A friend’s query on where to find a quote led me to this fine article. The older historians knew and believed things about America’s War Between the States that many modern historians do not. If you wish to understand the real Robert E. Lee, this article provides fine insights and wonderful quotes. I did not keep the original pagination of the article, but you can find this article archived in the entire issue on the Web in pdf form.  Pardon the length of this post, but I felt the subject matter to be important, and a valuable resource for my historian friends and readers.



“Gamaliel Bradford, Jr. (“A Hero’s Conscience”) is a Massachusetts novelist and man of letters who is writing for the Atlantic a series of studies of various sides of the character of Robert E. Lee, of which the present article is the first. It is interesting to remember that the author of these sympathetic studies comes from a well-known family of Massachusetts abolitionists.”

This article was actually part of a series. The magazine adds this in its introduction:

By GAMALIEL BRADFORD, Jr. A series of sympathetic b u t fair-minded studies of various facts of the character of a great American by a writer educated in the traditions of Massachusetts abolitionists. In the preparation of these papers Mr. Bradford has exhausted every source of firsthand knowledge and has rigorously discarded remoter information. The Lee he draws is the Lee of fact, not the Lee of legend, b u t the heroic figure loses nothing of impressiveness by being human. The first chapters of this series will be 1. A Hero’s Conscience. 2. Lee and Davis. Other chapters will delineate other sides of Lee’s character.



THE growth of a Lee legend is greatly to be deplored, most of all by Lee’s warmest admirers. ‘One may search in vain for any defect in him,’ says one of the latest historians of the war. ‘ In deed, the perfection of Lee becomes somewhat oppressive. One would welcome the discovery of a shortcoming in him, as redeeming him to humanity.’ This is unfair, but not unnatural, when one considers the attitude of Lee’s Southern admirers. ‘ He was never behind time at his studies, never failed in a single recitation, was perfectly observant of the rules and regulations of the institution,’ says an old teacher. ‘Throughout his whole student life he performed no act which his pious mother could not have fully approved,’ says another. I do not believe this is true. I hope it is not true. If it is true, it ought to be concealed, not boasted of.

This is the sort of thing that made Washington odious to the young and remote from the mature for generations. ‘ In all essential characteristics Lee resembled Washington,’ says Mr. Rhodes, with much justice. But we know that, in spite of ill-judged idolatry, Washington was not a prig. Neither was Lee, but a man, of warm flesh and blood, like the rest of us. No one could have had his large and tender sympathy for human weakness who had not known human weakness himself. Above all, those who knew him, from the common soldier to the president of the Confederacy, bear universal testimony that Lee had charm. Now, no prig ever yet had charm. Therefore I refuse to believe that he said — at any rate, in those words — to Magruder in Mexico, ‘ I am but doing my duty, and with me, in small matters as well as in large ones, duty must come before pleasure.’

After this brief reservation and protest, it must be recognized and insisted that few men have guided their actions more strictly and loftily by conscience than Lee. That he should ever have boasted about his sense of duty is unbelievable. Tha t he turned to it and consulted it in every crisis, and especially in the profoundest crisis, of his life, is certain; and whatever we may think of his judgment, it is impossible to question the absolute rectitude of his purposes.

During the years of violent controversy which intervened between the Mexican War and the secession of the South, Lee attended quietly to his military duties. Occasionally in the published letters of this period we get a glimpse of the interest he must have taken in what was going on at Washington. But it was then and always his constant conviction that a soldier should not meddle with politics. Even when he had charge of the capture of John Brown, there was no passion in the matter. The work was done with military precision and quiet coolness, and the captive was handed over to the proper civil authorities. ‘ I am glad we did not have to kill him,’ Lee remarked afterwards to Mrs. Pickett’s father, ‘for I believe he is an honest, conscientious old man.’

As the struggle of parties and principles grew fiercer, however, Lee foresaw that sooner or later he should be forced to choose. Neither party satisfied him. Each seemed to be unreasonable, selfish, inconsiderate of the rights and feelings of the other; and he believed that a larger justice ought to be able to harmonize the opposing claims without actual conflict. In December, 1860, he writes, ‘Feeling the aggression of the North, resenting their denial of the equal rights of our citizens to the common territory of the Commonwealth, etc., I am not pleased with the course of the ” Cotton States,” as they term themselves. In addition to their selfish, dictatorial bearing, the threats they throw out against the “Border States,” as they call them, if they will not join them, argues little for the benefit or peace of Virginia, should she determine to coalesce with them. While I wish to do what is right, I am unwilling to do what is wrong at the bidding of the South or of the North.’ And again, in January, 1861, ‘As far as I can judge from the papers, we are between a state of anarchy and Civil War. May God avert from us both! . . . I see that four States have declared themselves out of the Union. Four more apparently will follow their example. Then if the border States are dragged into the gulf of revolution, one half of the country will be arrayed against the other, and I must try and be patient and wait the end; for I can do nothing to hasten or retard it.’ The end came quickly. Lincoln was elected. Virginia was on the point of seceding. War seemed inevitable. If Lee remained in the United States Army, he would be forced to fight against all he loved best in the world. He was fifty-four years old. For over thirty years he had served under the Stars and Stripes. Honor, advancement, profit were assured, if he clung to the old allegiance. If he abandoned it, what would come to him no one could tell. I t is hard to imagine a man placed in a situation involving a profounder moral struggle or greater difficulty of decision. And, though Lee doubtless did not so think of it, the decision was as important to the country as to himself. Without assuming, with some Northern writers, that he might have prevented Virginia’s secession and possibly war, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the course of the war might have been greatly different, if his military ability had been saved to the armies of the North.

In April, 1861, Lee was on leave at Arlington. On the eighteenth of that month he had an interview with Francis P. Blair, who, on the part of Lincoln and Cameron, unofficially but authoritatively offered him the command of the United States Army. We have Lee’s own account of this interview, written after the war, and agreeing with Blair’s. ‘ I never intimated to any one that I desired the command of the United States Army, nor did I ever have a conversation with but one gentleman, the Hon. Francis P . Blair, on the subject, which was a t his invitation and, as I understood, a t the instance of President Lincoln. After listening to his remarks, I declined the offer he made me to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field, stating as candidly and courteously as I could that, though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.’

Immediately on leaving Blair, Lee went to General Scott. Unfortunately we have no detailed account of this most important conversation from either of the principals. ‘ I went directly from the interview with Mr. Blair to the office of General Scott, told him of the proposition that had been made to me, and my decision,’ writes Lee. Long tells us, from a very indirect source, that General Scott ‘used every argument to persuade him to remain in the Union.’ ‘ But to all his pleading Colonel Lee returned but one answer, that his sense of duty was stronger with him than any prospect of advancement, and replied to the appeal not to resign in the following words, ” I am compelled to : I cannot consult my own feeling in the matter.” ‘ The narrative of the only person who seems to have been an eye and ear witness of the interview, General E. D. Townsend, exhibits Lee in a much less favorable aspect. I t is so circumstantial that it must be quoted in full:— ‘General Scott knew that he [Lee] was at Arlington Heights, at the house of his father-in-law, Mr. Custis, and one day asked me if I had seen or heard of him lately. I replied in the negative, except that he was on leave and a t Arlington Heights. Said the general, ” It is time he should show his hand and if he remains loyal should take an important command.” I then suggested that I should write to Lee and ask him to call at the general’s headquarters. ” I wish you would,” replied the general. The note was written and the next day, April 19th, 1861, Colonel Lee came to the office. The general’s was the front room of the second story. His round table stood in the centre of the room and I had a desk in one corner. The aides were in an adjoining room, with a door opening into the general’s. When Lee came in, I was alone in the room with the general and the door to the aides’ room was closed. I quietly arose, keeping my eye on the general, for it seemed probable he might wish to be alone with Lee. He, however, secretly motioned me to keep my seat, and I sat down without Lee having a chance to notice that I had risen. The general having invited Lee to be seated, the following conversation, as nearly as I can remember, took place. General Scott: ” You are at present on leave of absence, Colonel Lee ? ” — Col. Lee: “Yes, General, I am staying with my family at Arlington.” — Gen. Scott: “These are times when every officer in the United States service should fully determine what course he will pursue and frankly declare it. No one should continue in government employ without being actively employed.” (No response from Lee.) —Gen. Scott (after a pause) : ” Some of the Southern officers are resigning, possibly with the intention of taking part with their States. They make a fatal mistake. The contest may be long and severe, but eventually the issue must be in favor of the Union.” (Another pause and no reply from Lee.) — Gen. Scott (seeing evidently that Lee showed no disposition to declare himself loyal) : ” I suppose you will go with the rest. If you purpose to resign, it is proper you should do so at once; your present attitude is an equivocal one.” — Col. Lee: ” The property belonging to my children, all they possess, lies in Virginia. They will be ruined, if they do not go with their State. I cannot raise my hand against my children.”‘

I have cited the whole of this account, because it is a curious instance of what appears to be reliable historical evidence, yet must, I am convinced, be substantially incorrect. In the first place, Townsend says April 19. Lee says explicitly, writing a t the time, April 18. Next, Lee says he told General Scott of the proposition that had been made him and of his decision.

Nothing of the sort appears in Townsend’s story. Further, Lee, writing to Mrs. Lee a few weeks later, bids his son Custis ‘consult his own judgment, reason, and conscience as to the course he must take,’ which does not seem to fit well with the argument that his children would ‘ be ruined, if they do not go with their State.’ Finally, a very slight knowledge of Lee’s character makes it impossible to suppose that, after weeks of careful, prayerful deliberation and moral conflict in view of the highest patriotic duties, the man who again and again refused the offers of a grateful nation to provide for his family and assure them from want, the man who wrote to his son in the midst of the struggle that ‘all must be sacrificed for the country,’ could have gone to a personal friend whom he respected as he did Scott, with nothing on his lips but the poor, the paltry, the pitiful argument for deserting his flag and his allegiance t h a t his children’s property lay in Virginia. I t is true t h a t Scott was a Virginian, and Lee had to be careful not to wound his superior in justifying himself. But no man ever lived who was capable of handling such a situation with more tact. If only we had Scott’s and Lee’s own versions of what passed between them on that memorable day!

As it is, we merely know that two days later Lee sent his resignation to Scott, with an affectionate and manly letter, expressing his regret at separating himself from the service ‘ to which I have devoted the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed ‘ ; and adding, ‘save in the defense of my native State I never desire again to draw my sword.’ Immediately after this he was offered and accepted the position of commander-in-chief of the forces of Virginia.

In considering Lee’s conduct at this crisis it is a mistake to tangle one’s self up in the web of metaphysical casuistry which was woven about the whole constitutional question by the fine wits of a generation of legal quibblers. Cold common sense stands amazed that men should have been ready to cut each others’ throats for the ingenious subtleties of Webster and Everett any more than for those of Calhoun and Davis. It seems as if mankind would not learn by all the experience of ages that passion is never a t a loss for argument, or appreciate the force of Matthew Arnold’s despairing comment, ‘ by such reasoning anything may be made out of anything.’ The first technical charge that Lee has to answer, the one most commonly brought against him, is that, having accepted his education and support a t the hands of the United States Government, and sworn allegiance to it, he broke his military oath and betrayed his trust. This charge Lee has discussed himself, and I think disposed of it finally. ‘General Lee told Bishop Wilmer of Louisiana that if it had not been for the instruction he got from Rawle’s text-book a t West Point, he would not have joined the South and left the old army a t the breaking-out of the late war between the States.’

Rawle’s View of the Constitution of the United States of America was put into the hands of the young officer, by the very government he is accused of betraying, as the law and model for his conduct, both military and political. What does Rawle say? ‘ It depends on the state itself to retain or abolish the principle of representation, because it depends on itself whether it will continue a member of the Union. To deny this right would be inconsistent with the principle on which all our political systems are founded, which is, t h a t the people have, in all cases, a right to determine how they will be governed. This right must be considered as an ingredient in the composition of the general government, which, though not expressed, was mutually understood, and the doctrine heretofore presented to the reader in regard to the indefeasible nature of personal allegiance, is so far qualified in respect to allegiance to the United States. It was observed that it was competent for a state to make a compact with its citizens, that the reciprocal obligation of protection and allegiance might cease on certain events; and it was further observed that allegiance would necessarily cease on the dissolution of the society to which it was due.’ Surely a government which made this the basis of education for its officers could hardly blame them for leaving it a t the call of duty from their states. When the action of Lee and his fellows is surveyed on simpler, broader grounds, one or two general considerations present themselves. In a popular government, whenever any large distinct section of the people thinks t h a t it is permanently oppressed by the remainder, it will revolt. No theory, no legal argument, no paper constitution, will ever prevent this. And in a government made up of long-established, originally independent units, as imperfectly welded together as were the United States in 1860, such a revolt is peculiarly likely to occur. It is true that the North then felt, and probably for the most part feels now, that the South was not oppressed. The South felt that it was oppressed, and did exactly what the North would have done under the same circumstances. I know of no more constant lover of the Union than Washington. Yet Washington wrote, ‘There is nothing which holds one country or one state to another but interest.’

This general justification or explanation of the Southern revolt does not, however, explain everything in’the case of Lee. For up to the very hour of Virginia’s decision he clung to the Union, and was opposed to secession both in theory and in practice. In January, 1861, he wrote, ‘ I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. I t would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. . . . Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederation a t will. It was intended for ” perpetual union,” so expressed in the preamble,’ — Lee of course here confounds the Constitution of the United States with the ‘Articles of Confederation,’ — ‘ and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established and not a government by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the other patriots of the Revolution.’

Surely neither Webster nor Everett ever spoke for Federal Union with an ardor more passionate than this. And after all was over Lee testified before the Committee on Reconstruction: ‘ I may have said and I may have believed t h a t the position of the two sections which they held to each other was brought about by the politicians of the country; that the great masses of the people, if they understood the real question, would have avoided it. . . . I did believe at the time that it was an unnecessary condition of affairs and might have been avoided, if forbearance and wisdom had been practiced on both sides.’

It will at once be asked, why, then, did Lee leave the Union? Because Virginia left it, and he felt that Virginia was his country. And I cannot see how any citizen of the old colonial states, with all the memories and traditions of his forefathers in his heart and all the local attachments and fellowships t h a t constitute home, can fail even now to sympathize with such an attitude. ‘ No consideration on earth could induce me to act a part, however gratifying to me, which could be construed into faithlessness to this Commonwealth,’ wrote Lee’s father to Madison; and a t another time he expressed himself still more strongly: ‘Virginia is my count r y ; her I will obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me.’ Longstreet, in describing his own decision, tells us that ‘ a number of officers of the post called to persuade me to remain in the Union service. Captain Gibbs, of the Mounted Rifles, was the principal talker, and after a long and pleasant discussion, I asked him what course he would pursue if his State should pass ordinances of secession and call him to its defense. He confessed that he would obey the call.’ Honorable Charles Francis Adams, who has surely done more than any one else to help Lee on to the national glory which is his due, said in his Lee Centennial address, ‘ I hope I should have been filial and unselfish enough myself to have done as Lee did.’ Finally, if one may quote one’s own feeling as perhaps representative of many, I do not hesitate to say that in the certainly most improbable, but perhaps not wholly impossible, contingency of a future sectional separation in the country, however much I might disapprove of such separation and its causes, I should myself be first, last, and always a son and subject of New England and of Massachusetts.

There is a deeper principle involved in this attitude than the mere blind  instinct of local patriotism. When the Union was first established, its founders had an intense and wholesome dread of centralized power, but the state governments were at that time so strong and the federal so weak that it was necessary to emphasize the latter in every possible way in order to sustain it at all. In the nature of the case, however, from the very beginning the federal government absorbed more and more power to itself, and the states tended gradually to lose even the authority which had originally been left them. In one sense the Civil War was a protest on the part of the South against this evolution, and an attempt to restore the constitutional balance as the men of 1787 had planned it. T h a t protest had to be met, had to be crushed, or worse, incalculable evils would have resulted. But the failure of it much increased the rapidity of the evolution already in progress. Today the citizens of the newer states, and many in the older, doubtless look upon the state governments as an antiquated survival, especially as this very attitude deteriorates those governments and everywhere breeds incompetence and corruption. Such people would sympathize entirely with the remark of a writer in the Outlook: ‘Lee’s engrossing sentiment for his native State, mildly commendable though it might have been, was a pinchbeck thing.”

This development of national unity, of national feeling, is probably inevitable, is in many ways excellent and admirable; but it has its very grave dangers, and is in itself certainly much less promising for the future of popular government than the careful balance of local and central authority for which the Constitution originally provided. Such, at any rate, was the opinion of Lee, reiterated in manifold forms, all through the war. He, at least, felt, with the most earnest con- viction, that he was fighting for the ideas of Washington and Jefferson, and that in his place they would have done as he did. ‘ I had no other guide, nor had I any other object than the defense of those principles of American liberty upon which the constitutions of the several States were originally founded; and unless they are strictly observed, I fear there will be an end to Republican government in this country.’ Again he says in general orders, ‘ T hey [the Confederate soldiers] cannot barter manhood for peace, nor the right of selfgovernment for life or property. . . . Let us then oppose constancy to adversity, fortitude to suffering, and courage to danger, with the firm assurance that He who gave freedom to our fathers will bless the efforts of their children to preserve it.’ And at the close of the war he expressed the same feeling quite as explicitly and solemnly: ‘ W e had, I was satisfied, sacred principles to maintain and rights to defend, for which we were in duty bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor.’

As we read these passionate confessions of faith, we almost come to look upon Lee as one of the great martyrs of liberty, one of the heroic champions of free democracy and popular government. And then we reflect a moment and ask ourselves, ‘ But was not this man fighting for Negro slavery? ‘ I t cannot be disputed that he was. Southern writers may quibble as they please about slavery not being the cause of the war. Nobody denies that there were other causes, many of them, lying deep in difference of climate, difference of breeding, difference of local temperament. But no one can seriously maintain that any of those other causes, or all of them together, could have led to any sectional quarrel that might not have been easily settled, if it had not been for the dark phantom, the terrible midnight incubus of slavery.

As we look back now, we all see that, in the words attributed to Lincoln, ‘ the people of the North were as responsible for slavery as the people of the South,’ and that honest, noble, pure spirits could advocate it as well as oppose it. We are all ready to sympathize with the words which Lincoln actually wrote: ” You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. For this, neither has any just occasion to be angry with the other.’ Nay, more, we are beginning to be skeptical ourselves. The abolitionists of the sixties went at their problem gayly, confident that if the Negro were once free, all would be well. Forty years have taught us better, until some are almost ready to cry out that the South was right and the North wrong. I t is not so. The future must take care of itself. The nineteenth century made many mistakes. But it showed once for all that the modern world can never again have anything to do with slavery. ‘ I advise Senators to let the humane current of an advancing and Christian civilization spread over this continent,’ said Henry Wilson. Senators and other persons who fought for slavery had their backs to the light and their faces turned toward outer darkness.

It will immediately be urged that Lee was no advocate of slavery. This cannot be denied. I t is true that his attitude toward the Negro was distinctly the Southern attitude, and also, it must be added, that of most Northerners who live long in the South. ‘ I have always observed,’ he writes, ‘ that wherever you find the Negro, you see everything going down around him, and wherever you find the white man, you see everything around him improving.’ Again, to his son, after the war, ‘You will never prosper with the blacks, and it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours. I wish them no evil in the world, on the contrary will do them every good in my power, and know t h a t they are misled by those to whom they have given their confidence; but our material, social, and political interests are with the whites.’ Furthermore, he had no sympathy with the Northern abolitionists, and believed that they were working in utter ignorance of actual conditions as well as with a disposition to meddle where they had no legal or moral right to interfere. He even went so far as to write, toward the very close of the struggle, t h a t he considered ‘ t h e relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country.’ This passage does not appear in the Southern biographies of Lee, and it can be justly interpreted only as a partial utterance in view of a most complicated and difficult problem. For that Lee himself disliked slavery there can be no possible doubt. The few slaves that ever belonged to him personally he set free long before the war, and he took time in the very thick of his military duties to arrange at the appointed date for the manumission of those who had been left to his wife by her father. Before the war, also, he expressed himself on the general subject in the most explicit way. ‘ In this enlightened age there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery, as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.’

The very letter from which I quoted above as to the benefits of the relation between master and slave was written to urge gradual abolition as a reward for faithful military service, and some remarks attributed to Lee after the war form the best possible comment on his pro-slavery utterance, especially in view of all that has come and gone in the last forty years. ‘ T h e best men of the South have long desired to do away with the institution and were quite willing to see it abolished. But with them in relation to this subject the question has ever been : what will you do with the freed people? T h a t is the serious question today. Unless some humane course, based upon wisdom and Christian principles, is adopted, you do them a great injustice in setting them free.’ Yet, after all, in fighting for the Confederacy, Lee was fighting for slavery, and he must have known perfectly well that if the South triumphed and got free, slavery would grow and flourish for another century at least. I t is precisely this network of moral conditions that makes his heroic struggle so pathetic, so appealing, so irresistibly human. For the great tragedies of human life and history come from the intermingling of good and evil. And Lee is one of the most striking, one of the noblest tragic figures the world ever produced. Matthew Arnold says that the Puritans in fighting for English liberty put the human spirit in prison for two hundred years. This man, fighting, as he believed, for freedom, for independence, for democracy, was fighting also to rivet the shackles more firmly on millions of his fellow men. A most striking passage in Burke’s Conciliation brings out this contrast with a prophetic force which no after-comment can equal : —

‘There is, however, a circumstance attending these colonies, which, in my opinion, fully counterbalances this difference, and makes the spirit of liberty still more high and haughty than in those to the northward. It is, that in Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. . . . Not seeing there, that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing, and as broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude, liberty looks, amongst them, like something that is more noble and liberal. I do not mean, Sir, to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man. The fact is so; and these people of the Southern colonies are much more strongly, and with a higher and more stubborn spirit, attached to liberty than those to the northward.’

In Lee, no pride, but virtue all; not liberty for himself alone, but for others, for every one. And this it is that makes the tragedy of his career so large, so fatal, so commanding in its grandeur. One element which, since Hamlet, we consider peculiarly tragic, is, however, wanting in Lee. There is no trace of irresolution in him, no faltering, no looking back. We have indirectly from Mrs. Lee her account of the way in which the first decision was made. ‘ The night his letter of resignation was to be written, he asked to be left alone for a time, and while he paced the chamber above, and was heard frequently to fall upon his knees and engage in prayer for divine guidance, she waited and watched and prayed below. At last he came down, calm, collected, almost cheerful, and said, ” Well, Mary, the question is settled. Here is my letter of resignation and a letter I have written to General Scott.”‘ The question was settled — finally; and in all his correspondence or recorded conversation there is nothing to indicate regret or even further doubt. ‘Trusting in God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow citizens,’ he accepted the command of the armies of Virginia; and as the war progressed, his zeal for the cause and loyalty to his high ideals seemed to be ever on the increase. Not that he showed bitterness towards the enemy. Or at least it is only at moments that the unavoidable horror of war wrings from him a word of reproach or condemnation, as when he says of the obstruction of Charleston harbor, ‘This achievement, so unworthy of any nation, is the abortive expression of the malice and revenge of a people which it wishes to perpetuate by rendering more hateful a day memorable in their calendar’; or speaks of the ‘ savage and brutal policy which he [Milroy] has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction.’ His general tone in referring to ‘those people,’ as he almost always called the Northern soldiers, is wholly in the spirit of his own admirable saying, ‘ The better rule is to judge our adversaries from their standpoint, not from ours.’ But over and over again, to his family, to his friends, to his army, he expresses his pride in the cause he has adopted, his absolute belief in its nobility and justice, his unyielding determination to fight for it so long as any fighting is possible. ‘

Let each man resolve that the right of self-government, liberty, and peace shall find in him a defender,’ he says to his soldiers in the early days; and commends to them ‘ the sacred cause, dearer than life itself, of defending the honor and integrity of the State.’ At the climax of the struggle, with the bright hope of success before him, he consoles them for their dangers. ‘ The country consents to the loss of such men as these and the gallant soldiers who fell with them, only to secure the inestimable blessings they died to obtain.’ And at the last bitter parting he assures them t h a t ‘You will take with you the satisfaction t h a t proceeds from the consciousness of d u t y faithfully performed.’

So in reviewing his own private conduct, when all is over, he cannot blame his choice or regret his decision. ‘All t hat the South has ever desired was t h a t the Union, as established by our forefathers, should be preserved, and t h a t the government as originally organized, should be administered in purity and truth.’ Or again, more solemnly, ‘ I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonor. And if it were all to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner.’ Finally, it is to be noted that Lee’s conduct from beginning to end was absolutely free from all thought of personal credit or advantage. He gave up the highest position in his profession for what was, to say the least, a dim uncertainty. He was fifty-four years old, and such dreams of glory as he may once have cherished had doubtless long faded in the hope of peace. One consideration and one only, the desire to do right, prompted him in all he undertook and in all he accomplished. And when the fearful failure came, when everything was sinking to wreck and ruin about him, though his heart was torn in anguish for the sufferings of others, for his own lot there was nothing but superb tranquillity, a calm, unyielding, heroic self-control which rested upon the consciousness that he had done what man could do, and all the rest was God’s. He might have used the splendid words of Demosthenes: ‘ I say that if the event had been manifest to the whole world beforehand, not even then ought Athens to have forsaken this course, if Athens had any regard for her glory, or for her past, or for the ages to come.’ But he had words of his own, as apt, perhaps as splendid, as those of Demosthenes: the well-known and often quoted, ‘ Duty is the sublimest word in the language’; the less well-known but not less noble, ‘There is a true glory and a true honor, the glory of duty done, the honor of the integrity of principle’; best of all, the grandly tragic phrase, addressed to his son, which forms the most perfect comment on his own career: ‘ I know that wherever you may be placed, you will do your duty. That is all the pleasure, all the comfort, all the glory we can enjoy in this world.’

2 thoughts on “A HERO’S CONSCIENCE: A STUDY OF ROBERT E. LEE by Gamaliel Bradford, Jr.

  1. Since Bradford was a Massachusetts Yankee, it’s no surprise that he mistakenly believed that Lee and the South were fighting for slavery. Take that paragraph out and the piece is pretty good.
    Thanks for finding and putting this piece here, sir. Happy New Year!

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