Robert E. LeeA Man of HonorIn War and Peace

Published 1:00 am Sunday, January 15, 2012

He was one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal heroes; he always kept a portrait of him in his office. Gen. Robert E. Lee remains an American idol, revered not only in this country but by lovers of history everywhere.

In recent years some who aspire to be historians, desperate for fame and acclaim, have tried rewriting our history and defaming Gen. Lee. Only last year public television, spending taxpayers’ money, joined the attack. I don’t think they’re worthy to polish Gen. Lee’s boots.

Jan. 19 is the birthday of Robert E. Lee and is a holiday in Mississippi and several other states.

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I wrote this tribute

to his memory in 1987.

Robert E. Lee was a man of honor.

From his bedroom window, upstairs at Arlington, he could see the nation’s capital across the Potomac. That morning, April 19, 1861, Robert E. Lee read in the paper that Virginia had seceded from the United States, an act that would shape not only the history of the nation but also Lee’s personal fortunes and fame.

Across the Potomac, in the White House, another man was equally troubled. Only a few weeks earlier, on March 28, he had signed his name, Abraham Lincoln, to a paper making Lee a full colonel in the United States Cavalry. Then, on April 18, he had offered the command of the United States Army to Lee.

Mrs. Lee, a great-granddaughter of George and Martha Washington, had left her husband alone. She heard his footsteps upstairs, pacing the floor. She heard him fall to his knees in prayer. Finally, after midnight he came down, his decision made. A simple one-sentence letter of resignation from the army was addressed to the Secretary of War, two other letters, one to his brother, Smith Lee, and the other to his commander, Gen. Winfield Scott, said, “Save in the defense of my native state. I never desire again to draw my sword.”

Two days later the man pronounced by Gen. Scott as “the greatest soldier now living” arrived in Richmond, Va., where he accepted a position as major general for the Commonwealth of Virginia. A few months later he was appointed full general in the army of the Confederate States of America.

It is not necessary to recount the military brilliance of Robert E. Lee, though as great as he was on the field of battle, he was also great as a leader of men in peacetime by the examples he set.

In later years, Sen. Ben Hill of Georgia capsuled the qualities that made Robert E. Lee great:

‘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,

Napolean without selfishness,

And Washington without his reward.’

Jut what of Arlington? The frail Mrs. Lee, a semi-invalid, clung tenaciously to her ancestral home, writing to Gen. Scott that nothing would induce her to leave it. War was inevitable, however, and Gen. Lee advised his wife to make plans to leave, securing the Washington family silver and portraits.

On May 14, 1861, Mary Lee left Arlington forever. Soon the home was occupied by federal troops, and all of the personal items that had belonged to the Washington family were stolen, some by individuals, others by the United States government.

Not content with taking the contents, Congress passed a law in 1863 specifying that taxes on the property had to be paid in person by Gen. Lee, and in Washington. The general sent a cousin, but the money was refused.

For a little over $100, the Lees lost their home, which was “bought” by the U.S. government for $26,800, an immoral transfer of title. A few months later 210 acres including the lawn, was set aside as a cemetery.

Robert E. Lee never set foot inside Arlington again; Mrs. Lee went back one time, in 1873, a few months before her death. She found the caretaker of the cemetery living in one wing and the rest of the mansion vacant and dirty.

In a case that was decided by the Supreme Court, Arlington was returned to the Lee heirs in 1882, but by that time the lawn had become a graveyard for thousands of soldiers, so Custis Lee accepted a government offer of $150,000.

I’ve not seen Arlington, but I have twice visited Stratford, the birthplace of Lee, and I’ve stood in the chapel of Washington and Lee University where the general is buried. I’ve never been more emotionally moved than on that visit. Atop the white marble tomb is a reclining statue of Lee, his blanket pulled over him as he sleeps, away from the noise and horrors of battle.

And though Robert E. Lee sleeps forever, I trust that the principles that guided his life, which thrust greatness upon him, are a vibrant part of our heritage.