Robert E. Lee

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The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.

Robert Edward Lee (19 January 180712 October 1870) was an American military officer who went on to become a general for the Confederate forces during the American Civil War, fighting against the United States. He eventually commanded all Confederate armies as general-in-chief. After surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865, he lived out the rest of his life in Virginia, where he grew up. He was the son of Henry Lee III, a Continental Army officer during the American Revolutionary War.

Quotes[edit]

Don't bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.
Fold it up and put it away.
I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. … Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.
It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.
True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them — the desire to do right — is precisely the same.
I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race.
I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.
We must forgive our enemies. I can truly say that not a day has passed since the war began that I have not prayed for them.
I cannot consent to place in the control of others one who cannot control himself.
The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman. … A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.
The education of a man is never completed until he dies.
  • Fold it up and put it away.
  • Madam, don't bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.
    • Advice to a Confederate widow who expressed animosity towards the northern U.S. after the end of the American Civil War, as quoted in The Life and Campaigns of General Lee (1875) by Edward Lee Childe, p. 331. Also quoted in "Will Confederate Heritage Advocates Take Robert E. Lee’s Advice?" (July 2014), by Brooks D. Simpson, Crossroads, WordPress. This quote is sometimes paraphrased as "Madam, do not train up your children in hostility to the government of the United States. Remember, we are all one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring them up to be Americans."
  • We must forgive our enemies. I can truly say that not a day has passed since the war began that I have not prayed for them.
    • As quoted in A Life of General Robert E. Lee (1871) by John Esten Cooke.
  • I cannot consent to place in the control of others one who cannot control himself.
    • Comment regarding officers who became inebriated, as quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1874) by John William Jones, p. 170
  • Sir, if you ever presume again to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this university.
    • After one of the faculty at Washington College in Virginia (now Washington & Lee University) had spoken insultingly of Ulysses S. Grant, as quoted in Lee the American (1912) by Gamaliel Bradford, p. 226
  • The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.
    The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.
    The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.
    • "Definition of a Gentleman", a memorandum found in his papers after his death, as quoted in Lee the American (1912) by Gamaliel Bradford, p. 233
  • I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South its dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.
    • As quoted in The American Soul : An Appreciation of the Four Greatest Americans and their Lessons for Present Americans (1920) by Charles Sherwood Farriss, p. 63
  • Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character.
    • As quoted in General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox (1922) by Franklin Lafayette Riley, p. 18
  • After it is all over, as stupid a fellow as I am can see that mistakes were made. I notice, however, that my mistakes are never told me until it is too late, and you, and all my officers, know that I am always ready and anxious to have their suggestions.
  • Teach him he must deny himself.
    • Lee to a mother who asked him to bless her son, as quoted in R. E. Lee : A Biography, Vol. 4 (1935) by Douglas Southall Freeman, p. 505
  • I should NOT be trading on the blood of my men.
    • On refusing requests to write his memoirs, as quoted in Gentlemen of Virginia (1961) page 188 by Marshall William Fishwick; also cited as possibly apocryphal in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (2004) edited by Elizabeth M. Knowles
  • The education of a man is never completed until he dies.
    • As quoted in Peter's Quotations : Ideas for Our Time (1977) by Laurence J. Peter, p. 175
  • You must be frank with the world; frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right … Never do anything wrong to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so, is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. Deal kindly, but firmly with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all do not appear to others what you are not.
    • As quoted in Extraordinary Lives : The Art and Craft of American Biography (1986) by Robert A. Caro and William Knowlton Zinsser

1850s[edit]

  • In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.

1860s[edit]

  • I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honour for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It is intended for 'perpetual Union,' so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession: anarchy would have been established, and not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and all the other patriots of the Revolution. … Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and, save in defense will draw my sword on none.
  • Since my interview with you on the 18th I have felt that I ought not longer retain my commission in the Army … It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life, and all the ability I possessed … I shall carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration and your name and fame will always be dear to me. Save for defense of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword.
    • Letter to General Winfield Scott (20 April 1861); as quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1875) by John William Jones, p. 139, after turning down an offer by Abraham Lincoln of supreme command of the U.S. Army.
  • What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbours, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world! I pray that, on this day when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace. … My heart bleeds at the death of every one of our gallant men.
    • Letter to his wife on Christmas Day, two weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg (25 December 1862).
  • I have been up to see the Congress and they do not seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving.
    • Remark to his son, G. W. Custis Lee (March 1865), as quoted in South Atlantic Quarterly [Durham, North Carolina] (July 1927)
  • I am glad to see one real American here.
    • To Ely S. Parker at Appomattox Court House (9 April 1865), as quoted in The Life of General Ely S. Parker: Last Grand Sachem of the Iroquois and General Grant's Military Secretary Buffalo, by Arthur C. Parker, New York: Buffalo Historical Society, 1919, p. 133.
  • The questions which for years were in dispute between the State and General Government, and which unhappily were not decided by the dictates of reason, but referred to the decision of war, having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor to recognize the fact.
    • Letter to former Virginia governor John Letcher (28 August 1865), as quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1875) by John William Jones, p. 203
  • The interests of the State are therefore the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote; and elect to the State and general Legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself.
    • Letter to former Virginia governor John Letcher (28 August 1865), as quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1875) by John William Jones, p. 203
  • True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them — the desire to do right — is precisely the same.
  • I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them.
    • Speech to the Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction (1866), as quoted in "Testimony Lee before the Congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction" (17 February 1866), by Robert E. Lee, Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction at the First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1866), pp. 135-6.
  • My experience through life has convinced me that, while moderation and temperance in all things are commendable and beneficial, abstinence from spiritous liquors is the best safeguard of morals and health.
    • Letter to a "Friends of Temperance" society (9 December 1869); as quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1875) by John William Jones, p. 170

1870s[edit]

  • So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.
    • Statement to John Leyburn (1 May 1870), as quoted in R. E. Lee : A Biography (1934) by Douglas Southall Freeman.
  • My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them, or indisposed me to serve them; nor in spite of failures, which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge; or of the present aspect of affairs; do I despair of the future.
    The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.
    • Letter to Lt. Col. Charles Marshall (September 1870)


Misattributed[edit]

  • Duty is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.
    • Letter purportedly written to his son, G. W. Custis Lee (5 April 1852); published in The New York Sun (26 November 1864). Although the “Duty Letter” was presumed authentic for many decades and included in many biographies of Lee, it was repudiated in December 1864 by “a source entitled to know.” This repudiation was rediscovered by University of Virginia law professor Charles A. Graves who verified that the letter was inconsistent with Lee's biographical facts and letter-writing style. Lee's son also wrote to Graves that he did not recall ever receiving such a letter. “The Forged Letter of General Robert E. Lee”, Proceedings of the 26th annual meeting of the Virgina State Bar Association 17:176 (1914)
  • Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand. Supposed made to Governor Fletcher S. Stockdale (September 1870), as quoted in The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, pp. 497-500.
    • However, every major researcher along with autobiographer, Douglas Southall Freeman; Shelby Dade Foote, Jr.; Bruce Catton; are but a few that consider the quote a myth and refuse to recognize it. “T. C. Johnson: Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 498 ff. Doctor Dabney was not present and received his account of the meeting from Governor Stockdale. The latter told Dabney that he was the last to leave the room, and that as he was saying good-bye, Lee closed the door, thanked him for what he had said and added: "Governor, if I had foreseen the use these people desired to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox, no, sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in this right hand." This, of course, is second-hand testimony. There is nothing in Lee's own writings and nothing in direct quotation by first-hand witness that accords with such an expression on his part. The nearest approach to it is the claim by H. Gerald Smythe that "Major Talcott" — presumably Colonel T. M. R. Talcott — told him Lee stated he would never have surrendered the army if he had known how the South would have been treated. Mr. Smythe stated that Colonel Talcott replied, "Well, General, you have only to blow the bugle," whereupon Lee is alleged to have answered, "It is too late now" (29 Confederate Veteran, 7). Here again the evidence is not direct. The writer of this biography, talking often with Colonel Talcott, never heard him narrate this incident or suggest in any way that Lee accepted the results of the radical policy otherwise than with indignation, yet in the belief that the extremists would not always remain in office”.
  • Tell Hill he must come up … Strike the tent.
    • Reported as his last words. There are suggestions that Lee's autobiographer, Douglas Southall Freeman embellished Lee's final moments; as Lee suffered a stroke on September 28, 1870. Dying two weeks later, on October 12, 1870, shortly after 9 a.m. from the effects of pneumonia. Lee's stroke had resulted in aphasia, rendering him unable to speak. When interviewed the four attending physicians and family stated "he had not spoken since 28 September...".

Quotes about Lee[edit]

  • Robert E. Lee once said 'it is good that war is terrible, otherwise men would grow fond of it.' This is not an issue upon which we should have war. Our people do not need to bleed the color of red Georgia clay. This is an issue that demands cool heads and moderate positions. Preserving our past, but also preserving our future. And not allowing the hope of partisan advantage to prohibit the healing of our people.
  • Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.
  • I had known General Lee in the old army, and had served with him in the Mexican War; but did not suppose, owing to the difference in our age and rank, that he would remember me, while I would more naturally remember him distinctly, because he was the chief of staff of General Scott in the Mexican War. When I had left camp that morning I had not expected so soon the result that was then taking place, and consequently was in rough garb. I was without a sword, as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier's blouse for a coat, with the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was. When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and after shaking hands took our seats. I had my staff with me, a good portion of whom were in the room during the whole of the interview. What General Lee's feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.
  • U.S. Grant was one of the greatest generals in history. He and his friend, William Tecumseh Sherman, essentially won the Civil War. Grant was the only Union general who would go head to head with Robert E. Lee, the Bishma and Drona of the Confederacy, and not back down. The result was immense slaughter; but we know that when Grant had the chance, he, like Sherman, preferred a war of movement with minimal casualties. It was the greatness of Lee as a general that foiled all of Grant's maneuvers and forced the bloody attempts at breakthrough in 1864, such as at Cold Harbor. The final act, indeed, catching Lee at Appomattox Court House, was the result of the maneuver and rapid movement that cut off Lee's retreat. And, for all the accusations of 'butcher' at Grant, a larger percentage of Lee's soldiers died under his orders–none more terribly and futilely than in Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. Years later, a bitter Pickett himself reportedly said of Lee, 'That old man had my division slaughtered'.
  • Lee is the greatest military genius in America, myself not excepted.
    • Union General Winfield Scott, as quoted in Life of General Robert Edward Lee (1870) by C. Stoctly Errickson, p. 35
  • In 1864, black Union troops were involved in operations against Lee's army outside Richmond and Petersburg, and some of them are taken prisoner. Lee puts them to work on Confederate entrenchments that are in Union free-fire zones. When Grant gets wind of this, he threatens to put Confederate prisoners to work on Union entrenchments under Confederate fire unless Lee pulls out. So Grant was willing to embrace an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth retaliation policy based upon Confederate treatment of black prisoners. For Grant, it was the color of the uniform, not the skin, that mattered.



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