Today's important observanceToday is the observance of the birth of…General Robert E. Lee. Lee was born on January 19th, and so those states which observe Lee’s birth have opted to do so, for the sake of the continuity of business I suppose, today. This is because there is a notable federal holiday today that quite a few of us have off, and many states have taken that holiday off also.
If I could pick a figure in American history for any of my sons to model and say to them “be like this man,” Lee would be that person. Lee had an unmatchable knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, and quoted the psalms, it is said, with an almost constant devotion. An apocryphal tale says that he kept an egg-laying hen under his bed in the field, and the egg or eggs the hen laid were his breakfast. No one knows if this is actually true, but considering the kind of common sense the General was said to possess, it would not surprise me.
General Lee understood that people first had a tie to a place, and they knew that place as home. For Robert Edward Lee, that place was Virginia. He had been opposed to secession, and even though he inherited many slaves, he was also in favor of ending slavery. Yet, when Virginia seceded from the Union, Lee turned down Lincoln’s offer of command of all Union forces in order to command the Army of Northern Virginia.
“I cannot turn my sword against Virginia,” Lee said.
Lee believed that God was forever sovereign. He realized about two days into the Battle of Gettysburg that he had made a terrible mistake in allowing Confederate forces to engage in battle there. He did not think it wise, however, to withdraw. Instead he said “it is all in the hands of God-God’s will be done.” At the time, people didn’t know it, but the South’s loss at Gettysburg would turn out to be the decisive battle of the war. After the catastrophe, Lee did not shirk his part of the blame. “It is my fault, entirely my fault,” he told his men.
When it became evident at Appomattox that the cause was lost, Lee surrendered with honor. He could have asked his men to hide in the mountains and engage in a prolonged guerilla war. Had he asked this, they would have happily done his bidding. Instead, he told his Army to go home and “be as good citizens as you have been soldiers.”
Tennessee is my adopted home, but I hope it is said of me in years to come that I was first loyal to Tennessee, and that I would never turn my sword against her. I hope that I can impart to my children enough of a sense of honor to take responsibility for the things they do that are wrong and that cost others dearly, as Lee did at Gettysburg. I hope that from Lee they can learn to accept victory with grace and defeat with honor.
Never was there a better example of a true citizen and soldier than Robert E. Lee.