A warrior and a peacemaker

Published 10:00 am Thursday, May 22, 2014

It was a beautiful, warm Thursday before Memorial Day — just like today —when Confederate Lt. General Stephen D. Lee died in Vicksburg in 1908. Lee was here from his home in Columbus to address a group of Union veterans when he became ill. And on May 28, 1908, he died at the home of Vicksburg National Military Park Superintendent Capt. William T. Rigby.  It was a great blow to an aging community of veterans; both Yankee and Rebel revered Lee for his work after the war. During the Civil War, Lee was something of a scourge to the Federal cause. Some accounts say Lee himself fired the first shot on Fort Sumter in his native South Carolina, thus opening the conflict that would kill more Americans than any to this date. What’s known for sure is that his name was affixed to the order to fire on the Union fortress.  Lee fought gallantly at Second Bull Run and Antietam before moving to the western theater. At Chickasaw Bayou, in 1862 he handed defeat to Union Gen. William T. Sherman, and Lee was wounded at Champion Hill. Despite his injuries, he served throughout the Siege of Vicksburg. After the war, though, he set his differences with northerners aside and worked diligently along with Rigby and others to make Vicksburg National Military Park what it is today. He also served as president of Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College — now Mississippi State University — and was president of the Mississippi Historical Society. In 1904, Lee became commander-in-chief for the United Confederate Veterans, and under his tenure, the veterans became closer than ever with their former foes.  In 1909, when Vicksburg National Military Park dedicated a statue of Lee, the main speaker at the event was U.S. Gen. Fred Grant, son of Ulysses S. Grant. The young Grant recalled visiting Lee at the park years before. “We talked over the battles of the past with no feelings of bitterness, but only with rejoicings, that peace had been established and that harmony, patriotism and loyalty to one flag now exists throughout our great land,” Grant said. Money for the Lee monument was raised from donors in 27 states and Washington, D.C.  Much of the $6,337 raised for the elegant statue of Lee came from his former enemies. Mississippi, Lee’s adoptive home state, gave the most followed by Georgia. In third — above his home state of South Carolina — was Illinois. Some of the notable donors included President Theodore Roosevelt, William T. Sherman’s son, and members of the Chicago Mercantile Battery who battled Lee at Vicksburg. The Mercantile Battery alone gave what would be more than $6,000 today. In the end, our former rivals are sometimes our biggest admirers.  • Josh Edwards is a reporter and can be reached by email at josh.edwards@vicksburgpost.com or by phone at 601-636-4545.

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