Forgiveness stories -- Robert E. Lee

One of my personal heroes of the Civil War is Robert E. Lee. Not because of what he did during the war, but for what he did afterwards. After surrendering to Grant, he wondered what to do with the rest of his life, and actively discouraged people from attempting to continue the struggle for southern independence as guerrillas in the wilderness. A former governor of Virginia was angry with his son when his son took the oath of loyalty to the United States, but when the son replied that General Lee recommended it, the father withdrew his objection.

Lee was offered the job of president of  Washington college (currently named Washington  and Lee University) in Virginia. After Ulysses Grant was elected President, one of the students made some public remarks insulting Grant. Lee summoned the student to his office and said if he didn't withdraw his comments about the President of the United States, "either you or I will leave this university."  I can easily imagine a different speech. "You think you have a problem with Ulysses Grant? I had to surrender to him!"

Even during the war Lee showed signs of a forgiving spirit. At the end of the battle of Gettysburg, a wounded Union soldier saw Lee riding nearby, and shouted (to taunt Lee) "Long live the Union!" Lee got off his horse, went to the man and wished him a full recovery from his wounds. The man wrote that the compassion in Lee's eyes made quite an impression on him.

Perhaps the most dramatic story of Lee's forgiving spirit is a story we aren't quite sure really happened, or if it happened, how to interpret it. The story is that in 1865, between the time of his surrender to Grant and his taking the job at Washington College, he was in church one Sunday. The congregation was shocked when a black man came forward to take communion at the end of the service. Blacks were expected to take communion in the balcony, not at the front altar. The minister hesitated, Lee went forward, and the congregation were relieved, thinking he'd put this black in his place. But instead Lee knelt beside the black man, and the minister was obliged to continue serving communion, accepting the black man's presence at the main altar.
This story is it is missing from the four volume biography of Lee written by Douglas Southall Freeman, a famous Virginian historian. It is also missing from Robert E. Lee Jr's memoir of his father's life. The oldest source for it was written in the early 1900's, 40 years after it happened. In that version, Lee's action wasn't interpreted as welcoming the black man to the front altar, it was depicted as a superior white gentleman ignoring and shunning the black man who didn't know his place.

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