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

ECW is pleased to welcome back guest author Richard G. Williams, Jr.. This is part one of a two-part piece. Part two will appear later today.

“Patriotism is the love of a land and its people, nationalism is the love of a government.”—Professor Clyde Wilson

“Loyalty to country always. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”—Mark Twain

Robert the Bruce statue near the Bannockburn Heritage Centre, Stirling, Scotland (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Robert the Bruce statue near the Bannockburn Heritage Centre, Stirling, Scotland (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The question of how one defines patriotism, loyalty, and “country” can differ between individuals and periods of history. These differences remain with us today.

North of the River Tweed, on the border with England, lies the hauntingly beautiful land of Scotland. A land inhabited by a hardy breed of Celts whose history is rich with romantic stories of bravery and heroic struggles for freedom—a land so full of legends and myths, it’s sometimes difficult to separate true history from the romanticized version. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Scots fought two bloody wars with their neighbor to the South, England, in Scotland’s struggle for independence. In recent years there has been a renewed interest about Scottish history, thanks in large measure to Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart and the fascinating story about Scottish warrior and hero, Sir William Wallace, aka, “Braveheart.”

In 1306 another Scottish warrior, and contemporary of William Wallace, was involved in this struggle for Scotland’s liberty. This warrior was not fighting for Scotland however, but for the English in opposition against his native land. Tradition has it that shortly after a particularly bloody battle, this warrior sat down to eat and celebrate the victory with his English comrades. Robert the Bruce was about to be faced with a decision that would alter the course of history and that of Scotland.

The torturous death of William Wallace, at the hands of King Edward of England for his rebellion against the throne, tormented the mind of Bruce, preventing him from enjoying the revelry of the victory. His conscience would not let him forget Wallace’s courage and steadfastness—two traits that Wallace kept to the end—even as he was castrated and disemboweled alive, the final act of death accomplished by the King’s executioner as he reached into Wallace’s chest and tore out his still beating heart. This grotesque and cruel execution took place before a jeering mob of English peasants and nobles as one of Wallace’s men held high his psalter. Robert had also watched as Wallace’s head was impaled on a spike high on London Bridge and the four quarters of his body were taken to Newcastle, Berwick, Perth, and Stirling to be put on display, lest any other Scottish fool have some vain notion of “freedom.” Yet, even in death, William Wallace bedeviled the British and entreated the Scots to fight for their homeland:

As the flesh rotted away from the right arm and shoulder of the martyred, and the sun-dried sinews tightened, the skeletal hand of Wallace seemed to rise on the gibbet of Newcastle and point longingly to the north. Wallace had been denied the opportunity to die on his native soil…now, it seemed, his mortal remains were directing his spirit remains back to Scotland. [1]

This ghostly scene, along with the image of Wallace’s bravery in the midst of an unmerciful execution, was forever etched into Bruce’s mind and served as a constant reminder not only of William Wallace’s devotion to Scotland’s liberty, but of Bruce’s own reputation as a traitor. Bruce’s decision to fight for the English had been a pragmatic one. Though Bruce had once fought with Wallace against the English, he became fearful after Scotland’s defeat at Falkirk; fearful that Scotland’s quest for freedom was hopeless and that any further struggle against the English Crown was futile and would cost him his vast estate, if not his life.

So Bruce bowed to Edward while his countrymen continued their resistance against the English Throne and Bruce raised his sword against his own kin. It was shortly after one of these battles in which Robert the Bruce fought alongside the English, assisting them as they slaughtered the Scottish warriors, that he sat with the English noblemen to break bread and celebrate their victory over the rebels.

Bruce had fought valiantly and proved his devotion to King Edward. He thought he deserved the respect of the English lords, if not of his own conscience. As Bruce sat down to eat, his unwashed hands still stained with the blood of his fellow Scots, there were snickers among the English nobles. He overheard one whisper, “Look at that Scotsman, who is eating his own blood!”[2] The statement pierced his heart like a hot dagger. He was a Judas. Robert the Bruce now had a decision to make. Would he accept the scorn and mockery he deserved and go down in history as a traitor to his native sod, or would he repent, risking his worldly wealth and position, embrace honor and cast his lot with his kinsmen and their uncertain future?

Across the Atlantic and some 555 years later, a descendant of Robert the Bruce[3] paces the floor in an upstairs room of his home. His home lay just South of the Potomac River in another land also steeped in legend and history with gallant tales of bravery, chivalry and a passionate love of liberty. This Robert is faced with a similar decision. It’s the night of April the nineteenth, 1861.

Though Robert E. Lee’s humility prevented him from speaking publicly of his ancestry, he was well aware that he was “well descended.” Perhaps his mother had recounted the shame of Bruce’s conduct to young Robert as she filled the role of an absent father. Was Lee’s mind haunted by the memory of Bruce’s experience as he prayerfully struggled with the most agonizing decision he would ever make? No doubt he had read the story of Bruce’s conflict and Scotland’s valiant struggle for liberty.

It is also very likely that the young Robert Lee was inspired by the heroic tales of Scotland’s best-known writer, Sir Walter Scott (1711-1832) and the medieval history of Scott’s native land. Scott’s influence on Southerners is well known:

It was due to this universal love of adventure—this hunger for an active and stirring life,—that Sir Walter Scott enjoyed such extraordinary popularity in the homes of the Southern people. There were few libraries of importance among them that were lacking in those splendid volumes in which he has drawn such romantic pictures…. [4]

The struggle that Robert E. Lee was faced with was the same one that confronted Robert the Bruce. Their initial decisions and the ultimate consequences were, however, very different. After Fort Sumter, Lincoln had called upon the several states to provide seventy-five thousand militia for ninety days service to put down the “rebellion.” Robert E. Lee’s Virginia answered with a call for secession. The Old Dominion and cradle of liberty that had given birth to the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry would not stand for such heavy-handed oppression. Figuratively speaking, and in the collective memory of Virginians, her soil was still moist with the blood of the British and, if necessary, in the words of Jefferson, additional blood would be fitting:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. [5]

Colonel Robert E. Lee, U.S. Army, would now make the decision that would alter the course of history—and that of his beloved Virginia. Second in importance only to Lee’s Christian faith was his sense of duty. To understand Lee’s struggle with the decision he would have to make, one must understand the depth of his deliberate commitment to this principle. It guided every decision he made—often at great personal sacrifice.

Nowhere was this commitment and sacrifice more obvious than in its influence on Lee as he struggled with the decision regarding the Union’s offer as Commander of their Army. There could be no possible motive for glory, fame, or riches, as Lee was fully aware of the likely outcome of a struggle against the numerically superior North. He was also aware that, contrary to the opinion of many, it would be a long and bloody conflict. His only motive was—what is my duty and, as a Christian, what is the will of God?

To be continued…

*    *     *

[1] James Mackay, William Wallace – Braveheart (Edinburgh, Scotland: Mainstream Publishing, 1995), 267.

[2] Sir Walter Scott, From Bannockburn to Flodden (Cumberland House, Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2001), 63.

[3] Randolph McKim, The Soul of Lee (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1917), 3.

[4] Philip A Bruce. Brave Deeds of Confederate Soldiers, (Philadelphia , PA: George W. Jacobs & Company, 1916), 18.

[5] Thomas Jefferson in a letter to William Stephens Smith.

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

20 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 one)

  1. Richard Williams writes glowingly of Lee’s noble sacrifice. However, Williams never mentions the sacrifices that generations of slaves endured at the hands of brutal Southern slaveowners. William Wallace and Robert the Bruce fought against tyranny. RE Lee fought to preserve the tyranny of slavery. To equate Scotland’s fight for independence with the South’s fight to maintain slavery is a cruel perversion of history.

    1. Bob:

      “Williams never mentions the sacrifices that generations of slaves endured at the hands of brutal Southern slaveowners.”

      That’s not true. I’ve written about that elsewhere on numerous occasions. But the topic here was narrow and specific. Today is Lee’s birthday and the specificity of the subject matter in the essay is self-evident.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

    2. Bob,

      My great-grandmother, Maria (Ruth) Schmitt (born 1871) was the daughter of Samuel D. Ruth and Ester Landes. Are either of her parents known to be anywhere in your lineage? I’m a frequent visitor to and admirer of ECW and would much appreciate your response.

      Thank you,

      Dale Fishel
      Olympia, WA

      1. Dale:
        Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. For some reason, I just read your post. The names of your relatives don’t ring a bell with me.

        The first Ruth in our family to immigrate to the U.S. was named Peter Rutt. (I guess the last name was changed at some point.) He emigrated from Germany and ended up in Reading, PA., about 250 years ago. My paternal grandfather’s people were mostly from the Dakotas, as I recall.

        While I’ve been a history fan all my life, I must admit my own family’s history has not held much interest for me. Sorry I can’t be of more help.

    3. “William Wallace and Robert the Bruce fought against tyranny. RE Lee fought to preserve the tyranny of slavery.”

      The South didn’t fight against tyranny? How many towns were looted and burned by Federal armies? How many civilians -white and black- were left destitute? How many died?

  2. Richard:
    Re. your first point: Maybe ECW can post one of your previous articles in which you criticize Southern slavery. Such a post would be a nice counterpoint to your above paean to RE Lee.

    Re. your second point: I disagree that we should separate discussions about Lee’s birthday from the horrors of slavery. We honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday not only because of what he did, but also because of what he stood for. Shouldn’t we use the same criteria in discussing Lee’s birthday?

    1. Bob:
      If the editors of ECW wish to provide a counterpoint, they will do so. As I’ve already pointed out, today is Lee’s birthday and the specificity and focus of the subject matter in the essay is self-evident.

      “Shouldn’t we use the same criteria in discussing Lee’s birthday?”

      That would be an individual’s choice. I’m not one who favors judging 19th century Americans by 21st century values and standards. I may well be in the minority here, but so be it.

  3. I have a copy, purchased–I think–from Mount Vernon–of a booklet entitled “The Maxims of George Washington For Young Gentlemen.” Luckily for us, Virginian General Washington chose not to sell out his country.

    1. Meg:
      “Virginian General Washington chose not to sell out his country.”

      That would depend upon one’s perspective. I believe King George III would have disagreed.

      At the time of the signing of the Dec. of Ind., Washington and the other Founders were British subjects. Most of them would likely have been hung as traitors, had the war gone the other way.

    1. Thank you Sarah. Yes, that relationship is quite interesting to me, as Lee is often viewed as a Virginia heir to an English aristocratic bloodline (which he is). I read somewhere recently that Lee was a direct, 17th generation descendant of Robert the Bruce. Also, Douglas Southall Freeman provides some interesting details regarding Lee’s ancestry. This remark be Freeman is also worth considering: “The Lees without exception were Revolutionaries in 1775.”


  4. Richard:
    I’ve been perusing your Old Virginia Blog for a while. Very interesting. I have read dozens of your most recent posts but have not yet come across any that condemn Southern slavery. Maybe you can provide me and other ECW readers with the dates of such posts so we can read them.
    Another interesting tidbit from your blog: You are a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). The SCV’s web site declares, “The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.” As a Civil War historian, I assume you disagree with the SCV on this issue. As we all know, “the motivating factor” for secession among leaders throughout the South was the maintenance of an economy based on human bondage.

    Anyone who doubts this should read South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession. The perpetuation of slavery is repeated over and over again in this document as the major reason for secession.

  5. Bob:
    Your assumption that I must somehow redeem myself by proclaiming my opposition to slavery is, quite frankly, absurd. I’m not going to be drawn into some kind of inquisition because I wrote admirably of Robert E. Lee. I’ve made my views quite clear on the evils of slavery. Suggesting I might hold some other viewpoint simply because you can’t find a post on my blog is also absurd.

    2 corrections. While I am a past member of the SCV (I have 3 Confederate ancestors), I allowed my membership to lapse several years ago. That’s not to say I might not join again at some point. Secondly, I’ve never claimed that I am a historian. I am an author/writer/researcher/student who generally focuses on the WBTS and Virginia history.

    Slavery was central to the Civil War. Anyone suggesting otherwise is ignorant or purposely distorting the truth. That being said, I’m convinced there were multiple factors regarding causation or, as Professor Marc Egnal has written in his recent book “Clash of Extremes”: “In sum, the current emphasis on slavery as the cause of the Civil War is fraught with problems.” Moreover there were vast differences in the lower south (SC) vs. the upper south (VA). Do you really want to go down that road? It’s been argued ad nauseum on scores of other blogs. I’m not interested, perhaps others are.

    The topic of the post was Lee and Robert the Bruce, not slavery, nor the cause(s) of the Civil War. Do you believe every post/article/book about the Civil War must always include a condemnation of slavery?

  6. Richard:
    Re. SCV: You might consider updating your Old Virginia Blog, where you describe yourself as “currently a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.”

    Re. Your opinion of slavery: Of course, you oppose slavery, and I am sure you have done so in previous writings. I apologize if you inferred from my earlier post that I believe you ever supported slavery. However, you mentioned that you have often condemned slavery in the past. My only point is that none of dozens of your most recent posts does so. Could you help me out? I’d like to read some of your slavery-condeming articles.

    Re. Slavery being the main cause of the Civil War: You’re right, it would take too long to fully discuss this subject. However, most historians believe there would not have been a Civil War if slavery had not existed in the South. Bottom line: No slavery. No Civil War.


    1. Thanks for the notice on SCV membership status. I had overlooked that and have corrected it. Your apology is accepted. Since you clarified your intent, I’ll attempt to answer your question and provide a few examples. Though I have blogged about it and touched on it in other writings, the majority of what I’ve written on the topic of slavery would be in my book about Stonewall Jackson and his black Sunday school class. A few excerpts:

      “Also connected with the old Confederacy is slavery. The institution of slavery was, besides a cruel and sad episode in our history, a complicated and multifaceted practice that still impacts our culture today.”

      And . . .

      “The emotional pain, sense of loss and fear, and physical abuse experienced by the African slaves cannot be comprehended by anyone outside the experience. As English surgeon Alexander Falconbridge noted in a 1788 account of his experiences aboard a
      slave ship: “It is not in the power of the human imagination to picture a situation more dreadful or disgusting.” Torn from their homeland, families, and separated from all that was familiar and loved, these forlorn human beings were transported to a land unknown to them to be sold at an auction to the highest bidder, with potential purchasers poking and
      prodding them like livestock, checking their teeth, and examining muscle tone. The Africans were then carted off by their new owners to a plantation in the South, a mill on a river in the North, or a fine house where they were assigned to wait on white families or nurse white infants.”

      And . . .

      “The defenders of what was and what is commendable in Southern culture cannot ignore the cruel injustices of slavery and how the institution as a whole was antithetical to the Christianity that permeates the South to this day as well as to the principles of liberty eloquently articulated in the nation’s founding documents. While many nineteenth century
      Southern theologians went to great lengths to propound a biblical basis for slavery, and though neither Christ nor Paul ever directly condemned slavery, one cannot reconcile the broader themes of the gospel—liberty, peace, freedom from bondage, reconciliation, and brotherly love—with the institution of slavery.”

      Thanks again for reading the post.

  7. Richard:

    Thanks for the above references.

    By the way, I am in awe of the time you obviously spend on the Old Virginia Blog. You’re one of the most prolific bloggers I’ve ever come across. Loved the 1935 photo you posted of Ernest Hemingway sitting in a boat aiming a rifle at the camera. I’ve been a fan of Papa’s since I was a teenager many decades ago.

    And finally, I disagree with your claim that you’re not a historian. Anyone who has written as many articles and books about the Civil War as you qualifies as a historian, as far as I’m concerned.

  8. Bob:

    Yes, Hemingway is quite the interesting study. “Anyone who has written as many articles and books about the Civil War as you qualifies as a historian, as far as I’m concerned.”

    I sincerely appreciate the vote of confidence Bob, but I don’t believe I’ve earned the title yet. My “formal” education is largely technical in nature with a focus in the fields of financial services and law. My training in legal research does, in part, transfer to the field of history and has proved useful. Beyond that, my knowledge in the field of history is largely self-taught. Thanks again for reading.

  9. What would people be saying about Robert E. Lee if Virginia had not seceded and he commanded the. Union Army instead. Thats what would have happened if Virginia stayed with the Union. In my opinion, a decision made based on his home state’s actions, would indicate someone committed far more to Virginia than to the preservation of slavery. Especially since that decision cost him everything he owned, just as he knew it would. Regardless of what people think and say today, Lee,s decision was based on principle and a sense of duty to his home state, not the issue of slavery.

    1. Bill – Lee walked away from what would have been guaranteed laurels from a Union victory. He knew that. And though Lee was a humble man, he was also very ambitious and loved the army. Any suggestion of selfish motives is, in my mind, lacking credible evidence. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

  10. Wonderful piece on General Lee. I would greatly desire to read more of your writings. Could you post some links or recommend some articles or books you have authored or that you think are foundational to understanding this conflict? I am a retired attorney with lots of time on my hands and a deep desire to read as much as I can about the WBTS. Thank you for any assistance you can offer.

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