Friday will mark the 121st year that Virginia has honored the birthday of Robert Edward Lee with a state holiday. Lee’s name warms and swells pride in the hearts of many in the South. For others, Lee, along with Jefferson Davis and the Confederate flag, are enduring symbols of the most wretched episode in United States history: Slavery and the Civil War that finally ended it.
Love him or hate him, Lee’s life is still relevant today. For Alexandrians this is especially so, since Lee grew up here: His family moved here from Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County when he was only three. Lee attended Alexandria Academy and grew up worshipping at Christ Church. But non-Alexandrians can also learn from an examination of his life. There are three primary reasons why: His vision, his contradictions and the ultimate, no-win decision that he had to make.
“That vision thing,” as former president George H.W. Bush famously called it, has been in short supply for a long time among our nation’s leaders. Lee is compelling because, in examining his life, we see a man with great strategic vision despite his ultimate decision to fight for Virginia and thus defend slavery. He was a successful military strategist both prior to and during the Civil War. His resourcefulness against an enemy with far more assets prolonged the war while the South waited (in vain as it turned out) for England to engage in the war on its behalf. Upon surrender at Appomattox, he had the vision to see that his leadership was imperative to reconciliation between North and South. As a result, he refused to consider prolonged guerilla warfare, for which many of his soldiers had been clamoring, and began campaigning for reconciliation. He was emphatic that the war was over, saying, “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. “
The contradiction between Lee’s nature and the consequences of his actions is also fascinating. In his dealings with his peers and troops, he was considered a gentleman who lived by a strict code of military chivalry. And yet, his very prowess on the battlefield likely prolonged the war, and thus slavery, by at least two years. At least another half million lives were lost during the fighting of those two-plus years, including the bloodiest battles of the Civil War Antietam and Gettysburg.
The main reason, I think, that Lee still resonates with us today is because of the agonizing decision that he had to make regarding his loyalties once the Civil War began. Lee had served 32 years as a distinguished soldier in the United States Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. He had attended West Point (graduating second in his class) and had fought in the Mexican-American War with all of the Army’s leading officers. When fighting broke out between North and South, Lee’s Commander-in-Chief, President Abraham Lincoln, offered him command of the U.S. Army.
In what has to have been one of the most gut-wrenching decisions in history, Lee decided that his first duty was to Virginia rather than the United States. So, he gave up the career and friendships with fellow officers that he had worked decades building, gave up his home at Arlington House (now the site of Arlington Cemetery) and left for Richmond to serve as adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Lee knew that if he took up command of the Union army he would be fighting against his kinsmen on his native soil, and that win or lose he would never be able to go home again. In allying with the Confederates, he knew that he was committing treason and if the South lost he would be lucky to escape with his life. And what if events had unfolded the way Lee wanted, with a Confederate triumph marching down a path paved with his own battlefield victories? History would surely have deemed him the ultimate villain in that scenario, as the chief perpetuator of slavery.
Lee’s life continues to fascinate, and instruct, because we’ve all faced situations where there is seemingly no good choice, no potentially happy outcome. While few people have ever faced a choice with quite the consequences of Lee’s, we all reach forks in the road in our lives. When we reach those points of decision from which there is no return, the best we can do is be guided by our consciences and by our faith or value systems. And hope that those who come after will remember our humanity and judge us accordingly.
Denise Dunbar is the editorial page editor of the Alexandria Times.