‘Noble as a leader and as a man’ Gen. Robert E. Lee one to be respected

Published 12:04 am Sunday, January 16, 2011

“General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation,” president Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in August 1960.

The President was answering criticism from a New York doctor who was upset that Eisenhower kept a picture of Lee on his office wall in the White House. The doctor had written Eisenhower that he did not understand how any American could emulate Lee, and he asked Eisenhower for an explanation.

Eisenhower’s reply first answered the question of secession, one that had remained unresolved since the founding of the Republic and had been advocated, at different times, by men from both the North and South. It was an arguable question at the time of the War Between the States.

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The president’s assessment of Gen. Lee was that “he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his belief in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.”

And then Eisenhower made the following observation: “From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.”

Eisenhower concluded, “I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.”

Those in positions of leadership in Europe have also expressed similar opinions, and Gen. Winfield Scott of Mexican War fame pronounced Lee in 1861 “the greatest soldier now living.” In the late 1800s, Sen. Ben Hill of Georgia summed up Lee’s life in a few poetic words:

He was a foe without hate,

A friend without treachery,

A soldier without cruelty,

And a victim without murmuring.

He was a public official without vices,

A private citizen without wrong,

A neighbor without reproach,

A Christian without hypocrisy,

And a man without guile.

He was Caesar without ambition,

Frederick without tyranny,

Napoleon without selfishness,

And Washington without his reward.

Robert E. Lee was probably as noble a man as this civilization has ever produced. In war and peace, both friend and foe admired him.

Week before last, there was a program that aired on national public television (PBS) where, for an hour and a half, little-known historians tried to debunk 150 years of history. The so-called documentary was about the life of Robert E. Lee. Much of the time was spent using half-truths, inuendos and omissions in a blatant attempt to sully the name of Lee. I doubt that any who took part would be worthy to shine the general’s boots.

It’s disgusting that it was partially paid for by our tax money. Otherwise, the network relies on grants and begging for donations.

In a word, the program could be described as insipid.

Tomorrow is the legal holiday honoring the birth of Robert E. Lee, who was born at Stratford in Virginia on Jan. 19, 1807. His qualities in life as pointed out by President Eisenhower are well worth emulating.

Is it any wonder that the Congress of the United States voted several years ago to restore, posthumously, the citizenship of Robert E. Lee? If they hadn’t, how could the country claim such a great Confederate leader?

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.