North of the Tweed and South of the Potomac: A Tale of Two Roberts and Two Prayers That Changed the Course of History (part two)

Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Ave., Richmond, VA. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Ave., Richmond, VA. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

In commemoration of Robert E. Lee’s birthday, ECW is pleased to present the second of a two-part piece by guest author Richard G. Williams, Jr.

Robert E. Lee had given his whole life to the Union for which his father, Henry Lee, the famous, “Lighthorse Harry Lee,” had fought. Robert was born at the Lee ancestral mansion, Stratford Hall, and drew his first breath in the same room in which were born two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee. He had married Mary Custis, the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, who was the adopted grandson of George Washington. Lee’s strong ties to the Union, and its founding, were both by blood and by choice.

The depth of Lee’s love for, and loyalty to, the Union is something many students of Lee fail to give due consideration. It makes his decision all the more remarkable. By the age of 54, Colonel Robert E. Lee had fought with honor and distinction in the Mexican War, served as Superintendent of West Point, quelled a domestic insurrection at Harper’s Ferry and was well respected as an army officer and engineer. General Winfield Scott even credited the United States’ victory over Mexico to the “skill, valor and undaunted energy of Robert E. Lee” and once referred to him as, “the greatest military genius in America.”

President Lincoln was no fool for offering the command of the Union forces to Lee. Not only was it the prevailing opinion that Lee was the most qualified to take command, Lincoln believed that if Lee accepted, his stature alone might bring a quicker end to the conflict. The offer would test Lee’s loyalties and lead to the struggle of a lifetime. Lee’s mind was already made up when it came to fighting against Virginia. He could not bring himself to raise his sword against his kinfolk and ancient homeland. On April the 18th, 1861, after declining Lincoln’s offer, Lee went immediately to General Scott’s office in Washington and informed him of his decision. Lee’s friend and comrade in arms responded with a statement Lee had not fully anticipated:

…I feared it would be so…. If you purpose to resign, it is proper that you should do so at once; your present attitude is equivocal. [1]

Until now, Lee had remained hopeful he would not be forced to resign from the Army he loved unless and until Virginia seceded and her citizens affirmed the ordinance of secession. That hope was now dashed. Though Lee had declined the offer of command, he would not be able to deny service if he were called upon for duty once hostilities commenced. Scott had made that painfully clear. At that point, Lee would have to “…resign under orders. That was a disgrace to any soldier.”[2]

In fact, Virginia did pass an ordinance of secession on the afternoon of April 17th, but had kept the news secret until Virginia militia units could seize Federal arsenals within its borders. Lee read the headlines two days later on the morning of April 19th. With a feeling of impending doom in the air, Lee rode home to Arlington. He would never again cross the Potomac as an officer in the United States Army. After supper that same evening, Lee walked slowly up the stairs to his room knowing full well that he would be wrestling with his God and his devotion to the Union for hours. Downstairs, his wife Mary heard him drop to his knees in prayer, then up on his feet again to continue pacing back and forth as his struggle wore on. What of his career? What of his beloved Union? What of his family’s well being? What of the future of Virginia, in whose soil slept the dust of his fathers?

No doubt Robert E. Lee thought more than once that night of his father. Light Horse Harry Lee was a favorite of General Washington and was chosen by Congress to eulogize our first president. It was in his eulogy of Washington that Lee’s father first coined the phrase, “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” It is likely that these were not the only words of Lee’s father that came to his mind as he struggled that spring evening. During a debate in 1798 with James Madison, Henry Lee had stated, “Virginia is my country; her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me.”

Virginia historian Philip Alexander Bruce expressed this sentiment with these words:

It was this love of home, with its thronging recollections of the past both near and far . . . that nerved many a Southern soldier . . . Love of the South was inextricably mixed up with this love of the family hearth . . . Love of one particular spot, of one neighborhood, of one State, was the foundation stone of the love of the entire region which entered so deeply into the spirit of the Confederate soldier.[3]

Finally, after midnight, an emotionally drained Lee descended the stairs to the sitting room where Mary had waited and said, “Well Mary, the question is settled. Here is my letter of resignation and a letter I have written General Scott.”[4]

Sir: – I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commission as colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry.

Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,

R.E. Lee

In the words of Douglas Southall Freeman, it was “the decision Lee was born to make.[5] Lee’s prayers had rendered their fruit. He would cast his lot with Virginia, in full measure—there was no other thing he could do. Though he opposed secession and had termed it “revolution,” he also would state, “A union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets…has no charm for me.”[6] Even after the war, as the South lay in ruin, Lee would affirm the rightness of his decision:

I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonour. And if it all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner.[7]

Regular readers of this website need no further explanation of the consequences of Lee’s decision. His glorious victories against overwhelming odds have inspired volumes. Though the South ultimately lost, the Confederacy’s greatest general is as much recognizable as any in history and admired as much, if not more, than any officer the North can claim. Though Lee would cringe at such an analogy, he became an unwilling Christ figure for Southerners and the Lost Cause: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

So what of Lee’s progenitor, Robert the Bruce? Robert the Bruce was allegedly so sickened by his own traitorous conduct that he rose from the table, went immediately to a nearby chapel and fell upon the altar. There he wept tears of repentance, praying for forgiveness and vowing to God to never again raise his hand against Scotland. Robert the Bruce kept his vow, ultimately freeing Scotland from the English yoke and became King of Scotland. Thus Bruce had achieved the dreams of William Wallace.

Though their paths and prayers were different, both Robert E. Lee and Robert the Bruce are revered in their homelands today. Both men chose what they viewed as the path of honor and sacrifice and altered the course of history. Both died heroes bound by ancestry and by Providence. Perhaps it was Providence speaking and reminding humanity of these two warriors’ ties as Robert E. Lee met the final enemy.

As Lee lie dying in Lexington, Virginia, the stormy October sky flashed with an unusual light for several nights in a row. According to Douglas Southall Freeman, “some saw in it a beckoning hand”[8] and a Lexington woman took from a bookshelf a copy of The Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers and pointed with eerie assurance to the following verse:

“All night long the northern streamers
Shot across the trembling sky:
Fearful lights, that never beckon
Save when kings or heroes die.”

Though dead, both men serve as examples of how some Americans still define patriotism. Both men’s lives point, as did William Wallace’s decaying hand, to what may be difficult for our modern age to grasp: a God-inspired love of native-sod.

*    *     *

[1] Douglas Southall Freeman, R.E. Lee, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934, 1936, Volume I), 438.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bruce, 16.

[4] John William Jones, Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee: Soldier and Man, (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1906), 132.

[5] Freeman, Vol. I, 431.

[6] Lee in a letter to son Custis Lee, 30 January 1861. See Freeman, Vol. I, 420-21.

[7] Lee in a letter to Wade Hampton. Freeman, Vol. I, 447.

[8] Freeman, Vol. IV, 490.

This essay was adapted from a passage in The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen, Pelican Publishing, 2005.

3 Responses to North of the Tweed and South of the Potomac: A Tale of Two Roberts and Two Prayers That Changed the Course of History (part two)

  1. Lee’s love of sod was misguided and contributed much to America’s most horrendous war and to the reinstitution of white supremacy and black slavery.

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