Robert E. Lee: 'A Wonderful Loser'; Defeated General Sought to Unify

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Robert E. Lee distinguished himself as a general during the Civil War, but how he surrendered his army and returned to civilian life immortalized him as a great American.

Now, 199 years after his birth on Jan. 19, 1807, he is still revered for how he put the war behind him and encouraged others to do the same.

"I don't know of another American between 1865 and 1870 who did a better job of bringing this country back together than Lee did," says James I. Robertson Jr., a history professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg and author of "Robert E. Lee: Virginian Soldier, American Citizen."

When Gen. Porter Alexander came to Lee before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox with the idea of conducting guerrilla warfare throughout the South, Lee rejected the suggestion in favor of unifying the country.

Mr. Robertson says Lee knew if Confederate soldiers decided to take part in guerrilla war, they would be without rations and would be forced to steal to survive.

"Lee's attitude was, we did what we could, we lost, let's look to the future and rebuild," Mr. Robertson says. "He knew that it would take the country years to recover from a guerrilla war."

Lee received numerous potentially lucrative business offers after the war, but he turned them all down to become president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va.

"Lee felt the best way to get the South back on its feet was by educating young men on how to live in a reunified country peacefully," Mr. Robertson says. "He saw his duty was to bring his country back together."

Mr. Robertson says another reason Lee did not want to become a businessman was that he viewed it as making money off of the sacrifice of others.

"This is the same reason Lee would not write his memoirs or attend veterans meetings; he didn't think it was right to use others' deaths as a means to get wealthy," he says.

Mr. Robertson says an abiding affection for and fascination with Lee continues because he is the "personification of what we call cliches."

"We Americans love a good loser, and Lee was a wonderful loser. He did the best he could for four years, then handed over his sword and got back to his life," the author says.

Richard Abell, author of "Sojourns of a Patriot," says Lee's character is what most people find fascinating about the man.

"One of the marks of depth of character is how someone responds to true adversity - with nobility or revenge. ... Lee had no sense of revenge," he says.

Mr. Abell adds that Lee's decision to side with the Confederacy was not an act of treason, but of loyalty.

The Lee family had been in Virginia for more than 160 years when the state decided to secede. Though Lee was offered command of the Northern army, he turned it down because he could not invade his home state.

"Americans today don't fully comprehend that one's first loyalty was to the state, not the country. …