Lee in peacetime

“I have a self-imposed task which one 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.”

Robert E. Lee, 1865

Much is written about Robert E. Lee as one of America’s greatest military leaders and of his success as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. His legacy is debated and written about constantly and Virginians commemorate his birthday with a state holiday on the Friday closest to his (Jan. 19) birthday.

This often overshadows what Lee did in the years following the defeat of the South. Though he only lived five years after his surrender at Appomattox, Lee did more than any other American to heal the bitterness between North and South.

Lee emerged from the war as the most recognizable man in America and could have taken any position offered to him which would have brought great wealth. Many of his generals, like Gen. George Pickett, became wealthy by optimizing this wartime fame.

The future following the war didn’t appear bright in Lee’s eyes. He was virtually homeless after the federal government confiscated his Northern Virginia home which was transformed into Arlington National Cemetery. In October of 1865 he was offered the presidency of tiny Washington College in Lexington which was teetering on bankruptcy.

Lee had experience in higher education having served as the superintendent at West Point. There was little doubt he held ample education and organizational skills, but Lee went to Lexington with more noble plans.

Lee’s attitude about post Civil War America can be summed up in a quote from author Charles Flood in his book “Lee: The Last Years.” The author chronicles Lee’s visit with a Kentucky woman who shows the general the remains of a large tree near her home. The branches had been destroyed by Union artillery during a battle. She was hoping to tap into a Southern soldier’s bitterness toward the North or at least gain some sympathy, but Lee would have none of it. Instead he told her: “Cut it down Madam, and then forget it.”

Lee believed that in order for America to move forward, its citizens would have to release their grip on the past. If there was to be reconciliation between two sections of the country, it had to begin at the top. Lee went to Washington College and dedicated his final years to educating men of both the North and the South. He always told them to live and raise their children “as Americans” rather than Southerners or Northerners.

The college was renamed Washington and Lee following his death in honor of his contributions to the school. What needs to be celebrated, however, is Lee’s work in reconciliation.

We routinely honor heroes for what they did in battle while overlooking their contributions in peacetime. This is too often the case with Robert E. Lee.

Similar Posts