Why This Man, and His Era, Merit Our Consideration
By H. Alexander Wise Jr.
verge of the 21st century, some may ask, "Why the Museum of the Confederacy" The
answer varies with the person. For me, it is that the culture of which the Confederacy was
the final expression can teach us many lessons as our country prepares for a new century.
We owe it to ourselves and our society to re-examine that culture. Nor can we afford to
let stereotypes - either pro or con blind us to the good things.
The culture that gave rise to the Confederacy
was imperfect and provincial. But in a way its provincial character was its strength. It
was a holistic and cohesive culture, rooted in time and place, both seeking God and
remaining close to the soil. It stood in stark contrast to the fragmented, abstract,
rootless, and materialistic culture of modern America - a culture unheightened by poetry,
continually in search of meaning, and riddled with social pathologies. Look around us at
the symptoms: co-dependencies, violent crime, pornography, divorce, latchkey children, and
the cult of victimhood, to name but a few.
On Robert E. Lee's birthday (which came Sunday,
Jan. 19; today is Lee-Jackson-King Day across Virginia), it is fitting to note that he
represented his culture as its best. Lee was admired and loved by his countrymen precisely
because he came close to embodying the ideal of what a man in that culture was supposed to
be, For Lee and his time manhood was a positive concept. It was almost synonymous with the
concept of the gentleman. Neither was something to apologize for or be chauvinistic about.
Both were to be striven for. Both meant having body, mind, and spirit in proper
relationship, Most people in the society - both men and women shared in the consensus.
Identity and "values" were not up in the air. As journalist Paul Greenberg has
said, "The very words Lee used--gentleman, duty, honor, valor-- have a quaint and
different sound in these times." We might also add the word "forbearance."
"The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which
an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman."
would have agreed with Atticus Finch, who said, "It's a sin to kill a
Some may say that such a philosophy was
paternalistic and therefore unacceptable. But we have to put it in the context of the time
and also to realize that his was infinitely better than the attitude so prevalent today:
"I'll get mine."
This belief in forbearance was the source of
Lee's doubts about slavery. He saw that the "peculiar institution" created too
much of a temptation for slaveholders to abuse their power. This objection was an
outgrowth of Lee's own code, not something imposed from outside.
In 1861, Lee's fellow Virginian and mentor
Winfield Scott offered him command of the Federal forces - a great temptation. Yet Lee
stayed with the state and his "people." He wrote his sister, "With all my
devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have
not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, and
In December 1862, at Fredericksburg, Lee
watched "those people"- his remarkably restrained name for people he fought
every day - march to almost certain death uphill toward his own massed and waiting army,
When Jackson's men charged and nearly drove the Federals into the Rappahannock, Lee
remarked, "It is a good thing war is so terrible; else we should grow too fond of
it," This was a moment of insight into his own human weakness.
The next year came Gettysburg, the battle that
gave rise to what many consider Lee's greatest military mistake, What caused him to order
Pickett's and Pettigrew's divisions to attack up the long unprotected sweep toward
Cemetery Ridge on the third day of the battle? He asked his men to do what "those
people" could not do at Fredericksburg: Take an open slope with a frontal attack. Was
Lee seduced by the seeming invincibility of his army? Did he forget the lesson of
Fredericksburg: that he was dangerously close to becoming addicted to the beauty of
heroism and the excitement Of victory? Or was it knowledge that Jackson was gone, time was
running out, and his chance to demoralize "those people" and end the killing in
a single bold stroke might never come again? Lee took the gamble, knowing that its outcome
was in the hands of the Almighty he relied upon so completely...
We are touched by his fatherly concern for his
men and his willingness to accept responsibility when the attack failed. As the remnant of
Pickett's shattered division came streaming down the hill after the fateful charge,
General Lee was waiting for them at the bottom of the hill, saying, "It is all right,
men. It is all my fault," He offered to resign his command...
One of Lee's greatest moments came at
Appomattox when he wrote his General Order No. 9 on April 10, 1865, announcing is decision
to surrender his army.
The conclusion of the order reveals deep
feeling and profound Christian faith. He closed with these lines:
"You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty
faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His
blessing and protection. With an unceasing admiration at your constancy and devotion to
your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for
myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell."
Order No. 9 is the ultimate expression of a leader who loved his men as much as they loved
After Appomattox, when presented with the
opportunity to become financially comfortable for the rest of his life merely by allowing
an insurance company to use his name, he declined. Instead, he served as president of a
tiny, destitute college in the mountains of Virginia (now Washington and Lee University),
where he led by example in the business of sectional reconciliation. He wrote:
"I have a self-imposed task which 1 must accomplish. I have led the young men of the
South in battle; I have seen many of them die on the field; I shall devote my remaining
energies to training young men to do their duty in life."
pleased to be a part of the Museum of the Confederacy, In the era of Madonna, Michael
Jackson, and Donald Trump, it is a place where my children can see that such a man as Lee,
and the culture that produced him, once existed, We cannot live in the past or recover it,
But perhaps in a small way the Museum can help us all - young and old, rich and poor,
black and white -- become aware of the nobility, community, and poetry we have lost; and
Once aware, perhaps we can build a new civility in our own time.
Alexander Wise is a lawyer at
McGuire, Woods, Battle, and Boothe and has served as president of the Confederate Memorial
House of the Confederacy in Richmond. This article first appeared in The Richmomd- Times
Dispatch, and was reprinted in The Star on Lee's birthday in 1994.