Soon after the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union forces, Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote to one of his spiritual advisers while wrestling with the pain of this great defeat, but also with a lesson that he had learned.
"God has thought fit to afflict us most deeply. … How great must be our sins & how unrelenting our obduracy," wrote Lee, to the Rev. William Platt, an Episcopal priest. "We have only to submit to his gracious will & pray for his healing mercy."
The key, Lee argued, is that the South's defeat represented the judgment of God. Now it was time to seek true unity, not "a forced and hollow truce. … To this end all good men should labour."
This was not random talk. Lee leaned on his faith because that's who he was, according to the Rev. R. David Cox, author of "The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee." Cox teaches history at Southern Virginia University, which is near the Episcopal parish in Lexington that he led from 1987-2000 -- then known as R.E. Lee Memorial Church.
This past fall, the church's vestry made news when -- after riots in Charlottesville -- it voted to return to the name "Grace Church," the church's name when Lee was on the vestry. Cox said he is convinced that the Lee revealed in his letters and private journals would have had no problem with that decision.
"I don't think Lee would have wanted the Confederate flag flown. … He would have opposed people putting up statues in an attempt to preserve the memory of a great 'lost cause' -- words that he never used," he said, during an interview in Lexington. "Lee would not have wanted to see a church named after him. He was too humble for that."
The problem, Cox explained, is that when people argue about "Robert E. Lee," they are actually arguing about two historic misconceptions of Lee.