Robert E. Lee: History Teaches Us to Hope

5 min

Robert Edward Lee suffered many disappointments in life. Near the end of his life, Lee wrote a letter to a close friend and former staff officer, Colonel Charles Marshall. The letter reveals how Lee’s hope was anchored in his understanding of the eternal nature of God. Lee wrote: “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.”

Robert E. Lee was born January 19, 1807. His father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, was a famous cavalry commander in the American War for Independence and later served as the governor of Virginia. George Washington was a personal friend of the Lee family, and it was “Light Horse Harry” who eulogized General Washington with the words “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Harry Lee died while his son was a young boy and, thus, Robert E. Lee was raised by his mother. The beautiful family estate, Stratford Hall Plantation near Montross, Virginia, was lost to the family due to unforeseen financial difficulties. As a result, the Lee family moved approximately 80 miles northward to a modest home in Arlington, Virginia.

Lee’s mother, Anne Hill Carter Lee, had been born into one of the finest families in Virginia. She was a Godly woman who took her financial difficulties with gracious resignation. She understood well the Biblical truth that the honor of a good name was worth more than riches. Mrs. Lee was an invalid. When most boys his age were out playing, Lee spent many hours tenderly caring for his mother, taking her on carriage rides in the countryside or attending to her needs around the house.

Lee followed in his father’s footsteps in his desire to serve his country. He was granted an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. The young man and future general graduated with high honors and went through West Point without a single demerit to tarnish his name.

Lee’s military record is well known to history. In his many roles of service to his country—officer in the United States Corps of Engineers, staff officer in the Mexican War, superintendent at West Point, cavalry leader on the Texas frontier, and stalwart commander of the Army of Northern Virginia in America’s War between the States, Robert E. Lee earned his mark as one of the greatest captains in military history.

On dozens of battlefields, great and small, Lee’s men proved their devotion to their commander, consistently repelling wave after wave of well-fed, well-equipped troops. As the Civil War ground to a close, Lee bore the burden of the Confederacy’s troubles on his own shoulders and took the odium of defeat upon his own head. When victorious, he always gave the credit to others. When defeated, he always took the blame upon himself.

Throughout his life, Lee kept the focus of his heart upon the issues that matter most in life: his faith in God, his wife, and his children. Lee married a childhood friend, Miss Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Mary was a sincere, pious Christian lady who was increasingly afflicted with rheumatism as she aged. Eventually, she was confined to a wheelchair. Just as Lee had cared for his mother in his youth, so he learned to care for his wife. Robert E. Lee was a loving father to his seven children, seeing them through various calamities common to every young life. One such example was when one of his young sons accidentally cut off some fingers. Another time was when one of his daughters had a severe eye injury. In all matters of life, Lee taught his children to love God and to live for eternity.

During his busy life as an officer in the Corps of Engineers, he was never too busy to read with his children. Lee was also diligent in writing letters to his friends and family members. His correspondence would fill volumes, and every letter, whether written to a friend or a stranger, was marked with perfect courtesy and genuine interest in the well-being of others. Lee’s letters, even as a high-ranking officer, were usually signed simply, “Your obedient servant.”

A well-rounded man, Lee was known for his kindness to children. His benevolence extended beyond mankind to even animals. He once stopped while on the battlefield to lift a little bird back into a nest from whence it had fallen. Another time, he opened his bedroom window in the middle of a rainy night to let in his daughter’s cat. Children adored General Lee! They knew they were always welcome in his presence. Even in his later years, he would set aside his own comfort to let a little boy “ride horsey” on his aged knee. In the final year of the War between the States, during the siege of Petersburg and pressed by the crushing weight of war upon his shoulders, the general took time to talk to three little girls who visited him and brought him a basket of eggs, pickles, and garden produce. He returned their act of kindness by refilling the little girls’ basket with apples from a nearby tree.

During the bitter war that devastated his beloved home state of Virginia and destroyed a generation of young men, Robert E. Lee lost everything but life itself and the good name he carried. He had three family estates destroyed by the enemy, including his plantation at Arlington, now the center of Arlington National Cemetery. His hopes for a strong and prosperous Virginia free from federal oppression and tyranny were dashed forever. His dearest friends were killed in battle. He lost a precious daughter to a high fever. Several grandchildren died during the war, and his son was severely wounded and languished many months in prison. After losing two grandchildren and then a daughter-in-law in quick succession, Lee wrote to his bereaved son, “Thus is link by link of the strong chain broken that binds us to earth, and smoothes our passage to another world.”

Robert E. Lee spent the final years of his life increasingly focused upon preparing for this “other world.” He declined many lucrative job offers, and accepted the presidency of a small college in Lexington, Virginia. His dear friend Stonewall Jackson lay buried in the town’s cemetery. As the president of Washington College, Lee made it his goal to train young men “to be good Christians.” He continued, “If that were accomplished, I should have nothing more to desire.”

Robert E. Lee encouraged Southern families not to be bitter over the results of the war but instead to trust in God’s eternal perspective. Lee taught his former soldiers to be hardworking citizens and to rebuild the homes and institutions that the war had destroyed. Today, the sprawling farms, the excellent universities, the prosperous industry, and the thriving churches of the American South are an enduring testimony to the legacy of Robert E. Lee. Lee knew that sometimes we as mortal men are discouraged by what we see as backward progress. He reminded people that God views history from an eternal perspective. What we see as discouraging circumstances may only be “the ebb of the advancing wave.” It is in this context that Lee said, “It is history that teaches us to hope.” At Lee’s funeral, the congregation sang “How Firm a Foundation,” the general’s favorite hymn.

A Baptist pastor named J. William Jones, who knew Lee intimately in his last years in Lexington, Virginia, said of him: “If I have ever come in contact with a sincere, devout Christian—one who, seeing himself to be a sinner, trusted alone in the merits of Christ—who humbly tried to walk the path of duty, looking unto Jesus as the author and finisher of his faith—and whose piety constantly exhibited itself in his daily life—that man was General Robert E. Lee.”

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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