Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on July 11, 1976 · Page 69
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 69

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, July 11, 1976
Page 69
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Page 69 article text (OCR)

Gen. Robert E. Lee, taken from a painting by Mrs. Natalie E.Grauer. Robert E. Lee: The Deepest Root By Sid Moody That f i n a l spring, the colonel came down from his colonnaded mansion on the hill and for the last time of his life rode across the f a m i l i a r Potomac bridge into Washington. He stopped first at the Blair family home across from the White House. From there he rode to the War Department to see Gen. Winfield Scott, a man who esteemed him. "You have made the greatest mistake of your life," said the flesh-girt general. "But I feared it would be so." For Robert Edward Lee. colonel. First U.S. Cavalry, there had never been any doubt. The colonel visited briefly with his brother, on duty with the U.S. Navy in the city. Then he rode back over the river and up the hill to Arlington, the family manse. He would next cross the Potomac at the head of an army marching to a battle they called Sharpsburg, their foe Antietam. No one alive in that spring of 1861 had more intimate ties to the founders of the 'nation that was now dissolving.His father. "Light Horse Harry" Lee, had been a hard- spurred cavalry leader for George Washington in the Revolution. It was this father who had eulogized his old commander as "first in war., first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." The father had eventually gone to debtor's prison and died impoverished. But before that, he had led the federal troops who put down the first challenge to national authority, the Whiskey Rebellion. And he had been governor of Virginia three times. The Lees were, related to most of the grandees of Virginia. Robert's mother was of the noblest of them all. the Carters. It was she who saw to it that Robert grew straight, that he lived by the codes of his class. Duty. Honor. Virtue. He was a paragon of that creed. His image is that of an almost faultless man. and it is probably true. This he owed to his mother. The heritage from his father was a deep love of country. But there was more. His father had been a Federalist as was Washington, both believers-in central government. This in time drew him .apart from many in Virginia, followers of the state rights philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. But "Light Horse Harry" Lee had also once declaimed: "Virginia is my country; her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me." With the blood of Virginia in his veins as intermingled as the snaking rivers of the Tidewater, Robert E. Lee would do no less, if it came , to t h a t . But pray God t h a t it wouldn't. Virginia had been growing away from her sisters in the South as the 19th century unfolded. The new lands of Alabama and Mississippi had come under the reign of King Cotton, an immensely profitable monarchy that crowded our considerations of the slave labor required to maintain it. In Virginia, the vast plantations were breaking up by inheritance. The large slave owner was becoming passe. In 1831, moderate emancipationists nearly won control of the state convention. With mixed farming and nascent industry, Virginia looked both North and South. It was not remarkable, then, that Robert E. Lee chose the military rather than the plantation for a career. He was an emancipationist who believed that slavery would die of itself under the slow influence of Christian ethics. "Slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil," he would say. Tax records show he had four slaves in 1847 but not for any other year. He took leave of the Army in 1857 to settle the estate of his father-in-law, which included freeing 192 slaves. As a young officer, he had felt the fear of the nearby slave revolt of Nat Turner in 1831. Years later, it was Lee who led the troops who smashed down the doors harboring flame-eyed John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry. Knowing the passions, Lee could only hope that time would be al- StatcM(i.tosini: -htlv ti. IU7K lowed its cures and that abolitionists would recognize the consequences of toppling an ancient institution and leaving others to find their way in the wreckage. For himself, he had served his country as an engineering officer raising forts on the shallows of its coast, turning the Mississippi from its course in St. Louis, reconnoitering brilliantly in Mexico for Scott, and now, in 1861. stationed w i t h the horse troops in distant West Texas. It was there he received orders to return to Washington. The gathering storm of secession buffetted the Virginian far out on the plains. "As an American citizen," he wrote his son, "1 prize the Union very highly, and know of no personal sacrifice I would not make to preserve it. save honor." Honor. "Secession is nothing but revolution." he wrote again. "If the Union is dissolved and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State, and share the miseries of my people, and save in defense, will draw my sword on none." His people. To his sister: "1 have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home." His home. Half guessing why Scott wanted him back in Washington, Lee sadly headed homeward. In San Antonio, he was told secessionists were arresting Unionists as prisoners of war. Tears filled his eyes! "Has it come so soon as this?" he lamented. To Col. Charles Anderson, whose brother commanded the besieged federal force at Fort Sumter. Lee said: "If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I." But if she seceded, he would go with her. "I know you t h i n k and feel very d i f f e r e n t l y , but I can't help it. These are my principles, and I must follow them." His principles. His mind at peace if not his heart. Lee eventually answered the invitation to call at Blair House. There, old Francis Blair said Lincoln had authorized him to offer Lee command of the Union Army preparing to invade Virginia and the South. Did he recall his father's words . . . "Virginia is my country; her will I obey . . ."? He told Blair, "as candidly and as courteously as I could, that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in any invasion of the Southern States." Later, Scott, whose favorite Lee was, said if he could not serve, he should resign. Lee would rather than violate his duty. The same day, April 18, Virginia seceded. Shortly thereafter, Lee was invited to Richmond and took the long road he probably knew even then led without turning to Appomattox. Several years after the last guns were stacked. Lee wrote his cavalryman. Wade Hampton: "I did only what duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonor. And if it all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner." Duty. Honor. CHARLESTON. IV. VA ;j m

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