Recent questionable—if not stunning—actions at the highest levels of the United States Department of Justice, the FBI, CIA and the Congressional Democrat leadership point to not only unimaginable corruption and political party preference/loyalty over what’s best for America, but a vacuum of real leadership.
Perhaps this is an appropriate time to look at real character and leadership, as exemplified by one of the political left’s prime American hero targets, Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Lee defended Virginia and the Confederacy during the War Between the States with conviction but not without worry and reluctance. He knew—as well as anyone—the power of the United States military and the industrial northeast. Lee was against secession, but one should note that Lee’s family had been Virginians for some 290 years and Americans for just 80. Robert E. Lee had married into the family of perhaps the greatest Virginian, George Washington, and was surrounded by many paintings, furniture, and memorabilia of Washington’s in his home at Arlington. The great Washington was young Robert E.’s hero growing up—all of this made it more difficult to take up his sword against Virginia.
Confederate commanders (formerly in the U.S. Army) had far less enthusiasm for a military solution to the regional rift than the people. The watchwords duty, honor, and principle were always mentioned with solemn tones when contemplating forsaking the Union. Lee’s own words:
I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and institutions, and would defend any state if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything for but honor for its preservation. I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children. I should like, above all things, that our difficulties might be peaceably arranged . . . Whatever may be the result of the contest, I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal, and necessary expiation perhaps for our national sins.
Many thought at the outbreak of hostilities that the conflict would last weeks or a few months, or perhaps just one major battle. Only Lee prophetically predicted some 4 bloody years of war.
Duty–a concept that has taken a big hit in today’s self-focused, politically correct culture–is the key word in understanding Robert E. Lee. This guiding watchword is exemplified throughout his life. Duty as a good son and student, duty to care for his mother, duty as a soldier, duty as a Christian husband and father, a general, and as a leader and mentor of students at West Point and later Washington College for five years after the War. Also important was his perceived duty as a strong agent for reconciliation and the healing of America after the conflict ended. His own words:
Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less. There is true glory and honor: the glory of duty done—the honor of integrity of principle.
Lee’s Christian character and humble spirit are well known. In a letter to his wife in 1862, the second year of the war, he said this:
I can only say that I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation. I tremble for my country when I hear of confidence expressed in me. I know too well my weakness, and that our only hope is in God.
It is difficult to imagine any national leader or politician speaking like this today. Commenting after the war on his sentiments toward the North, Lee said:
I believe I may say, looking into my own heart and speaking as in the presence of God, that I have never known one moment of bitterness or resentment . . . and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.
Robert E. Lee was 5’-10 ½” tall, extremely well-built and handsome and much admired by his peers, including even the other cadets at West Point. To this day he is the only cadet to ever go through West Point without a single demerit for rules/citizenship infractions or misbehavior. It was claimed by some that Lee was the most handsome man in the country—but there was never a hint of sexual impropriety—even though he was gone from his wife and family for nearly 60% of his thirty years serving in the United States military, and very much enjoyed the company of women.
Lee was personally against slavery and believed in general manumission but strongly felt slaves needed three things first: education, a skill, and property ownership. So Lee took action; he established a home school at Arlington. A “home school” was the only way he could legally do it following restrictions on black education after the bloody Nat Turner slave rebellion some years before. Lee’s wife and four daughters did most of the teaching, and by 1857, 167 Negro slaves (that he inherited through marriage) were manumitted, with property, a skill, and education. Conversely, Union Commander Ulysses S. Grant—while magnanimous to Lee at Appamattox– did not free the few slaves he inherited through marriage until 1867 (two years after the War ended).
A final example of Lee’s sterling character occurred in early summer shortly after the April surrender in the Anglican St. Paul’s Church of Richmond, where communion was offered at the end of the service. Whites would normally go first, and the blacks (who sat upstairs) would go last, while singing for each other. As the closing communion was to begin, a free black man—accompanied and egged on by two Union soldiers—walked down the aisle first for the sacraments, and a hush fell over the sanctuary. General Lee’s son Custis, when writing about this incident years later, said it seemed as if all the air had been taken out of the room. As the silent tension mounted, it was suddenly broken by the sound of footsteps—sort of a measured military cadence—as General Lee walked forward and knelt and joined the black man in communion. The diaries show that Lee put his arm around him, then raised his other arm for communion. The rest of the congregation joined them, singing together. What could have been a very bad situation was made good by Lee’s character.
The lesson for modern leaders: circumstances do not dictate your character; they reveal it, and present opportunities to grow and refine it. Where are such leaders today?