The fact that there were desertions from the Union to theConfederate army at this late period of the war is difficult tounderstand. Indeed, such desertions were among thosemysterious occurrences which are inexplicable on any ordinaryhypothesis. It was to be expected Page 399that some of the newly enlisted Confederates, some of thosereluctant recruits who were induced to join our ranks under thepersuasive influence of the Confederate Conscript Law, shouldabandon us in our extremity; but when all the conditions pointedto certain and speedy Union success, where can we findimpelling motives strong enough to induce General Grant's mento desert his overwhelming forces and seek shelter with themaimed and starving Confederate army? The bravest and mostloyal sailors will abandon a sinking battle-ship and accept safetyon the deck of the triumphant vessel of the enemy. In the caseof General Grant's men, however, this natural impulse seemedto be reversed. They were not leaving a disabled ship. Theywere deserting a mighty and increasing fleet for a place on thedeck of an isolated and badly crippled man-of-war--one thatwas fighting grandly, it is true, but fighting single-handed, almosthopelessly, with its ammunition and supplies nearly exhausted, itsengines disabled, and its hull heavily leaking.
Unless it be Washington, there is no military chieftain of thepast to whom Lee can be justly likened, either in attributes ofcharacter or in the impress for good made upon the age in whichhe lived. Those who knew him best and studied him most haveagreed that he was unlike any of the great captains of history. Inhis entire public career there was a singular absence ofself-seeking. Otherwise he would have listened to the wooings ofambition when debating the course he should take at thebeginning of our sectional conflict. He knew that he could holdany position he might wish in the armies of the Union. Not onlyby General Scott, the commander-in-chief, but by his brotherofficers and the civil authorities, Lee was recognized as theforemost soldier in the United States army. He knew, for he sodeclared, that the South's chances for success, except throughforeign intervention, were far from encouraging. Page 459What would Caesar or Frederick or Napoleon have done? Deafto every suggestion of a duty whose only promised reward wasan approving conscience in ultimate defeat, allured by theprospect of leading armies with overwhelming numbers andbacked by limitless resources, any one of these great captainswould have eagerly grasped the tendered power. It was not sowith Lee. Trained soldier that he was, he stood on the mountain-topof temptation, while before his imagination there passed thesplendid pageant of conquering armies swayed by his word ofcommand; and he was unmoved by it. Graduated at West Point,where he subsequently served as perhaps its most honoredsuperintendent; proud of his profession, near the head of whichhe stood; devoted to the Union and its emblematic flag, which helong had followed; revered by the army, to the command ofwhich he would have been invited--he calmly abandoned them allto lead the forlorn hope of his people, impelled by his convictionthat their cause was just. Turning his back upon ambition, puttingselfish considerations behind him, like George Washington in theold Revolution, he threw himself and all his interests into anunequal struggle for separate government. When John Adams ofMassachusetts declared that, sink or swim, survive or perish, hegave his heart and hand to the Declaration of Independence, hestood on precisely the same moral plane on which Robert E. Leestood from the beginning to the end of the war. As the north starto the sailor, so was duty to this self-denying soldier. Havingdecided that in the impending and to him unwelcome conflict hisplace was with his people, he did not stop to consider the cost.He resolved to do his best; and in estimating now the relativeresources and numbers, it cannot be denied that he did more thanany leader has ever accomplished under similar conditions. Andwhen the end came and he realized that Appomattox was thegrave of Page 460his people's hopes, he regretted that Providence had notwilled that his own life should end there also. He not only said insubstance, to Colonel Venable of his staff and to others, that hewould rather die than surrender the cause, but he said to me onthat fatal morning that he was sorry he had not fallen in one ofthe last battles. Yet no man who saw him at Appomattox coulddetect the slightest wavering in his marvellous self-poise or anylowering of his lofty bearing. Only for a fleeting moment did helose complete self-control. As he rode back from the McLeanhouse to his bivouac, his weeping men crowded around him; andas they assured him in broken voices of their confidence andlove, his emotions momentarily overmastered him, and his wetcheeks told of the sorrow which his words could not express.Throughout that crucial test at Appomattox he was theimpersonation of every manly virtue, of all that is great and trueand brave--the fittest representative of his own sublimelybeautiful adage that human virtue should always equal humancalamity. 2b1af7f3a8