Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Today is Robert E. Lee’s Birthday

Today is Robert E. Lee’s Birthday

For most of you, especially those living in the North or in other countries, this is just another day. Nothing particularly special and the passing of this historical person's birthday is nothing of particular note. But too many of us who seek the answers of history, the lessons that may yet help us find our future, this is not just another man. Lee is some extra ordinary  man whose dignity and whose deep sense of duty nearly cost us this country and yet, in the end, it helped save it.

As for the real Robert E. Lee, there he is, pictured after Appomattox, on the steps of a cottage, familiar as one's father, yet somehow more Lee than the Lee of either Chancellorsville or Gettysburg, his greatest victory and greatest defeat. He looks at the camera unmoved, unchanged within, forever serene, duty done. ("Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.") No more need be said. And wasn't. The Army of Northern Virginia had been dismissed, its arms stacked, its banners furled. Its commander looks straight ahead, never back. Gray as his uniform, gray as duty, he awaits only the final Reveille, worn as mortal time.

Imagine if his image were new, shiny, untarnished. What a counterfeit it would be. Instead, like an ancient coin, nicked and rubbed almost clean, Brady's photograph speaks of a different world, one we enter now to be astounded not by the resounding clash of arms, the smoke and fire of the futile Confederate batteries at Gettysburg, but by the utter stillness, the perfect peace within which The General moved, always. He still does.

But why should an ever upwardly mobile society like this one take note of him? Why take time this one day of the year to focus on an old man from an old war? Time is money, as everyone knows. Why waste it? And on a war he lost at that. It is success that counts, as every American who worships it knows. Yet he still speaks to us. The shattered glass of the old icon still glistens, obliterating any need for words. We pause, waiting to hear what the silence says. We have an idea it's important, that it may yet save us. We are like strangers just arrived on the scene from the future, looking about, trying to understand what happened here in this other country that is the past, searching for words to describe it, till we realize no words are necessary. It is silence, that rarest of modern qualities, that is called for. Words would only break the spell.

It's as if the day had become a cathedral, and we some heedless tourists who had chanced upon it, come to take needless photographs. For the vista is already ingrained within us. It is our birthright in these latitudes. It only waits to come to life in due season, like the ever prolific South itself.

Jan. 19. The date is somehow preserved intact among the flotsam of time, unaffected by all that comes by. Familiarity has bred not contempt but reverence. We begin to see what has always been there. And what remains ours.

Ever hear a couple of Southerners just passing the time, perhaps in a petty political quarrel, when the name Lee is thoughtlessly interjected? The air is stilled. Suddenly both are ashamed; neither wants to profane the name by taking it lightly, by using it to gain some stupid, fleeting advantage. There comes a pause in the conversation, as if light were breaking in. A stillness descends.

The stillness at Appomattox must have been like that. A stillness accompanied Lee wherever he went. Before or after Appomattox, it made no difference. He was the same Lee in defeat as in victory. Maybe that is what is meant by character, duty, honor, all the old words cheapened by hollow repetition. To look on him again is to bring back their original power, without needing to say them. They are just understood.
The last page of Lee's Surrender Document

Live Long and Prosper....

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