Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 2006 / 19 Teves, 5766
In the writings of the Ephesians there was this precept, constantly to think of some one of the men of former times who practiced virtue. Marcus Aurelius
It always sneaks up on me, the arrival of January 19th in the midst of gray winter. Like a sudden shaft of light. Can any observance as quaint as Lee's Birthday still be on the calendar? It rings strange in these postmodern times, as archaic as a reference to St. Crispin's Day. Except to hobbyists and Civil war buffs, even the names of the storied old battles Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg begin to acquire the faded resonance of Agincourt.
Who now thinks, let alone thinks constantly, on Robert E. Lee except professional Southerners and professional debunkers? And which separate but equally showy tribe would the old general have despised more? For his was a Greek restraint, as out of place in this deconstructed age as a classical ruin next to one of post-mod architect Frank Gehry's outsized plumbing fixtures.
Lee's Birthday? It doesn't compute. At a time when the dominant mode of discourse is responsibility-free irony, how are we to respond, if at all, when told to consider men of former times, and even speak of Virtue? Is it even possible to say the word anymore without a smirk, or expecting one in response? What matters in our virtual reality, everyone knows even if not everyone will say it aloud, is winning. And, hey, the old guy was a loser. C'mon, change the channel.
No, Robert E. Lee was not a modern figure; he was not even a contemporary one. He would not countenance the kind of advanced strategies that have become the hallmark of warfare in our so much more advanced times terrorism, mass reprisals, war on civilians . . . . All of that Lee left to Sherman and Sherman's counterparts on the Confederate side.
Even in his own time, the General seemed a remnant of some earlier, classical period. And he could no more change over the course of the war than a figure on a Greek frieze might. A gentleman lost in the first stages of modernity, he resisted the frenzy of secession before the war just as he did the despair of defeat afterward. He did not boast of victories or try to shift the blame for defeats. He just went on.
At Chancellorsville, which a British military historian would call the most perfectly executed feat of arms in American history, Lee would twin with Jackson to defeat a force two and a half times the size of his own and better equipped in every respect. At Gettysburg, which would prove decisive, all went wrong. But all he would say after Pickett's Charge had failed, and the Southern cause with it, was: "All this has been my fault."
Lee remained the same at Gettysburg as he had been at Chancellorsville: masterful at everything he could control, resigned to what he could not. If he could not command events, he would always command his response to them.
It is neither the victorious nor the defeated Lee who speaks clearest to us now, but the Lee beyond victory or defeat. He has emerged victorious over the very idea of victory or defeat. He was one Civil War general sometimes he seems the only one who did not write a self-serving memoir after the guns fell silent. Instead of dwelling on the deeds of his generation, he would just return to Virginia to teach the next.
There is a scene in Stephen Vincent Benet's "John Brown's Body": A young officer pauses before entering Lee's tent to deliver his dispatch, loath to disturb the General, who is bent over his papers in the candlelight. The messenger knows the war is winding down indeed, is all but lost by now and he can only wonder:
What keeps us going on? I wish I knew./ Perhaps you see a man like that go on./And then you have to follow.
What held that disparate, desperate, not quite definable idea called the South together so long? And holds it together still from generation to generation? Despite all our defeats and limitations and sins against one other, the idea of the South still lives even if we cannot agree on just what Southernness is, and even if its meaning keeps changing from era to era.
The South is so much land, language, history, folkways . . . and something so little as a certain light in the air. For even in eclipse, there is still a corona around our sun. And if there is a single name for that remaining light in these latitudes, it is Lee.
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