What Robert E. Lee Teaches Us About Reconciliation

May 16, 2013 — 13 Comments

I have lived in the South for almost nine years now. As a history student for life, I have tried to take advantage of my home in Nashville and learn more about the American Civil War. I also have tried to observe how people from the South talk about the Civil War. Although I don’t live in the deep South, the war seems to be a distant past to most people here. My only fear is that people will forget what happened and more importantly, what we can learn from it.


My father was a member of Kappa Alpha, an “Old South” fraternity, which was inspired by the gentlemanly conduct of Robert E. Lee, when he served as President of Washington College (later became Washington & Lee). My father as well as my grandfather, who was also a Kappa Alpha member, always spoke fondly of Robert E. Lee. I never quite understood why because of Lee being a General whom led a rebellious army that ultimately lost. Lee did not seem to be a perfect person but why did his soldiers fight so bravely for him and why did they follow him when he agreed to surrender to Union forces? I learned why from a story in the book, April 1865, the author wrote a beautiful ending that captured the scene of Richmond, Virginia not long after the Civil War ended.

It was a warm Sunday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and an older man, one of the church’s many distinguished communicants, who had spent the last four years in war, was sitting in his customary pew. With his shoulders rounded, his middle thickened, his hair snow-white and beard gray, as usual, he attracted the attention of the rest of the church. But then so did another parishioner.

As the minister, Dr. Charles Minnergerode, was about to administer Holy Communion, a tall, well-dressed black man sitting at the western galley (which was reserved for Negroes) unexpectedly advanced to the communion table-unexpectedly because his this had never happened here before. Suddenly, the image of Richmond redux was conjured up-a flashback to prewar years. Usually whites received communion first, then blacks-a small but strictly adhered to ritual, repeated so often that to alter it was unthinkable. This one small act, then, was like a large frontier separating two worlds: the first being that of the antebellum South, the second being that of post-Civil War America. The congregation froze; those who had been ready to go forward and kneel at the altar rail remained fixed in their pews. Momentarily stunned, Minnergerode himself was clearly embarrassed. The horror-and surprise-of the congregation were no doubt largely visceral, but Minnergerode’s silent retreat was evident. It was one thing for the white South to endure defeat and poverty, or to accept the fact that slaves were now free; it was quite another for a black man to stride up to the front of the church as though an equal. And not just at any church, but here, at the sanctuary for Richmond’s elite, the wealthy, the well-bred, the high-cultured.

The black man slowly lowered his body, kneeling, while the rest of the congregation tensed in their pews. For his part, the minister stood, clearly uncomfortable and still dumbfounded. After what seemed to be an interminable amount of time-although it was probably only seconds-the white man arose (Lee), his gait erect, head up and eyes proud, and walked quietly up the aisle to the chancel rail. His face was a portrait of exhaustion, and he looked far older than most people had remembered from when the war had just begun. These days had been hard on him. Recently, in a rare, unguarded moment he had uncharacteristically blurted out, “I’m homeless-I have nothing on earth.”

Yet these Richmonders, like all of the South, still looked to him for a sense of purpose and guidance. No less so now as, with quiet dignity and self-possession, he knelt down to partake of the communion, along with the same rail with the black man.

Watching Robert E. Lee, the other communicants slowly followed in his path, going forward to the altar, and, with a mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation, into the future.

I now understand what a humble, yet magnanimous man looks like. Reconciliation that month of April 1865 emerged in the form of Robert E. Lee.

13 responses to What Robert E. Lee Teaches Us About Reconciliation


    Sort of the Branch Rickey of his day.


      Indeed Mark. He was quite misunderstood by the casual observer. The nation could not have healed without his leadership. The South was prepared for all out guerrilla warfare as Jefferson Davis wanted. But Lee knew that the South was above this and it was time to heal. Quite an impressive man.

    Bradford Stevens May 16, 2013 at 9:23 am

    An excellent post David.

    Dave Schroeder May 16, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Good one Dave. Great way o start off the morning.


    Sent from my iPad


    Dave, reminds me of one of my favorite stories from the Civil War:

    Arlington House was built by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George and Martha Washington. Custis’s daughter, Mary, married Robert E. Lee, a graduate of West Point and a lieutenant in the U.S. army. Lee spent much time and energy repairing and developing the estate. When the Civil War came, Lee’s loyalty was to his state of Virginia, and he went on to become the Confederacy’s greatest general.
    Although Arlington is in Virginia, it’s just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. During the War, the Federal Government seized the Arlington estate and made it a national military cemetery, pointedly burying soldiers near Robert and Mary Lee’s house so that it could not be used again as a private residence. After the War, battlefields were cleaned up and remains of soldiers – both Confederate and Union — that had been hastily buried in shallow graves were moved to Arlington.
    So many people wanted to pay their respects to the fallen soldiers, that Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day) was established in 1868. But old animosities die hard and only the Union graves were allowed to be decorated that year. Southern women who came to Arlington to pay tribute to those who had died in nearby hospitals were sent home. The cemetery was a peculiar patchwork of flower-strewn graves of Northern soldiers and bare plots around Confederate tombstones.
    That evening a strong wind storm swept through the area. The next morning the flowers were blown all over the cemetery so that visitors could not tell which were graves of Northern solders and which were graves of Confederate soldiers.
    It was symbolic of the greatest desire of Robert E. Lee after four terrible years – the reunification of the country.


    Quite a counter point to Nathan Bedford Forrest.

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