” I suppose there is nothing for me to do but go and see General Grant… And I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
It was on April 9th 1865, 150 years ago, that General Lee made this famous statement prior to surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia to General U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House effectively ending the longest bloodiest slugfest that has ever sullied our continent. Nothing in Lee’s history had prepared him for this terrible moment. He had a long distinguished military career which had promoted him through the ranks since well before the War with Mexico in 1846. Over these past 5 years of Civil War he had pulled victory after amazing victory from his feathered hat against vastly superior and better equipped forces . He was a master strategist, fine leader and student of military history. His family tree was full of accomplished, successful New World Aristocracy. His own father, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee had been a Revolutionary War hero and he was present at Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. In 1794 this elder Lee commanded the militiamen sent to quash the Whiskey Rebellion. He was a Congressman, Governor, Major General and in 1799 famously eulogized George Washington before a crowd of thousands as being “First in war-First in peace- and First in the hearts of his countrymen!”
The Lee’s were mover’s and shakers. They made plans and got things done. Robert E. Lee had big shoes to fill and must have had a mission to set out to do so. I was struck as I researched that he was only 53 when the Civil War began and not yet 60 at the Appomattox Courthouse. He looked older. I guess it is true: it isn’t the years it’s the mileage! However, He fought a good fight, but it wasn’t meant to be. He went home in defeat with nothing but his tattered reputation and later became president of Washington College until his death following a massive stroke in 1870. A quiet end to an amazing career.
I think we can all relate on some level. Perhaps we don’t have the military credentials or the background of someone like General Lee but we know what it like to face loss, exhaustion and total discouragement. This is not a testimonial for or against the Civil War, only just a little glimpse of one man’s crushing defeat after a long, bloody struggle. Maybe most of us have never had so many to lead…or to let down. Probably none of us have had so far to fall, as did the leader of the Confederate Army. But many of us have lofty hopes and precious dreams for the future that have flopped or died through no fault of our own. Perhaps at some point in your life you too have faced disappointment and a cascading loss of fortune or dreams. We can all relate to those situations where we have to finally quit fighting for a lost cause. Giving up and moving on can often be more difficult and painful than the actual wounds we incurred in that struggle!
Sometimes we can see it coming, as I’m sure Robert E. Lee did, at least, by the summer of 1864. And sometimes we are crushed by something that seemingly drops out of nowhere and hits us, ninja-style, like a two by four up the side of our head. How do you pick up the pieces and carry on. How does one put the loss behind them and move on to positive territory? Unlike some of his contemporaries, General Lee did not, by all accounts, wallow in self- pity, alcoholism or bitterness against his circumstances or victors. He had turned down President Lincoln’s offer to lead the Federal troops and chose instead to stay true to his home state of Virginia when the war began. I’m sure he was well aware that this could be a very dicey decision which could end very badly. But, he served the Confederacy to the best of his ability and then when it was over he just went home, rested up, stayed politically neutral thereafter, then went out and got a new job. We can all learn from his example. We must not let life’s defeats or disasters bring us to a place where we cannot function, nor raise our heads to see the light of tomorrow’s dawn. Psalm 30:5 assures us that…weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning. We can’t let depression or loss steal our dreams or our Godly destiny.
I don’t know a lot about Lee’s religious beliefs. I believe, from things that he said and wrote of that he was a Christian but beyond that, not much. I hope that he knew and acknowledged that the only real and true defeat which any of us face is at the end of a life that has never accepted Christ as Savior or developed that relationship with the Lord who loves us so well. Undoubtedly, we will all, at some time in our lives, make poor career or relationship decisions or have a crushing blow or two or four in this life. Defeat and disaster are only permanent conditions if we fail to listen and surrender to that still, small voice of the Holy Spirit pulling us, like a magnet, toward Jesus. He then becomes our Commander in Chief for all future life battles. He is our Joy. He is our Victory. He covers us with favor as with a shield. (Psalm 5:11).