This is a “revised and extended” re-post of an article I wrote in 2011 to mark an anniversary of General Lee’s death. It celebrates instead the two hundred and seventh anniversary of his birth on January 19, 1807, a happier occasion.
It’s a couple days early, but I don’t think he would mind.
We have changed as a nation, often for the worse.
We, as a nation, seem to have done with heroes of General Lee’s type. Yet he inspired a fledgling nation, the Confederate States of America — young, old, rich and poor alike. Those who reminisce about him do so mainly because of his devotion to duty, honor and integrity as well as his compassion and wisdom. He had those qualities in an abundance now rarely seen.
General Lee was not “hip” as Victor Davis Hanson uses the term to describe most of our modern leaders and heroes. Hipness rejects all but caricatures of devotion to duty, honor, integrity, compassion and wisdom.
America has always been a country of self-invention. Yet there used to be some correlation between the life that one lived and the life that one professed. It was hard to be a phony in the grimy reality of the coal mine, the steel mill, the south 40 acres, or atop a girder over Manhattan. [Emphasis added.]
No longer in our post-modern, post-industrial, metrosexual fantasyland. The nexus of big government, big money, and globalization has created a new creed of squaring the circle of being both liberal and yet elitist, egalitarian-talking but rich-acting, talking like a 99 percenter and living like a 1 percenter. And the rub is not that the two poles are contradictory, but that they are, in fact, necessary for each other: talking about the people means it is OK to live unlike the people.
Hip is like “cool”, whose power I wrote about not long ago: a general sense of tapping into the popular youth culture of music, fashion, food, electronics, easy left-wing politics, and adolescent habit. Hipness is a tool designed to justify enjoying the riches and leisure produced by the American brand of Western market capitalism by poking fun at it, teasing it some, dressing it up a bit to suggest ambivalence over its benefits without ever seriously either understanding their source or, much less, losing them. We feel hip at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, but not so much in the organic section of Safeway.
Hip also plays out as professed caring — worrying in the abstract about all sorts of endangered species, starving peoples, or degraded environments. It is being loudly angry at retrograde forces — white males, the rich, gun owners, Christians, family types, and suburbanites, the sorts who ostensibly crafted the toxicity of Western civilization that you are forced to use and enjoy. Yet embrace hip, and all things become possible. A Martian would see the modern university as an elitist enclave, where life-long tenured professors make lots of money overseen by hordes of even better-paid administrators, that together cause tuition for cash-strapped and indebted students to rise faster than the rate of inflation without any promises that their eventual certifications will result in commensurate good jobs. A non-Martian would instead appreciate the hip nexus of diversity, eco-caring, and gender-neutral inclusivity.
Hip is a sort of Neanderthal mentality that is terrified of serious thinking, and thus substitutes the superfluous for the profound. [Emphasis added.
When I read what passes for “news” about our CongressCritters of both parties, our President and his administration — and indeed about our now popular role models — I wonder where the decidedly non-hip qualities of General Lee and others of his generation went and why they are no longer interesting.
Here’s a song from 1866. It would not likely appeal to those now deemed “hip.”
Why are non-hip mores now disparaged to the point of derision? Are they now dead to America or only hibernating? If not dead, might they be reawakened by anything less traumatic than another Civil War or a war with some other nation?
I hope there will be no war, civil or foreign. Americans today seem far less interested in foreign affairs than in the doings of celebrities. However, at least some interest remains in the causes of our Civil War which, as I argue at the following link, was precipitated on the Southern side by concern over Federal emasculation of the Constitution. That article, posted on December 27, 2011, continues to be the most popular ever at my little blog. It has had just over 41,350 views, 18,728 of them in 2012 and 22,388 last year. Most came via Google and other search engines, suggesting broader interest than only among “violent far-right conservatives.” Our Constitution today seems to be suffering even more vigorous attempts at castration than in the years leading up to the Civil War; many have been successful. Is anybody there? Do enough care?
Might reports such as one by a West Point think tank create additional interest in the Civil War? In the problematic lure of politically correct “hip” mores? Entitled Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right, it
lumps limited government activists with three movements it identifies as “a racist/white supremacy movement, an anti-federalist movement and a fundamentalist movement.”
Here’s a bit more about how it
paints a broad brush of people it considers “far right.”
It says anti-federalists “espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights. Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government. Extremists in the anti-federalist movement direct most their violence against the federal government and its proxies in law enforcement.” [Emphasis added.]
The report also draws a link between the mainstream conservative movement and the violent “far right,” and describes liberals as “future oriented” and conservatives as living in the past. [Emphasis added.[
“While liberal worldviews are future- or progressive -oriented, conservative perspectives are more past-oriented, and in general, are interested in preserving the status quo.” the report says. “The far right represents a more extreme version of conservatism, as its political vision is usually justified by the aspiration to restore or preserve values and practices that are part of the idealized historical heritage of the nation or ethnic community.” [Emphasis added.]
The report adds: “While far-right groups’ ideology is designed to exclude minorities and foreigners, the liberal-democratic system is designed to emphasize civil rights, minority rights and the balance of power.”
The report says there were 350 “attacks initiated by far-right groups/individuals” in 2011.
The report “was written by Arie Perliger, who directs the center’s terrorism studies and teaches social sciences at West Point.” I don’t understand why “far right” domestic conservatives should be a concern at West Point or how they could be relevant to what young Army officers of the future are being trained to do. I had thought that they were being trained to fight our enemies in foreign lands; perhaps I was wrong.
Back to General Lee
The present article is to some extent based on Rod Cragg’s Robert E. Lee, A Commitment to Valor. Otherwise unattributed quotations and other material generally come from it.
General Lee’s father, “Light-Horse Harry Lee,” had distinguished himself as a cavalry commander in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He later served in the United States Congress and eventually as Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. On the death of President Washington, under whom he had served during the Revolutionary War, he was asked by the Congress to deliver a tribute:
First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen…second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life.
Robert E. Lee secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was graduated in 1829. He eventually rose to the rank of Colonel as Commander of the U.S. Army’s Texas Department in 1860. Although he considered slavery a “moral and political evil,” he declined a field command of U.S. forces when Virginia seceded and resigned from the U.S. Army to take command of Virginia’s military forces. Compelled by his sense of honor, he felt that it was his duty to do so. “I did only what my duty demanded; I could have taken no other course without dishonor.” On April 20, 1861, he wrote to the Secretary of War:
Sir, I have the honor to tender my resignation of my command as colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry.
Very respectfully your obedient servant,
R.E. Lee, Colonel First Cavalry
In a letter to General Winfield Scott, Commanding, United States Army, Lee wrote on April 20, 1861:
General: Since my interview with you on the 18th instant, I have felt that I ought not longer retain my commission in the army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has caused me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life, and all the ability I possessed.
During the whole of that time — more than a quarter of a century– I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, and the most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, General, have I been as much indebted as to yourself, for uniform kindness and consideration, and it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame will always be dear to me.
Save in defence of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me, most truly yours,
Lee had served as a captain on General Scott’s staff during the Mexican War.
Here are some insights into the views of General Lee and his brother Sydney Smith Lee:
Neither Smith nor Robert wanted to see Virginia join the Confederacy. They agreed, nevertheless, to make their decision jointly if Virginia chose to leave the Union. On April 18, 1861, Smith and Robert met with their cousin Samuel Phillips Lee to discuss what to do if Virginia seceded. Phillips Lee, a naval officer, made it clear he would stay with the Union, and Smith promised to blow him out of the water by placing a battery on the Virginia shore. Phillips was the son-in-law of Francis Preston Blair Jr., one of the most influential figures in the United States, with a father and brother then serving in Lincoln’s Cabinet. He later attempted to obtain the U.S. Army commanding general’s position for Robert and an equally important position for Smith, but it was in vain, as both brothers refused to desert their native state.
When substantial numbers of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy left to join their States and the Confederate Army at the outbreak of the war, a retreat ceremony at which Dixie was played in their honor is said to have been held at West Point. Accurate? I don’t know but it is a pleasant story whether true or fictional. Here is a scene from a motion picture version:
Captain Fitzhugh Lee, as portrayed in the movie, was probably intended to represent a nephew of General Lee. “In May 1860, he was appointed instructor of cavalry tactics at West Point, but resigned his commission upon the secession of Virginia. ”
Following many military successes and some defeats, Lee was promoted to General-in-Chief of all Confederate armies on January 31, 1865.
His depleted army could not maintain its defensive line at Petersburg, however, and he was forced to abandon Richmond and make the retreat that ended in his surrender at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1965.
Colonel Ives, an officer who served on General Lee’s staff, wrote
His name might be audacity. He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South.
Another wrote, “His soldiers reverenced him and had unbounded confidence in him, for he shared all their privations.”
General Lee was compelled to surrender to General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Richard Bales’ Confederacy also includes a recitation of General Lee’s farewell address. I listened to that recording back in 1958 or ’59 when Mr. Bales visited one of our high school (then St. Stephen’s School for Boys) history classes. I vaguely recall a comment by Mr. Bales that one of General Lee’s descendants, an Episcopalian clergyman from Virginia, had read the farewell address for his Confederacy production. The soundtrack in the YouTube video sounds as I recall the recitation in Mr. Bales’ Confederacy. More than half a century later, the once familiar south-western Virginia accent seems strange, more similar perhaps to proper English than to what is often heard now in the United States.
A Northern officer who observed General Lee at Appomattox wrote, “In manner, [Lee was] grave and dignified . . . which gave him the air of a man who kept his pride to the last.” A private soldier who had served with General Lee throughout the war wrote,
As Lee came riding alone into Richmond [after his surrender], his old followers immediately recognized him and followed him to his home where, with uncovered heads, they saw him to his door. Then they silently dispersed.
“Howdy do, my man.” Lee – responding to a “feeble-minded” soldier who ignored military protocol and greeted him with “Howdy do, dad.”
General Lee reproving a youthful courier for neglecting his winded mount: Young man, you should have some feeling for your horse, dismount and rest him.
In the rush of this age, a character so simply meek and so proudly, grandly strong is scarce comprehensible” — An elderly Confederate veteran, reflecting on Lee in the early twentieth century.
Shortly after surrendering, General Lee wrote in reply to an English correspondent who had offered a place to escape the destruction of Virginia following the war: “I cannot desert my native State in the hour of her adversity. I must abide by her fortunes, and share her fate.”
Robert E. Lee, A Commitment to Valor, contains many other quotations from General Lee. Here are two of my favorites:
Duty . . . is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things. . . . You cannot do more — you should never wish to do less. (From a prewar letter to one of his sons.)
Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or to keep one; the man who requires you to do is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. (From a letter to one of his sons.)
How might General Lee fit in with the politically correct, “hip” United States of today?
Would he fit the description of a dangerous far-right conservative from the West Point think tank report cited above?
believing it [the Federal Government] to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights. Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government.
Would he be favorably disposed toward, or disgusted by, this apparently successful advertisement from the 2012 Obama-Biden campaign?
What, for that matter, would General Lee think of President Obama and his administration in general? Their foreign and domestic policies? President Obama’s penchant for
Royal Executive Decrees?
General Lee may not have been unique to his time and to a world vastly different from ours. Then, the individual States were seen as sovereign entities, more important for most domestic purposes than the Federal Government. Now? Apparently not by our betters in Washington or by the heads of many formerly sovereign States.
We could perhaps benefit from a moment or two spent in reflecting on General Lee’s character while also evaluating those who are now our State and national leaders as well as those with whom we might want to replace them. Are there any who have demonstrated sufficient honor, devotion to duty, compassion and wisdom? Dr. Benjamin Carson and LTC West (U.S. Army, Ret.) come to mind and there may well be others. Might they be too honest and candid to compete successfully? Celebrating General Lee’s birth would seem an appropriate time for such reflections.
Perhaps inspiration may be found in this old Scots ballad.
Perhaps inspiration may also lurk here:
General Lee’s Commonwealth of Virginia still has her Blue Ridge Mountains, far away both geographically and spiritually from Northern Virginia and the Seat of Government in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps there are still at least a few in rural Virginia and elsewhere who recall General Lee’s memory fondly and cherish his old fashioned, un-“hip,” notions of what States are for. Perhaps they also cherish his now quaint ideas of duty, honor, integrity, compassion and wisdom. I hope so. If not, what will be our “manifest destiny,” if any?
Central VA at Free Republic was kind enough to provide this link to President Eisenhower’s view of General Lee.
Here is a letter to President Eisenhower:
August 1, 1960
Dear Mr. President:
At the Republican Convention I heard you mention that you have the pictures of four (4) great Americans in your office, and that included in these is a picture of Robert E. Lee.
I do not understand how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, and why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me.
The most outstanding thing that Robert E. Lee did was to devote his best efforts to the destruction of the United States Government, and I am sure that you do not say that a person who tries to destroy our Government is worthy of being hailed as one of our heroes.
Will you please tell me just why you hold him in such high esteem?
Leon W. Scott
Here is President Eisenhower’s response, on White House letterhead:
August 9, 1960
Dear Dr. Scott:
Respecting your August 1 inquiry calling attention to my often expressed admiration for General Robert E. Lee, I would say, first, that we need to understand that at the time of the War Between the States the issue of Secession had remained unresolved for more than 70 years. Men of probity, character, public standing and unquestioned loyalty, both North and South, had disagreed over this issue as a matter of principle from the day our Constitution was adopted.
General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; 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.
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.
Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.
Dwight D. Eisenhower