Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Matter of Honor

Magnet # 299:  Robert E. Lee Quote

Material:  PVC

Purchased By:  Me

It was on this day in 1975 that, more than 105 years after his death, a Joint Resolution passed Congress to reinstate the citizenship of General Robert E. Lee. By August 5, a ceremony was held at Arlington House in Arlington National Cemetary, Lee's former home, where President Gerald Ford signed the Resolution, making it public law. Virginia's Governor at the time and several of its congressmen were in attendance, as well as about a dozen of the General's descendants, including his great-great grandson, Robert E. Lee, V. It marked an important occasion in the memory of one of the country's most beloved, but sometimes maligned, figures.

Robert E. Lee was born to an upstanding, even famous, Virginia family descended from some of the earliest settlers in its days as a colony.  His father was a leader of the American Army during the Revolutionary War.  Unfortunately, he fell on hard times, became impoverished, went to prison, and abandoned his family.  He was wounded while protecting a friend during a riot in Baltimore and later died when his son Robert was only 11 years old.  He may have learned from his father's mistakes, as he went on to become a man of exemplary character.  He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point ranking second place in his class and receiving no demerits during his time there.  Lee first distinguished himself in the Corps of Engineers and when he fought in the Mexican War, his commanding General called him "the greatest military genius in America" and credited a large part of their success to him.  However, he paid very little interest to politics and by the time the Civil War broke out, he found himself facing a very difficult decision:  whether to stand by his state of Virginia or his nation.  He was against secession and did not believe in slavery and President Lincoln offered him command of the Army, but he ultimately left the Union to fight what was seen as a second war of independence.  At first, he was not given a position commanding troops, but advised Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  But before long, Lee had become a full general and began to prove that he was indeed the shrewdest battlefield tactician of the conflict, overcoming one seemingly impossible task after another.  He gained the respect and devotion of his troops and the attention of both nations.  However, for a time Stonewall Jackson actually overshadowed Lee in popularity, especially when he was injured by friendly fire and died of pneumonia.  And Lee went on without his trusted friend and most valued subordinate.  He faced General Grant for the first time during the Wilderness campaign and held out against difficult odds, including exhaustion and hunger.  In 1865, Lee was finally named general in chief of all Confederate troops, but within months, he was forced to to surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.  He said goodbye to his men, assured them he had done his best for them, and rode home.

Lee paid a heavy price for his decision to side with the Confederacy.  His family home, the Custis-Lee Mansion, was occupied by the Union Army during the war and when their dead needed burying, it was turned into a cemetery.  This decision was made by Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, who had once fought beside Lee but hated him for turning against the country.  He had graves placed just outside the front door and tore apart Lee's wife's rose garden to bury soldiers there.  Eventually, the government seized the property outright, and it wouldn't be until Lee's son filed a lawsuit and the Supreme Court intervened that the family was properly paid for their home and its grounds, which is now Arlington National Cemetery, one of the most distinguished graveyards in the nation.  As for Lee's citizenship, he applied for an amnesty and pardon, singing an Amnesty Oath but the State Department blocked his efforts and the document was seemingly lost for over a century until it was stumbled upon by an archivist at the National Archives in 1970.  In just five years, Lee had received the pardon he was due, retroactively effective June 13, 1865.  Finally, one of the nation's most beloved figure's dignity had been restored.  Lee didn't always make the best decisions, but he did what he thought was right, gave it his all, never backed down, and treated his fellow men with respect, making him an example all of us would do well to follow.


  1. With the little bit of military history that I know, I've been very impressed with Robert E. Lee and am glad you wrote about this most exemplary military leader.

  2. He really was an incredible man, both on and off the field of battle.