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Robert E. Lee was a devoted Episcopalian

Robert E. Lee was a devoted Episcopalian
The Virginian was an officer, a gentleman and a Christian


By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
September 21, 2017

Robert E. Lee was an Episcopalian. For a brief period of time, he was General-in-Chief of the Confederate States Army during the War Between the States (1861-1865). After the war, he was the beloved president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, and became the senior warden at nearby Grace Church. He attended that church for more years than he was a Confederate officer.

As a result of Lee's greatness as a college president and prominence as a senior warden, both intuitions honored him for who he was as a person and as a Christian, not what he was as a Civil War general. Washington College was renamed Washington & Lee University and Grace Church became R.E. Lee Memorial, an Episcopal Church within the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.

However, Lee can't seem to live down his Confederate background, even 150 years later. It has scarred him and taints anyone or anything associated with him. Earlier this week, R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church kowtowed, pressured by political correctness and shame, into changing its name.

As the growing controversy swirled around the church, the vestry responded: "We object strenuously to the misuse of Robert E. Lee's name and memory in connection with white supremacy, anti-Semitism and similar movements that he would abhor ... We honor Lee as one of our own parishioners, a devout man who led our parish through difficult years in post-Civil-War Virginia. More importantly, we find our identity in Christ, the lover of all humankind, and we seek on-going renewal in Him."

The Aug. 22 statement continues: "We recognize that in the current political climate, Lee has become a touchstone for controversy and misunderstanding and a rallying symbol for hate groups. We acknowledge that the best hope for Lee is the Gospel of grace, through which we are all forgiven sinners. Our commitment is not to Lee, but to that gospel which is his hope and ours. We invite all to share in it, and we aim to let nothing stand in the way of our proclaiming it with integrity."

On Sept.18 the church was renamed Grace Episcopal Church going back to a form of its original name.

It is the Civil War-era press that started calling the Confederate officer Robert E. Lee. He signed himself simply as R.E. Lee and the Lexington church reflected that fact -- R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church.

Through the prism of history, the religious nature of R.E. Lee -- the Christian ... the Episcopalian -- has become politicized. His faith, his commitment to God, his Episcopal churchmanship, seems to mean nothing.

History shows that R. E. Lee, as he preferred to be called, was a devout Christian and a committed Episcopalian. Even in the throes of war, Gen. Lee made time for his faith and those of the soldiers under his command.

In 1862, he issued a general order which said: "Habitually all duties except those of inspection will be suspended during Sunday, to afford the troops rest and to enable them to attend religious services."

He was known to attend local Episcopal churches during the war. He was seen at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Petersburg, Virginia; Grace Episcopal Church, Berryville, Virginia; and St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Richmond, Virginia.

Lee's Family Tree

Robert Edward Lee came from Virginia. He was born in 1807 on the Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County. The Virginia Lees have a long history of political and military service dating back to Colonial times and the Revolutionary War and extending to World War II and beyond. The Virginia branch of the Lee family was planted by Colonel Richard Lee the First (1617--1664) in 1639, to make his fortune in tobacco farming. He was active in Colonial politics, becoming the Burgess of York County and, eventually, Virginia's Colonial Secretary of State. He was also the great-great-great grandfather of Robert E. Lee and the great-grandfather of President Zachary Taylor.

President Taylor's daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, married Jefferson Davis, who would become the only President of the short-lived Confederacy.

Other notable members of the Virginia Lees include: Col. Richard Lee the Second (1647-1715); a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and great-great grandfather of Robert E. Lee; Thomas Lee (1690--1750) a member of the House of Burgesses; Capt. Henry Lee the First (1691--1747) great-grandfather of Robert E. Lee; Lt. Col Henry Lee the Second (1730-1787) Virginia State Senator and grandfather of Robert E. Lee; Richard Henry Lee (1732--1794) President of the Confederation Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence; Francis Lightfoot Lee (1734--1797) Virginia State Senator and signer of the Declaration of Independence; William Lee (1739-1795) diplomat; Dr. Arthur Lee (1740-1792) diplomat; Thomas Sim Lee (1745--1819) second Governor of Maryland.

Other members of the growing Lee family included: Maj. Gen. Henry Lee the Third (1756-1818) ninth Governor of Virginia and Robert E. Lee's father; Charles Lee (1758-1815) Attorney General of the United States; Richard Bland Lee (1761-1827) Congressman from Virginia; Edmund Jennings Lee (1772-1843) longtime vestryman at Christ Church-Alexandria; Henry Lee the Fourth (1787-1834) political speech writer, lost Stratford Hall Plantation amidst financial ruin, half-brother of Robert E. Lee; Sydney Smith Lee (1802-1869), commandant of U.S. Naval Academy-Annapolis and Robert E. Lee's bother; George Hay Lee (1807-1873) Virginia Supreme Court Justice; USN Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee (1812-1897); Virginia-born Union Naval officer who did not join the Confederacy and Robert E. Lee's blood cousin; Maj. Gen. George Washington Curtis Lee (1832-1913) aide-de-camp to Jefferson Davis, the son of Robert E. Lee and great-grandson of Martha Washington; Gen. Fitzhugh Lee (1835-1905), 40th Governor of Virginia; Brig. Gen. Edwin Gray Lee (1836-1870), Antebellum Virginia attorney; Maj. William H.F. Lee (1837-1891), Congressman from Virginia and Robert E. Lee's son; Capt. Robert E. Lee, Jr. (1843-1914) wrote memoires of his father and namesake, Robert E. Lee; Blair Lee I (1857-1944), U.S. Senator from Maryland; USN Vice Admiral Willis Augustus Lee (1888-1945) won seven medals -- five gold -- in the 1920 Summer Olympics; E. Brooke Lee (1892-1984), Maryland Secretary of State; and Blair Lee III (1916-1985), Lt. Governor of Maryland.

Since Robert E. Lee's heritage was so deeply rooted in Southern soil when the Civil War loomed, he found himself siding with Virginia primarily over States' Rights. Slavery, although entwined with states' rights, was seemingly a secondary issue to Lee. In a letter he penned to his wife Mary Anna, Lee wrote that he felt that "slavery was a moral and political evil in any country." He freed his slaves in 1862, even before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free the Southern slaves in 1863.

He was very aware that he would "stand alone before the judgment seat of the Most High on the Last Day."

Initially, Lee was disappointed as the Confederate states were seceding, he felt that it was an unconstitutional betrayal of the Union and to the Founding Fathers.

"But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union," Lee wrote to his eldest son Custis Lee in early 1861. "It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation."

But Lee was a Southerner, he had pride of place. As a Virginian, things came to a breaking point for him on May 23, 1861, when Virginia also seceded.

"I look upon secession as anarchy," he wrote to Francis Blair, an advisor to President Lincoln. "If I owned the four million slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?"

Lincoln offered Lee the command of the Union Army. He reluctantly turned it down, resigned his West Point commission and was destined to become the leader of the Confederate forces.

Both the North and the South viewed the war in different ways. The Northerners felt the War Between the States was the War of Southern Rebellion. The Southerners saw the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. In the end, both sides suffered.

From the time that the first shot was fired on April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter, South Carolina until Lee's surrender on April 9, 1865, in Appomattox, Virginia, the estimated casualty figure from those killed in action, or deaths from disease, the number of wounded and those captured is 1.7 million, more than 828,000 for the Union and more than 864,000 for the Confederacy.

For the most part, the early tentacles of the Industrial Revolution bypassed the South. Dixie remained an agricultural society and depended upon physical hand labor to plant, produce and pick crops including cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, peanuts and rice. To sustain the agricultural economy of the antebellum South, slavery became a way of life and a economic necessity. It was into this culture that Robert E. Lee was born and raised.

In today's hypersensitive, politically correct culture, Lee is seen only as a one-dimensional person and he is narrowly defined only by his four years as a Confederate Army officer. His 32 years as a US Army officer is over looked. Even today he is still considered a military genius who was a brilliant strategist and tactician.

The West Point connection

Lee's military career started as a cadet at West Point because he could not afford to go to attend any other institution of higher learning. He was graduated second in his Class of 1829 and eventually he became West Point's ninth superintendent (1852-1855), a post he held for three years. In his later years, he would come to regret his military education because of the bloodshed brought on by the Civil War.

Other noted Army officers who headed West Point include: the first West Point Superintendent Col. Jonathan Williams (1801-1803 & 1805-1812); the "Father of West Point", Brig. Gen. Sylvanus Thayer (1817-1833) ; Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard (1861); General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur (1919-1922); Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Maxwell Davenport Taylor (1945-1949); Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. William Westmoreland (1960-1963); and Commandant of the U.S. Army War College, Lt. Gen. David Huntoon (2010-2013).

Robert E. Lee, West Point Class of 1829, isn't the only noted member of the military illustrious who honed their military skills at the United States Military Academy. The litany of distinguished graduates is long: Leonidas Polk (1827); Jefferson Davis (1828); William N. Pendleton (1830); P.G.T. Beauregard (1838); William Tecumseh Sherman (1840); Ulysses S. Grant (1843); Stonewall Jackson (1846); J.E.B. Stuart (1854); George Armstrong Custer (1861); John J. Pershing (1886); Douglas MacArthur (1903); George S. Patton (1909); Dwight D. Eisenhower & Omar Bradley (1915); William Westmoreland (1936); and Norman Schwarzkopf (1956).

West Point records show that during the War Between the States, 640 Union officers were United States Military Academy graduates and another 184 Confederate officers came from that same military academy. The personal nature of the Civil War pitted West Pointers against each other.

By Christmas 1863 Episcopal Bishop and Confederate, Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, was tiring of war. He wanted to return to his cathedral and fulltime ministry, but was instead killed during the June 1864 Atlanta Campaign when Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman (1840) spotted him with other southern West Point officers, including Gen. Joseph E. Johnston (1829) and Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee (1838). Sherman commanded Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard (1854) to open fire. When it was over, Bishop Polk lay dead. It was only later, in 1945, that Bishop Polk's body was returned to Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans for burial.

Robert E. Lee the Christian

Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) was a man of intense faith and prayer who believed wholeheartedly in Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour and that God had His hand in all human affairs. He lived in a time of great spiritual revival -- between the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) and the Third Great Awakening (1855-1900).

General Lee was once quoted during the War as saying: "I can only say that I am a poor sinner trusting in Christ alone for salvation and I need all the prayers that I can get."

He was also an ardent student of the Bible and used it as a roadmap for his life.

"I prefer the Bible to any other book," Lee once said. "There are many things in that Old Book that I may not be able to explain, but I accept them as the infallible Word of God and receive its teaching as inspired by the Holy Ghost."

Many West Point-trained Civil War generals, on both sides, were deeply committed Christians who saw their wartime military service as a religious mission, including Lee. However, Union General Ulysses S. Grant (1843), who had Methodist roots, complained that "that the academy tried to mold cadets into gentlemanly Episcopalians."

Lee was confirmed in 1853, eight years before the outbreak of the Civil War, by Episcopal Bishop John Johns (IV Virginia). Reportedly, Bishop Johns told Lee at his confirmation: "If you make as valiant a soldier for Christ as you have made for your country the Church will be as proud of you as your country now is."

Lee replied: "My chief concern is to try to be a humble, earnest Christian."

"The Episcopal Church back then -- 1853 -- is not what The Episcopal Church is today," explains Pastor John Weaver, a Baptist minister who has studied the spiritual roots of the Confederacy and its link to the Civil War. "The Episcopal Church back then was very Gospel oriented. The Episcopal rectors were in line with the Baptists, the Presbyterians and the Methodists." The Episcopal church has certainly changed over the years.

Like Lee, many Southern West Point generals embraced The Episcopal Church, including: Gen. J.E. Johnston (1829); Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart (1854): Brig. Gen. Josiah Gorgas (1841); Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill (1847); Lt. Gen. James Longstreet (1842); Gen. John Hood (1853); Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender (1854); and Brig. Gen. Francis A. Shoup (1855). In fact, both Johnston and Hood were baptized by another general -- Episcopal Bishop Leonidas Polk. Even another West Point graduate, Jefferson Davis (1828) -- the only President of the Confederacy -- was Episcopalian. Bishop Polk who readily mixed his military service with his religious duties, also officiated at the December 1862 wedding of Brig. Gen. John Morgan and his second bride, Martha Ready.

Other top West Point Civil War Confederate leaders with a profound faith in God were Brig. Gen. Stonewall Jackson (1846), who was baptized as an Episcopalian at St. John's Episcopal Church near Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York, but lived out his faith as a staunch Presbyterian after taking over the leadership of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. He is noted for holding daily family prayer that even the family servants attended. He despised profanity, as did Gen. Lee.

Brig. Gen. Richard Ewell (1840) was converted to the Christian faith through accidentally witnessing Stonewall Jackson in private personal prayer before a battle. After seeing Jackson on his knees in intense prayer Ewell remarked: "Oh, God, if this is religion, if this is Christianity, I must have it ... I must have it ...I must have it!"

Brig. Gen. William Pendleton (1830) was an Episcopal priest who interrupted his ministry to serve in the Confederate Army. Then, after the War, he became Lee's rector at Grace Church. The priest said of Lee: "If you are as good a soldier of the Cross as you are of the Army, Christ will have a great worker in His Church." It is Fr. Pendleton who urged Lee to take the postbellum presidency of Washington College.

Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk (1827) was an Episcopal bishop who was killed in action. He came to faith during the Second Great Awakening while still at West Point and was baptized into the Episcopal Church. After graduation, he resigned his commission and went to Virginia Theological Seminary. As bishop, he helped to found the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. When the Civil War loomed, he was convinced by Jefferson Davis to again put on the military uniform.

Bishop Polk is not the only Episcopal bishop to take up arms to fight or the prayer book as a Confederate chaplain during the Civil War. Other Confederates who were or became Episcopal bishops include: Confederate Presiding Bishop Stephen Elliott (I Georgia); Maj. Thomas Dudley (II Kentucky); Dr. Charles Quintard (II Tennessee); Lt. James S. Johnston (I West Texas); Brig. Gen. Ellison Capers (VIII South Carolina); Lt. George Peterkin (I West Virginia); Col. John Galleher (III Louisiana) -- who gave the Last Rites to Jefferson Davis; Chaplain Alfred Randolph (I Southern Virginia); Chaplain Alfred Watson (I East Carolina); Chaplain William Crane Gray (I South Florida); and Chaplain George Kinsolving (II Texas);

Top Union brass who were dedicated Christians included: Brig. Gen. Oliver Howard (1854) was a strong Evangelical Christian who was dubbed "the Christian General." He founded Howard University for blacks, which is now a world-class research university and he is noted for starting the tradition of handing out Bibles to West Point cadets and serving as the chairman of the board for the American Tract Society; Maj. Gen. George McClellan (1846) insisted that the Sabbath be strictly observed during the Civil War and provided worship services for his troops; and Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans (1842), a passionate Roman Catholic, attended daily Mass. He refused to fight on Sundays and his personal motto was: "God never fails those who truly trust."

Since the Civil War was fought during the Third Great Awakening, religious fervor crept into the ranks on both sides. Historians record that during the fall of 1863 and on through the summer of 1864, a "Great Revival" crept through the ranks and as many as 350,000 soldiers from both sides of the conflict were converted to Christ.

"Night after night troops participated in prayer meetings, worshipped, and listened to ministers proclaim the Good News," Gordon Leidner writes for Great American History."Virtually every gathering ended with soldiers coming forward to accept Christ or receive prayer. When a pond or river was nearby, the soldiers would frequently step forward for baptisms -- regardless of how cold the weather was."

One Civil War chaplain reported: "The work of grace among the troops widened and deepened and went gloriously on until there had been thousands of professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour."

It is estimated that "perhaps 10 percent of all Civil War soldiers experienced conversions during the conflict," as a result, millions of tracts were distributed to soldiers during the war. Another lasting change as a result of the troops' religious fervor was that a military chaplain corps was developed, which is still a part of today's armed services.

After Lee surrendered to Grant and the War ended, he went to Lexington, Virginia, and became the president of Washington College and joined Grace Church, an Episcopal congregation located on the edge of the school's campus.

Lee had but one goal as president of Washington College.

"I shall be disappointed if I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless all the young men become real Christians," Lee -- the college president -- told area clergy. "I wish you, and others of your sacred profession, do all you can to accomplish this result. I dread the thought of any student going away from the college without becoming a sincere Christian."

Lee, the Southern Christian gentleman

Even before Lee became involved with Lexington's Grace Church, he was a vestry member at St. John's Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York from 1842-1847. Twenty years before the Civil War when Lee was stationed at nearby Fort Hamilton as a US Army officer, he was on the vestry of St. John's Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York. While there, he planted a maple sapling. That tree is alive and growing today.

St. John's started out in 1834 as a chapel for soldiers at nearby Fort Hamilton. Then it became the "Church of the Generals", but was finally shuttered in 2014 by the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island due to a dwindling membership. The fate of the empty building is currently up in the air.

St. John's history shows that: "There were 19 military officers of flag rank -- generals -- who worshiped, were baptized or had some connection with the church." Some of those generals include: Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson; World War I Gen. Walter Smith; and World War II generals Matthew Ridgway (Army) and Hubert Harmon (Air Force).

There are two stories that are told about how Robert E. Lee conducted himself as a Christian. The first happened during the war. On Sept. 1, 1862, Union Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny was killed in action during the Battle of Chantilly in Fairfax County, Virginia. His funeral was held on the grounds of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Fairfax Station. After which, Gen. Lee returned his body to the Union forces, along with his horse and saddle and an accompanying note of condolence, since Gen. Kearney was considered "Kearny the Magnificent" and in line to replace Gen. George B. McClellan as commanding general of the Union forces. Lee's action was seen as a great act of charity during a time of war. Gen. Kearny was initially buried at the Trinity-Wall Street Cemetery in New York City. Now he rests in the Arlington National Cemetery.

The second story told on Lee happened after the war in June 1865, when he was again visiting St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond during a typical Sunday morning Service of Holy Communion. At the time, St. Paul's was considered the "Cathedral of the Confederacy." When it came time for Communion, a former slave approached the altar rail. The congregation was stunned in silence and no one moved. Eventually, Robert E. Lee, now a private citizen, got up from his pew and went to the Communion rail to receive Holy Communion, kneeling by the black man.

It was reported that Lee "reverently knelt near the black man to receive Communion with him, risking his own reputation and standing to help heal the rifts of Union and race ..." and that his action was "a grand exhibition of superiority shown by a true Christian and great soldier under the most trying and offensive circumstances."

Following the Civil War, the former Gen. Lee was a very active member of Grace Church, which was founded in 1839 by 2nd Lt. Francis H. Smith, also a West Point graduate (1833) and the first superintendent of Virginia Military Institute. Smith, who would go on to become a major general in the Virginia Militia and then a brevet Confederate major general, saw the need for an Episcopal church nearby since he was Episcopalian, many of the VMI faculty and staff were Episcopalian and the students he was drawing to Lexington were also Episcopalians.

Lexington was home to Washington College -- now Washington & Lee University -- and a stronghold of Presbyterianism, so the Episcopalians did not have any local congregations of their own to worship in. So Smith stepped in and founded Grace Church to meet spiritual needs at VMI, but the newly-established Episcopal congregation also provided needed spiritual support for the nearby college. Washington College, VMI and Grace Church are all closely clustered together.

After the Civil War, Lee became the president of Washington College. This was right up his alley. Having once been the superintendent of West Point, Lee had the academic experience necessary to lead the century-plus old institution past the Civil War years and into Reconstruction. Lee was a visionary and his contribution to the school helped to form it into what would become: Washington & Lee University.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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