Today is a historic civil war date. It marks the death of John Wilkes Booth, the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston’s army to General William Tecumseh Sherman, and Confederate Memorial Day, observed officially in seven States.
It is an entirely unexpected coincidence that my post of the finished the picture of Robert E. Lee falls on Confederate Memorial Day. I started the painting after reading about Lee and Lincoln in Paul Johnson’s book Heroes and with the desire to compliment my Lincoln painting.
Chapter eight of Heroes describes both Lincoln and Lee as “Two Kinds of Nobility.” Both men were fiercely ambitious, but it seems Lee’s ambition arose to suppress a legacy of shame. His father was a revolutionary war general and a governor of Virginia. According to Johnson, he became a dishonest land speculator, was jailed twice, and declared bankruptcy. He fled to the Caribbean when young Robert was six and he never returned.
Here’s what Johnson writes, “Robert E. Lee seems to have set himself up, quite deliberately, to redeem the family honor by leading an exemplary life of public service. ‘Honor,’ a word he pronounced with a special loving emphasis, putting a stress on each syllable, meant everything to him. His dedication to honor made him a peculiarly suitable person to become the equivalent to the South of Lincoln, sanctifying its cause by personal probity and virtuous inspiration.”
When South Carolina seceded, all eyes looked to Virginia to see which way the Old Dominion would side. It is said that Lee denounced secession privately in letters, and saw it as a betrayal of the Founder’s first principles. When asked if he would fight for the Confederacy, Lee replied “I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.” At the recommendation of Winfield Scott, Lincoln offered Lee a top command in the forthcoming Union army, but when the Old Dominion voted for secession, Lee refused Lincoln’s offer. He said, “I prize the Union very highly and know of no personal sacrifice I would not make to preserve it, save that of honour.” Unlike his father, Lee it seems, would not break his commitments or otherwise embarrass the State of Virginia. Two days after Lincoln’s offer, Lee resigned from the U.S. Army. Three days after that, he took command of Virginia’s State forces.
In an 1874 speech before the Southern Historical Society in Atlanta, Benjamin Harvey Hill remarked that Lee “… was a Ceasar, without his ambition; Fredrick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward.”
In the end Lincoln and Lee are the fitting tragic heroes in a war shot through with tragedy.
EDIT: Thanks to Justin for taking pictures of my painting with his space camera.