Measuring True Greatness
January 19 marked the 207th birthday of one of the most revered military leaders in American history. In fact, Robert E. Lee remains one of the most studied and respected military commanders in world history, although he was ultimately on the losing side.
The enormous importance that the mainstream media and political leaders today give to the Martin Luther King Holiday has worked to obscure the memory of Lee. Although there are many states that celebrate holidays for both King and Lee, most Southern politicians, following the politically correct fashion of the times, have shied away from honoring Lee. That is a great tragedy, for few men in American history have left such an exemplary record of Christian faith, noble character, and devotion to cause and duty.
Following Lee’s death at his home in Lexington, Virginia, on October 12, 1870, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave a moving eulogy honoring Lee at a Memorial meeting in Richmond on November 3. This was probably the largest gathering of Confederate generals and officers since the end of the war. In the course of his speech, he gave this praise of Lee:
“This good citizen, this gallant soldier, this great general, this true patriot, had yet a higher praise than this or these; he was a true Christian.”
Robert Edward Lee was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in 1807. He was the youngest son of Revolutionary War hero, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee and Anne Hill Carter. Henry Lee had been a close military confident of fellow Virginian, George Washington. He was a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress from 1786 to 1788 and later became the 9th Governor of Virginia from1791 to1794. However, he lost most of his fortune in the financial panic of 1795-6. Nevertheless, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1799. During his one two-year term he wrote the Congressional tribute to Washington on his death in 1799: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Continued financial difficulties resulted in a year in debtors prison in 1809. He spent most of the rest of his life in the West Indies trying to recover his wealth. He died in 1818 on his way back to Virginia, when young Robert was only 11-years-old.
In growing up, young Robert was influenced by his father’s military and political legacy including his financial humiliation and struggles. He was also strongly influenced by his mother’ s Biblical teachings and the character of his father’s friend, George Washington. It was not surprising that he decided upon a military career and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Lee graduated second of the 46 cadets in the class of 1829. He began his career as a Second Lieutenant assigned to the Engineer Corps and distinguished himself in combat reconnaissance assignments under General Winfield Scott in the Mexican War from 1846 to 1848. He was Superintendent the U.S Military Academy at West Point from 1852 to 1855.
It was as Superintendent at West Point that Lee’s leadership style was refined and molded. As a cadet, Lee’s outstanding academic performance and strict military bearing had gained him the nickname “the Marble Man” with his classmates, but his leadership style as Superintendent was anything but stiff and overbearing. While Lee was Superintendent, the Cadet Corps was only about 200, and he took a personal interest in every cadet, especially those who struggled with the strenuous academic and strict military discipline of the school. Lee had high standards, but his style was not to push, drive, or threaten. According to his most celebrated biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman,
“He carried them [the cadets] on his heart, and spent many an anxious hour debating how he could best train them to be servants of their country by making them masters of themselves.”
Later as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies, one of the reasons for Lee’s spectacular success in motivating Confederate soldiers, who were often badly outnumbered, out-gunned, and coping with inadequate supplies and clothing, was that they knew his orders were not given to gain himself promotion, praise, or personal glory. He had the highest standards of duty and honor and that included responsibilities to his troops as well as cause and country.
Responding to public praise for his stunning military victories, Lee said:
“I tremble for my country when I hear of confidence expressed in me. I know too well my weakness, that our only hope is in God.”
On discipline Lee remarked,
“A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.”
When told that his chaplains were praying for him daily Lee responded:
“I can only say that I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation.”
A Confederate officer recollected:
“His soldiers reverenced him and had unbounded confidence in him, for he shared all their privations.”
A private in the Army of Northern Virginia recollected:
“It was remarkable what confidence the men reposed in General Lee; they were ready to follow him wherever he might lead, or order them to go.”
John Brown Gordon, Confederate Lieutenant General and later Governor of Georgia and U.S. Senator, said this about Lee:
“Intellectually, he was cast in a giant mold. Naturally he was possessed of strong passions. He loved the excitement of war. He loved grandeur. But all these appetites and powers were brought under the control of his judgment and made subservient to his Christian faith. This made him habitually unselfish and ever willing to sacrifice on the altar of duty and in the service of his fellows…He is an epistle, written of God and designed by God to teach the people of this country that earthly success is not the criterion of merit, not the measure of true greatness.”
“Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” — 2 Timothy: 2:3
Leonard M. (Mike) Scruggs is the author of Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, 2009; and The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths, 2011.