cguy.gif Jack Ackerly uguy.gif
RCWRT Member's Speech

Lee Jackson Day Speech, January 18, 2002,

Given in the Virginia State Capitol in
the Old Hall of the House of Delegates
as was part of the Friends of the
Lee Jackson Holiday Ceremony.
by Jack Ackerly On this day in 1872, exactly one hundred and thirty years ago, an audience of Southerners met for the same reason that we gather here today: That is, to commemorate, and indeed to celebrate, the birthday of Robert E. Lee. The main speaker on that occasion was a tough, grizzled, tobacco-chewing old warrior of the Confederacy named Jubal A. Early. "It is a vain work," cried out Early, "for us to seek anywhere for a parallel to the great character which has won our admiration and love. Our beloved Chief stands like some lofty column which rears its head among the highest, in grandeur, simple, pure and sublime, needing no borrowed luster, and he is all our own," Robert E. Lee inspired that sort of high-flying talk - and historians ever since have been striving to define the qualities that made him the idol of his people, men and women, civilians and soldiers alike. Surely, his looks played a part. Mary Chesnut, the Richmonder with the famous diary, called him "the portrait of a soldier." A British journalist said he was "the handsomest man I ever saw." As we all know, Lee was beyond any shadow of doubt an aristocrat in the line of Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee and Light-Horse Harry Lee, men who had helped give birth to this Republic. Yet Lee possessed a common touch. A man who had ridden with Lee on a train wrote, "The General is affable, polite and unassuming, and he shares the discomforts of a crowded railroad coach with ordinary travelers." Time after time, Lee demonstrated his superb qualities as a leader of fighting men. And time after time his soldiers demonstrated their lofty faith in his leadership. Some of you may be familiar with General Clement Evans. Although he was one of the heroes of First Manassas, he was certainly never one of Lee's favorites. Yet Evans was a keen observer, and he accurately described the bond between Lee and his troops. He wrote: "General Robert E. Lee is regarded by his army as nearest approaching the character of the great & good George Washington than any man living. He is the only man living in whom the soldiers would unconditionally trust all power for the preservation of their independence." Added Colonel Robert Jordan of the Twenty-second Georgia Infantry: "General Lee now stands above all Generals in Modern History. Our men will follow him to the end." Lee's key lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, said that he would follow Lee into battle blindfolded. Most of you are familiar with Lee's background. He was born 70 miles to the east of here at Stratford, near Montross on the Northern Neck. In 1825 he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated with high honors in 1829. Amazingly, he did not receive a demerit in 4 years at West Point. In 1835 he helped lay out the boundary line between Ohio and Michigan. Lee's service was distinguished in the Mexican War which erupted in 1846. The United States Commander, General Winfield Scott, said after the Mexican War: "My success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor, and undaunted courage of Robert E. Lee, the greatest military genius in America." After the Mexican War, Lee became the Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point. He improved the buildings and courses there and he spent a lot of time with the cadets. One of his cadets was James Ewell Brown Stuart, the great grandfather of our moderator today. JEB Stuart, as you know, became Lee's best cavalry officer. When the clouds of the Civil War formed, Lee had a terrible dilemma. You will recall that Virginia's General Assembly, meeting right here in this room, had voted 2 to 1 against secession. Then on April 12, 1861, South Carolina attacked the federal garrison at Fort Sumter and President Lincoln called for 75,000 men to put down the rebellion. Virginians had the unfortunate choice of taking up arms against their brothers and sisters to the south or likewise declaring their independence and seceding from the Union. The General Assembly the following week and again meeting in this very room voted 88 to 55 to secede. President Lincoln offered Lee the field command of the Union Army. What was Lee to do? He wrote his sister: ". . . I had to meet the question whether I should take part [in the war] against my native state. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the army, and, serve in defence of my native state - with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed - I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword." You will recall that the federal efforts to capture Richmond were first repulsed at the Battle of First Manassas or Bull Run slightly over an hour's drive north of here. The federals changed generals. The next effort was a novel approach. Instead of proceeding overland directly to Richmond, General McClellan loaded onto 389 ships 121,500 men, 14,592 head of cattle, mules and horses, 44 artillery batteries (which required 1,000 head of horses), 1224 wagons and ambulances, and other supplies and equipment and moved down the Potomac River onto the Chesapeake Bay disembarking at Fort Monroe and Hampton. The federals moved up the peninsula capturing Yorktown and Williamsburg. By June 1, 1862, they were at Sandston 5 miles from where we are today. The federals could look through their binoculars and see with ease this capitol building as well as the church steeples of St. Pauls, St. Peters, Centenary Methodist and Second Presbyterian, to this day viable and important churches in this city. Richmond was on the verge of being blown off the map by the federals' heavy artillery and being invaded by 110,000 federal troops. Lee had just taken command of the Confederates due to the wounding of General Joseph E. Johnson at Seven Pines. Lee summoned Stonewall Jackson from Harrisonburg; he initiated a surprise flank attack on the federals at Mechanicsville; and for a full week pushed the federals for 15 miles in a series of battles familiar to you: Beaverdam Creek, Gaines Mill, Savage Station, Frayser's Farm and Malvern Hill. These bloody engagements in turn caused the evacuation of the federal troops from the area of Berkeley Plantation and down the James River and back to Washington. Lee saved Richmond and the war ground on for three more years with battles at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Second Manassas, Gettysburg and many others. Following the surrender at Appomattox, Lee was a leader in bringing the country back together. Lee urged southerners to keep the peace and accept the outcome of the war. His attitude was extremely important at a time when bitterness and hatred swept both North and South. Instead of increasing this feeling, Lee opposed it, doing everything in his power to restore the political, economic, and social life of the South. "Make your sons Americans," he urged. Lee had many opportunities to further his career following the Civil War. Surprisingly to many, he chose the presidency of small Washington College at Lexington 125 miles to the west of here. Lee was an excellent College President: he improved the curriculum, increased the student body, hired competent professors, and built the college into a prominent university. He is credited with starting Washington and Lee's effective student run honor system; the bedrock of daily student life that endures on through life. It is significant today, that Lee, who is primarily remembered as one of the world's most prominent military leaders, was a skillful educator and that he served both as Superintendent of West Point and the last 5 years of his life as President of what is now Washington and Lee University. And Arlington, the beautiful home in Northern Virginia that Lee so reluctantly left to defend Virginia, is now a treasured part of our national heritage. In the late 1920s the Federal Government restored Lee's old home to its antebellum condition. It is now maintained by the National Park Service as a memorial to Robert E. Lee - as far as I know, the only Confederate leader so honored. Moreover, on what was once his property stands Arlington National Cemetery, where lie the bodies of men and women who have participated in all of America's wars, including the one against terrorism. The use of Arlington as a national memorial speaks volumes about both Lee and our government. Robert E. Lee devoted a good part of his life, and particularly at West Point and Washington College, instilling in the nation's young men, North and South, the principles of duty, bravery, honor and service that were the essence of his character. I like to believe that those principles are still honored in Virginia - and in our nation - now united after September 11 as seldom before. END

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©R.C.W.R.T. 2002 (Speech used with permission)