In 1866, a year after taking thesurrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Ulysses S. Grant hadreason to consider and comment on the political landscape. At the head of whatwas likely the most powerful national armed force on the planet, Grant wouldvoice an altering measure of both satisfaction and disappointment of America’sattempt to mend her scars. “Some of the rebel Generals are behaving noblyand doing all they can to induce the people to throw aside their old prejudicesand to conform…Johnston and Dick Taylor, particularly, are exercising a goodinfluence; but Lee is behaving badly. He is conducting himself very differentlyfrom what I had reason, from what he said at the time of the surrender, tosuppose he would.”

It is fair to observe that Grant hadhis own views and judgements about what ought to be taking place to restorepolitical and social harmony in the country, the rough pace at which theseevents should be unfolding and the like. However, a critical reflection on thewords and actions of Lee in the period from Appomattox to his death in 1870force a reconsideration of the veracity of Grant’s statement, or at least hisawareness of what was actually transpiring under the influence of his formeradversary. Civil War historian Gary Gallagher has done much to establish thatLee showed immense discipline in public to avoid conflagrating the persistenttension in the land, but in private, Lee did express great anger about havinglost the Civil War and over much that had unfolded as a result. (2) But whileGallagher is quite correct in noting that Lee did allow himself to expressanger in private, this overall proves the General was human. It was and surelyremains beyond any human being to have endured the war experiences which Leedid without some measure of afflicting anguish. Much rather is more accuratethe point which Ranger Matt Atkinson, of Gettysburg National Park Service, hasmade that, by choosing to make active use of his immense influence towardsreconciliation, Robert E. Lee time and again set a heroic and courageousexample and equally committed himself to what he extolled. (3) Just a fewexamples suffice to challenge the views of Grant, and which have becomeatypical with the False Story thesis of Civil War studies.

While vacationing at the WhiteSulphur Springs, WV, in 1867, General Lee became troubled at thevindictiveness, ostracism and loathing that Southerners showed Northerners,particularly amongst young women of society. In his gentle but assertivemanner, he went out of his way to intermingle with Northerners, asking women ofsuch families to publicly socialise at party gatherings held each night there,with him. One night, when enquiring why none of the Southern girls who flockedabout him had taken the time to greet some Pennsylvanians, he told them, ‘weare on our own soil and owe a sacred duty of hospitality.’ Pretending to fanthemselves, no ladies acquiesced. Lee then rose and said, ‘I have tried in vainto find any lady…who is able to present me. I shall now introduce myself andbe glad of any of you who will accompany me.’ A young Southern belle namedChristiana Bond at last rose and said, ‘I will go, General Lee, under your orders.’The Gray Fox shook his head in a fatherly manner, ‘Not under my orders; but itwill gratify me deeply to have your assistance.

As they strode across the ballroom,the General stopped beneath the chandelier to tell her of the pain he felt atthe awareness of the mood of hatred, unreasoning bitterness and resentmentamong the South toward the North, but especially as beheld by the young people.Nearly 60 years later, Mz. Bond would recall his earnest desire for, ‘the dutyof kindness, helpfulness and consideration for others.’ Bond couldn’t help butprostrate, ‘had the General never felt resentment towards the North?’ The GrayFox told her to her etched vivid memory, he was neither bitter, nor resentful.He asked her when she returned home, ‘to take a message to your young friends.’That being, ‘to tell them, from him, that it is unworthy of them as women, andespecially as Christian women, to cherish feelings of resentment against theNorth.’ The General continued that, ‘it pained him inexpressibly to know such astate existed, and he implored one and all to do their duty to heal thecountry’s wounds.’ Lee and Mz. Bond then met with great affection thePennsylvanians.

The influence of Lee’sreconciliatory views spread throughout the resort, to no great surprise.Perhaps a rumour was started on purpose to effect a test; the young Southernladies reported to Lee that Ulysses S. and Julia Grant were to shortly arriveas guests. What ought be the appropriate response? Lee replied, ‘If GeneralGrant comes, I shall welcome him to my home, show him all the courtesy that isdue from one gentleman to another and do everything in my power to make hisstay agreeable.’ (5) Grant did not arrive, but the heroic message Lee strovefor towards reconciliation was undeniable.

Challenges to Lee’s legacy, past andpresent, have forced a reconsideration of his image as ‘The Marble Man’, but acritical reflection of the available primary evidence and rigorous analysis byhistorians such as Gallagher and Atkinson leaves us with the humanity of RobertE. Lee, restored. And in testing the claims of the False Story school ofhistorical thought of those such as Adam Serwer and Eric Foner, what isrevealed in contrast is a man whose defining human trait was heroism.

“It was a general belief in all theSouthern states…that the example of General Lee would weigh far more in therestoration of normal conditions and true peace than any other factor in awar-torn country.”