Few Americans stand higher in the esteem of their fellow Americans --or of all the world-- than Robert E. Lee. Yet for four years he tried with consummate skill to divide and wreck our Union and , in effect, perpetuate the horror of human slavery. And this he did, almost to the point of success, with numerically inferior forces backed by the diminishing resources of a people struggling at the same time to make themselves a nation.
Superlative though his military leadership and accomplishments were, it is not for these , in the final analysis, that we revere him. Rather it is because, North and South alike, we recognize his greatness as a man, a greatness of character that shone forth as steadily in the final acceptance of defeat as it did in his brilliant victories. He could have held high command in the Union armies; he chose to cast his lot with his native state, Virginia.
After failure in a campaign in western Virginia and relegation to to the supervising of eastern coastal fortifications, his opportunity came with the assignment to command the Army of Northern Virginia after the wounding of Joseph E. Johnston, just before the Seven Days. At that moment he stepped from comparative obscurity to assured fame. The Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold harbor, the Siege of Petersburg, and Appomattox are all names inextricably linked with his.
Not all were victories, yet when we think of Antietam, Gettysburg, and the end at Appomattox, Lee's name somehow comes first to mind, not McClellan's or Meade's or Grant's. It is the tribute we unconsciously pay to superlative character.
After Appomattox, he who has been called "the soul of the Confederacy" became even more the defeated South's rallying point. Rejecting many lucrative offers he accepted the presidency of Washington College (later re-named Washington and Lee University) and from this position counseled the young men under him and the South at large to accept the war's decision , rebuild their shattered homeland, and become useful citizens of the Nation they had fought to divide.