Robert E. Lee

The ultimate general and the ultimate gentleman

Robert E. Lee’s piety, morality, and compassion were apparent to all who crossed his path. As one historian has written, “Robert Lee was one of the small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved. What he seemed, he was—a wholly human gentleman, the essential elements of whose positive character were two and only two, simplicity and spirituality.” A “low church” Episcopalian all his life, Lee received religious training at home. He observed that his mother, who influenced him greatly, was “singularly pious from love to Almighty God and love of virtue.” His father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, had won fame in the Revolutionary War. At West Point, Lee accomplished a still-legendary feat: he graduated with the highest cadet rank and without a single demerit. After graduation, Lee married Mary Custis, whose piety rivaled his mother’s. They had seven children (all three sons served with high rank in the Confederate Army), and Lee was confirmed with two of his daughters in Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia, in 1853. Lee served gallantly in the Mexican War and later became superintendent of West Point. After John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, he led the Marines that stormed and retook the garrison. In 1861, as civil war broke out, Lee was offered chief command of the Union forces. He refused the offer, resigned his commission, and soon became a general for the Confederacy. Though Lee once described the master-slave relationship as “the best that can exist between the black and white races,” he advocated gradual emancipation of slaves. When he received slaves from his father-in-law’s will, in fact, he released ...

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