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At Lee's tomb.

Rev. Dr. Field on the character of Lee.

A splendid tribute to the great Southern Leader—The judgment of history.

September, 1889.
Rev. Dr. Henry M. Field writes in the New York Evangelist as follows:

My last letter left us in the college chapel at Lexington, looking at the recumbent statue of General Lee. While standing here, in the very presence of death, I am moved to say a few words in regard to the life that ended in this tomb, and the character of the man whose name is carved upon this stone. As I read history, and compare the men who have figured in the events that make history—in wars and revolutions—it seems to me that General Lee was not only a great soldier, but a great man, one of the greatest that our country has produced. After his death the college, which had hitherto borne the name of Washington, by whom it was endowed, was rechristened Washington and Lee University—a combination which suggests a comparison of the two men whose names are here brought together. Can we trace any likeness between them? At first it seems as if no characters, as well as no careers, could be more alien to each other than those of the two great leaders, one of whom was the founder of the Government which the other did his utmost to destroy. But nature brings forth her children in strange couples, with resemblances in some cases as marked, and yet as unexpected as are contrasts in others. Washington and Lee, though born in different centuries, were children of the same mother—Old Virginia—and had her best blood in their veins. Descended from the stock of the English cavaliers, both were born ‘gentlemen’ and never could be anything else. Both were trained in the school of war, and as leaders of armies it would not be a violent assumption to rank Lee as the equal of Washington. But it is not in the two soldies, but in the two men, that the future historians will find points of resemblance.

Washington was not a brilliant man; not ‘a man of genius,’ such as now and then appears to dazzle mankind; but he had what was far better than genius—a combination of all the qualities that win human trust, in which intelligence is so balanced by judgment and exalted by character as to constitute a natural superiority, indieating [343] one who is born to command, and to whom all men turn when their hearts are ‘failing them for fear’ as a leader. He was great not only in action but in repose—great in his very calm—in the fortitude with which he bore himself through all changes of fortune, through dangers and disasters, neither elated by victory nor depressed by defeat—mental habitudes which many will recognize as reappearing in one who seems to have formed himself upon that great model.

Washington was distinguished for his magnanimity—was not Lee also? Men in public station are apt to be sensitive to whatever concerns their standing before the world, and so, while taking to themselves the credit of success, they are strongly tempted to throw upon others the blame of failure. Soldiers especially are jealous of their reputation, and if a commander loses a battle his first impulse is to cast the odium of defeat upon some unfortunate officer. Somebody blundered—this or that subordinate did not do his duty. Military annals are filled with these recriminations. If Napoleon met with a check in his mighty plans, he had no scruple in laying it to the misconduct of some lieutenant, unless, as in Russia, he could throw it upon the elements, the wintry snows and the frozen rivers—anything to relieve himself from the imputation of the want of foresight or provision for unexpected dangers. At Waterloo it was not he that failed in his strategy, but Marshal Ney that failed in the execution. In this respect General Lee was exactly his opposite. If he suffered a disaster he never sought to evade responsibility by placing it upon others. Even in the greatest reverse of his life, the defeat at Gettysburg, when he saw the famous charge of Pickett melt away under the terrible fire that swept the field, till the ranks were literally torn to pieces by shot and shell, he did not vent his despair in rage and reproaches, but rushing to the front took the blame upon himself, saying: ‘It is all my fault.’ Perhaps no incident of his life showed more the nobility of his nature.

When the war was over General Lee had left to him at Lexington about the same number of years that Napoleon had at St. Helena, and if he had had the same desire to pose for posterity in the part of the illustrious exile his mountain home would have furnished as picturesque a background as the rocky island in the south Alantic, from which he could have dictated ‘Conversations’ that should furnish the materials of history. He need not have written or published a single line if he had only been willing to let others do it for him. By their pens he had opportunity to tell of the great part he had [344] acted in the war in a way to make the whole chain of events contribute to his fame. But he seemed to care little for fame, and indeed was unmoved when others claimed the credit of his victories. If it be, as Pascal says, ‘the truest mark of a great mind is to be born without envy,’ few men in history have shown more of this greatness than he. And when, as was sometimes the case old companions-in-arms reflected upon him to excuse their own mistakes, he had only to lift the veil from the secrets of history to confound them. But under all such temptations he was dumb. Nothing that he did or said was more truly grand than the silence with which he bore the misrepresentations of friend or foe. This required a self-command such as Washington had not to exercise at the end of his military career; for he retired from the scene crowned with victory, with a whole nation at his feet ready to do him honor; while Lee had to bear the reproach of the final disaster—a reproach in which friends sometimes joined with foes. Yet to both he answered only with the same majestic calm—the outward sign of his magnificent self-control. Such magnanimity belongs to the very higest order of moral qualities, and shows a character rare in any country or in any age.

This impression of the man does not grow less with closer observation. With the larger number of ‘great men’ the greatness is magnified by distance and separation. As we come nearer they dwindle in stature till, when we are in their very presence and look them squarely in the face, they are found to be but men like ourselves, and sometimes very ordinary men—with some special ability perhaps, which gives them success in the world, but who for all that are full of the selfishness which is the very essence of meanness, and puffed up with a paltry conceit and vanity that stamps them as little rather than great.

Far different was the impression made by General Lee upon those who saw him in the freedom of private intercourse. It might be expected that the soldiers who fought under him should speak with admiration and pride of their old commander; but how did he appear to his neighbors? Here in Lexington everybody knew him, at least by sight; they saw his manner of life from day to day in his going out and his coming in, and on all the impression was the same; the nearer he came to them the greater he seemed. Every one has some anecdote to tell of him, and it is always of something that was noble and lovable. Those who knew him best loved him most, and revered him most. This was not a greatness that was assumed, that was put on like a military cloak; it was in the man, and could not [345] be put on or put off; it was the greatness which comes from the very absence of pretension.

And those who came the closest to him give us a still further insight into his nature, by telling us that what struck them most was the extent of his sympathy. Soldiers are commonly supposed to be cold and hard—a temper of mind to which they are inured by their very profession. Those whose business is the shedding of blood are thought to delight in human suffering. It is hard to believe that a soldier can have a very tender heart. Yet few men were more sensitive to others pain than General Lee. All who came near him perceived that with his manly strength there was united an almost womanly sweetness. It was this gentleness which made him great, and which has enshrined him forever in the hearts of his people.

This sympathy for the suffering showed itself, not in any public act so much as a most private and delicate office which imposed upon him a very heavy burden, one that he might have declined, but the taking of which showed the man. He had an unlimited correspondence. Letters poured in upon him by the hundred and the thousand. They came from all parts of the South, not only from his old companions in arms, but from those he had never seen or heard of. Every mother that had lost a son in the war felt that she had the right to pour her sorrow into the ear of one who was not insensible to her grief. Families left in utter poverty appealed to him for aid. Most men would have shrunk from a labor so great as that of answering these letters. Not so General Lee. He read them, not only patiently, as a man performs a disagreeable duty, but with a tender interest, and so far as possible returned the kindest of answers. If he had little money to give he could at least give sympathy, and to his old soldiers and their wives and children it was more than money to know that they had a place in that great heart.

While thus ministering to his stricken people there is one public benefit which he rendered that ought never to be forgotten. Though the war was over he still stood in public relations in which he could render an immeasurable service to the whole country. There are no crises in a nation's life more perilous than those following civil war. The peace that comes after it is peace only in name if the passions of the war still live. After our great struggle the South was full of inflammable materials. The fires were but smouldering in ashes, and might break out at any moment and rage with destructive fury. If [346] the spirit of some had had full swing the passions of the civil war would have been not only perpetuated but increased, and have gone down as an inheritance of bitterness from generation to generation. This stormy sea of passion but one man could control. He had no official position, civil or military. But he was the representative of the Lost Cause. He had led the Southern armies to battle, and he still had the unbounded confidence of millions, and it was his attitude and his words of conciliation that did more than anything else to still the angry tempest that the war had left behind. It was the sight of their great chieftain—so calm in defeat, so ready to bear the burden of his people—that soothed their anger and their pride, and made the old soldiers of the Confederacy feel that they could accept what had been accepted by their leader, and that as he had set the example it was no unworthy sacrifice for them to become loyal supporters of the restored American Union. It is therefore not too much to say that it is owing in great measure to General Lee that the civil war has not left a lasting division between the North and the South and that they form to day one united country.

These are grateful memories to be recalled now that he who was so mighty in war and so gentle in peace has passed beyond the reach of praise or blame. Do you tell me he was ‘an enemy,’ and that by as much as we love our country we ought to hate its ‘enemies?’ But there are no enemies among the dead. When the grave closes over those with whom we have been at strife we can drop our hatreds and judge of them without passion, and even kindly, as we wish those who come after us to judge of us. In a few years all of the contempararies of General Lee will be dead and gone; the great soldiers that fought with him and that fought against him will alike have passed to the grave, and then, perhaps, there will be a nearer approach of feeling between friend and foe.1

‘Ah, yes,’ say some who admit his greatness as a soldier and leader, ‘if it were not for his ambition that stopped not at the ruin of his country!’ Such is the fatal accusation: [347]

Caesar was ambitious:
     If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.

But was that ambition in him which was patriotism in us? How is it that we, who were upborne for four years by a passion for our country that stopped at no sacrifices, cannot understand that other men of the same race and blood could be inspired with the same passion for what they looked upon as their country, and fight for it with the same heroic devotion that we fought for ours? They, as well as we, were fighting for an idea—we for union, and they for independence—a cause which was as sacred to them as ours to us. Is it that what was patriotism on the one side was only ambition on the other? No; it was not disappointed ambition that cut short that life; it was not the humiliation of pride; but a wound that struck far deeper. One who watched by him in those long night hours tells me that he died of a broken heart! This is the most touching aspect of the great warrior's death; that he did not fall on the field of battle, either in the hour of defeat or victory, but in silent grief for sufferings which he could not relieve. There is something infinitely pathetic in the way that he entered into the condition of a whole people, and gave his last strength to comfort those who were fallen and cast down. It was this constant strain of hand and brain and heart that finally snapped the strings of life, so that the last view of him as he passes out of our sight is one of unspeakable sadness. The dignity is preserved, but it is the dignity of woe. It is the same tall and stately form, yet not wearing the robes of a conqueror, but bowed with sorrows not his own. In this mournful majesty, silent with a grief beyond words, this great figure passes into history.

There we leave him to the judgment of another generation, that ‘standing afar off’ may see some things more clearly than we. When the historian of future ages comes to write the history of the great republic he will give the first place to that War of the Revolution by which our country gained its independence and took its place among the nations of the earth; and the second to the late civil war, which, begun for separation, ended in a closer and consolidated Union. That was the last act in the great drama of our nation's life, in which history cannot forget the part that was borne by him whose silent form lies within this sepulchre.

As I took a last look at the sarcophagus I observed that it bore no epitaph; no words of praise were carved upon the stone; only a name, [348]

Robert Edward Lee. with the two dates,

born January 19, 1807;

died October 12, 1870.

That is all, but it is enough; all the rest may be left to the calm, eternal judgment of history.

1 How the feeling at the North has softened is indicated by many utterances like this in the New York Tribune of last week (August 23d):

‘The virtues of Lee have always found as frank and hearty recognition in the North as in the South. The men of the South can say nothing of the beauty of his personal character, his courage, his devotion to his idea of duty, that will not find a ready echo among those he fought against and by whom he was conquered.’

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