Who am I describing?
1)He was one of the most efficient killers in history. His military tactics were ground-breaking in their horror and involved the deaths of literally tens of thousands. His actions caused millions of slaves to remain in chains for many additional years. He forced an army to keep on fighting until they were a starving, ragged, barefoot mob, and then they suffered a humiliating surrender.
2)He was a gentle, honorable, God-fearing man who prayed regularly. In all of his actions, he thought he was being guided by the Almighty. In terms of his personal behavior, he might have reminded us of our modern-day prophets. He is considered a genius, and his tactics are studied worldwide. He defended his country against a foreign invasion and fought with honor. He was such a natural leader that his men would cheer whenever he came into view. He was a loyal husband and father, and was revered until his death.
As you may have guessed from the title of this post, both descriptions apply to Robert E. Lee, the leading general of the South through most of the Civil War.
We all are a mass of contradictions. We are capable of breathless evil and breath-taking good, sometimes in the same day. We scream at our kids until we are blue in the face and then two hours later go to help somebody move, do home-teaching and preach the Gospel.
I am really glad that God is doing the judging, because I would have no way of looking at a life like Robert E. Lee’s and making any kind of sweeping decision. When reading the scriptures to my kids, they always ask “was he a good guy or a bad guy?” And we of course say that people like Nephi and Abinadi and Capt. Moroni are “good guys.” When Nephi cuts off Laban’s head, he is a “good guy” killing a “bad guy.” My personal feeling is that Nephi was haunted by that decision his entire life, and that he probably second-guessed himself all the time.
I think we need to constantly remind ourselves that only one person is human history was really a good guy. And He was the best ever. He healed and cured and saved. He was completely selfless in a world dominated by self.
The rest of us just muddle through, trying to learn from our errors so we don’t do the same stupid, pathetic things over and over again. And hopefully by the time we die we can look back at our lives and remember the acts of kindness, the time we spent with our families, the times we gave of ourselves to help others.
Robert E. Lee was also one of the most humble people in U.S. history. After Gettysburg and Vicksburg, as the South began to realize it was going to lose the war, there were calls for him to become a dictator, to gather all power to himself. He would have none of it. Just like George Washington before him, he just went on every day trying to do what he thought was right. In that sense, he was just like Nephi and many other Book of Mormon heroes, who resisted worldly power because they knew it could corrupt them.
So, I don’t know what to make of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, good, humble, God-fearing men who fought for an evil cause. Just as I’m not exactly sure what to make of many of the heroes of the scriptures. How did Joshua feel, killing thousands of people whose only crime was living in the wrong place? Can you imagine the anguish and guilt of Noah, watching millions die while he and his family lived?
Perhaps, just like Robert E. Lee, most of us are often forced into situations where there is not always an easy solution. Lee could not fight for the North, despite the appeal from President Lincoln, because he would be fighting against his own family and friends in Virginia. Yet, fighting for the South caused him to do atrocious things, to be an efficient and brutal killer, and to defend that great evil, slavery.
So, was Robert E. Lee a “good guy” or a “bad guy?” He was both, just like all of us.