Five Aprils…and a lesson in faith and humility

After last week’s post, Across Five Aprils, a reader wrote to ask about the title since the Civil War lasted from 1861-65.  I should have explained that the upheaval in the Southern way of life, especially in South Carolina, actually began on April 23, 1860 when the  national Democratic Party met in Charleston to nominate a presidential candidate and write the party platform. On April 30, delegates walked out over disputes and it wasn’t until June that they nominated a Kentuckian, John C Breckinridge for president. Talk of secession that had been swirling for several years reached a fever pitch, and on December 20th, 1860, South Carolina left the union. A couple of months later Mary Chesnut, the famous diarist wrote: “This Southern Confederacy must be supported now by calm determination and cool brains. We have risked all and we must play our best for the stake is life or death.”

This coming Tuesday, April 12, 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the attack on Ft. Sumter and the beginning of armed conflict. On Tuesday night, a single beam of light will be illuminated at the fort, and then the light beam will split, as a symbol of the awful division that took place then.

Before I leave the subject of the war, I want to share a bit about General Robert E Lee. I don’t  normally write about well- known historical figures, preferring instead to uncover the untold or little- told stories of our ancestors. General Lee’s brilliant victories and his crushing defeats have been well chronicled. What impresses me most is General Lee the husband, father, and grandfather who maintained his faith in God in the most horrific circumstances. While he was away at war, his beloved daughter, Annie  died after a sudden illness. His son Rooney was captured and held in a prison camp. His small grandaughter died. His daughter-in-law died. Daily he watched his soldiers, sick and wounded, struggle against better-equipped forces. Yet his many letters home to his wife Mary and  his four daughters reveal not only his deep love for his family, but his abiding faith in God. When Rooney was captured, he wrote to Mary: “We must bear this additional affliction with fortitude and resignation and not repine at the will of God. It will eventuate in some good that we know not of now…May God bless you all is my constant prayer. With true affection, RE Lee”.  When his baby granddaughter died, he wrote to his daughter-in-law Charlotte: “You now have two sweet angels in heaven. What joy there is in that thought!”

After the surrender at Appomattox, General Lee mounted Traveler and started home. As he rode through the town of Manchester, Virginia, a Baptist minister saw him pass and wrote: “His steed was bespattered with mud, his head hung down as if worn by long traveling. The horseman himself sat like a master, his face ridged with self-respecting grief, his garments were worn…and stained with travel…I was awed by his incomparable dignity. His majestic composure his rectitude and sorrow were so blended into his visage and so beautiful and impressive to  my eyes that I fell into violent weeping.”

When at  last the General arrived home, the famous photographer Matthew Brady who had photographed much of the carnage, knocked on Lee’s door and asked him to sit for a photograph. Brady said later, “I thought that to be the time for a historical picture.”  But General Lee said, “It is utterly impossible, Mr. Brady. How can I sit for a photograph with the eyes of the world upon me as they are today?”  Brady prevailed upon an old friend to speak to Mrs. Lee and shortly thereafter,  received word to come to the Lee’s house with his camera.  General Lee appeared on the back porch and said, “Very well, Mr. Brady, we are ready for you.”

This is the photo Brady took that day. It’s one of my favorites of General Lee. Even in defeat he is impeccably dressed, his shoes shined to a spit polish, dutifully submitting to a photo when his heart wasn’t in it. Why should we remember him,  more than 200 year after his birth? Because in the conduct of his life, both public and private he teaches us to remain faithful to God even in the most painful circumstances, to love and protect our families, to accept the responsibilities of leadership, even at great personal cost. One of my favorite books about General Lee is Charles Bracelen Flood’s Lee, The Last Years. This book covers the last 5 years of the General’s life and gives us glimpses into Lee the husband and father, Lee the educator, a man of uncommon courage and faith,  gone from the world too soon.