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Publius / Jan. 19, 2020

Robert E. Lee

Remembering the birth of a great military commander and a good man.

Today we take a moment to remember the birthday of Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), one of the greatest military commanders in American history who gave his all for the cause of Liberty and states’ rights. He was also a great man of faith, saying, “I can only say that I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation.”

There were many honorable men of the Confederate States of America, whose objective was, first and foremost, the protection of states’ rights — men who were decidedly not motivated by the continuation of the abhorrent institution of slavery. Prior to the War Between the States, Lee wrote on the subject of slavery, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former.” After the war, Lee wrote, “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South.”

For a better understanding on the issues of the day that were not included in your grade-school civics class, read Mark Alexander’s essay, “Lincoln’s Legacy at 200,” in which he notes, “The causal case for states’ rights is most aptly demonstrated by the words and actions of Gen. Lee, who detested slavery and opposed secession.” Alexander continued, “In 1860, Gen. Lee declined President Abraham Lincoln’s request that he take command of the Army of the Potomac, saying that his first allegiance was to his home state of Virginia: ‘I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the army, and save in defense of my native state … I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.’ He would, soon thereafter, take command of the Army of Northern Virginia, rallying his officers with these words: ‘Let each man resolve to be victorious, and that the right of self-government, liberty, and peace shall find him a defender.’”

After the war, R.E. Lee served as president of what is now Washington and Lee University, from October 1865 until his death in October 1870.

As Louis DeBroux wrote, “Robert Edward Lee was revered in his day for his military genius, and loved for his bravery, honor and loyalty. Though leading the fight in a losing cause, there was much about him that is worth emulating today — which is why we remember him still.”

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