Culture

Soldiers of the Cross: The Christian Character & Legacy of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson

Caleb Zahr

Within the last 8 years or so, the history and imagery of the South have been under attack at a rapidly increasing pace. Now more than ever, people in America, and even conservative, Bible-believing Christians, are calling for the removal and destruction of Confederate and Southern history. The destruction of Charlottesville’s Robert. E. Lee statue in October is the result of years’ worth of progressive effort to convince the public that men like him are ‘racist’ and ‘evil’ figures, who don’t deserve honor. 

Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute and a former slave, once said “The first white people in America, certainly the first in the South to exhibit their interest in the reaching of the Negro and saving his soul through the medium of the Sunday-school were Robert E. Lee and ‘Stonewall Jackson.’ … Where Robert E. Lee and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson have led in the redemption of the Negro through the Sunday school, the rest of us can afford to follow.” For many modern ears, this seems baffling. How could a black man and former slave praise the valor and faith of men like Lee and Jackson? It seems that Washington understood that participation in the system of slavery did not bar men from being considered genuine Christians. I agree with Booker T. Washington and hope to point out multiple aspects in the lives of Robert E. Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson that demonstrate their genuinely virtuous character and great examples of faithfulness to God.

The Marble Man

There was arguably no officer in the entire Civil War who was more respected or received more devotion from his men than Robert E. Lee. For much of the Civil War, Lee served as a bastion of hope for gaining of Southern independence. Though the South lost the war, many in the North came to respect and even revere the general. Upon his death, both the New York Times and New York Herald praised Lee, even though they had officially sided against him. What is often overlooked is his personal and passionate faith in God. While his military successes are no doubt commendable, without God, Lee believed that his life would have been in vain. He claimed, “My chief concern is to try to be a humble, earnest Christian…” 

In keeping with the teachings of Christianity, Lee’s faith prompted him to be continually observant of the work of God in his life. He made it a personal responsibility to pray, read the Bible, attend church services, and help those whom the Bible commanded to help. He heeded the words of Paul well, who wrote, “Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, exhort you to walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love…” (Eph. 4:1-2 LSB). Though imperfect, he did his best to remain a humble servant of God and of those whom he served in his military career. In addition to his deep faith, Lee also trusted in God’s wisdom and purpose for the world. No matter the blessings or hardships, he had an unshakeable faith in the works of God. 

Christian & Gentleman

In everything, Lee recognized His providence in leading him through his life’s most trying times. Following the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, in a Christmas letter to his wife, Lee wrote, “My heart is filled with gratitude to Almighty God for his unspeakable mercies with which he has blessed us in this day, for those he has granted us from the beginning of life, and particularly for those he has vouchsafed us during the past year. What should have become of us without his crowning help and protection?” Many historians write that it was Lee’s supreme understanding of battle and command that helped him to win such drastic victories. Though there is no doubt that Lee was a skilled general, he always believed that it was God who gave him victory in battle. For him, the failure to invoke God’s help meant that his efforts were futile. 

Throughout the war, Lee desired that his soldiers would turn to Christ and trust in Him for future victories. In the same letter to Mary, he professed, “I have seen his hand in all the events of the war. Oh if our people would only recognize it and cease from their vain self boasting and adulation, how strong would be my belief in final success and happiness to our Country. For in him alone I know is our trust and safety.” Lee’s passion for faithfulness to God extended beyond himself and into the lives of those closest to him. It was clear to many that the power of the Gospel illuminated from Lee in the way that he conducted himself as a man and Christian. In his biography of Lee, Douglass S. Freeman wrote, “What was his duty as a Christian and a gentleman? That he answered by the sure criterion of right and wrong, and, having answered, acted. Everywhere the two obligations went together; he never sought to expiate as a Christian for what he ahead failed to do as a gentleman, or to atone as a gentleman for what he had neglected as a Christian. He could not have conceived of a Christian who was not a gentleman.”

Old Blue Light

Historian James I. Robertson wrote, “Robert E. Lee also possessed military genius and religious devotion, but even the faith of Lee paled in comparison to that of his principal lieutenant [Jackson].” Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was quite a peculiar man, and even in his day some questioned his unusual behaviors. However, no one could deny that Jackson loved God and desired to follow Him with all his heart. Jackson, a Presbyterian, rigorously emphasized in himself the providence of God. For him, every act in life and in all of human history had been ordained by God for His will and His purposes. Jackson viewed Himself as both God’s servant and instrument to ensure that His will was properly obeyed and carried out. This extended to his view of slavery. 

Jackson believed that God had ordained the institution for purposes unknown to man, but it was nevertheless his duty to educate slaves in the ways of the Christian faith, which is why he held Sunday school classes for both slaves and freedmen in his church. Though some today would disagree with him on the issue of slavery, his willingness and passion to teach them the Gospel should certainly serve as genuine evidence of his love for God and his fellow man. For Jackson, faith and vocation went hand in hand. Everything that he accomplished as an officer and a warrior was done to the glory of God. 

When the Civil War began, Jackson saw his duties not only in the protection of his state, but as a divine call from God to lead His armies in battle to glorify Him. Throughout his life upon coming to Christ, Jackson cheerfully and dutifully attended church services, read the Bible daily, continually tithed, and strictly observed the Sabbath, to the point where he forbade himself from writing letters, reading newspapers, or engaging in secular topics of conversation. In addition to this evidence of regenerate faith, Jackson’s prayer life was enthusiastic and passionate. He prayed and inquired of the Lord multiple times a day, ranging from the smallest things as prayer before drinking water, to prayer before large campaigns across northern Virginia. Though it may seem unusual for us to see a man so devoted to God, perhaps the faith of Jackson should serve as an example of what it means to be, “fervent in spirit…” (Rom. 12:11 LSB). 

Conclusion

It is clear in America today that men need good role models to follow. Unfortunately, historic role models like George Washington and Patrick Henry have been condemned as evil for their views and/or participation on race and slavery. In the case of Lee and Jackson, they have been continually reviled for some time, causing many Americans to believe that following their example would be traitorous and ungodly. But such is not the case.

If someone like Booker T. Washington, a former slave, can commend Lee and Jackson for their faith and their valor, then so can we in the modern age. These men were not merely courageous and honorable figures in their military service to both the United States and the Confederacy, but humble, faithful, and obedient servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. For young men in America today, looking to their example in leadership, self-discipline, wisdom, and religion will help to revive a masculine culture of what Sullivan Ballou called, “Honorable Manhood.” Though these men were indeed sinners, it is important to recognize that our own generation has committed and is committing far worse sins before God than either of these two men. May we hope and pray for more men who have the courage and faithfulness of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

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