Monday, April 12, 2010
The Marble Man, 145 Years Later
Robert E. Lee stepped open-eyed into his future. He was no fan of the Confederacy in its first stages, but when President Lincoln asked him to take command of the entire Union army, he refused, saying that he could not take up arms against Virginia, should it secede. It did secede, and he went with it, [I assume] resigning his commission in the army of the U.S.A. He ultimately commanded the Confederate forces in the east, and it’s in that role that we are most familiar with him.
If Lee had chosen to lead the Union army, it’s unimaginable that the war would have lasted as long as it did. His record at West Point was one of the best in its 208-year history, and he served as its superintendent from 1852 to 1855. Lee was an outstanding military leader during his life in the U.S. Army and did the best with the resources he had in his years with the C.S.A. (It’s worth remembering that his resources included soldiers trained at West Point and the many United States military bases built throughout the south.)
Lee and General Grant, head of the Union forces — and, incidentally, with a career trajectory nothing like as brilliant as Lee’s — discussed the terms of Lee’s army’s surrender for several days. There was no treaty, perhaps because Lincoln’s government insisted that the C.S.A. was not a sovereign nation. The terms of the agreement were simple, permitting every soldier to return home safely, if he turned in his arms and horse or other animal (if publicly owned). Soldiers could keep horses or other animals if they were privately owned, which was regarded as a mercy to men who had to return home, possibly to ruined homesteads, and begin the spring planting.
The paroles — the pledge of safe passage to these soldiers — were based on Lee’s word alone. In effect, the last public use of Lee’s honor came in the maintenance of the peace. Imagine what it would have been like if Lee reneged! Within the week Lincoln was assassinated, and a lesser man might have taken up arms again or encouraged an uprising. Lee did not.
Robert E. Lee died in 1870, but he was in the process of becoming “the marble man” as his biographer, Thomas L. Connolly, described him. The myth-making had begun.