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General Robert E. Lee became a national hero after his surrender

Posted in America, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, War on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about the American Civil War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

General Lee and his horse 'Traveller' surrenders to General Grant.

General Lee astride his horse 'Traveller' surrenders to General Grant by James E McConnell

The spring sunshine beat down on the long lines of ragged men. Suddenly a bugle blared and guns fired in salute, while into sight rode a tall, handsome, bearded man, in grey full-dress uniform. At once, a great yell, the immortal, unforgettable Rebel yelled of the Confederate Army, burst from thousands of throats.

The soldier on the horse, General Robert E. Lee, took off his hat to his men and the ear-splitting yell rang out again.

“Does it not make the General proud to see how these men love him?” asked an onlooker, who was standing by one of Lee’s staff.

“Not proud,” replied the officer. “It awes him.”

It was 1864 and the Confederacy, the group of Southern States which had broken away from the U.S.A. in 1861, had just a year more to live. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia were the key to Southern survival.

Lee was a Virginian. Born in 1807, he was the son of a hero of the War of Independence against Britain, and the Army seemed his destiny from childhood. He did well from the moment he entered it, in war and in peace, until the fatal year of 1861 found him, along with countless other Americans, in two minds as to which side to support.

As the finest officer in the Army, both sides wanted him to lead their forces! At this tragic hour, he had therefore to choose between State and Union. It was an easy choice for some, but not for him. He believed in the Union; and unlike many Southerners, he was passionately opposed to slavery, which was a part of the Southern way of life because the slaves picked the all-important cotton, and which was a cause of the war.

The other cause was the Southerners’ belief that a State had the right to decide what it did (like allow slavery) whatever the Government in Washington said. It was this that finally decided Lee. First and foremost he was a Virginian. He would side with Virginia.

The Confederates had to win fast before the sheer size of the North and its colossal industrial power swamped them. Lee’s men were born fighters and his officers were the pick of the old United States Army. His second-in-command was the granite-like “Stonewall” Jackson, so called because the sight of him and his brigade standing like a stone wall at the First Battle of Bull Run (July, 1861) had rallied the rest of the army. The two men made a matchless team.

Lee’s care for his men was legendary. Before one battle a drummer boy was weeping by a camp fire, frightened for what the next day might bring and frightened that his friends might see him crying and call him a coward.

He became aware of a man on horseback nearby, who asked him what was the matter.

“I’m scared, sir,” the boy said.

“Everyone is afraid,” replied the stranger gently.

“Even General Lee?” asked the boy.

“Even General Lee. For on his shoulders lies the responsibility for hundreds like you. And tonight he will pray for you and all those brave men and boys who fight tomorrow.”

After a few more words the horseman rode away, his face suddenly showing clearly as he rode past the camp fire. It was Robert E. Lee himself.

Lee was a master of tactics who believed in attack. He almost won the war in 1862. His army was always smaller than his enemy’s, but his movements were so swift and his genius for reading his opponents’ minds so amazing that he usually fought battles on his own terms.

By August 1862, after the second Battle of Bull Run, he needed just one more victory to finish the war. But the next fight – at Antietam – was a draw and the South was never to be so near victory again.

Then, in 1863, Lee’s “right arm”, Stonewall Jackson, was killed, accidentally shot by his own men after a brilliant victory at Chancellorsville. Lee badly missed him at the great and bloody four-day Battle of Gettysburg, which, though indecisive, ended in Lee retreating southwards. On the same grim day, far to the West, an up-and-coming Northern General, Ulysses S. Grant, was winning the Battle of Vicksburg, which won the Mississippi river for the North.

An English officer watched the Battle of Gettysburg on the Southern side and noted in his diary Lee’s fine looks, “a thorough soldier in appearance. I imagine no man has so few enemies, or is so universally esteemed.”

Lee needed all his military genius more than ever now, for now it was a question of saving the South. President Abraham Lincoln, the great and noble leader of the North, appointed Ulysses S. Grant to lead the Union armies, and the tough, ugly, ill-dressed Grant knew his job, as he had shown at Vicksburg, unlike his predecessors.

He could not defeat Lee so he wore him down, suffering enormous casualties in the process. The year 1864 was a terrible time for both sides. Lee proved as fine a master of defence as he was of attack and he held out until April 1865, then surrendered the near-starving remnants of his now legendary Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The Great Civil War was over.

The full story of the surrender was told recently in Look and Learn. It is sufficient here to note that Lee rode to meet Grant in his best uniform, that the two men talked for some time of the old days when they had been in the same army, that Grant allowed Lee’s men to keep their horses for the spring ploughing. Then Lee rode back to his men.

He could scarcely speak as they crowded round him, the man they called “Uncle Bob.” “We have fought through the war together,” he said. “I have done the best I could for you. My heart is too full to say more.” Then he rode away into history and legend.

For the last five years of his life he tried to heal the bitterness that raged through the South, made so much worse because a mad Southern fanatic had murdered Abraham Lincoln, whose aim had been “to bind up the Nation’s wounds” and treat the Southerners like brothers. All that changed after his death.

Denied all public office, Lee became president of a small university. If anything he became even more greatly loved in the South than he had been in his years of the sword. Many Northerners had come to admire him, and the British, who had read so much about him, admired him from afar. Queen Victoria sent for his photograph, and when he died in 1870, said she was “deeply moved”.

A century later, he is second only to Abraham Lincoln in the hearts of Americans, Northerners and Southerners alike. This noblest of American failures was too fine a man not to be appalled by the horrors of war, but too brilliant a general not to enjoy leading an army many consider to have been as matchless a fighting machine as any in history. In fact, he made the classic comment on war, and the awful hold it has over so many: “It is as well that war is so terrible – we should all grow to fond of it.”

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