January 19 will mark the 209th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee in 1807, one of the most respected and revered military leaders in American history. That respect and reverence extends over most of the world, wherever military leadership is studied. Lee’s birthday is an official state holiday in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Florida. It was also an official Georgia holiday until this year, when it will become an optional holiday. Other Southern states honor Lee during Confederate Memorial Day (NC, SC, KY, and LA), Lee-Jackson Day (VA), and Decorations Day (TN) during the year. Several states combine the celebration of Lee’s birthday with the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King in January.
There is no question, however, that the celebration of Lee’s birthday has suffered because of changing political agendas, although these political agendas are based on questionable political expediency, false historical narratives, and increasing ignorance of history.
Lee did not favor slavery before, during, or after the “Civil War” that took the lives of over 700,000 military personnel and civilians from 1861 to 1865. He believed the institution of slavery was a corrupting scourge to both slaves and slave owners. He freed the slaves he inherited from the estate of his wife’s father, George Washington Custis, probated in 1858, but not before making sure the legacies of the will could be accomplished, and the emancipated families had sufficient circumstances, training, and experience to earn a living on their own in late December 1862. But facts and sound reason do not count for much in today’s hysterical legislative environment. Political correctness has created a coercive and unjust civil rights environment comparable to the Reconstruction era of 1865 to 1877 and the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
The pointless horror of the shooting deaths of nine African-American men and women by a 21-year-old white “man” was tragic enough in itself, but politicians have managed to magnify the tragedy into an excuse for the cultural genocide of anything Southern. Thus we have a hate and vengeance driven political agenda amplified by political cowardice that is sweeping not only the South but the whole country. Only the stupidest politicians can believe that the result will be racial understanding and healing. Besides cultural destruction and increased tension, it will only result in more bad government.
America’s crisis does not demand more vote-buying schemes and ignorant demagoguery. It does not demand sacrificing our freedom, our culture, and true history to coercive government, anti-Christian multiculturalism, and cowardly political correctness. What we need are leaders with courage, character, common sense, and wisdom. That is why we need to remember Robert E. Lee and many others like him as examples to ourselves and our posterity.
Following Lee’s death at his home in Lexington, Virginia, on October 12, 1870, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave a eulogy of Robert E. Lee at a Memorial meeting in Richmond on November 3. This was probably the largest gathering of Confederate generals and officers since the end of the war. In the course of his speech, he gave this praise of Lee:
“This good citizen, this gallant soldier, this great general, this true patriot, had yet a higher praise than this or these; he was a true Christian.”
John Brown Gordon, Confederate Lieutenant General and later Governor of Georgia and U.S. Senator had this to say about Lee:
“Intellectually, he was cast in a giant mold. Naturally he was possessed of strong passions. He loved the excitement of war. He loved grandeur. But all these appetites and powers were brought under the control of his judgment and made subservient to his Christian faith. This made him habitually unselfish and ever willing to sacrifice on the altar of duty and in the service of his fellows…He is an epistle, written of God and designed by God to teach the people of this country that earthly success is not the criterion of merit, not the measure of true greatness.”
We would do well to remember his elevated sense of duty and honor. Writing to one of his sons, he advised:
“Duty…is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things….You cannot do more—you should never wish to do less.”
When told that his chaplains were praying for him daily, he responded:
“I can only say that I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation.”
Responding to public praise, Lee said;
“I tremble for my country when I hear of confidence expressed in me. I know too well my weakness, that our only hope is in God.”
What modern American military leader would give this charge to their troops?
In General Order Number 83, April 13, 1863, he wrote:
“Soldiers! We have sinned against Almighty God. We have forgotten His signal mercies, and have cultivated a revengeful, haughty, and boastful spirit. We have not remembered that the defenders of a just cause should be pure in His eyes; that our times are in His hands; and we have relied too much on our own arms for the achievement of our independence. God is our only refuge and strength. Let us humble ourselves before Him…”
To a friend who condemned the North at the end of the war, Lee said,
“I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and I have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”
Our generations would do well to heed the passionate exhortation of Rev. Robert L. Dabney, an eminent theologian and scholar who had been Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff. In his commencement address to the students of Hamden Sidney College in Virginia on June 15, 1882, he made these remarks.
“It behooves the New South, in dismissing the animosities of the past, to see to it that they retain all that was true in its principles or ennobling in its example. There are those pretending to belong to this company who exclaim: ‘Let us bury the dead past. Its issues are all antiquated, and of no more practical significance. Let us forget the passions of the past. We are in a new world. Its new questions alone concern us.’ I rejoin: Be sure that the former issues are dead before you really bury them! There are issues that cannot die without the death of the people, of their honor, their civilization and their greatness. Take care that you do not bury too much, while burying the dead past: that you do not bury the inspiring memories of great patriots, whose actions, whether successful or not, are the eternal glory of your race and section; the influence of their virtues; the guiding precedents of their histories. Will you bury the names and memories of a Jackson and Lee, and their noble army of martyrs? Will you bury true history whose years are those of the God of Truth?”
Lee himself might have counseled us by the words of 2 Timothy 2:3, quoted by Jefferson Davis at Lee’s funeral:
“Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”
Finally, our own honor demands that we respect and revere the memory of our fallen heroes, including those who served beneath the Southern Cross. These words from South Carolina Confederate veteran, journalist and poet Henry Timrod (1829-1867) in his Ode at Magnolia Cemetery should move our hearts to resolve:
“Stoop, angels, thither from the skies! There is no holier ground
Than where defeated valor lies, by mourning beauty crowned.”