What Robert E. Lee Teaches Us About Reconciliation

May 16, 2013 — 66 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.

66 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.

        Cecilia Cordeiro August 17, 2017 at 4:53 pm

        Yes! More than anything, we need to forgive, be reconciled and then heal. What a beautiful story. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. God Bless You. Hatred and prejudice are born of fear; but as the good book says, “Perfect love casts out fear.”


      Very well written. I especially like your last sentence, “a humble, yet magnanimous man..Reconciliation emerged in the form of Robert E. Lee.” Thank you!

    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.


    I am not concerned with the concessions of a beaten man. When he had strength, he chose to defend slavery and wrongness not only with all of his strength but with the strength of countless ignorant young men. No, he is no hero, no saint, and nothing to respect. Just a sad beaten man on the wrong side of history and justice.


      It certainly is a conundrum.

      Sherry Matthews August 16, 2017 at 10:41 am

      Interesting that you do not identify yourself but will attack someone else you obviously know little about.
      Lee never purchased a slave and the ones that came to him were from his wife’s family. Lee freed them before the emancipation and before that had them taught to read and write. Many of the freed slaves stayed on with the Lee’s after they were set free. I wish you would at least try to look at Lee in the context of the time. He was a proud patriot having been second in his class at West Point, he fought and distinguished himself in the Mexican American War,. He was offered the position of General of northern forces by Winfield Scott. But Lee was a Virginian and
      He would have had to fight against his family and destroy properties of his neighbors and friends, he could not bring himself to do it. At the end of the War, Lee was much beloved by people of the South and by many in the North. He was asked to run for President and offered many other prestigious positions. But he decided to accept a position at a small College in Lexington Va. instead. He spent the last years of his life encouraging people to reconcile and rebuild the country. Lee did not start slavery , was not in favor of it and he was NOT fighting for it. The reasons for the War were much more than just that. And the War did not resolve those issues. We are still fighting the War today. It is about power and money and whether a small elite central government is going to control our country or the states and the people will be in control with a limited central government. Racism now, similar to slavery then is the flash point being used to divide our country in an effort to maintain power.

        Frank S Collins August 16, 2017 at 8:21 pm

        Thanks Sherry for spreading the truth! God Bless us all!


        Hope it’s okay to share this.


        Thank you for your logical and well needed response.


        I was with you until at the end you drifted off into a rant about a small elite controlling the central government. That is code for anti-semitism, though I do not know if that was your intent. Yes, the war was based on more than slavery. It was also about states’ rights, though states’ rights were over whether or not a state could have slavery in most cases. Lee is a major figure in American history deserving of a place in it. That is true of a few other major figures in the civil war. However, where their statues were put up in the racist movements of the early twentieth century and the 1960s to be symbols to the black communities that they were still under the domination of white power, those statues should surely be piled on the trash heap of history along with Hitler and others who took freedom away from people. A little test for you. May others, especially those of a different ethnicity, have the same rights of freedom that you have and that you want? Do they have the right to disagree with you? Do they have the right in America to live where they want as you do? To go to school where they want as you do? To go to work where you do? To have right to vote as you do without artificial barriers you do not have to face? If you have a hard time saying “yes” to all of those questions, I suggest you need to do a little more homework on what it means to be a Christian (“and love your neighbor”) and what it means to be an American “”that all men are created equal….”). Those set a high bar that all of us need to think about and do something about. If we don’t, America could be split and not be America anymore for anyone.

      Frank S Collins August 16, 2017 at 8:13 pm

      Aron, You don’t understand, you really don’t you are just a sad, sad opinion……..sorry!


      Do you realize that Lincoln and his wife owned slaves during the war? If you did-respect Lee, don’t you have to did-honor Lincoln? Read the real history of Lincoln.


        Hey guys, I really appreciate good, civil discussion based on understood facts. Please keep it civil or you will be removed from this blog. I’ve already done this due to name calling. Thank you for the discussion.


      Robert E. Lee graduated from West Point at the top of his class and was known as a loyal son of Virginia. As a young officer he led U. S. troops to Harper’s Ferry where he put an end to the criminal raids of John Brown at the arms storage there. When he chose to follow and lead Virginia against the remaining loyal states of the United States ( That war was termed differently depending on whether you were a northerner or southerner; that is why that war though termed a civil war by the North because the states of the Confederacy were not successful in breaking up the Union; and was termed “War Between The States by southerners who thought that the Union was broken when they captured a United States fort in South Carolina, the first battle of that war.) Lee did so not to protect legal slavery in the southern states but because he loved Virginia and wanted to defend her. At the time leading up to the war many southern states had additional issues with the United States besides slavery, “states rights” being the most prevalent. The best judge of a man is by his actions and not just his words or the words used by others to describe him. He was a son of Virginia who loved his state and saw his duty to follow it into war. Angry words spoken today to intelligent people will not change that and if understood may be a key to heeling of those who are unjustly bitter about Robert E. Lee, a son of Virginia.


    An incident that speaks volumes.


    The university admitted no African-American students and hired no African-Americans in professional positions during his tenure. It remained segregated until the 1960s.


    Those who continue to condemn and hate Lee, miss the point of his actions in this incident. It seems obvious that he was attempting to set an example of being on of the firsts to promote reconciliation and reunification of the country. I believe in forgiveness and second chances. And I don’t think it’s fair to his descendants to be doing what the demonstrators are now doing. What ever happened to friendly, respectful dialogue in this country?


    A thorny issue . Judging an individual is hard enough when they come from your own culture and own time . You have exactly zero idea what beliefs you would have held in 1865 let alone what actions you would have had the courage to take in support of those beliefs. Although some truths are indeed self evident ,another person’s character rarely is . People are tearing down consecrated monuments to very brave Confederate soldiers who were not fighting to preserve slavery .It is widely agreed that slavery was a relatively minor issue in the far greater theatre of states’ rights . They loved their state more than the Union and were fighting to create a new country …as did Washington and Jefferson( who both owned slaves ) Washington won and is now a heroic father of the Nation . , Lee lost so we should now tear down his statues ?
    For perspective imagine a future scenario : Social groundswell of feeling that the Vietnam war was immoral and a scar on the National character …( I am not saying it was or was not ) …activists deface and destroy the Vietnam War memorial wall in Washington ……justifiable ? .Remember the past , study its lessons . Stop reliving it .


      How is it widely believed that slavery was a minor reason for the war? Read the secession orders of most of the Confederate States. It was the only state right they were willing to fight and die for. The wealthy plantation sold a false bill of good to the poor small farmers so they would do their bidding. Just look what happened on the former Confederacy after the Compromise of 1877.


    Beautiful story, I hope it is true. I want to believe it is.


    That one moment of humility and forgiveness of one man , leader of the Army of the South, united our Country as one again, recognizing that ALL men, regardless of race or color are Americans and have the same rights as all CITIZENS of the United States


    Thank you- that’s the history I’ve heard re Lee.
    Sharing such an individual gracious act is a reminder that no action is without consequence .
    It is a shame that such moments are often viewed suspiciously in the US today. Again- Thank You👍


    Lee may have been conciliatory after the Confederacy’s total loss in the Civil War. But that hardly takes anything away from the fact that he broke his oath of allegiance to the United States when he was at West Point, and in taking up arms against his nation he was guilty of high treason. Any small gesture he might have done after the war hardly made up for the fact he led an army in fighting to maintain the bondage of human beings. Lee is my cousin 7 or 8 times removed, but I honestly think that he and Jefferson Davis should have been hung after the war. That would have sent a clear message to the south, one that they have never had to face up to. As a result, although the North won the war, the South won Reconstruction. And now we have such idiots that take the southern rebel sentiment and tie it to Hitler’s bravado. Lee may have been a gentleman and a truly great man. But his greatest distinction was as a traitor.


      Ignorance does not make you right. I can’t seem to find any record of Lee and Davis ever being found guilty of high treason. I also don’t find any record of them organizing or participating in white supremacy groups such as Democratic Senator Robert Byrd did with the KKK. They should have been hung? Well since there was never a trial , that puts you on the same level as those who lynched so many innocent black men during Byrds tenure as a supreme dragon. Thanks for your contribution to reconciliation, or as we say in the South: Bless your heart.


        Davis was charged with treason but never tried. He was the only one charged. Both Lee and Davis lost their citizenship, though. It was finally restored many years after their deaths.

        There were several reasons why nobody was tried for treason, including a lack of re-established court system in the proper venue, a concern that doing so would cause violent protests, and, not least, the very real possibility that the courts would find them innocent and, by extension, that the South had done nothing wrong in seceding.


      If the oath then is as it is today to protect against threats foreign and domestic. The state’s saw the Federal government’s actions as a domestic threat. Fight against tyrannical government.


    It’s a travesty how today’s media & many others describe the life of this good & honorable man. Many of his great accomplishments are well known & have already been listed here. Calling him or any of the South’s leaders traitors only comes from the ignorance or some strange unwillingness to recognize how our own country was formed.


    “No one should think that these statues were meant to be somber postbellum reminders of a brutal war. They were built much later, and most of them were explicitly created to accompany organized and violent efforts to subdue blacks and maintain white supremacy in the South. I wouldn’t be surprised if even a lot of Southerners don’t really understand this, but they should learn. There’s a reason blacks consider these statues to be symbols of bigotry and terror. It’s because they are.” — Mother Jones

      Carolyn Johnson August 19, 2017 at 3:37 pm

      I question your source, and ask you to provide proof of the intent of who created and why statues were commissioned in communities in the South.


    A little wisdom on the current . God’s viewpoint
    Proverbs 4:
    18: The way of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn,
    which shines ever brighter until the full light of day.
    19: But the way of the wicked is like total darkness,
    They have no idea what they are stumbling over.


    For many years in the South, the shaming question asked when a child misbehaved wasn’t, “What would your mother say?” Rather, it was, “What would General Lee say?”


    I also was a member of Kappa Alpha Order in college. I have much respect for Southern Heritage. All monuments honoring the Confederate Cause, on public property, need to be properly removed and placed on private property or museums in areas nearby. The Beauvoir in Bolixi, President Jefferson Davis’s, resting place on private property is an example. There, History can be preserved, and new history made.


    Thank you for sharing!

    bartley tuthill August 19, 2017 at 6:44 am

    fact check this one, hope it’s true but doubt it!

    Carey Parker Burnett C'73 August 19, 2017 at 7:33 am

    As a graduate of The University of the South and a member of Alpha Alpha
    Chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order ,
    I am warmed in reading this particularly
    in these times of extreme sadness of
    events in Charlottesville and all of the
    disturbing rhetoric from POTUS , etc.

    This story puts things in proper perspective .


    This is a wonderful story of a man reaching out to another man, maybe not in love, yet, but obviously Lee was a man of God. He was humble and stood like a man of his stature.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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