Much is said this evening about Lee, the South’s beau ideal. His military prowess might be summed up by one, terrible tally: In one single, bloody month of 1864, from May 12 to June 12, from the aftermath of The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, Union casualties under U.S. Grant, no mean general himself, would total 60,000. That number was equal to Lee’s entire remaining force at that point.
But in the end, it is neither the victorious nor defeated Lee that explains his aura, but the passionate dispassion of the man, his Greek proportion. What sweeps us away is the Lee who could look down from Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, watch the federals below being obliterated by his guns, take in the sweep of the carnage he himself had engineered, and say: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”
To be completely honest, I’ve never really understood this statement by Lee. Is Lee emphasizing the horrors of battle or his own attraction to it or both? He worries that observers/participants may become “too fond of it” which suggests that the level of attraction is directly related to the level of violence. Does such a statement imply a seductive quality for Lee and others? If so, what is that quality for Lee?
Lee never wrote his memoirs. He may have been the only Civil War general, great or small, important or un-, who didn’t tell his self-absorbed, self-justifying tale for a handsome price. He had no price. He was not for sale. What he had was a code. And he embodied it. Great in victory, he was greater in defeat. Through it all, he remained the same Lee. What Epictetus the Stoic wrote, Lee lived.
Lee never wrote a memoir or history because he died too soon. So much for the comparison with the Stoics.
Much is said about Robert E. Lee this magical night. Each aspect of his character is extolled. Thank goodness he is present only in spirit; how embarrassed he would have been at such goings-on. One by one, his qualities are praised: honor, civility, compassion, dignity, courage, equanimity . . . and yet they cannot be separated, for he was all of a piece, whole.
Eat your heart out Douglas S. Freeman! One wonders if Lee would even recognize himself if present.