Virginians on Olympus: A Cultural Analysis of Four Great Men

By Marshall William Fishwick | Go to book overview

IV
Robert E. Lee The Virginian as Confederate

Ask me, if you please, to paint
Storm winds upon the sea;
Tell me weigh great Capias,
Set volcanic forces free;
But bid me not, my countrymen,
To picture Robert Lee!

"Memorial Ode," by James Barron Hope

ON October 15, 1870, the earthly remains of a soldier who, after surrendering his army, had devoted his last years to reviving a small Virginia college, were interred in the vault of its chapel which he had been instrumental in building. Clad in plain dark civilian clothes, the tired and greyed warrior in the coffin scarcely seemed a figure who had inspired great loyalty in his own ranks, and even greater fear in his enemy's. His former soldiers who were there to honor him had only a ribbon in their coat lapels to distinguish them; no flags flew in the procession, and none adorned the coffin. The keynote of the funeral, as it was of the man who was being laid to rest, was simplicity.

On the surface Robert Edward Lee's career would seem to have culminated in failure. A professional soldier by training and choice, he was forced to leave the field forever when he surrendered his ragged army at Appomattox in 1865. With the surrender vanished all hope of the Confederate States of America, for which he had sacrificed everything. Robert E. Lee died disenfranchised, a prisoner on parole.

During the closing years of his life Lee had had ample reason to conclude that he was still bitterly hated as an arch traitor by many Americans. The Radical Republican press had denounced him roundly, as had a number of Republican politicians on the floor of Congress.1 Stories such as that

____________________
1
Even in Virginia, such a newspaper as the Richmond State Journal was opposed to Lee after 1865. Of the Congressmen who atacked him, none was more vitriolic than Simon Cameron, whose excesses are noted in the March 25, 1868, issue of the Lexington ( Virginia) Gazette.

-51-

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