Dear hearts, today is January 18th, but as I write this, I am an hour away from a day that is very important to me and which is hopefully also important to you.
Tomorrow, January 19th, is Robert E. Lee’s birthday, but I write not only to make you aware of this, but also to make a point about Lee that is very relevant to Converse College. After all, I do need to keep this Converse related….
First, let us all remember for a moment the man before I relate him to Dexter Converse and the college itself.
Robert e. Lee was born January 19th, 1807. He was a man born to change the course of human history not only for his role as a strategic military commander in the War Between the States, but more importantly, for his role as one of the most dignified Christian exemplars America has ever produced.
Take, for example, the following:
In his, “A Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee,” John Esten Cooke describes Lee praying with his men in the midst of battle, even as he had to watch many of them fall before him. He wrote, “when General Meade came over to Mine Run, and the Southern army marched to meet him, lee was riding along his line of battle in the woods, when he came upon a party of soldiers holding a prayer-meeting on the eve of battle…He stopped, dismounted–the staff officers accompanying him did the same–and Lee uncovered his head, and stood in an attitude of profound respect and attention, while the earnest prayer proceeded in the midst of thunder artillery and the explosion of enemy’s shells.”
“again near Petersburg, Lee was observed kneeling in prayer, a short distance from the road, as his troops marched by….”
and, in his own words, Lee stated:
“The doctrines and miracles of our Savior have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small portion of the human race, and even among Christian nations what gross errors still exist! While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him Who chooses to work by slow influences and with Whom a thousand years are but as a single day.”(Excerpts from Robert e. Lee’s letter to President Pierce prior to the War)
These are only three of the many examples illustrating my crucial point. Lee was a man who changed the course of human history, not simply through his military tactics or his alliance with his home state of Virginia and the Southern right to independence. Instead Lee encompasses for all of humanity the shining example of a man whose character remained unmarred by the ravages of war and the destruction of his homeland and its peoples.
Rather, Lee was a man whose devotion to his God and to the highest ideals of humanity to man and duty to country took precedence. And this now leads me to my Converse point.
If you have ever visited the Converse archives and its noble guardian Dr. Willis, you will note as you enter one of the msot beautiful portraits of Lee ever painted. It is vibrant, exhibiting Lee at his finest. One hand in the folds of his jacket and the other by his side, as the great general himself stares into the distance, contemplating. this painting, however, has a story beyond the walls of Dr. Willis’s office. While it now hangs safely in the office, it is important to note that this was not always its resting place. Originally this painting resided in Carmichael Hall, which, as Converse gals, know is our fine hall of history, politics, English, and foreign language and literature. It is a hall steeped in the subjects of tradition, the subjects whose interpretations, though not the history behind them, never change. And in the midst of all of these traditions resided Lee, a beacon of the best these subjects have to offer.
He was a fine general, a fine writer (See his Farewell Order Number Nine), and a man above the politics imposed upon his state during and after the war.
And yet, he is no longer in Carmichael Hall, despite these qualities, leaving the question, “Why not?”
Perhaps it is because he is the victim of foul misinterpretation. Take, for example, when the portrait was commissioned. In the late 1890’s, Dexter Converse commissioned the painting with the express purpose of placing it in Carmichael Hall. Converse, originally a New York native, actually had served in the Confederate Army, ,but was given an honorable discharge by General Lee in order to run the Glendale Mill to provide supplies for the troops. This he did faithfully, later commissioning the portrait of the general under whom he had served and whom he admired.
Yet, the portrait does not hang where Mr. Converse intended it. Instead, it was discovered in a closet and alter placed in the archives, fortunately saved from the ravages of neglect and time, a painting that is not only over 100 years old, but also a painting that has historical, political, and artistic significance in the Spartanburg community and beyond.
Take, for a moment, its artistic history. The painter who painted this was none other than G.B. Matthews. Matthews was not only a famous American artist and lithographer, but he is famous for his print, “Lee and his Generals,” a print that is famous for its artistic portrayal of the Confederate military. His prints are not only rare, but also beautiful. And yet we hide one of the very few if not the only painting he may have painted. This illustrates a great problem, not necessarily within the Converse community, but with all of those who seek to cover up the history of a man who played such an important role within our history.
There is likely an argument that general R.E. Lee was a man who had to be hidden as a result of his role in an ever controversial war in our country, and perhaps because of the heated debate surrounding this war, the community felt he must be moved into the archives of the library and left to be discovered in the dusty tomes of the archives instead.
Yet this is a sin on many counts. It is an act of dishonor to a man who brought honor to the American name with his Christian example and with his compassion to Northerners and Southerners alike.
It is a misfortune for artists who cannot see a painting of great beauty, painted by an artist important not only to the Spartanburg community, but to the American public.
And finally, it hides the very ideal for which Dexter Converse stood. In commissioning this painting, he was not advocating a Southern War ideal or an Anti-Northern sentiment. He was not making a historical jab, nor was he commissioning the painting for the sheer fun of it. He was portraying to young ladies an ideal of character to which they could aspire.
In his own words, “I desire that the instruction and influence of Converse College be always such that the students may be enabled to see clearly, decide wisely, and to act justly and that they may learn to love God and humanity and be faithful to truth and duty so that their influence may be characterized by purity and power.”
As Lee himself said, “you can have anything if you want if you want it badly enough. You can be anything you want to be, have anything you desire, accomplish anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose.”
He also said, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.
My friends, it is our duty to follow this ideal as expressed by Dexter converse and Robert E. Lee. It is our duty to follow the examples of Lee and converse, and it is our duty to faithfully honor that ideal upon which this school was founded.
And my friends, it is our duty to honor and aspire to the character of the man in that painting in the archives. Therefore, it is our duty to place this
portrait where all can see the ideal of art, the ideal of history, and the ideals of the men who sought to change how we view the world and our characters.
With this, I wish you all a happy January 19th and remembrance.