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.
But why should an ever upwardly mobile society like this one take note of him? Why take time this one day of the year to focus on an old man from an old war? Time is money, as everyone knows. Why waste it? And on a war he lost at that. It is success that counts, as every American who worships it knows. Yet he still speaks to us. The shattered glass of the old icon still glistens, obliterating any need for words. We pause, waiting to hear what the silence says. We have an idea it's important, that it may yet save us.
His birthday arrives like an unexpected sabbath. There comes a stillness. All stops. Perception returns. The daily cacophony of the new and the news ceases. A silence envelopes.
It happens every Jan. 19. The date always comes as a surprise, though it has been there on the calendar all along, held in reserve, like the federals in the center of the line that crucial day at Gettysburg, waiting, holding their fire, unperturbed, immovable. And once again we are caught unawares, unable to change the outcome, paralyzed by the immutable past.
It's like climbing a mountain every year, scrambling up the cliffs, past the shadows and thickets, finally reaching the top, and finding only the clear sky -- a lead-gray Southern sky in the depth of winter lit only by the yellowing, late-afternoon sun of memory. There are names for that view. Call it history, perspective, a sense of proportion. We can see now what is truly important, and what is not. From that coign of vantage, we spy features ordinarily obscured. They disturb. Rank upon rank the dead wait patiently. But as always, a single whispered word is enough to calm the soul: Lee.
The din of the year dissipates, pettiness vanishes, rancor departs, calculation and argumentation no longer matter. History itself fades into a series of sepia photographs pasted in a crumbling book. On this one day, we look down from the heights of history instead of forever trying to surmount them. We accept. Grant said it: Let us have peace.
We are like strangers just arrived on the scene from the future, looking about, trying to understand what happened here in this other country that is the past, searching for words to describe it, till we realize no words are necessary. It is silence, that rarest of modern qualities, that is called for. Words would only break the spell.
It's as if the day had become a cathedral, and we some heedless tourists who had chanced upon it, come to take needless photographs. For the vista is already ingrained within us. It is our birthright in these latitudes. It only waits to come to life in due season, like the ever fecund South itself.
Jan. 19. The date is somehow preserved intact among the flotsam of time, unaffected by all that comes by. Familiarity has bred not contempt but reverence. We begin to see what has always been there. And what remains ours.
Ever hear a couple of Southerners just passing the time, perhaps in a petty political quarrel, when the name Lee is thoughtlessly interjected? The air is stilled. Suddenly both are ashamed; neither wants to profane the name by taking it lightly, by using it to gain some stupid, fleeting advantage. There comes a pause in the conversation, as if light were breaking in. A stillness descends.
The stillness at Appomattox must have been like that. A stillness accompanied Lee wherever he went. Before or after Appomattox, it made no difference. He was the same Lee in defeat as in victory. Maybe that is what is meant by character, duty, honor, all the old words cheapened by hollow repetition. To look on him again is to bring back their original power, without needing to say them. They are just understood.
Stephen Vincent Benet understood:
We can lie about him.
Dress up a dummy in his uniform
And put our words into the dummy's mouth,
Say, 'Here Lee must have thought.' and 'There, no doubt,
By what we know of him, we may suppose
He felt, this pang or that --' but he remains
Beyond our stagecraft, reticent as ice,
Reticent as the fire within the stone.
What is missing from all the schematic explanations, the cheap debunks, the New Interpretations, is . . . everything. Everything inward that made him Lee. In the end it is not the victorious general nor the defeated one who speaks to us. It is not the Lee of Chancellorsville or of Appomattox that stills us, returning to lift us every year. It is not even the tragic Lee of Fredericksburg, full of passionate dispassion atop Marye's Heights as he watches the poor, trapped federals being destroyed below. "It is well that war is so terrible," he would murmur that day, looking down at the carnage he himself had engineered, "or we should grow too fond of it."
It is not even the Lee of Gettysburg who moves us today, the Lee who would meet Pickett after it was over, all over, and say only: "All this has been my fault." Politic leaders, with one eye on winning the next election and the other on writing their memoirs, don't say such things now. Nor did they then. Only Lee took responsibility. Only Lee did not write his memoirs.
It is not the storybook Lee who stills us this day every year, but the man who inspired the stories. Not the marble man on the pedestal, the sculpted Lee of statuary and a thousand Confederate Memorial Day speeches, but the solitary, singular Lee -- the Lee who would follow wherever Duty led. And we in turn would follow him. Because he was: Lee. And still is.