Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 2005 / 9 Shevat 5765
Lee outside the frame
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag,
that bears a single star!
The Bonnie Blue Flag, 1861
His name conjures up the solemn portraits still to be found in old textbooks, gray as duty, yellowed by time. Or the creased pictures that an earlier generation lovingly saved from the rotogravure section of some newspaper no longer published.
The images of that era, even those that depict the death and destruction, invariably seem romantic, heroic, posed. Some of us have known the old photographs since childhood, but the impression they leave changes as we change. By now they are freighted with the associations of a lifetime.
To our children, the adoration of Robert E. Lee must seem another of an earlier generation's eccentricities to be fondly recalledčlike beaten biscuits and good manners. Charming but of no real relevance.
But the next generation will come to an understanding of its own with The General as his attraction grows on them unbidden. Just as it has grown on us year by year, layer upon layer of Lee's Birthdays. And they, too, will feel the same impulse to advance and be recognized as his heirs.
In perhaps the most popular of Civil War paintings, Generals Lee and Jackson Thomas Jonathan Jackson, better known as Stonewall confer on horseback in the misty hours before Chancellorsville, the high noon of Confederate arms. A British military historian, J.F.C. Fuller, called it the most nearly perfect battle ever executed by an American commander. It would end with Lee's Army of Northern Virginia having destroyed a force two and a half times its size and better equipped in every respect.
It was Lee's greatest victory, and his greatest loss: Jackson himself.
But in the framed painting they are still together, forever in their prime, forever on the verge of victory. There was never much need for words between them, certainly not on that pregnant dawn. Soon everything would unfold in the field just as it had in their one mind. Except for one, fatal detail: After delivering the decisive blow and sweeping all before his unexpected advance, Jackson would go out to ride the lines and be shot by his own pickets.
That image of what would prove their last meeting is all hushed expectation and, now that we know the end of the story, poignancy. A frame or two later, when Lee will have closed the trap and arrived at his objective to find the Chancellor's House burning like a torch lit in celebration, Jackson will be with him only in mind. And victory will fill the canvas.
Outside the ornate frame, Lee would get the news, and respond even before the cheers had faded: "I have just received your note, informing me that you were wounded. I cannot express my regret at the occurrence. Could I have directed events, I should have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead. I congratulate you upon the victory, which is due to your skill end energy."
It was as if, in his moment of triumph, Lee had peered through the fog of war and glimpsed the defeat this victory had sown. That was the Lee of it, to see so far ahead and remain, as always, R.E. Lee, General.
The frame would capture another scene soon enough: Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865. The imaginative artists show Lee in dress gray surrendering to an unshaven U.S. Grant, attired with his usual casualness. It is supposed to be a picture of victor and vanquished in ironic counterpoint, suitable for framing. Call it The End.
But what happened after The End, outside the frame? Although he was now free to leave, Lee stayed at Appomattox four more days, until April 12th, unwilling to leave his men to stack their arms and surrender their ensigns without him. When he did leave, he left like the others, without ceremony.
Lee had led his country, his Virginia, to defeat, yet all along the road to Richmond he was cheered. Why did we idolize him so, why do we still? Perhaps because he remains the same Lee in victory and defeat, the same at Chancellorsville as he would be at Appomattox in flawless self-command, the picture of passion reined and directed. It is the Lee outside the ornate frame that steadies us even now in the chaotic present.
Knowing confusion, he also knew it would pass. Magnificent in war, he was sublime in defeat. Without designing to, following only his own imperatives, he lifted others' gaze he still does far above the flashing arms and wild cries, beyond the carnage and suffering, and up, up to the great, over-arching Southern sky that holds but a single, constant star.
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