They introduce themselves politely in restaurants or diners, in a movie lobby or at some civic event, even in front of the Little Rock gate in Atlanta, which has become a kind of Arkansas crossroads. (“You don’t know me, but . . .”) Then they thank me for remembering Robert E. Lee every January 19th with a column on his birthday.
They don’t tarry, and I may never see them again. Then they fade away, much like the Army of Northern Virginia (R.E. Lee, General). They have a look about them, or rather a manner. They come in different shapes and sizes, but they all have the same, diffident way about them — as if they were used to dealing with people as persons, rather than en masse as customers or readers or voters or some other impersonal category. They know how to visit with others. It’s a Southern thing, no matter where it happens.
Let’s just say they have a shared understanding. They may be older, genteel white ladies or young military cadets. Sometimes they’re aging black men, usually with roots in the Deep South, who mention that they had a grandfather or great-uncle named Robert E. Lee Johnson or Robert E. Lee Wilson, much like their white counterparts. Whatever the differences in their appearance, they share a distinctive quality that is never imposing but very much there.
Sometimes they’ll let you know they don’t make a habit of this sort of thing, that they’re not interested in reliving the past or anything like that. They’re the furthest thing from the bane of such discussions in these latitudes, the professional Southerner. (“I’m no Civil War buff or big Confederate or anything — I do well to tell Gettysburg from Vicksburg — but I just wanted to say . . .”)
They’re never intrusive. Indeed, they are concise almost to the point of being curt for Southerners, a voluble breed. It’s clear they wish to make no display. It’s as if they just wanted to . . . enroll. To go on record, that’s all, and leave it at that. They know The War is over and, like Lee, they would let it be over.
The quality they have in common may be deference — not only to others, and certainly not to the general himself, for deference would not in any way approach their feeling on that subject, but a deference to the human experience, with all its defeats and losses. Maybe that is why so many of them are middle-aged or older, as if they had encountered some defeats and losses of their own — losses and defeats that can never be erased, that will always be a part of them, but that they carry almost with grace. The pain will always be there, but now it is covered by forbearance. They have learned that there are certain hurts that, in order to be overcome, must be gone through. Continually. Till it is part of their ongoing character.
The name for the kind of deference they exude, unmistakable for anything else, a deference to fact and to sacrifice, is maturity. They have discovered that duty is not only burden and obligation but deliverance. They would never claim to understand Lee, and they certainly would not presume to praise him overtly. They just want to indicate how they feel about the General, to let us know the bond is shared, and go on. For where Lee is concerned, there is a silence, a diffidence, that says more than words can. Or as Aristotle said of Plato, there are some men “whom it is blasphemy even to praise.”
Ever hear a couple of Southerners just passing the time, perhaps in some petty political quarrel, for we can be a quarrelsome lot, when the name Lee is injected into the argument? The air is stilled. Suddenly both feel ashamed of themselves. For there are some names that shame rhetoric, and when we use them for effect, the cheapness of it, the tinniness of it, can be heard at once, like tinkling brass. And we fall silent, rightly rebuked by our better selves.
To invoke such a presence, to feel it like old music always new, invariably gives pause. The young officer in Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body” pauses before he enters Lee’s tent to deliver his dispatch. Looking at the shadow of the figure within bent over his papers, knowing that The War is inevitably winding down, the messenger can only wonder:
What keeps us going on? I wish I knew. Perhaps you see a man like that go on. And then you have to follow.
The Lost Cause still has its shrines and rituals, dogmas and debates. For four exhilarating, excruciating, terrible years, it had a flag of its own — several, in fact — and an army and even something of a government. But in the end all those proved only transient reflections of what endures: the South, the ever-fecund South.
What held that disparate, desperate concept called the South together, and holds it together still from generation to generation, from heartland to diaspora? After all our defeats and limitations, why do we yet endure, and, in Faulkner’s words, even prevail? What keeps us going on? I wish I knew. Perhaps you see a man like that go on. And then you have to follow. If there is a single name, a single syllable for that shared bond and depth and grief and aspiration, it is: Lee.
No brief outline of the general’s career can explain the effect of that name still: After a shining start at West Point, our young officer spends 12 years of tedium on the Army treadmill, followed by brief renown in the Mexican War, then a two-year leave to attend to matters at home. Returning to the service to put down a fateful little insurrection at Harper’s Ferry that cast a great shadow, he declines a field command in the U.S. Army as a far greater insurrection looms, one he will lead. He accepts command of the military of his native country — Virginia. Then there comes a series of brilliant campaigns that defy all the odds, at the end of which he surrenders. Whereupon he applies for a pardon, becomes a teacher, and makes peace.
What is missing from such an abrupt summary of the general, his life and career, is everything — everything inward that made the man Robert E. Lee. His wholeness. His integrity. His unbroken peace within. There was about him nothing abrupt but everything respectfully direct — in his manners, in his leadership, in his life and, when he finally struck the tent, in his death.
Yes, he would fight what has been called the most nearly perfect battle executed by an American commander at Chancellorsville, defeating an army two and a half times the size of his own and better equipped in every respect.
Even in retreat, he remained victorious. One single, terrible tally may say it better than all the ornate speeches ever delivered on all the dim Confederate Memorial Days that have passed since: In one single, terrible month, from May 12th to June 12th of 1864, from after The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, Grant’s casualties on the other side would total 60,000 — the same size as Lee’s whole, remaining Army of Northern Virginia, poor devils.
In the end, it is not the Lee of Chancellorsville or of Appomattox who speaks to us, who quiets and assures us. It is not even the Lee of Fredericksburg and his passionate dispassion atop Marye’s Heights as he watches the trapped federals below, poor devils, being destroyed. He was no stranger to pity. (“It is well that war is so terrible,” he murmured, looking down at the carnage he had engineered, “or we should grow too fond of it.”)
It is not even the Lee of Gettysburg who speaks to us, the Lee who would meet Pickett after it was over — all over — and say only: “All this has been my fault.” And then submit his resignation as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Jefferson Davis may not have had much sense, but he had more sense than to accept that resignation.
In the end, it is the Lee who saw through all victory as clearly as he did all defeat who elevates and releases us, like one of the old Greek plays. It is the Lee who, for all his legend, could not command events but who was always in command of his response to them. Just to think on him now is catharsis. That is why his undying presence, just the mention of his name, was enough to lift men’s gaze and send them forth again and again. It still does.