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The Most Famous Confederate Commander Turns 200

Robert E. Lee was born January 19, 1807, in Westmorland County, Virginia. He attended West Point, distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, commanded the effort to squelch John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry, and, after the fall of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, resigned his commission in the United States Army to lead the Confederate forces in Virginia. After the Civil War, he became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), but was never officially granted amnesty and United States citizenship in his lifetime. He died on September 28, 1870.

Lee has, for many, become an enduring and powerful symbol of the Southern cause in the Civil War. According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, "Lee . . . for most southerners, evokes the lump in the throat, the tearful faraway gaze. This is partly because Lee's biographers have purposely created and perpetuated the Lee myth: the man of flawless character; the perfect son, husband, and father; the noble officer torn between love for Union and loyalty to Virginia; the gallant general and brilliant militarist defeated only by overwhelming odds. He exemplified all that was best in the Old South, in the vanquished Confederacy."

This reverence for Lee is particularly evident in Confederate veterans' narratives. One veteran, Robert Augustus Stiles, even names his narrative Four Years Under Marse Robert (1903), after his favorite general—even though he does not serve his entire commission under Lee's command. Stiles lavishes praise on Lee, explaining: "We loved him much, but we revered him more. We never criticised [sic], never doubted him; never attributed to him either moral error or mental weakness; no, not even in our secret hearts or most audacious thoughts. I really believe it would have strained and blurred our strongest and clearest conceptions of the distinction between right and wrong to have entertained, even for a moment, the thought that he had ever acted from any other than the purest and loftiest motive" (p.20).

Jubal Early, who led the Confederate cavalry for a time, offers a similar reflection in his memoir, Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early C.S.A.: Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States (1912). He writes, "I will say that, in my opinion, both Mr. Davis and General Lee, in their respective spheres, did all for the success of our cause which it was possible for mortal men to do and it is a great privilege and comfort for me so to believe" (ix).

Not all writers were so sure of Lee's eminence, however. Former Confederate infantryman John S. Robson, for example, asserts that while Lee was indeed a great leader, his strategies fell short without the support of Stonewall Jackson, Robson's hero. Robson posits in his autobiography, How a One-Legged Rebel Lives, that if Jackson lived to fight at Gettysburg, the Confederacy would have won the Civil War. Modern biographers are also often more critical of Lee and his legacy, but he nevertheless remains a locus of both veneration and speculation.

Stiles's, Early's, and Robson's narratives are part of DocSouth's "First-Person Narratives of the American South" collection, which contains diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts, and ex-slave narratives written by Southerners.

Jennifer L. Larson