Lee’s life complex after war

Gentleness and integrity recognized; ill health a struggle
Thursday, January 22, 2009

Five months after the surrender at Appomattox, Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee – the man who had said, "Then there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths" – was writing, "The decision of war, having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor, to recognize the fact."

He was urging "the healing of all dissensions."

The trustees of Washington College in Lexington, Va., wanted a public swearing-in of Lee as president. He would have none of it. So, on Oct. 2, 1865, he was ushered into the physics classroom and took the oath of office, administered by Squire William White, justice of the Rockbridge County Court.

Later that day, he signed the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, a document that had been sent to Washington and had disappeared for 100 years.

A few days later, as a response to a letter from Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, Lee wrote: "I need not tell you that true patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them – the desire to do right – is precisely the same. The circumstances that govern their actions change, and their conduct must conform to the new order of things.

"History is full of illustrations of this: Washington himself is an example. At one time, he fought in the service of the King of Great Britain; at another, he fought with the French at Yorktown, under the orders of the Continental Congress of America, against him. He has not been branded by the world with reproach for this, but his course has been applauded."

Kind and gentle

Once installed as president, Lee made it his duty to speak to every student. One of the incoming scholars was so taken aback by Lee’s gentleness that he thought he was in the wrong office and that this was not the recent Confederate commander: "He was so gentle, kind, and almost motherly, that I thought there must be some mistake about it."

Once this boy was convinced that he was, indeed, talking with Robert E. Lee, he saw something more. "It looked as if the sorrow of a whole nation had been collected in his countenance, and as if he were bearing the grief of his whole people. It never left his face, but was ever there to keep company with the kindly smile."

Also each day, some troublemaker found himself called into the president’s office. Veterans of savage wartime fighting emerged from Lee’s office with their eyes red because Lee had spoken to them of their mothers and told them how pained their families would be by their riotous behavior and inattention to studies. Lee was acting out what he said to Gen. A.P. Hill: "You’ll have to do what I do: When a man makes a mistake, I call him to my tent, and use the authority of my position to make him do the right thing the next time."

Copyright 2009 The Washington Times, LLC

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