Paul Greenberg

But if the American Civil War was the first modern war, it was also the last of the old, formal wars fought by a certain code of honor. Robert E. Lee's campaigns of mobility and surprise against forces superior to his own in every material respect may have been the last in a way of war going back to Hannibal at Cannae, the chivalrous code he followed as old as Saladin's.

Far from a modern nationalist. Robert E. Lee wasn't even a sectionalist. He thought of his country as Virginia, and its people as his people, much as Southerners even today speak of family as "my people." Offered the leadership of the greatest force yet assembled on the North American continent, he would decline, and accept command of the Army of Northern Virginia instead. He could not abandon his people, and The War came.

The most celebrated and dissected battle of that war remains Gettysburg, where not just two armies met but the past and future of war -- like Pickett's charge meeting massed artillery. There could be no doubting the outcome.

The name Chambersburg is not as well known. It does not exert the same fascination for the modern mind. Chambersburg, Pa., was just a spot where Lee paused on his way to Gettysburg. He was moving to the offensive, and the smell of a decisive encounter was in the air that summer of 1863. Already reports had reached Lee's troops of the tactics Yankee marauders were beginning to use against the homes and families the men had left behind. A modern commander would have known how to play on their fears, how to raise their anger to a fever pitch, how to incite them to vengeance and victory.

But not Robert E. Lee, already a man of the past. Instead, he issued General Orders No. 73. On entering enemy territory with his troops poised to strike and avenge, the countryside open before him, ripe for the ravaging, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia told his troops this:

"The commanding general considers that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it our whole people, than the perpetration of the barbarous outrages upon the unarmed, and defenceless and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country. ... It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain."

Like all the works of man, what Lee did -- his victories and defeats -- will fade with time. Each generation is further and further removed from them. But what he was, the code he followed and embodied, that will last as long as conscience does. As long as the ever fecund past shapes us. As long as we can remember that it is not we who use the past, but it that nurtures and sustains us. Like the memory of Lee himself.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.