Six Spiritual Lessons From the Life of Robert E. Lee

(AP Photo/Julia Rendleman)

Robert Edward Lee, of all people, is now a polarizing influence in America. He died on October 12, 1870 from a heart attack and a stroke just five years after the Civil War ended. He is still honored, vilified, strenuously debated, but not studied that much by the public at large. We all know (or should know) that he led one of the Confederate armies (the Army of Northern Virginia) and late in the war became overall commander of rebel armies in the field, but do we know the man himself?

Do we know how he conducted himself before, during, and especially after the war? Is he someone we can learn truth from and should honor, even if many believe he made the wrong decision to fight for Virginia? I think so.

Here are six spiritual lessons I have gleaned from a lifetime of studying General Lee:

1. Lee was a peacemaker.

That sounds strange when talking about a Confederate general, doesn’t it? First, you must remember that Lee was a soldier in the U.S. Army for almost his entire adult life, and the top officer of his day. As a soldier in the Mexican-American War, he had seen war with all its gruesomeness, and he hated it.

He wanted the politicians (a class of people he did not think highly of) to find a way to peace, but it was not to be. In his April 20, 1861 resignation letter to General Winfield Scott, he states: “Save in the defense of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword.” Tragically, he felt compelled to draw his sword quite a number of times over the next four years to defend Virginia and the Confederacy.

Lee the peacemaker is seen clearly after the war. Robert Lee, the defeated general and private citizen, as the most famous of all Southerners, personally led the way to bring peace to the United States. When he surrendered his army on April 9, 1865, he could easily have told his troops to scatter into the countryside and fight on as partisans and guerrillas. In fact, some troops told him that they were going to do just that.

One word from Lee and the bloodiest war in our history (to date some 700,000 dead) would have continued for years. But Lee would have none of it. He told Mosby’s Rangers: “Go home, all you boys who fought with me, and help build up the shattered fortunes of our old state.” There was no guerrilla warfare after the Civil War … because of General Lee.

Lee also applied for a pardon from the federal government, and urged all his former Confederates to do the same. The former governor of Virginia, Henry Wise, heard that his son had applied for a pardon. Wise exploded, “You have disgraced the family, sir!” His son replied, “But father, General Lee advised me to do it.” The ex-governor immediately said, “That alters the case. Whatever General Lee advises is right.” (The Civil War, Shelby Foote, vol III, p. 1049). Such was the power of the character of Lee.

Lee detested vulgarity, and never spoke a harsh word against anyone in the North. During the war, he would only call soldiers from the North “those people,” never “yankees,” or “bluebellies,” or any derogatory term. After the war he continued this practice when talking about anyone from the North.

One story illustrates his attitude of forbearance and forgiveness to his former enemies. In the book Lee, the Last Years by Charles Bracelen Flood (p. 166), there is the true story of Lee attending a party in which a large number of guests were from Pennsylvania, including Governor Andrew Curtain (who had caused great damage to Lee’s Gettysburg campaign). When none of the southern ladies would go and introduce themselves to the northern guests, Lee politely berated them, but went over to the guests accompanied by only one southern lady, Christiana Bond.

He told her, “When you go home, I want you to take a message to your young friends. Tell them from me that it is unworthy of them as women, and especially as Christian women, to cherish feelings of resentment against the North. Tell them that it grieves me inexpressibly to know that such a state of things exists, and that I implore them to do their part to heal our country’s wounds.” Would that people of all generations follow Lee’s advice.

His ambivalent, often contradictory (and repugnant by today’s standards) attitude toward slavery is well documented. However, it is equally true that after the war former slaves (all of whom he had freed before Abraham Lincoln freed even one slave) went to Lee to ask for letters of recommendation so they could get jobs, and he freely wrote them.

Although he did not openly agitate for full political equality, Lee in his own quiet way did urge for reconciliation between blacks and whites. Lee rejected the Ku Klux Klan, and believed that blacks could and should be educated and work alongside whites for a prosperous South.

Both Charles Flood and Bishop Robert R. Brown (And One Was a Soldier: The Spiritual Pilgrimage of Robert E. Lee p. 75) relate the story of Lee attending church at St. Paul’s in Richmond after the war. A black man arose and walked forward to receive communion. The pastor and congregants were all shocked to see this in the post-bellum segregated South (shame on them). Not Lee. He quietly got up, walked next to the man, knelt down with him and received the wafer. All the congregation followed him and did the same. Lee led by example.

Lee believed the words of Matthew 5:9 (“blessed are the peacemakers”) and Colossians 3:13 (“forbearing one another and forgiving one another … even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.”) and put them to work, urging his fellow Southerners to do the same.

2. Lee suffered without complaint.

Lee suffered during and after the war without complaint and took personal responsibility for his failures. Lee had seven children (four girls, three boys), and in 1862 his daughter Annie died. He lost two granddaughters. His daughter-in-law Charlotte died. His nephew Orton Williams was hanged as a spy. His son Rooney was horribly wounded in battle and captured. Lee’s wife Mary suffered from crippling arthritis and was completely wheelchair bound. He saw many of his close friends die in battle.

When he surrendered, he had already lost his home (Arlington) and all of his investments. At age 58, and suffering from heart disease, Lee had to go back to Richmond to find his wife and daughters, and somehow find a job to support them. A life insurance company once offered him money if they could just use his name. Lee responded that his name was his heritage, it was all he had, and it was not for sale.

In all of this, there is no record that Lee ever complained or blamed others for his misfortunes. He saw suffering in this life as merely what all Christians are supposed to go through (1 Peter 5:10) in order to purify them and make them stronger. If anything, Lee took the blame when it could easily have been shared with others. After the disastrous “Pickett’s Charge,” Lee rode up to the shattered remnants of his army and publicly told them that it was all his fault, and no one else’s.

3. He went to work.

So what does a homeless, defeated 58-year-old man with a handicapped wife and no money do? He goes about finding a job. Lee was offered to be the president of Washington College, a school that was on its last leg (due to the war and a great shortage of college-age students). There, he believed he had found his true calling. Lee loved educating people. In fact, he later said, “the great mistake of my life was taking a military education” (Flood, 156).

He sometimes remarked to friends that he should have been an educator all along! He completely revamped the curriculum, making plans to build schools of engineering, journalism, agriculture, law, astronomy, economics, and medicine. He wanted the little backwards college of 40 students and 4 professors to become a major university (and it has!).

Of course, Lee believed that all the degrees in the world were useless if students did not practice self-governance. And in that, he again led by example. His oft-quoted saying about the rules at college were: “We have no printed rules. We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentlemen.”

As I have read for years about his life after the war, I am convinced that these truly were the best years of Lee’s life. He never sat around and moped, but pitched eagerly into work to provide for his family and to rebuild his country. I am once again reminded of scripture where it tells us in 1 Timothy 5:8: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own hoouse, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.” Lee worked, to his dying day.

4. He was a courageous, selfless leader.

Lee was promoted for amazing courage and fortitude in the Mexican-American War — he risked his life on more than one occasion while scouting behind enemy lines — and during the Civil War he oftentimes exposed himself to enemy fire. Many civilians offered him their cozy, comfortable homes during the war, but Lee always slept on his own cot, in his own tent outdoors and ate the same simple coarse food all of his soldiers ate. He risked his life just as much as his troops did.

During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864, as the Union troops caved in the center of the Confederate line, it appeared that the battle was entirely lost. Where were the Confederate troops to plug the gap? Lee, in the rainstorm, rode up on his horse Traveler, drew his sword, and personally rode toward the enemy all alone.

Some troops from Texas, Alabama, and Georgia rushed up to him and yelled, “Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!” He asked, “Will you push those people (the Union troops) back if I move? They yelled their affirmation, and pulled Lee’s horse around to the rear while they attacked. (They stopped the Union attack, by the way.) Lee was about to charge by himself. He was not afraid.

The Bible tells us over and over again, “fear not.” (When are we going to learn this?) God tells Joshua, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Lee believed in divine providence, on and off the battlefield.

5. Lee was faithful to his family.

When I was a little boy and started studying the life of Lee, this was the part I loved reading about the most. Lee loved his wife Mary. They were married on June 30, 1831 at Arlington House. (Only two weddings were ever recorded there, and both took place in the same parlor; that of Lee and also of a slave couple.) Though the army required Lee to serve at various posts throughout the country, and his career definitely put a strain on his marriage, he remained faithful to Mary his entire life. There is no record, no hint anywhere of any infidelity between Robert and Mary Lee.

And by all accounts they had a happy family life with their seven kids. One of my favorite stories about Lee is how he would love to have his feet tickled while he read bedtime stories to the kids. They would all be gathered around him in bed, and if they started nodding off to sleep, this warrior would tell them “no tickling, no story!”

Lee believed that if he were to be an obedient Christian he had to be faithful to the commands written in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it … so men ought to love their wives as their own bodies … for this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall be joined to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.”

6. Lee was humble.

As pointed out in Tyler O’Neil’s PJ Media article, Lee did NOT want monuments erected to himself or to others. The man simply never liked drawing attention to himself. Although he was the “media star” of his day, Lee was the great “anti-egotist.” He deplored people who puffed up themselves.

In one famous story during the war, Lee came upon some of his chaplains who were about to start a prayer meeting. They told him that they were going to pray for him that day. He told them thank you, then added, “I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for my salvation.”

He believed the words of James 4:10: “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.” He knew he was a great sinner and offered no excuses for the sins and shortcomings of his life, and he was never  infatuated with himself.

When he was the college president, a Baptist minister’s little boy loved to come and visit him in his office and chat with him. In chapel services, if the boy’s father was preaching, the boy would sit next to Lee, his pal. In 1868 during a graduation ceremony, the little boy saw his friend and walked up to sit next to Lee on the dais. Lee let him. However, the boy fell asleep on Lee during the droning on and on of the ceremony!

When it came time for Lee to stand up and hand out the degrees, he refused to stand so that his little friend could continue to snooze on Lee’s arm. Lee handed out the diplomas from his chair, much to the amusement of the audience.

He was a man, and only a man who believed he was saved entirely by the grace of God. You don’t have to look too hard to see his faults, and Lee would tell you that himself.

As I look around the United States, and see all the hate and rage hurled at the memory of this man who has passed from the scene for many decades now, I have to ask the question, “Who has the real hate?” Who is filled with hate?

A man who forgave his adversaries and strove to get along with all his neighbors? A man who quietly did what he thought was his best to reunite a country ravaged by four years of war … or people who are trying desperately to haul down statues of a man who has been dead for 147 years? Wouldn’t the nation be better off if Americans followed Lee’s example AFTER the war and forgave and got to work and strove to peacefully better the nation?

Slavery in the United States ended with the surrender of the Confederacy (thank God), but the character of Lee and the lessons he can teach from his life are virtues all Americans can and should honor.

For some additional, excellent reading on Lee, I suggest Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters by Elizabeth Pryor.