Opinion: Washington, Lincoln, Lee—a U.S. Trinity

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Sadly, the war was not over in 90 days. It raged for four bloody years, inflicting a degree of carnage over vast expanses of southern territory on a scale entirely beyond any American's imagination. Such destruction would not be seen again until the aftermath of World War II.

The two pivotal personalities in the great conflict were Lincoln and Lee.

Lincoln fought to save the Union that George Washington had co-founded and fathered during its perilous infancy. Lee fought against the Union because he, like so many others in both the North and the South, truly believed that each individual state was sovereign unto itself and should not be forced to remain in the Union if it elected to exit.

Lee: Life After War

After his surrender at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia, General Lee had plenty of time to think through the events of the past four years and reflect deeply on the decisions he had made that so heavily impacted the lives of so many others.

I believe that at some point during this period Lee privately acknowledged that the Union that George Washington, a father figure for Lee, had helped create was unprecedented in human history, precious, and deserving of lasting preservation. In other words, I am convinced that Lee concluded that Lincoln, not he, had fought for the just cause.

Lee's reputation and stature as a leader were such that he engendered a great deal of loyalty among his men. What he thought, or what guilt he may have felt about the soldiers who sacrificed their lives fighting for him during the later years of the war, we will never know.

Lee wrote no memoirs and only rarely spoke, even to his most intimate friends, about his wartime trials and tribulations.

We do know that before he went to meet with General Grant he asked Confederate General Wise, "What will the country think of me?" Wise answered: "What country? There has not been a country for more than a year. For these men, you are the country."

Return of the Prodigal Son

Lee, like the prodigal son in the Bible, had left his father's home—in this case, the country that Washington had helped found—in rebellion and had squandered the riches of the South in lost lives and land.

To atone for the sin of waging civil war, he humbly returned to his father's home, in a manner of speaking, by accepting the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He devoted the remainder of his life to educating young Virginians to become, in his words, "good Americans." After his death on October 12, 1870, the school was renamed Washington and Lee University, linking "father" and "son" forever together.

Lee never returned to his 1,100-acre (445-hectare) estate in Arlington, Virginia, although he did return to Washington, D.C., to visit President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House. The two former generals, both West Point graduates who had fought together in the Mexican War of 1846, had not seen each other since their fateful meeting at Appomattox Court House. We can only imagine their conversation.

Today Lee is justly honored with a statue in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, alongside one of George Washington. Both men are memorialized as well by statues in the Virginia State Capitol.

Interestingly, both men were once traitors—one to the king, the other to the president.

Grant was prescient when he predicted: "If the South follows the example of Lee, eventually all will be well with the country."

Most southerners have done just that, by accepting defeat and embracing reunification, while at the same time cherishing the heritage of the "Lost Cause." There remains a prominent minority, however, who have not. Nor apparently will they ever accept defeat, much less recognize—or respect—Union victory. Instead, they continue to see themselves as residents of a conquered southern nation, not a reunited nation, whose passion is unleashed publicly and privately whenever their flag of independence is assaulted.

To me, they have forfeited any right to claim themselves as followers of General Lee.

Edward C. Smith is the director of American Studies at American University.

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