BOOK REVIEW: CALL OF DUTY: THE STERLING NOBILITY OF ROBERT E. LEE By J. Steven Wilkins; George Grant, general editor, Elkton, Maryland; Highland Books, 1997, 332 pages, hardcover, $15.00, ISBN 0-9645396-9-1.
Prior to reading this book, I had little knowledge of Robert E. Lee. Why is that? Is it because the public government schools see more value in using an American history textbook that features the life of Marilyn Monroe than that of one of the greatest generals and most uncontaminated public figures our nation has produced? Are we so accustomed to the degraded character and actions of leaders today that to see a truly good, loyal, gracious, humble, purposeful, clean-living, unreproachable person makes us recoil and mock in disbelief? Call of Duty is refreshing to read.
A brief biographical overview is in order. It is significant to note that Lee’s childhood life was not easy. His father left home when Robert was six, never to return. He was reared by his godly mother and taught at her feet "to practice self-denial and self-control, as well as the strictest economy in all financial concerns." As a teenager (although the concept of "teenager" was not in use at the time), he nursed his mother who was always in ill health.
As a student for five rigorous years at West Point Military Academy, his behavior was so excellent that he never got a demerit. He graduated second in his class. His fellow students admired him, finding no fault. Shortly after graduation, he returned home to find his mother dying. Not long afterward, he married the girl who would be his lifelong partner, Mary, descendent of George Washington’s wife, Martha.
His first military test in battle was in the Mexican War in 1845 where he served with exemplary skill.
When it became clear that war between the states was unavoidable, Lee had a decision to make. He was expected and required to help lead the Union against the South. However, with tears, he explained that he could never "bare his sword against Virginia’s sons." In those days, loyalty was first to one’s "home country," which was the state of one’s birth.
Call of Duty presents much information on the War Between the States, battle by battle, illustrating Lee’s character poured out in that most trying time. He had to remain constant when the North had blockaded or destroyed the South’s food supplies, when his men had no shoes, when battles were uneven, and lost, and he saw his beloved men die around him.
His men revered him. Knowing this, he once commented that when he was feeling discouraged and fatigued, he was careful not to reveal this in his facial expression, lest his men despair.
The core of his character was his faith in the sovereignty of God. Without that anchor, it would have been impossible for him to have demonstrated godly character unfalteringly.
Anecdotal evidence shows remarkable character. During the battle at Petersburg, he and the officers were given turkeys for Christmas eating. Lee gently refused his, asking that his portion be sent to the underfed soldiers in the hospital. The other officers were shamed into following his example.
In addition, his home, Arlington, was confiscated by the Union troops. It was later turned into the now-famous Arlington National Cemetery. His household possessions had included personal belongings of George Washington, Lee’s hero. When asked later about the items permanently stolen from him, he answered, "I hope the possessors appreciate them and may imitate the example of their original owners, whose conduct must at times be brought to their recollection by these silent monitors."
After the war, the North, the South, and Europe made him generous offers of employment and honor. He refused them all, taking a position at rundown Washington College (renamed Washington and Lee after Lee’s death). Every student was known to him by name. With kindness and gentleness he commended and rebuked, when necessary.
Everywhere he went, crowds gathered by the hundreds to glimpse him, especially the "old soldiers," whom Lee treated with utmost respect and love. Women named their babies after him. Lee graciously acknowledged the attention, but in his humility, he never sought it.
Author Steven Wilkins, a pastor and historian, divides the book into two parts. The first part gives a chronological account of Lee’s life. The second part describes the character of Lee—his Christianity, role as husband, father, leader, and his views on public issues like slavery and states rights.
My only regret about the format of the book is that only one illustration of Lee appears and that one is on the dust jacket. I longed to see photos of him and his family.
Call of Duty is appropriate reading for adults like me who know little about Lee, and because it is written in short, simple chapters, it is suitable to be read to elementary-age children as history and biography or to be used as enrichment reading for older students.
After the scandals in America leadership in recent years, we would all do well to wash our minds out with this biography.
The book is available c/o J. Steven Wilkins, 224 Auburn Ave., Monroe, LA 71201 for $15 (no shipping or tax), or on the Internet at Amazon.com.