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“Let Him Stand”:
Shades of Virginia & General Lee

[1]3,353 words

It was a sweltering July afternoon at the Malvern Hill battle site — more than 150 years gone since it had been the scene of General Robert E. Lee’s debut in the 1862 Seven Days campaign. It was the conclusion of his defense of Richmond from the numerically-superior Army of the Potomac, led by George McClellan.

Rains drowned Yankee troops for days. They’d discovered that the stretch of land along the Chickahominy was a muddy death trap in late spring and summer. On the morning of July 3, “The enemy,” Lee wrote with his typical equanimity, “was found to have abandoned his position . . . [and is] fleeing down the north bank of the [James] river . . . [Our] cavalry is in pursuit . . .”[1] [2] Anyone who has tramped about old battlefields knows that it can take some imagination to picture armies flailing away at each other on calm, pastoral fields that haven’t borne witness to an exciting day since. The guides kept pointing to an area they called “the high ground.” I saw only the barest incline — nothing that seemed like a tactical advantage. But I enjoyed volunteering to shoot off the cannon and then exploring the old buildings and earthworks that still here and there peppered the property.

After four hours and as many water bottles later — indeed, it was so scorchingly airless that I never once had to resort to using the porta potties (thank God) — we began to make our way back through a copse of trees. There were two of us walking side-by-side on the small Indian trail. Meanwhile, another friend — a normally unflappable redhead — lingered behind us and on the lookout for snakes.

Suddenly, as we entered the heart of the thicket, time seemed to slow. The temperature dropped twenty degrees. Neither was there wind, nor were any creeks nearby to cause the swift change in atmosphere. A coolness had enveloped us, and we shivered. Five or ten seconds later, the sensation lifted. We’d returned, just as abruptly, to the modern day and in the hottest throes of summer. We exchanged mystified looks. Still checking for cottonmouths some distance away, Cara (sensible Presbyterian that she was) had noticed nothing.

The experience wasn’t malicious or foreboding. I’d like to think it was the spirit of Johnny Reb (maybe a fellow Texan), tipping his hat as we crossed paths. No, I’m not a person whose bookshelves are filled with true horror stories, psychics, or “haunted American trails” — but Virginia has ghosts. It’s a fact. You skeptics and rationalists can deny all you want and call it my feminine fancy, but I know the truth. It’s not uncommon for farmers or construction crews to churn up bones and artillery shells as they continue to plow and sift through Virginia’s dirty secrets.

[3]

The main house at Malvern Hill

I lived for six years in the “Historic Triangle” of the Virginia peninsula: Yorktown, Jamestown, and Williamsburg dotted its three points on the map. It is the oldest area of American colonial settlement, and — to a person raised in the western part of the South — its “closeness” was immediately apparent, and not always comfortable. I fell in love with Virginia. How could I not? She was gorgeous. If the wind was just right, I could taste the brine and make out the gull cries carried inland by sea breezes. Between her gardens and plantation homes spread a countryside laid out like a richly tapestried quilt of greens and blues and blacks; hills and forests in abundance criss-crossed by silver creeks and placid rivers. Its summer land teemed with fauna, and its woods turned russet and gold by mid-October. A fairy land.

But sometimes, when I stood in one place too long, or gazed out from my porch into a dark evening (few streetlights shone there, and those that did were weak and their light quickly swallowed up), filled with the humid drone of crickets, toads, owls, and tree branches creaking under their night-weight, I felt that Virginia wanted to devour me. I was in danger of joining her other children below the soil and in their forever Virginia-sleep. In order for her to wake up with that fresh and “virginal” morning dew-glory, everything else had to sink down and decay. A beautiful, awful kind of rot were her whispered promises to me, then. I understood: that’s what “Virginia creeper” really means.

The best friend I made (and kept) from those years was a young woman my age and complement. She had that flame-red hair indicative of Scottish ancestry, and her people were originally Pennsylvanians. But I never met a person so devoted to “auld” Virginia as Cara was; it would have been cruel to part her from her adopted state. While I was reading books and writing papers about the eighteenth century, she was practically living in the eighteenth century. She could dance all the minuets and play all the popular piano pieces from the 1770s; she sewed her own Revolutionary-era party dresses. I depended on her old-fashioned Protestant good sense to balance my melodramatic Catholic fatalism. And as it happened, we were both lovers of the South and of the South’s favorite son. She was my companion on the many pilgrimages where we walked in the footsteps of General Lee.

My first memory of Lee was as the subject of an elementary school book report I’d written about Helen Monsall’s Robert E. Lee: Young Confederate (still in print, for those with children). The paper began my life-long love affair with the dashing Gray Fox of the South. My next “moment” with the man occurred during a fifth-grade visit to Arlington Cemetery. As most readers will know, Arlington House was Robert and Mary Lee’s residence before the War. Mary’s cousin, a soldier in US General Winfeld Scott’s army, warned her in the spring of 1861 that the Yankees planned to seize the estate. With her husband away on military duties, she left Arlington to stay with relatives. A tax levied on all land in “insurrectionist” areas imposed a heavy cost that Mary, suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis and living well behind Confederate lines, could not pay in person. This was the pretext for Arlington’s seizure.

[4]

You can buy James O’Meara’s book The Eldritch Evola here. [5]

Trying to console his heartbroken wife over the loss, Lee wrote to her that “their old home, [was] destroyed [and] probably too” ravaged by careless commanders and the comings and goings of the federal army “ever to be recognized” as Arlington House again — but the dispossessors could not “take away the remembrance of the spot, [nor] the memories . . . that rendered it sacred. That [would] remain . . . as long as life last[ed.]”[2] [6] He was not speaking here only of Arlington, but of the “sacred” soil of Virginia more generally. When it came to the mansion and the hill on which it stood, however, he was correct. An embittered US Quartermaster General converted the front yard and surrounding grounds into a field for Union dead. The sacking of Arlington mirrored in miniature the Northern vengeance visited on the South as a whole, turning the region into a mass grave that in many places seemed equally uninhabitable. One of the few souvenirs that I took home from that trip was a lapel pin bearing a postage-stamp image of Lee. More than two decades on, I still know exactly where it is.

In the “absence of a home” and after the desecration of Arlington, Lee “wish[ed that he] could purchase ‘Stratford’ . . . the only other place” where he “could go to . . . that would inspire in [him] feelings of pleasure and local love.” Stratford was my favorite Virginia plantation house. It lacked the polished stateliness of Mount Vernon; it couldn’t boast the fascinating architectural eccentricity of Monticello. And Lee himself once called it a “poor place.”[3] [7] But it was where he was born and grew up — the old manor that belonged to generations of Lee owners before him. Built along the banks of the Potomac, an area rife with Miocene-era fossils and compacted sea-matter, the property’s edge leading down toward the river looked like a smaller, woodsier version of the white cliffs of Dover.

Cara and I hiked the bluffs using rotted stair-steps and frayed rope to pull ourselves to the top of the peaks (one of the added benefits of going to more “out-of-the-way” plantations was the glorious shortage of safety supervisors lurking ‘round). The house itself was a spare building in the design of eighteenth-century classicism. Our guide was an elderly black woman who seemed to delight in recounting stories from Lee’s childhood. Squirrel iconography abounded, since the Lee family crest once prominently featured the animal sitting on a branch and cracking open an acorn. Below the heraldry read the inscription: Non Incautus Futuri [Not Unmindful of the Future]. Consider a visit there, or patronizing their online shop [8]. Places like this one need private support, lest they become common ruins.

On my last day in Virginia, and in my aging Honda Civic, Cara and I drove up to Richmond. It was another sultry summer day and the AC had given up, capable only of blowing into our faces waves of superheated solar air (a common theme). Nevertheless, we were determined to explore some of the Confederacy’s most hallowed ground before I left for good. We parked on a side street and walked through the gates of Hollywood Cemetery. It is the resting place of acres and acres of Southern soldiers, some legendary and some anonymous. On marble tombs are carved, “Jefferson Davis” and “James Ewell Brown [J. E. B.] Stuart,” along with young men unknown, save for a regiment and state below the title, “Private.” Fenced-in family plots shelter veterans bearing ancient Southern names. There was indeed a strong generational component to the Confederate war effort.

Much as I cherish Gone with the Wind (book and film), the depiction of Southern men as essentially bored dandies waiting around on women at barbecues was an inaccurate picture of the 1850s and early 1860s. The young men who went on to fill the officer corps of the Confederate States of America were serious students of engineering, warfare, history, and statecraft.[4] [9] They, the last generation raised in households staffed with slaves, formed an aristocracy in which Christian virtue, and the roles of race, class, and sex were unquestioned. And for all that, it was not an especially stifling society, for they also believed in living well (Southern places often do). Their drawls and ready smiles made them an easy breed with whom to talk; the unending green acreage of which they were masters afforded and spent their boundless energy for riding and hunting. Like the country itself, they had the confidence, and perhaps the impetuosity, of youth. But those who marched on the cornfields of Sharpsburg, Manassas, and Fredericksburg wearing the gold-braid their sweethearts had sewn onto the gray were a thoughtful generation of warriors.

Leaving through Richmond’s historic district, we then drove past the Lee monument and smiled. That evening, the world was all rose and mist. Our father-warrior sat atop his country’s capital, and the dead seemed at peace. That world now seems very distant. Lee sacrificed his career, his Arlington home, his health, and would have sacrificed his life — for Virginia. By hacking his statue to pieces, “Virginia” has butchered her truest son in effigy, and sacrificed Lee to the unappeasable gods of revenge. “There is more work to do,” his killers have threatened. Do not shrug this off as a senseless gesture, but understand that it was proxy-murder, that the targets were white Southerners who continue to find in Lee an icon of pride and hope.

The infidel regime wants to kill any spark of resistance left in you and me. Frankly, they want to kill you and me, because they hate the memory as much as they hate the man. And where does memory live, but in our stone statues and in our flesh, our beating hearts? If you wish to destroy the one, you must destroy the other.

Like most Confederate monuments dedicated to the men swept up in the struggle, the Lee statue owed its commission to “the unflagging zeal of those noble women of the South.”[5] [10] Southern men who had attempted to memorialize the war dead or to bring attention to their fallen comrades were regarded by federal authorities as dangerous backsliders and “unreconstructed” traitors. But in the Victorian age, it would have been ungallant to deny women the privilege of publically honoring their dead husbands, brothers, and fathers. So, ladies’ groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Lee Monument Association stepped into this role, deemed pleasing and natural to their sex, with gusto. In the past, “peace” has often come in the form of a woman. It is my hope that in the future, the restoration of manly honor will signal the return of feminine devotion.

When it came to Confederate monuments, both genuinely chivalrous and wily Yankees soon realized the value of magnanimity. “Finally,” one newspaper wit declared, “we have at last found the key to the fierce and untamed southerner’s heart.” A detachment of Bostonian “Pythians [a secret fraternal order still in existence]” who had travelled to Richmond for “some reunion or other,” marched from “their headquarters to the capital square” and fell into formation around Stonewall Jackson’s statue. They stood with “heads uncovered and swords at present-arms while the band struck up a beautiful memorial overture.” It was the secret “northerners had [sought] for a quarter century.” The townsfolk who witnessed the tribute were moved to tears, and one man “wiped his face on his sleeve and blew his nose vigorously.” Some of them “hadn’t had a good cry since their surrender at Appomattox. For nearly twenty years their eyes had been dry and their hearts stony.” But when a “little knot of Boston Knights paid a slight tribute to their illustrious dead, they melted.”[6] [11] It was this kind of smug contempt that had plunged the country into war in the first place, but behind the exaggeration lay truth — a truth long since forgotten in the rush to rip at the seams of our cohesion: Strong nations are the products of proud regions and peoples. Southerners’ defeat made memory and meaning essential fashionings in the effort to preserve their identity.

[12]

You can buy Kerry Bolton’s More Artists of the Right here. [13]

Modern incarnations of smug contempt have attacked accounts of Lee’s generalship and character as mere hagiography. Even conservatives have called him a “traitor” unworthy of respect. But these views of historic figures reflect more on themselves and the base Dark Age in which they live than they do any revisionism gleaned from solid scholarship. Lee won’t go away, and they, with their fashionable virtues of “diversity,” “tolerance,” and “equality,” cannot stand his enduring appeal. For us, this is no mystery. We know that it’s due to the immortal virtues that he embodied: honor, sincerity, self-control, and courage on behalf of his race, all qualities that are so vanishingly rare in our time that we can scarcely believe men like Lee existed. His was a fascinating type and will continue to attract admirers. But as events have proven, we have indulged in some confused thinking: we once viewed our ancestral monuments as bequests that previous generations gifted to us, free of charge. Not true. These were “gifts” that we have had to continuously earn, in a way similar to that of earned wisdom; intelligence might be a hereditary gift that we can harness, but the insights of wisdom are the fruits of that process, of the long hours devoted to sorting through the revelations of those who came before us. Should we fail in worthiness, these gifts will degenerate, or disappear altogether.

The pieces of the Lee monument arrived in Richmond from France on May 4, 1890. 10,000 people helped lug the four wagons needed to transport the structure to the dedication site. Archer Anderson delivered a speech at the unveiling amidst what would become Monument Circle.[7] [14] At the time, it was only a tobacco field. He meditated on the “deep instinct [that] teaches us that the character of the ideal [military] commander is the grandest manifestation in which man can show himself to man.” The business of war has always been with men, and “the business of a general is to lead men . . . on that dread arena, the field of battle.” There must “be in him a power to call forth an enthusiastic and passionate devotion. Of all careers, a military life makes the heaviest demand on the . . . self-sacrifice of those who are to follow and obey.” In the charged atmosphere of battle, “Love and enthusiasm for a leader are the only forces powerful enough to raise men to this heroic pitch.”

The Commonwealth of Virginia was blessed with two such paragons of manliness and martial valor: George Washington and now, Robert E. Lee. No other state and no other capital had been so distinguished in their champions. In the end, “the greatest gift the hero leaves his race” is not victory, but it “is to have been a hero.” Let Lee’s monument stand, Anderson continued,

not as a record of civil strife, but as a perpetual protest against whatever is low and sordid . . . Let it stand for reproof, if our people shall ever sink below the standards of their fathers . . . Let it stand for patriotic hope . . . if a day of national gloom and disaster shall ever dawn upon our country . . .[8] [15]

Lee died in 1870, only five years after Appomattox, and twenty years before Anderson’s eulogy. According to his relatives, Lee spent the night of January 18 drifting in and out of consciousness. On the cusp of death, his last coherent words were those of a warrior whose mission was unfinished. Virginia drew him back to a battlefield somewhere before the die was cast that flung us all into the deep ditches of consequence and history. “Strike the tent . . . Tell [A. P.] Hill he must come up!” he murmured hoarsely.[9] [16] Such were the fields of imagination through which he passed and such was the sighting of his soldiers as they welcomed him back with their cheers and untrammeled flags.

I heard something similar during my final evening in Virginia. Hollywood wound for miles, and as we passed along the cemetery’s outer limits, we heard deep rumbles from below. We gripped the rails and looked down on a scene of violence. I was used to the waters of the James River lazily flowing through Williamsburg. At times, it had seemed more like a stagnant lake. The same river I saw now was unrecognizable. Rapids and whirlpools lashed themselves against the rocks, and the river, it roared. This time, it took no effort to envision a war. Exhilarated (and a bit unsettled), I turned to Cara and said with some wonder: “The James is savage.” The James was awake. The James had come for a fight. Bury the dead, but do not bury the struggle. It was the last time Virginia spoke to me. I am still haunted by the words.

[17]

Angels of Defeat and Victory, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

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Notes

[1] [18] Taken from a July 3, 1862 message sent from General Robert E. Lee to President Jefferson Davis in Lee’s Dispatches; Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., Douglas Southall Freeman, ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915), 22-24.

[2] [19] Taken from Robert E. Lee’s December 25, 1861 letter to his wife, Mary Custis-Lee, in Recollections of General Robert E. Lee, by His Son, Robert Edward Lee (Doubleday, 1905), 58.

[3] [20] Ibid., 59.

[4] [21] For further reading on this subject, see Peter F. Carmichael’s The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[5] [22] Taken from Archer Anderson’s commemoration speech and published in the Lee Monument Association’s Robert Edward Lee: An Address Delivered at the Dedication of [His] Monument (Richmond, Va.: 1890).

[6] [23] “The Wily Yankee,” Atchison Globe, 27 May 1881.

[7] [24] Archer Anderson was the eldest son of Brigadier General Joseph Reid Anderson — a man who also managed the vitally-important Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. Archer Anderson rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the War, serving in both Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee.

[8] [25] Taken from Archer Anderson’s Robert Edward Lee: An Address.

[9] [26] Recollections of General Robert E. Lee, 439.