restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


A Tribute to Robert E. Lee

 David Alan Black

“I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South its 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” (Robert E. Lee).

His name was John Tomlin. John was the first young man to be buried after the Columbine massacre. The death of that ambitious lad left immeasurable hurt in the heart of his mom and dad, John and Doreen.

Doreen Tomlin, a deeply committed Christian, tells of a two-week period in which she just sat in her son’s room. She left everything exactly as it was on the morning of April 20, 1999. During that time she simply rocked and held his baseball glove in her hands.

Doreen Tomlin was experiencing grief. That’s a very common emotion when you are experiencing loss. As I read her story, I thought of Lamentations 2:19: “Pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to Him for the lives of your children.”

Today, April 9, marks the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. I don’t know about you, but whenever I think about that event, I always have a numbed sense of grief—a tremendous sense of loss.

Dedicating the cemetery at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln said of America, “We are now engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

I believe we are again engaged in a great civil war. It is a cultural war against those who would hijack our birthright to think and say what lives in our heart, against those who would distort what is right and what is true. In his book, The End of Sanity, Martin Gross writes:

“Blatantly irrational behavior is rapidly being established as the norm in almost every area of human endeavor. There seem to be new customs, new rules, new anti-intellectual theories regularly foisted on us from every direction. Underneath, the nation is roiling. Americans know something without a name is undermining the country, turning the mind mushy when it comes to separating truth from falsehood and right from wrong.”

I agree. Spineless tolerance has come to characterize American society today, and many are ready to cave in before the opposition. In the midst of all of this cultural chaos, some may ask, “Why talk about Robert E. Lee?” The answer varies with the person. For me, it is that Lee can teach us many lessons.

For example, manhood was a positive concept for Lee. It was synonymous with the concept of the gentleman. Values were not up in the air, as they are today. As journalist Paul Greenberg has said, “The very words Lee used--gentleman, duty, honor, valor—have a quaint and different sound in these times.”  

Or take Lee’s humility. If ever a man might have been proud, it was General Lee. Descended from a long line of illustrious ancestors, it would have been excusable had he exhibited a consciousness of his superiority. But the opposite was true. One day he was asked, “Why is it, general, that you do not wear the full insignia of your rank, but content yourself with the stars of a colonel?” “Oh,” replied Lee, “I do not care for display. The truth is that the rank of colonel is about as high as I ought ever to have gotten; or, perhaps, I might manage a good cavalry brigade if I had the right kind of subordinates.”

In 1861, General Winfield Scott offered Lee command of the Federal army. Yet Lee stayed with his state—his “people.” He wrote his sister, “With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, and my home.”

In December 1862, at Fredericksburg, Lee watched the Federal troops march toward almost certain death toward his own massed army. When Jackson’s men charged and nearly drove the Federals into the Rappahannock, Lee remarked, “It is a good thing war is so terrible; else we should grow too fond of it.”

The next year came Gettysburg. Whenever I stand on Seminary Ridge where Lee’s brave soldiers launched their attack across those summer fields, I try to feel what they must have felt, seeing the mass of Union battle flags waiting for them behind the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge. And when I kneel behind that wall and look the other way, I try to imagine what the Federals felt as 15,000 Confederates kept on coming as cannon fire tore holes in their long gray ranks. I have never been able to do so with dry eyes.

Lee accepted full responsibility for the defeat. To George Pickett, Lee said, “Come, General Pickett ... upon my shoulders rests the blame. The men and officers of your command have written the name of Virginia as high today as it has ever been written before.... Your men have done all that men could do; the fault is entirely my own.”

Above all, Lee was a man of great and undaunted faith in Jesus Christ. Listen to Lee’s orders requiring the observance of a fast day in August, 1863:

“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. Let us confess our many sins and beseech Him to give us a higher courage, a purer patriotism, and more determined will; that He will convert the hearts of our enemies; that He will hasten the time when war, with its sorrows and sufferings, shall cease, and that He will give us a name and place among the nations of the earth.”

Any man who could write such an order is a hero.

A revival broke out in the Confederate camps. The work of grace among the troops widened and deepened until there were 15,000 professions of faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.

And why did Lee fight? For slavery? Hardly. Lee’s position on slavery was clear. “In this enlightened age,” he wrote, “there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery, as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any Country. I think it, however, a greater evil to the white than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise [and] Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influence of Christianity than the storms and tempests of fiery Controversy.”

After the war, Lee was presented with the opportunity to become financially comfortable for the rest of his life merely by allowing an insurance company to use his name. He declined, taking instead a job as president of a tiny college with 40 students and 4 professors. The man who had commanded thousands of young men in battle now wanted to shape a few of them for the duties of peace.

On one occasion, a minister was bitterly expressing his indignation at Lee’s indictment for treason. Lee quietly changed the subject and later said privately to the minister: “Doctor, there is a good old book which I read, and you preach from, which says, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Do you think your remarks this evening were quite in the spirit of that teaching?” The minister apologized for his bitterness, and Lee added: “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.”

Upon Lee’s death the New York Herald wrote an obituary. It reads as follows.

“On a quiet autumn morning, in the land which he loved so well and served so faithfully, the spirit of Robert Edward Lee left the clay which it had so much ennobled and traveled out of this world into the great and mysterious land. Here in the North, forgetting that the time was when the sword of Robert Edward Lee was drawn against us—forgetting and forgiving all the years of bloodshed and agony—we have long since ceased to look upon him as the Confederate leader, but have claimed him as one of ourselves; have cherished and felt proud of his military genius; have recounted and recorded his triumphs as our own; have extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us—for Robert Edward Lee was an American, and the great nation which gave him birth would be today unworthy of such a son if she regarded him lightly.

“Never had mother a nobler son. In him the military genius of America was developed to a greater extent than ever before. In him all that was pure and lofty in mind and purpose found lodgment. Dignified without presumption, affable without familiarity, he united all those charms of manners which made him the idol of his friends and of his soldiers and won for him the respect and admiration of the world. Even as in the days of triumph, glory did not intoxicate, so, when the dark clouds swept over him, adversity did not depress.”

As Doreen Tomlin sat in her son’s room, she longed for his return and asked herself, Am I going crazy? Her journey through grief had not been an easy one. But I want you to hear what she said. This is what you and I need to hold on to today. She said:

“I’ve experienced God’s comfort in a deeper way than ever before. He hasn’t taken away the pain of grieving, but He has become my partner in it. I know I face a long road ahead, but I know that God will give me what I need in abundant measure.”

The point is—whatever obstacle you face, however hard the fight, with God as your partner you can face whatever comes your way. That’s what Robert E. Lee believed—and practiced.

So where are my heroes today? They’re not here. They have crossed over the river and are resting beneath the shade of the trees. And they are cheering us on.

God bless the memory of General Robert Edward Lee. For such a man I give thanks today.

April 9, 2003

David Alan Black is the editor of

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