OUT OF OUR PAST: Gen. Robert E. Lee: Proud, brave enigma

Oct. 24, 2011

After the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, a handful of Company B skirmishers from Wayne County that belonged to the Iron Brigade’s 19th Indiana were captured.

Richmond’s 19-year-old Benjamin Duke and 18-year-old George M. Bunch; Dalton’s 18-year-old William M. Locke and 27-year-old John Markel; and Hagerstown’s 20-year-old William Castator, were all taken prisoner and later would suffer privation at Andersonville, dubbed a "corpse factory" because it was the worst prison of the war.

A Second Wisconsin member of the Iron Brigade was also caught. His name was Robert Beecham and he wrote about what happened to him after the last day of battle, when he and his Wayne County comrades were herded down a road with the retreating rebel army. As they were moved along under guard, a Rebel pointed out Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who had just suffered the worst military disaster of his career.

Beecham wrote, "His [Lee’s] long, grizzled beard was neatly arranged; his clothing was clean and faultless; his horse had been groomed and saddled with care; there was nothing about his personal appearance to indicate haste, uneasiness or even weariness; he bestrode his steed apparently cool and confident, not as one who had suffered great defeat, but as a conqueror. … I looked from him to his shattered battalions and read the evidence of his terrible conflict and humiliating loss, and it was plain to see that Lee himself must have fully recognized the fact that the glorious dream of his ambition for victory could never be realized. … Lee was the only man of the defeated army, so far as I saw it on the retreat from Gettysburg, who did not reveal the marks of failure, but it is fair to presume that beneath this outward show of pride and unyielding courage there was an ambitious heart that was very sore." Beecham then realized, "I think the backbone of the rebellion is broken, or soon will be, for they have played their hand long enough."

True words.

Robert E. Lee was a legend in his lifetime and ultimately the symbol of The Lost Cause for the South. He became a mythic hero, yet beneath the quiet, grand air of the Southern gentleman was a warm human being who was affectionate, hot-tempered and fallible. No one seems to have understood him completely. One of his biographers wrote, "I can account for every hour of Lee’s life from the day he went to West Point until his death … but I never presumed to know what General Lee was thinking."

Long before the war, when his children were very young, Robert E. Lee liked to tumble them into bed with him and read stories out loud. They had to, however, take turns tickling the soles of his feet. When the children grew tired or became lost in the tale, Lee would pause to say, "No tickling, no story."

Years later, when Lee was at war and got word of the death of his daughter Annie, his secretary saw him take the news with little change of expression, as he did the scores of other messages that day, but when the aide returned unexpectedly a few minutes later he saw the general in his tent with his head on his camp desk, sobbing uncontrollably.

Lee’s men once watched him as he dismounted under fire at Petersburg to pick something up off the ground and place it in a tree. When he was gone the curious troops found that he had replaced a fallen baby bird in its nest.

In the heavy firing at the opening battle of the Wilderness, a courier who had dashed up to Lee with a dispatch was startled to get a scolding for having mistreated his exhausting and faltering horse by riding it so hard and swiftly. Lee took a buttered biscuit from his saddlebag and fed the famished animal before turning his attention to battle.

With fewer troops than the North, Robert E. Lee in the early years of the war continually out maneuvered and outfought his greater-numbered foes, and it looked like the South might win.

It was not to be.

Excruciating ironies marked Robert E. Lee’s life always.

He was a top graduate of West Point, and even turned down a command offer from Abraham Lincoln to take charge of the entire Union force when the war broke out. Lee declined the job because his home state of Virginia was seceding from the Union, despite his wishes otherwise. When Virginia declared its secession in April 1861, Robert E. Lee chose to follow his home state. His eventual role in the newly established Confederacy was to serve as a senior military adviser to President Jefferson Davis, and Lee soon emerged as the shrewdest battlefield tactician of the war. Lee disliked the South’s secession and also slavery, yet he fought against overwhelming odds for a Confederate victory, believing the word duty to be "the most sublime word in the English language."

Robert E. Lee came nearest to revealing his inner conflicts on war in the terrible moments of the battle at Fredericksburg, when the Federal infantry was being cut to pieces by his guns from impregnable hillside positions. Looking down, he said, "It is well that war is so horrible, else we should grow too fond of it."

Lee came close to death himself.

At the battle of Spotsylvania, his famous horse Traveller became uncharacteristically frightened by a busting shell, and reared up just in time for a cannonball to pass under his girth.

When the war was over, Robert E. Lee believed the issue had been settled by combat, and that God had passed judgment. He laid down his arms and asked his men to do the same. His great prestige brought a peace that might not otherwise have been possible. He later asked the American Congress for pardon, but it was never given. When Robert E. Lee died of heart disease in 1870, he was perhaps the most beloved general in the history of American war.

Today on a Virginia hillside rising above the Potomac River and overlooking Washington, D.C., stands the Arlington House, a 19th century mansion that seems out of place amid the more than 250,000 military graves that stretch around it. This was Robert E. Lee’s residence in 1861 at the start of the Civil War. The grounds of the mansion were selected as the Arlington National Cemetery in part to ensure that Robert E. Lee would never return to his home.

He never did.

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