Today, January 19, is a memorable date, the birthday of one of the greatest of all Americans. Robert E. Lee was born in Tidewater Virginia in 1807. Two uncles signed the Declaration of Independence and his father was a notable cavalry officer in the War for Independence. He was later to wed the granddaughter of Martha Washington.
He was graduated second in his class at West Point, an institution of which he was later a distinguished superintendent. As an army officer he worked on many useful engineering projects and was distinguished under fire in the Mexican War and later on the Texas frontier. Unlike the greatest figure on the other side of the great sectional conflict of 1861—1865, who was an inveterate office-seeker but never performed any service for his fellow citizens.
In 1861 he was offered command of all the armies of the United States, the height of a soldier’s ambition. But the path of honour commanded him to choose to defend his own people from invasion rather than do the bidding of the politicians who controlled the federal machinery in Washington.
His command of the Army of Northern Virginia is one of the greatest military epics of human history. By genius, daring, and the valour of his men he again and again defeated immensely larger and better supplied armies. He was aided by a lieutenant whose birthday is only two days later: “Stonewall,” born of January 21 in 1824. In the last days of the war his army inflicted casualties on the enemy that were greater than its own numbers, but he succumbed finally to an enemy commander willing to make any sacrifice of his men to exhaust the dwindling numbers of Confederates.
His actions after the war illustrate his nobility. He refused invitations to lend his name to business ventures that would have made him a rich man. Instead, he became head of a struggling college and devoted himself to setting an example for his people of quiet rebuilding. His opponent in the last period of the war was President of the United States for eight years and presided over the greatest political corruption in American history.
Lee was admired not only by his own people, but by all the world, including his opponents. For a long time he was celebrated by nearly all as a great American. The attacks on his name and fame in recent years coincide exactly with the progressive deterioration of all the higher values of American tradition.
Clyde N. Wilson is a contributing editor to Chronicles. A retired professor of history at the University of South Carolina, he is the author of numerous books, including Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew and Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture. He is the editor of The Papers of John C. Calhoun.