Robert E. Lee and the history you were never taught

Vandalized with paint and foul language by those who seek to remove it, Lee’s statue is walled from all, pending a court decision. Seeing this, I have to shake my head at those who do not know our history. Yes, Lee, in his modesty, requested no such remembrance. Yet 20 years after his death, Virginia dedicated this statue to his memory for future generations to learn from and as a way for the South to heal. The victorious North had no objections, realizing this was a solid way to continue “binding up the nation’s wounds.”

Yet, there is one aspect in this dissension that has not been addressed. And I would suggest it is the single most important legacy bequeathed to us by Robert Edward Lee.

On April 9, 1865, as Grant’s army encircled Lee’s battered army around Appomattox, Gen. Edward Porter Alexander urged Lee to exploit “any chance to cut our way through…” and if that didn’t work, “scatter in the woods & bushes…”

“What would you hope to accomplish by that?” Lee asked.

“If the Army of Northern Va. surrenders, every other army will surrender as fast as the news reaches it. For it is the morale of this army which has supported the whole Confederacy.”

Looking back years later, Alexander noted, “Usually I stood very much in awe of Gen. Lee but now I was wrought up & words came to me as never before. . . I believed firmly that I had him, & he would do it.”

Lee’s response to Alexander would change the history of America.

Suppose two thirds, say 10,000, got away. Divided among the States their numbers would be too insignificant to accomplish the least good. Yes! The surrender of this army is the end of the Confederacy…And as Christian men, Gen. Alexander, you & I have no right to think for one moment of our personal feelings or affairs. We must consider only the effect which our action will have upon the country at large. Suppose I should take your suggestion & order the army to disperse & make their way to their homes…They would have to plunder & rob to procure subsistence. The Country would be full of lawless bands in every part, & a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover. Then the enemy’s cavalry would pursue in the hopes of catching the principal officers, & wherever they went there would be fresh rapine & destruction.

Alexander was stunned!

I was so ashamed of having proposed to him such a foolish and wildcat scheme. I felt like begging him to forget that he had ever heard it.

Fellow Americans, any appraisal of Lee’s legacy must recognize this epic, yet nearly forgotten moment in our nation’s history. Avoidance of a guerrilla war after Appomattox prevented years of horror, facilitated reunion, and steered America to its 20th century world leadership role that endures to this day. Indeed, avoidance of guerrilla wars after civil wars is almost unprecedented. And Lee’s act at Appomattox was instrumental in forming the re-Union we know today.

Indeed, one President kept Lee’s picture in the Oval Office. A dentist from New York wrote him, voicing his dismay:

I do not understand how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated…The most outstanding thing that Lee did, was to devote his best efforts to the destruction of the United States Government. . .Will you please tell me just why you hold him in such high esteem?

With images of Lee, Franklin, Washington, and Lincoln overlooking his desk—our President replied:

Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation…Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained. Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.


Dwight D. Eisenhower

So save Lee’s monument. History is not there for you to like or dislike. It is there for you to learn from. And if it offends you, all the better. Because then you’ll be less likely to repeat it. It’s not yours to erase. It belongs to all of us.

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