Soon after the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union forces, Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote to one of his spiritual advisers while wrestling with the pain of this great defeat, but also with a lesson that he had learned.
“God has thought fit to afflict us most deeply. ... How great must be our sins and how unrelenting our obduracy,” wrote Lee to the Rev. William Platt, an Episcopal priest. “We have only to submit to his gracious will and pray for his healing mercy.”
The key, Lee argued, is that the South’s defeat represented the judgment of God. Now it was time to seek true unity, not “a forced and hollow truce. ... To this end all good men should labour.”
This was not random talk. Lee leaned on his faith because that’s who he was, according to the Rev. R. David Cox, author of “The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee.” Cox teaches history at Southern Virginia University, which is near the Episcopal parish in Lexington, Va., that he led from 1987-2000 — then known as R.E. Lee Memorial Church.
This past fall, the church’s vestry made news when — after riots in Charlottesville — it voted to return to the name “Grace Church,” the church’s name when Lee was on the vestry. Cox said he is convinced that the Lee revealed in his letters and private journals would have had no problem with that decision.
“I don’t think Lee would have wanted the Confederate flag flown. ... He would have opposed people putting up statues in an attempt to preserve the memory of a great ‘lost cause’ — words that he never used,” he said during an interview in Lexington. “Lee would not have wanted to see a church named after him. He was too humble for that.”
The problem, Cox explained, is that when people argue about “Robert E. Lee,” they are actually arguing about two historic misconceptions of Lee.
First, there is the Lee who, in the decades after his death, many Southerners turned into a mythic figure who symbolized the Confederate cause. This was the Lee who many civic leaders put on a pedestal in statues in town squares. A twisted version of this myth is trumpeted by many alt-right leaders.
The second false Lee, said Cox, is a reaction to that myth. Thus, for many, Lee is the Old South incarnated — the perfect symbol of oppression. Efforts to honor any of Lee’s accomplishments are seen as dangerous attempts to preserve the past.
The real Lee, on the other hand, made terrible mistakes, but also — as a sincere Christian believer — learned from them, said Cox. Lee grew up in a “household divided by a common faith,” with a father whose Episcopal convictions centered on honor and duty and an “almost Unitarian” rejection of anything hinting at superstition or human emotions. His mother, however, was a fervent evangelical Episcopalian.
For years, Lee tried to ignore this conflict. This was hard since his wife’s faith was enthusiastic and evangelical. As Lee matured, he focused on a desire to “resign himself” to God’s will, as seen in the events of life. This resignation, stressed Cox, was not “throwing in the towel,” but a desire to “get with the program” by striving to support whatever God was doing.
Thus, the great general accepted the South’s defeat, then moved to an impoverished corner of the Shenandoah Valley to lead a college that taught engineering, agriculture, journalism and other “modern” subjects — to help rebuild the culture. That school, of course, became Washington and Lee University.
There is no need to deny Lee’s faults, stressed Cox. But it is also crucial not to ignore the man that he became after the war.
“How do we reconcile the great accomplishments of people who had their faults, people whose stories are truly part of our nation’s history? ... Are our only options lionizing them or condemning them, when the reality is somewhere in between? Real people can be complex,” said Cox.
Once again, there is no need to ignore Lee’s mistakes and his role in the Civil War, he added. “But what he did with his life after that is amazing. ... We need to learn from this story of repentance and redemption, as well as seeing his sins.”