Robert E. Lee was impressive in many different ways. General Wilcox, having met Lee for the very first time, wrote: “I was much impressed with his fine appearance, either on horse or on foot … the handsomest man in the army.” Lee was universally described as graceful, but unlike so many of today’s “stars”, he was not “all style and no substance.” Lee’s gracefulness of appearance was, if possible, surpassed by the graciousness of his character. That gracious attitude was manifested towards others in many ways. I trust that one of my favorite stories from Lee’s life will speak to your heart as it does to mine:
Col. T.L. Broun wrote of having been present at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, just after the end of the Civil War. Broun said that a Dr. Minnegerode preached the message that Sunday, which was a communion day. Other sources tell us that the attendance at the service was like a “Who’s Who” of the Confederacy. Following the message, the pastor prepared to serve the communion, when a tall, well-dressed black man advanced to the front of the church in advance of all others, to receive communion. Emory Thomas wrote of this event:
“There followed a pregnant pause. According to one witness, ‘Its effects upon the communicants was startling, and for several moments they retained their seats in solemn silence and did not move, being deeply chagrined at this attempt to inaugurate the ‘new regime’ to offend and humiliate them…’”.
Accounts tell us that even the minister hesitated in awkward uncertainty. Just then, another person rose from his pew and walked down the aisle to the chancel rail. It was none other than Robert E. Lee himself. Lee came forward in his usual graceful and dignified manner, and reverently knelt near the black man to receive communion with him. Soon after Lee knelt, the rest of the congregation followed his example and shuffled to the rail to receive communion as well.
Lee’s army lost the Civil War, and had he responded like most, he would have chosen to simmer in the bitterness of the past, and followed the others in the church that day in their chagrin and silence. Instead he courageously stepped forward, risking his own reputation and standing to help heal the rifts of Union and race. I never had the privilege of seeing Robert E. Lee’s renowned graceful appearance, but the graciousness of his actions that Communion Sunday challenges me today. It challenges me to forgive. It challenges me to rise above petty differences, to treat the despised better than many feel they deserve to be treated, and to be willing to risk my reputation to do what is right in trying situations. In short, Robert E. Lee challenges me to be a far better man than I presently am, by imitating his Christ-like spirit of grace in every situation I face. Emory Thomas wrote that “Lee’s actions were far more eloquent than anything he spoke or wrote.” Would that the same might be said of us as well.