorship by Congress. ‘The ablest officers of the Confederate States,’ says the Examiner, ‘would, we feel assured, gladly see the supreme direction of their conduct placed in the hands of General Lee, and would receive his orders with pleasure. All citizens, and more emphatically, all soldiers, now know . . . that the one thing needful to fill the army with enthusiasm, and to inspire the people for new effort, is to feel that our military force is to be wielded by one capable hand and directed by one calm, clear intelligence.’
Lee, however, absolutely refused to violate his subordination to the President in any way, and according to Pollard ‘went so far as to declare to several members of the Richmond Congress that whatever might be Davis’s errors, he was yet constitutionally the President, and that nothing could tempt himself to encroach upon prerogatives which the Constitution had bestowed upon its designated head.’
What could an ambitious, unscrupulous man have accomplished in that emergency,—or even a patriot who would have been willing to over-ride scruple for the good of his country? Would Napoleon or Cromwell have said to Davis, ‘You may do what I want or go’? have gone direct to Congress and enforced his will? have swept fraud and incompetence out of the executive departments? have handled the whole military force like one great machine, and so concentrated it as to accomplish results winch seemed at that late hour impossible? ‘Of one thing I am certain,’ wrote in January, 1865, the diarist Jones, who had the very best opportunities of forming an opinion, ‘ that the people are capable of achieving independence, if they only had capable men in all departments of the government.’ In any case Lee preferred to remain the loyal servant of the civil authority, which was left to work out its political problems as best it could.
What interests us in our study of Lee’s character is the motive which led him not only to this final refusal, but to his general attitude of noninterference with the Confederate government. It has often been suggested — and Grant was of this opinion — that he was consistent in his state loyalty and cared for Virginia only, not for the Confederacy as a whole, preferring to do his fighting to the end upon his native soil. The writer of the excellent Nation review of Long’s Life of Lee (Cox?), basing his conclusions on the Townsend anecdote which I have quoted in ‘A Hero’s Conscience,’ holds that Lee had little faith in the Confederate cause from beginning to end. Some suspicion of the kind was undoubtedly at the bottom of Pollard’s harsh charges. ‘The fact was that, although many of General Lee’s views were sound, yet, outside of the Army of Northern Virginia, and with reference to the general affairs of the Confederacy, his influence was negative and accomplished absolutely nothing.’ Again: ‘His most notable defect was that he never had or conveyed any inspiration in the war.’ And Pollard quotes from a Richmond paper after the Wilderness: ‘When will he [Lee] speak? Has he nothing to say? What does he think of our affairs? Should he speak, how the country would hang upon every word that fell from him!’
I believe that this theory of Lee’s lack of interest in the Confederacy is utterly false, and that from the very first he merged Virginia in the larger loyalty. ‘They do injustice to Lee who believe he fought only for Virginia,’ said Davis. ‘He was ready to go anywhere for the good of his country.’ The cheerful energy which the general showed when sent to South Carolina in the early part of the war confirms this, as does passage after passage of his correspondence. ‘Let it be distinctly understood by every one that Charleston and Savannah are to be defended to the last extremity. If the harbors are taken, the cities are to be fought street by street, house by house, so long as we have a foot of ground to stand upon.’ A writer in the Southern Historical Papers asserts that ‘those whose privilege it was to hear the great chieftain talk most freely of the cause for which he fought, bear the most emphatic witness that it was “the independence of the South,”“the triumph of constitutional freedom,” for which he struggled so nobly.’
But by far the most striking and interesting testimony to Lee’s thorough espousal of Confederate nationality and sober, earnest grasp of the whole problem before him, is his conversation with Imboden near the beginning of the struggle. General Imboden declares that his report is ‘almost literal,’ but for our purpose its substantial correctness is all-sufficient. ‘Our people are brave and enthusiastic, and are united in defense of a just cause. I believe we can succeed in establishing our independence, if the people can be made to comprehend at the outset that they must endure a longer war and far greater privations than our forefathers did in the Revolution of 1776. We will not succeed until the financial power of the North [the political insight of this is noteworthy] is completely broken. . . . The conflict will be mainly in Virginia. She will be the Flanders of America before this war is over, and her people must be prepared for this. If they resolve at once to dedicate their lives and all they possess to the cause of constitutional government and Southern independence and to suffer without yielding as no other people have been called upon to suffer in modern times, we shall, with the blessing of God, succeed in the end; but when it will be, no man can foretell. I wish I could talk to every man, woman, and child in the South now and impress them with these views.’
No; if Lee was modest, it was from genuine modesty. If he shunned burdens and responsibilities, it was because he truly felt himself unable to undertake them. It is a most curious point in the man’s character, this nice avoidance of duties that did not belong to him. ‘Be content to do what you can for the well-being of what properly belongs to you,’ he writes to Mrs. Lee. ‘Commit the rest to those who are responsible.’ It is in this spirit that he is eager to make clear to the Reconstruction Committee that the government’s foreign policy was no concern of his. ‘I know nothing of the policy of the government; I had no hand or part in it; I merely express my own opinion.’ Even in military matters he is careful to draw the sharpest line between his own task and that of his subordinates: ‘I think and I act with all my might to bring up my troops to the right place at the right moment; after that I have done my duty.’ He is so careful that at times one feels a certain sympathy with the otherwise negligible Northrop when he complains of Lee’s reservations, ‘There is, in my judgment, no isolation of the responsibility in any of the machinery of war.’
One wonders that a man could be so sensitive about the limits of responsibility and yet command absolutely for three years an army of from fifty to a hundred thousand men, lead them again and again to victory, make such terrible decisions as that of Jackson’s movement at Chancellorsville and the attack at Gettysburg. And then one reflects that it was probably just this clear sense of what others ought to do and should be left to do that made his power. Smaller men fret over executive details or rush readily into what they do not understand. He knew his own training, his own character, knew his own work and did it, letting others do theirs, if they could. It is with this explanation in view that we should read his remarkable colloquy with B. H. Hill, toward the close of the war.
‘“General, I wish you would give us your opinion as to the propriety of changing the seat of government and going farther south.”
‘“That is a political question, Mr. Hill, and you politicians must determine it. I shall endeavor to take care of the army, and you politicians must make the laws and control the government.”
‘“Ah, General,” said Mr. Hill, “but you will have to change that rule and form and express political opinions; for if we establish our independence, the people will make you Mr. Davis’s successor.”
“‘Never, sir,” he replied, with a firm dignity that belonged only to Lee; “that I will never permit. Whatever talents I may possess (and they are but limited) are military talents, my education and training are military. I think the military and civil talents are distinct, if not different, and full duty in either sphere is about as much as one man can qualify himself to perform. I shall not do the people the injustice to accept high civil office, with whose questions it has not been my business to become familiar.”
‘“Well, but, General, history does not sustain your view. Cæsar and Frederick of Prussia and Bonaparte were great statesmen as well as great generals.”
‘“And great tyrants,” he promptly replied. “I speak of the proper rule in republics, where I think we should have neither military statesmen nor political generals.”
“But Washington was both and yet not a tyrant.”
‘With a beautiful smile he responded, “Washington was an exception to all rules and there was none like him.”’
Probably Lee underestimated his aptitude for civil government — at any rate in comparison with that of others. The patience, the foresight, above all the tact in handling men, which made him a great general, would have made him a great president also. But taking all things into account, I doubt whether he could have done more for the Confederacy than he did, or whether even Washington would have attempted to do more.
Granted, however, that Lee’s modesty was the chief cause of his not interfering further in political action, I think another consideration must have influenced him to some extent. What possible future had the Confederate government? It is really remarkable that in all the mass of Southern — or for that matter Northern — historical writing, so little notice is taken of this vital question. Supposing that the North had given in and let the South go, what would have happened? Few soldiers or statesmen seem to have troubled themselves much about the matter, so far as I can find out. It may be said that neither did the patriots of the Revolution trouble themselves about their future. But the case was different. It was a logical necessity, a natural development, for America to separate from England. Some adjustment between the colonies was sure to be found; but even with none they would be better free.
For the Confederacy there would seem to have been but two possibilities. A great slave empire might have been formed, centralized for necessary strength, supporting a standing army of half a million men, not one man more than would have been required at any moment to face the military power of the United States in disputes that would have arisen daily over territory, emigration, tariff, and especially over slavery complications. Or the absurd incompatibility of this with all the ideas for which the South originally went to war would have made itself felt. State rights would have asserted themselves everywhere. The Confederate group would have broken into smaller groups, these again would have dissolved into the original states, and these, after a probably brief period of dissension and strife, would have been reabsorbed, with humiliation and disgust, into the Union from which they had been rent away. Is it easy to paint any more satisfactory picture of the possible future of the Confederate States of America?
Such speculation is useless now. It would seem to have been eminently practical and necessary for the men who were leading millions of their fellows into such an abyss of uncertainty. What did Lee think about it? The answer is not easy, for his words on the subject are few and non-committal. Pollard’s accusation that ‘never, at any time of the war, and not even in the companionship of the most intimate friends, on whom he might have bestowed his confidence without imprudence, did he ever express the least opinion as to the chances of the war,’ is absurdly exaggerated; but it is true that Lee had little to say that has come down to us about the future of the Confederacy. Before the war, before the issue was squarely presented, we know that he took much the view that I have indicated above. ‘Secession is anarchy.’ ‘I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice anything but honor for its preservation.’
Then it came to the point where either honor or the Union must be sacrificed, and he did not hesitate. But anarchy, but the accumulation of all evils must have been clearly before him. Apparently he shut his eyes to them. Do the immediate duty of the day. Get independence. ‘The Confederate States have but one great object in view, the successful issue of their war of independence. Everything worth their possessing depends on that. Everything should yield to its accomplishment.’ Independence once achieved, the rest would take care of itself. Or those who, unlike Lee, had the responsibility of civil affairs, would take care of it. Or God would take care of it. Here is the key to what in much of Lee’s action seems strangely puzzling to those whose standpoint is somewhat different from his. Do the plain duty. Let the rest go. God will take care of it. In this connection a conversation of Lee’s with Bishop Wilmer is immensely significant.
‘In what temper of mind he entered this contest, I can speak with some confidence, from personal interviews with him soon after the commencement of hostilities.
‘“Is it your expectation,” I asked, “that the issue of this war will be to perpetuate the institution of slavery? ”
‘"The future is in the hands of Providence,” he replied. “If the slaves of the South were mine, I would surrender them all without a struggle to avert this war.”
‘I asked him next upon what his calculations were based in so unequal a contest, and how he expected to win success; was he looking to divided counsels in the North, or to foreign interposition?
‘ His answer showed how little he was affected by the hopes and fears which agitated ordinary minds. “My reliance is in the help of God.”
‘“Are you sanguine of the result?” I ventured to inquire.
‘“At present I am not concerned with results. God’s will ought to be our aim, and I am contented that his designs should be accomplished and not mine.”’
Naturally the good bishop was charmed; but an ordinary mind is tempted to hope that it is not incompatible with the deepest love and admiration for Lee to recall the candor and profoundly human truth of Barbe Bleue’s confession: ‘ C’est en ne sachant jamais où j’allais moi-même que je suis arrivé a conduire les autres.’
The object of all war is peace, and with the thousand doubts and difficulties that were pressing upon him, Lee must have been anxious from the beginning to arrive at almost any reasonably satisfactory conclusion of hostilities. Here again was a political question, yet one that it was almost impossible for a commanding general to avoid. In the earlier part of the war Lee urged a peace attitude upon Davis, with some apology ‘in view of its connection with the situation of military affairs.’ The general thought the Northern peace party should be encouraged, without fear of that encouragement resulting in a reëstablishment of the Union. ‘We entertain no such apprehensions, nor doubt that the determination of our people for a distinct and independent national existence will prove as steadfast under the influence of peaceful measures as it has shown itself in the midst of war.’
In this, as in a score of other passages, Lee makes it perfectly evident that his idea of peace was an ample acknowledgment of Confederate independence. Yet it has been maintained, and with reliable testimony, that toward the close of the struggle he grew ready to accept some less radical basis of agreement. The apparent contradiction is perfectly explicable. Lee believed from first to last that the people of the South could get free, if they really wished to. They had the men, they had the resources, if they would endure and suffer and sacrifice. As late as February, 1865, he addressed to Governor Brown of Georgia this most remarkable appeal, remarkable for its earnestness and enthusiasm of conviction in the midst of despair: ‘So far as the despondency of the people occasions this sad condition of affairs, I know of no other means of removing it than by the counsel and exhortations of prominent citizens. If they would explain to the people that the cause is not hopeless; that the situation of affairs, though critical, is critical to the enemy as well as to ourselves; that he has drawn his troops from every other quarter to accomplish his designs against Richmond, and that his defeat now would result in leaving nearly our whole territory open to us; that this great result can be accomplished if all will work diligently and zealously; and that his successes are far less valuable in fact than in appearance, I think our sorely tried people would be induced to bear their sufferings a little longer and regain some of the spirit that marked the first two years of the war. If they will, I feel confident that, with the blessing of God, our greatest danger will prove the means of deliverance and safety.’
But, alas, the spirit was crushed, the courage was broken, never to be reanimated again. Lee knew it, however much he fought the conviction. If the people were no longer behind him, what could he do? ‘General Lee says to the men who shirk duty,’ writes Mrs. Chesnut, ‘“This is the people’s war: when they tire, I stop.” ’ Or, as he himself writes, more solemnly, ‘Our people have not been earnest enough, have thought too much of themselves and their ease, and instead of turning out to a man, have been content to nurse themselves and their dimes, and leave the protection of themselves and families to others.’ It was this that made him so hopeless about obtaining supplies that in December, 1864, he told a committee of Congress that ‘he could devise no means of carrying on the war.’ It was this that made him so despondent in his talk with Hunter, about the same time that the above letter was written to Brown. ‘In the whole of this conversation he never said to me that he thought the chances were over; but the tone and tenor of his remarks made that impression on my mind.’ It was this, finally, that made him say what he is reported to have said shortly after the war was over: ‘In my earnest belief peace was practicable two years ago and has been since that time, whenever the general government should see fit to give any reasonable chance for the country to escape the consequences which the exasperated North seemed ready to visit upon it.’
Yet here again, Lee was the soldier, not the president. So long as the civil government said fight, he fought, till fighting had become, in any reasonable sense, impossible. The distress of mind involved in this attitude is nowhere more clearly indicated than in the words reported by General Gordon. ‘General Gordon, I am a soldier. It is my duty to obey orders. It is enough to turn one’s hair gray to spend one day in that Congress. The members are patient and earnest, but they will neither take the responsibility of action nor will they clothe me with authority to act for them. As for Mr. Davis, he is unwilling to do anything short of independence, and feels that it is useless to try to treat on that basis.’
But when at last Davis had left the capital and practically the control of affairs, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia acted his final scene with the dignity, the sacrifice, the true patriotism which Mr. Adams has so nobly commemorated. Instead of scattering the desperate remnant of his forces to carry on a murderous guerilla warfare, Lee recognized the inevitable verdict of necessity, and surrendered his army on conditions certainly in no way hurtful to its lasting glory. With that surrender the government of the Confederate States in reality ceased to exist.
These studies of Lee in his relation to the civil government do not perhaps show him at his best or in the most splendid manifestation of his genius. Yet hardly anything in the man’s character is grander than the way in which he instantly adapted himself to new circumstances and began to work as a loyal and devoted citizen, even when the United States still refused him the rights and privileges of citizenship. The importance of his influence in this regard, over his friends and family, over his old soldiers, over every Southern man and woman, can hardly be exaggerated. ‘When he said that the career of the Confederacy was ended, that the hope of an independent government must be abandoned, and that the duty of the future was to abandon the dream of a Confederacy and to render a new and cheerful allegiance to a reunited government — his utterances were accepted as true as holy writ. No other human being upon earth, no other earthly power, could have produced such acquiescence or could have compelled such prompt acceptance of the final and irreversible judgment.’ There was no grudging, no holding back, no hiding of despair in dark corners, but an instant effort to do, and to urge others to do, everything possible to rebuild the fair edifice that had been overthrown.
‘ When I had the privilege, after his death, of examining his private letterbook, I found it literally crowded with letters advising old soldiers and others to submit to all authorities and become law-abiding citizens,’ writes his biographer. ‘I am sorry,’ writes Lee himself, ‘to hear that our returned soldiers cannot obtain employment. Tell them they must all set to work, and if they cannot do what they prefer, do what they can. Virginia wants all their aid, all their support, and the presence of all her sons to sustain and recuperate her.’ ‘To one who inquired what fate was in store for us poor Virginians, he replied, “ You can work for Virginia, to build her up again, to make her great again. You can teach your children to love and cherish her. ” ’ And if any one urges that this is still the old leaven, after all, Virginia, always Virginia, we answer, No; this man was great enough to forget, and forget at once; to blend Virginia even then with a larger nationality. As a matter of policy he expresses this with clear insight: ‘The interests of the state are, therefore, the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country.’ As a matter of feeling, he expresses it with profound and noble emotion, saying to a lady who cherished more bitterness than he, ‘Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities and make your sons Americans.’
Abandon all these local animosities and make your sons Americans. What finer sentence could be inscribed on the pedestal of Lee’s statue than that? Americans! All the local animosities forgiven and forgotten, can we not say that he too, though dying only five years after the terrible struggle, died a loyal, a confident, a hopeful American, and one of the very greatest?