Robert E. Lee

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The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.

Robert Edward Lee (19 January 180712 October 1870) was a career army officer and the most successful general of the Confederate forces during the American Civil War. He eventually commanded all Confederate armies as general-in-chief.

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Duty is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.
The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.
  • Duty is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.
    • Letter to his son, G. W. Custis Lee (5 April 1852); published in The New York Sun (26 November 1864); also inscribed beneath his bust in the Hall of Fame on the former New York University campus, New York City.
  • In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.
  • I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honour for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It is intended for 'perpetual Union,' so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession: anarchy would have been established, and not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and all the other patriots of the Revolution. ... Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and, save in defense will draw my sword on none.
  • Since my interview with you on the 18th I have felt that I ought not longer retain my commission in the Army ... It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life, and all the ability I possessed ... I shall carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration and your name and fame will always be dear to me. Save for defense of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword.
    • Letter to General Scott (20 April 1861); as quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1875) by John William Jones, p. 139, after turning down an offer by Abraham Lincoln of supreme command of the U. S. Army.
  • It is well that war is so terrible — otherwise we should grow too fond of it.
  • What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbours, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world! I pray that, on this day when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace. ... My heart bleeds at the death of every one of our gallant men.
    • Letter to his wife on Christmas Day, two weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg (25 December 1862)
  • I have been up to see the Congress and they do not seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving.
    • Remark, March 1865, to his son, G. W. Custis Lee, as quoted in South Atlantic Quarterly [Durham, North Carolina] (July 1927)
  • The questions which for years were in dispute between the State and General Government, and which unhappily were not decided by the dictates of reason, but referred to the decision of war, having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor to recognize the fact.
    • Letter to former Virginia governor John Letcher (28 August 1865), as quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1875) by John William Jones, p. 203
  • The interests of the State are therefore the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote; and elect to the State and general Legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself.
    • Letter to former Virginia governor John Letcher (28 August 1865), as quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1875) by John William Jones, p. 203
  • True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them — the desire to do right — is precisely the same.
  • My experience through life has convinced me that, while moderation and temperance in all things are commendable and beneficial, abstinence from spiritous liquors is the best safeguard of morals and health.
    • Letter to a "Friends of Temperance" society (9 December 1869); as quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1875) by John William Jones, p. 170
  • So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.
    • Statement to John Leyburn (1 May 1870), as quoted in R. E. Lee : A Biography (1934) by Douglas Southall Freeman
  • Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.
    • To Governor Fletcher S. Stockdale (September 1870), as quoted in The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, pp. 497-500
  • My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them, or indisposed me to serve them; nor in spite of failures, which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge; or of the present aspect of affairs; do I despair of the future.
    The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.
    • Letter to Lt. Col. Charles Marshall (September 1870)
  • We must forgive our enemies. I can truly say that not a day has passed since the war began that I have not prayed for them.
    • As quoted in A Life of General Robert E. Lee (1871) by Joan Esten Cooke.
  • I cannot consent to place the control of others one who cannot control himself.
    • As quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1875) by John William Jones, p. 170
A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.
  • Madam, don't bring up your sons to detest the United States Government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.
    • Advice to a woman who expressed her hatred of the North, as quoted in The Life and Campaigns of General Lee (1875) by Edward Lee Childe, p. 331
  • Sir, if you ever presume again to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this university.
    • After one of the faculty at Washington College in Virginia (now Washington & Lee University) had spoken insultingly of Ulysses S. Grant, as quoted in Lee the American (1912) by Gamaliel Bradford, p. 226
  • The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.
    The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.
    The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.
    • "Definition of a Gentleman", a memorandum found in his papers after his death, as quoted in Lee the American (1912) by Gamaliel Bradford, p. 233
  • Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character.
    • As quoted in General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox (1922) by Franklin Lafayette Riley, p. 18
  • After it is all over, as stupid a fellow as I am can see that mistakes were made. I notice, however, that my mistakes are never told me until it is too late.
    • As quoted in May I Quote You General Lee? (2002) by Randall Bedwell, p. 63.
The education of a man is never completed until he dies.
  • Tell Hill he must come up ... Strike the tent.
    • Last words (1870-10-12) - There is some suggestion that Lee's autobiographer, Douglas Southall Freeman embellished Lee's final moments. Lee probably suffered a heart attack before dying several hours later and his last words cannot be confirmed.
  • You must be frank with the world; frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right...Never do anything wrong to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so, is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. Deal kindly, but firmly with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all do not appear to others what you are not.
    • As quoted in Truman by David McCullough (1992), p. 44
  • The education of a man is never completed until he dies.
    • As quoted in Peter's Quotations : Ideas for Our Time (1977) by Laurence J. Peter, p. 175
  • Teach him he must deny himself.
    • Lee to a mother who asked him to bless her son, as quoted in Charles Roland, Reflections on Lee: A Historian's Assessment (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), p. 117.

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