By now successive generations of historians have set out to capture the uncapturable essence of the man -- the Real Robert E. Lee, they say. And yet, despite all their efforts, the mythic Lee remains, whole. And seems to call each generation to him, like a mountain peak in the distance.
The revisionists have left only a jagged, shattered image behind. Yet it is strangely fitting. For there is something almost unnatural about the portraits of the dashing young Lee, still untouched by time and what would prove his saving grace, defeat.
Just as the most moving picture of Lincoln may be the last one, his visage engraved with every sorrow and sacrifice of that terrible war, the crucible out of which a new birth of freedom would emerge. The final touch is the jagged line across the top of the old photographic plate, as broken as the old Union itself. Yet the image would not be complete without it, without that scar running across it, somehow binding it together, as the Union itself would be saved and recast, strongest where it had been broken. There, one feels, is the real Lincoln: Father Abraham, mourning his children yet still seeing clear as always.
As for the real Lee, there he is, pictured only after Appomattox, on the steps of a cottage, familiar as one's father, yet somehow more Lee than the Lee of either Chancellorsville or Gettysburg, his greatest victory and greatest defeat. He looks at the camera unmoved, unchanged within, forever serene, duty done. ("Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.") No more need be said. And wasn't. The Army of Northern Virginia had been dismissed, its arms stacked, its banners furled. Its commander looks straight ahead, never back. Gray as his uniform, gray as duty, he awaits only the final Reveille, worn as mortal time.
Imagine if his image were new, shiny, untarnished. What a counterfeit it would be. Instead, like an ancient coin, nicked and rubbed almost clean, Brady's photograph speaks of a different world, one we enter now to be astounded not by the resounding clash of arms, the smoke and fire of the futile Confederate batteries at Gettysburg, but by the utter stillness, the perfect peace within which The General moved, always. He still does.
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