Two weeks after his surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Robert E. Lee found himself in an Episcopalian church one Sunday morning, a service that he rarely failed to attend. During the service, an African-American walked in and sat down toward the back of the church. The congregation murmured among themselves, wondering what to do. This had never happened before, and many of the people were in shock. Toward the end of the service, as is tradition in the Episcopal church, the rector called the people forward for communion. The African-American was the first to go forward. The people had no idea what to do. This was an entirely new situation for them, and most certainly went against their pompous tradition. As the rector finished his prayer, the people looked up, and there, kneeling with the African-American, was none other than Robert E. Lee. One of the elders came forward after the service and asked the famous general, “Mr. Lee? What are you doing kneeling with that black man?” Lee stood up in his erect posture, looked the man in the eye, and in that rich Southern drawl responded, “Sir, at the foot of the cross, there’s equal ground.”
This story perfectly represents the Robert E. Lee that biographer Emory Thomas presents, the man who, forced to fight on the side of his homeland, nevertheless goes forward and proudly stands up for what he believes.
Robert E. Lee faced conflicts, as all of us do. He had a father who wasn’t there, a wife who was an invalid, children that didn't obey, and a country that rejected him at the end of his life; yet his legacy endures. What made him so successful was not that he managed to free himself from all troubles, but the fact that he found out how to endure them. In a letter to a friend, Thomas records Lee’s words: “Live in the world you inhabit…When a thing is done we ought always make the best of it…We make a great deal of our own happiness and misery in this world…turn your affliction to your benefit.”[i]
The advice still rings true today.
Thomas, Emory M. Robert E. Lee: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1995.[i]