NOTES FROM ROBERT E. LEE’s BIOGRAPHY by Emory M. Thomas
- 49: Cadet Lee survived four years at West Point without incurring a single demerit. If he were ever late to class or if his shoes were ever unblacked, no one in authority caught him. Such a record was rare but not unheard of. In fact, five other members of the class of 1829 were equally unscathed. A survey conducted in 1831 revealed that 150 cadets were then enrolled had received less than 50 demerits, 88 cadets less than 100, 34 less than 150 demerits, & 16 had received between 150 and 200. Lee ordered to rules and regulations; he remained in control of himself. West Point prescribed obedience and punished initiative. Lee proved to himself and others that he could adapt to such an environment and thrive in a small world of schedules and standards.
- 54: As Lee prepared to graduate, he received the balance which remained in his account book: $103.58. The $10 per month he earned while an acting assistant professor of mathematics made possible much of this positive balance. Nevertheless, Lee was an extremely frugal cadet; most men at West Point never saw a positive balance in four years.
- 80: “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 hope.”
- 132: Consider what Lee had done. Early on August 19 he had crossed the Pedregal, led some of Scott’s army into conflict with Valencia’s troops, and the led and directed three brigades into Valencia’s rear. Then he had retraced his steps in the dark and ran back to Scott’s headquarters the same night he had recrossed the Pedregal, guided the demonstrations in Valencia’s front, and observed the triumph at Contreras on the morning of August 20. Next he had scouted the road from San Antonio to Churubusco, returned to Scott, and then guided troops to a crucial flank attach on the road beyond Churubusco. Once the enemy was in full flight, Lee had joined the pursuit. He had been awake and active for 36 hours (at least) crossing the Pedregal twice in the dark, and led the U.S. forces to crucial positions in two separate battles – into Valencia’s rear at Contreras and to Santa Anna’s flank at Churubusco. After these thirty-six hours, Lee deserved a sound sleep.
In his reports of the battles, Scott wrote of “the gallant, indefatigable Captain Lee” and of Lee “as distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring.” Later Scott termed Lee’s actions during the night of August 19 “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual in my knowledge…” For Contreras and Churubusco Lee eventually received brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel.
P.137: “If the war with Mexico had been wrong in Course … “If this retrograde step would restore us our glorious dead, I should be content. It would rather tend to condemn their devotion to their country & the next step will be to convict them of Suicide.”
- 139: “I wish I was out of the Army myself,” he told Custis. And to Carter Lee he wrote that he would “make a strong effort” to leave the Army. But once more he remained in uniform – most likely because he knew he could find nothing that he liked better and because he knew he was a very good soldier.
- 149: That April (1851) Lee found some excuse to visit West Point and see his son. He heard good news from the officers and instructors about Custis’s performance. But the young man must have been homesick and to his father he must have seemed unsure of his capacity. Lee wrote to his oldest son soon after he returned to Baltimore and devoted the first page to encouraging words. He wrote about “strength”, “fortitude,” “industry,” “firm resolve,” “courageouse heart,” and more. In conclusion, though, Lee simply asked Custis to make his best effort. “I shall then be content & you must not be disappointed.”
- 152: Small wonder that Custis complained in March of melancholy. Robert Lee wrote once again to his son, and once again revealed his own philosophy:
Shake off those gloomy feelings. Drive them away. Fix your mind & pleasures on what is before you….All is bright if you will think it so. All is happy if you will make it so. Do not dream. It is too ideal, too imagery. Dreaming by day, I mean. Live in the world you inhabit. Look upon things as they are. Take them as you find them. Make the best of them. Turn them to your advantage.
- 157: Then he introduced the relative merits of a school in a country versus a school in a city and implied that the former offered fewer temptations. “Young men must not expect to escape contact with evil,” Lee counseled, “but must learn not to be contaminated by it. That virtue is worth but little requires constant watching & removal from temptation.” As Lee wrote this, he was quite well aware that “constant watching” and “removal from temptation” were hallmarks of the West Point system.
- 160: After learning his catechism at his mother’s knee before he could read; after attending the Episcopal Church quite regularly and serving on the vestry of St. John’s Church, Brooklyn; after speaking and writing for many years the rhetoric of evangelical Protestants and Low Church Anglicans, at age forty-six Lee finally, formally joined the church. Why did he wait so long?
Lee was the product of strong religious impulses within his family and community. He revered the church, at least the Protestant Church, and appropriated its language and the essentials of its doctrine. But Lee was a very private person, and his religious response was private as well. He avoided sectarian exclusivity and believed expansively. Lee did proper things and said correct words; but his piety was practical, grounded in this world, however much he intoned or wrote his litany about dead souls rising to joy in heaven.
Lee certainly believed in sin. Had the church not taught the doctrine of original sin, Lee would have invented it. The human condition was flawed, he believed, and the fatal flaw was absorption with self. Conversely Lee believed that “the great duty of life” is “the promotion of the happiness & welfare of our fellow men.” Good Christians, Lee believed, attempted to make selflessness a habit and eventually an instinctive response to any situation. But even the best Christians failed in this effort because of the evil inherent in human beings. So God resolved this dilemma with His grace and forgiveness.
Although Lee couched his beliefs in evangelical rhetoric, he believed beyond evangelicalism. Lee’s response to God was selflessness, self-control, and service to others. God’s response to Lee was freedom.
Lee’s religious life underwent no significant change following his confirmation. He presented himself to Bishop Johns to acknowledge his relation to the church. He probably also wanted to support his daughter’s conviction, and he wanted to honor his mother-in-law’s piety.
- 171: Mary Lee continued her decline in general health, and her rheumatism was fast rendering her an invalid. She went to mineral springs each summer; but any relief she experienced proved temporary. Robert Lee encouraged her to go and counseled her to “indulge yourself in as much mental enjoyment as circumstances will permit” and so “turn as far as possible your affliction to your benefit.”
This latter phrase became a theme in Lee’s life. To various people, at various times Lee said: “… there is nothing stable on earth,” “Live in the world you inhabit,” “When a thing is done we ought to make the best of it,” “We make a great deal of our own happiness and misery in the world,” and “turn… your affliction to your benefit.” In time Lee would have increasing opportunities to take his own advice.
- 190: Robert Lee would have been most in danger in his own bed. In a real sense, Lee went to war in order to avoid conflict.
- 218: One factor in Lee’s easy transit from national crisis to matters mundane was his incredible capacity to cope – to make the best of practically any situation to resist temptation to brood or bewail his fate. With the Confederacy nearly “in extremis” and his career, family, life, and world in grave danger, Lee could satisfy himself that he had done all he could do, invoke blessings from God, and try to secure some shirts that fit.
- 226: Joseph Christmas Ives on Lee to Edward Porter Alexander: “Alexander, if there is one man in either army, Federal or Confederate, who is head & shoulders, far above every other one in either army in audacity that man is Gen. Lee, and you will very soon have lived to see it. Lee is audacity personified. His name is audacity…..
- 259 Comments on the southern army:
“They were the dirtiest men I ever saw, a most ragged, lean, and hungry set of wolves. Yet there was a dash about them that the Northern men lacked. They rode like circus riders. Many of them were from the far South and spoke a dialect I could scarcely understand. They were profane beyond belief and talked incessantly.”
“When I say they were hungry, I convey no impression of the gaunt starvation that looked from their cavernous eyes….I saw the troops march past us every summer for four years, and I know something of the appearance of a marching army, both Union and Southern. There are always stragglers, of course, but never before or after did I see anything comparable to the demoralized state of the Confederates at this time. Never want and exhaustion more visibly put before my eyes, and that they could march or fight at all seemed incredible.”
- 277: Walter Taylor found the general in foul humor one day when he had to bring some tedious correspondence to Lee’s attention. Taylor knew that Lee “had a great dislike to reviewing army communications…,” and on this occasion, “he was not in a very pleasant mood; something irritated him, and he manifested his ill-humor by a little nervous twist or jerk of the neck and head, peculiar to himself, accompanied by some harshness manner.” Taylor presented the necessary papers as expeditiously as he could. But “in disposing of some case of a vexatious character, matters reached a climax; he became really worried…” Taylor, caught up in Lee’s mood, “petulantly threw the paper down at my side and gave evident signs of anger. Then in a perfectly calm and measured tone of voice, he said, ‘Colonel Taylor, when I lose my temper don’t let it make you angry.’”
- 303: Defeat at Gettysburg was Lee’s fault—in part because he decided to risk boldly and lost, but principally because of who Lee was. He was a soldier who preferred to suggest rather than order, a general who attempted to lead from consensus and shrank from confrontation. He insisted upon making possible for others the freedom of thought and action he sought for himself.
- 333: While Yankee soldiers stormed into the Mule Shoe, Lee had no time to call someone to his tent and talk to him; so he attempted to perform the difficult tasks by himself rather than delegate to others. But Robert Lee could not win the war all by himself. For Lee, the gratification of a “death wish” would have constituted cowardice.
- 350: But Lee’s record of victories during the two previous years had inspired vaulting confidence within the army and throughout the country. And as the siege of Petersburg and Richmond protracted while the military disasters multiplied elsewhere, Lee became even more revered as some sort of miracle maker. He had wrested triumph from impending doom in the past; surely he would do so again. Only afterward did Lee become a suffering saint, the South’s Christ figure; in the trenches Lee was still a Southern Joshua.
- 353: At Petersburg, more people than Lee were frustrated and discolate. So they remembered Lee in context and told stories about him that reflected their mood as well as his. The stories during this period emphasize sacrifice, duty, and other stoic virtues. One exception is Long’s tale of Lee remaining under artillery fire in order to pick up a baby sparrow and replace the bird in its nest. Here was Lee selflessly trying against odds to bring redemption to the battlefield. But Long, who told the story, and J. William Jones, who repeated it, emphasized Lee’s “love for the lower animals,” his concern for the helpless, and “a heart so tender.”
- 372 – Some time after the surrender of the south.
But soon after he returned to Richmond, Lee once more confounded those who considered him uncomplicated. The occasion was communion at St. Paul’s Church on a Sunday in June. The reverend Dr. Charles Minegerode was still rector of the parish; St. Paul’s was (and is) just across the street from Capitol Square, and during the war a list of communicants read like a Who’s Who of the Confederacy. At this particular service, as soon as Minegerode delivered the invitation to the people to come forward to receive the consecrated bread and wine, a tall, well-dressed, very black man stood and strode to the rail. The followed a pregnant pause. According to one witness, “Its effect upon the communicants was startling, and for several moments they retained their seats in solemn silence and did not move, being deeply chagrined at this attempt to inaugurate the ‘new regime’ to offend and humiliate them…. Dr. Minegerode was evidently embarrassed.”
Then another person rose from the pew and walked down the aisle to the chancel rail. He knelt near the black man and so redeemed the circumstance. This grace-bringer, of course, was Lee. Soon after he knelt, the rest of the congregation followed his example and shuffled in turn to the rail. Once again Lee’s actions were far more eloquent than anything he ever spoke or wrote.
- 391: Once while at a social gathering he asked Christina Bond to accompany him
“I will go, General Lee, under your orders.” “Not under my orders,” Lee protested, “but it will gratify me deeply to have your assistance.” Bond recalled:
And so we crossed the great room, but under brilliant crystal chandelier he paused, and spoke words which went to the soul of his young hearers. He told of the grief with which he found a spirit of unreasoning resentment and bitterness in the young people of the South, of the sinfulness of hatred and social revenge, of the duty of kindness, helpfulness, and consideration of other.
Then the young woman asked, “But, General Lee, did you never feel resentment towards the North? Christina Bond’s story continued:
Standing in the radiance of the myriad lighted crystals his face took on a far-away, almost inspired look, as his hand involuntarily sought his breast. He spoke in low, earnest tones: “I believe I may say, looking into my own heart, and speaking in the presence of my God, that I have never known one moment of bitterness or resentment.
Lee had become a Christ figure for Southerners. “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you and shall say all manner of evil against you…” “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you….”
Lee was a realist. The war was over: he had lost. He did not understand the dimensions of race or the zeal of Northern politicians; but he realized that victors can impose their will upon the vanquished. So he worked within a legal framework that shifted, and he settled in the knowledge that the opportunity for resistance was long gone.
- 397: A new student once asked President Lee (of Washington College) for a copy of the rules of Washington College. Lee replied, “Young gentleman, we have no printed rules of Washington College. We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman.”
What did Lee mean when he used the word “gentleman”? Found among his papers after his death was the following statement:
…the manner is which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is the test of a true gentleman.
The power which the strong have over the weak, the magistrate over the citizen, 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 absence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly or unnecessarily remind an offender of the wrong he may have committed against him. He can not 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 the past.
A true gentleman of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.
MDC’s COMMENTS: The author offered no explanation (comment yes) of this last bit of extended almost double negative statement, but here I believe Lee means that when a leader or person of authority who is of the mind of a gentleman must inflict discipline or punishment to others as necessary for their development or execution of judgment of the law, a gentleman in that position also is humbled to the extent of feeling the others’ pain. Therefore, if Lee had to humble others in performing his duties, he also felt humbled.
A very interesting statement, this; certainly it reveals Lee’s convictions about ethics and relationships. But it may reveal more beside. Substitute “God” for “true gentleman” and Lee has offered an intriguing theological insight. The series of metaphors remains valid, and Lee says what he believes about the nature of God. God, for Lee, is the ultimate manifestation of the “forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority.” God, in Lee’s understanding, “can not only forgive, he can forget,” and if God does not wish to humble people, it follows that God is on the side of exalting them. In this light Lee’s statement about the true gentleman is not only code, but credo.
Lee’s one-rule standard produced the honor system, which soon became the practical definition of a “gentleman” at Washington College. A gentleman does not lie, cheat, or steal; nor does a gentleman tolerate lying, cheating, or dishonesty in those persons claiming to be gentlemen.
- 399: “Education embraces the physical, moral and intellectual instruction of a child from infancy to manhood.” Lee wrote, and continued, “Any system is imperfect which does not combine them all….” In accord with his belief in some form of evolution, Lee lauded an educational system that “abases the coarse animal emotions of human nature & exalts the higher faculties and feelings.” To secure obedience, Lee posed, “Neither violence nor harshness should ever be used, and the parent must bear constantly in mind, that to govern this child, he must show him that he can control himself.” By “patient kindness and gentle admonition,” Lee believed parents can accomplish far more than by resorting to threats and punishment.
- 401: One of Lee’s students who later became an instructor at Washington College came first to the school in 1860 and returned in 1866 after four years in the army of Northern Virginia. Milton W. Humphreys resumed his academic career with zeal—so much zeal that he injured his health. President Lee noticed that Humphreys was working too hard and told him so. Humphreys acknowledged that he was indeed studying more than was good for his body and explained, “I am so impatient to make up for the time I lost in the army.” Then Lee turned immediately red and interrupted the student-veteran, “Mr. Humphreys! However long you live and whatever you accomplish, you will find that the time you spent in the Confederate army was the most profitably spent portion of your life. Never again speak of having lost time in the army.” Robert Lee passionately believed this. Milton Humphreys may or may not have believed it. But Humphreys never again spoke of losing time in Lee’s army.
- 414: Lee knew frustration full measure. He experienced far more than his share of failure. Better than most people, Lee was aware of the constraints, the bounds, which characterize human condition. But he was a hero. Lee was a hero because of his response to that human condition that constrained him. He all but defined self-control and obeyed rules meticulously; yet he did so in order to be independent, to be free. Lee spent himself, gave his life away, because he believed that evil was selfishness. “Dissimilar as are characters, intellects, & situations. The great duty of life is the same, the promotion of the happiness & welfare of our fellow men”
FINALLY FROM THE BOOK, LEADERSHIP LESSONS OF ROBERT E. LEE by BILL HOLTON
- 5 ON APOLOGIES
Meantime, General Lee, who had camped near Warrenton for the night, hearing nothing from Stuart as to the …movements of the enemy, remained awake until very late at night in order to make preparations… for the early movements of his army. Goode made his way safely through the Federal columns, and arrived at headquarters about one o’clock in the morning.
General Lee, after listening by the camp-fire to Goode’s account of Stuart’s situation, retired to his tent. The scout, however, being very anxious in regard to General Stuart’s danger, began after the general retired, to explain more fully with the map to an aide-de-camp the relative positions of Stuart’s and the enemy forces, and the exact point where the fire of our artillery would be most effective in promoting his safe retreat from his perilous environment.
General Lee could hear from his tent something of this conversation, but caught from it only that Goode was talking of matters which scouts, as a rule, were permitted to tell only to the commanding general himself. So, coming to the door of his tent, he called out with stern voice that he did not wish scouts to talk in camp. He spoke very angrily, and stepped back into his tent. Goode fairly trembled. The aide-de-camp, however, went forward to the general’s tent and told him that the scout, who was devoted to Stuart and naturally very anxious for his safety, was only endeavoring to mark accurately on the map the point at which the diversion of the artillery fire was to be made, and was by no means talking from the mere desire to talk. General Lee came out at once from his tent, commanded his orderly to have supper with hot coffee put on the table for Goode, made him sit in his own camp-chair at the table, stood at the fire nearby, and performed all the duties of the hospitable host to the fine fellow. Few generals ever made such thorough amends to a private soldier for an injustice done him in anger. (A. L. Long, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee (p. 309-10))
Leaders and Managers must recognize that no matter how well intended, apologies are face-savings acts. As a leader, you must recognize when you unintentionally hurt someone, apologies are critical. Perhaps your behavior was well intended; perhaps you were operating out of misinformation, urgency, or chaos. Regardless, the impact on others can be devastating. Your ability to “own up” and admit you mistake—apologize—will only raise your status in the eyes of others. Apologies are the heart’s way of reminding the ego that everyone has value, the someone else besides you is important.
- 41 ON EMPATHY
I was at the battle of Gettysburg myself, and an incident occurred there which largely changed my views of the Southern people. I had been a most bitter anti-South man, and fought and cursed the Confederates desperately. I could see nothing good in any of them. The last day of the fight I was badly wounded. A ball shattered my left leg. I lay on the ground not far from Cemetery Ridge, and as General Lee ordered his retreat he and his officers rode near me. As they came along I recognized him, and though faint from exposure and loss of blood, I raised up my hands, looked Lee in the face, and shouted as loud as I could, “Hurrah for the Union!” The general heard me, looked, stopped his horse, dismounted, and came toward me. I confess that I at first thought he meant to kill me. But as he came up he looked down at me with such a sad expression upon his face that all fear left me, and I wondered what he was about. He extended his hand to me, and grasping mine firmly and looking right into my eyes, said, “My son, I hope you will soon be well.”
If I live a thousand years, I shall never forget the expression on General Lee’s face. There he was defeated, retiring from a field that had cost him and his cause almost to their last hope, and yet he stopped to say words like those to a wounded soldier of the opposition who taunted him as he passed by! As soon as the general had left me I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground. (A story reported by an old “Grand Army” man at Gettysburg in A.L. Long’s Memoirs of Robert E. Lee (p.302))
Data, logic, derailment assessment, and statistical analysis do not—and cannot—speak the same language as empathy. If you lead your organization through a thousand battles, you will not get much right if you don’t get the human side of the battle right.