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'Why should there be such widespread interest in Robert E. Lee in this land?'

President Kilgo's address on Robert E. Lee's birthday anniversary

<p>John C. Kilgo, former president of Trinity College, gave a speech honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1907.&nbsp;</p>

John C. Kilgo, former president of Trinity College, gave a speech honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1907. 

Robert E. Lee has become a nationwide person of interest after this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Va., where white nationalists descended on the town in opposition to plans to remove his statue. Yesterday, The Chronicle reported on the mysterious circumstances of the inclusion of Lee’s statue on Duke’s campus.

Lee, a slave owner, is most widely remembered for being the general of the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia—the primary military force of the Confederate States of Americabefore surrendering to Union forces at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865. After the Civil War, Lee served as the president of Washington College—now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va.—until his death.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he became a symbol for proponents of the “lost cause” movement, which portrayed the Confederate cause as heroic. Monuments of Lee popped up across the United States during this period as he assumed an almost mythological stature.

In January 1907, John Kilgo, the fourth president of Trinity College, delivered an address commemorating Lee’s one hundredth birthday anniversary. President William Few, then a dean, presided over the meeting, which was held in Craven Memorial Hall, a building located on what is now East Campus. The Chronicle printed a portion of the address at the time, noting that Kilgo “spoke with even more than his usual eloquence and force and held the closest attention of the audience.” 

110 years later, as members of the Duke community begin to debate the placement of Lee’s statue, we wanted to reprint Kilgo’s address as a historical document. Read in that context, Kilgo's address may shed light on the ways early administrators and community members viewed Lee before his statue was affixed to the Chapel.

The portion of Kilgo’s address is below:

Why should there be such widespread interest in Robert E. Lee in this land? Why should intelligent men of all parts of this nation do him honor? Why should he rise to a national place in the admiration of the American people? Why should Dr. Abbott recently have said that wherever Americans place statues for the instruction and inspiration of men that among famous men, Robert E. Lee will stand with his peers?... 

It is easy to see why the South should make of him a hero and should honor him, but it is not alone the South, but the North and the West and the Northwest that recognize in him a lofty American of whom all Americans may be proud and whom all mankind may admire. We understand usually why the American people honor other men whom they hold as their ideal. Franklin at a very delicate period of our history as minister to a foreign court performed the most difficult task of a diplomat and laid the nation under obligation to him, but Robert E. Lee was never a minister to a foreign court, and he never performed the office of a diplomat Thomas Jefferson has gained for himself perpetual fame as the organizer of a party, but Robert E. Lee organized no political party. Morse,. Fulton and Field made the whole world responsive to them, by their inventions, but Robert E. Lee invented nothing. Clay and Webster in the national legislature as statesmen and orators, gained for themselves immortal fame, but Robert E. Lee was never a member of a national legislature, and he left no specimens of oratory to the world.

At the head of the army with liberty at issue, Washington led his soldiers through seven long years of tedious warfare and gained the great end which he sought. He left the battlefield a victor. He was welcomed by the praise and cheers of his people. For four long tedious years, Robert E. Lee led his army on from battle to battle until at the last he led them to a final defeat. There was no waiting country to cheer him as a conqueror. There were no hosannas ringing in his ears or about him, and throughout his country was widespread devastation, his was a homeless people, a civilization gone to ruin; and not even the material to reconstruct it seemed to be left.

Here is the wonder, a veritable miracle. Lord Roseberry was accustomed to speak of Burns as "that mystery called Burns," and certainly we speak of Lee as "that mystery called Lee." The price of honor and fame is victory, the price of admiration is success, but this man has honor without victory and immortal fame in spite of defeat, and in this he has reversed the laws of history, and reversed the sayings of men. He conquered by the might of his personality and spotless character... In this he has shown himself to have possessed the highest order of genius. Men are usually great because they have done something great. This man is great because he touched something and it became great. Philosophers are great because their philosophies are great, but this man's teachings got greatness from him... I would not belittle the memory of this man by anything that smacks of flattery, especially abominably cheap flattery that is so often poured upon him. I simply want to get as near as possible the secret of this man's genius. A Christly man he was, and I say with all reverence that he came nearer possessing the genius of Christ and came nearer adopting the methods of Christ than any man with whom I am acquainted in history...

The Confederate army would never have been at Appomattox but for the fact that Lee was at Appomattox; the Confederate army went to Gettysburg not inspired by the idea of sustaining or building a new republic, they went to Gettysburg because Lee went to Gettysburg. The saddest thing at Appomattox was not that of returning home, but the saddest and most pathetic was when he, with tears on his face, bade farewell to his men.

After referring to the successful career of Lee as a college president, the speaker said that Lee's right place in the South has not yet been found. We have canonized him as the hero our American deeds, but his just place is that of the ideal citizen, and leader in the up-building of this new South. It has been very unfortunate in some respects in its leadership. The fact is that the New South—the South since the war—has made the supreme blunder of trying to put "new wine in old bottles." Certainly a very serious blunder it was. Mr. Jefferson served his day, but adds nothing to this day; Mr. Webster served his day, but adds nothing to this day; George Washington served his day, but I would like to see him handle some of the problems of this day, such as railroad rebates, etc.

In every leader, the ideal man, there must be some very fundamental traits of character. He must be an ideal man. He must be able to stand the test of severest life. Not only in public performance, but in private integrity and personal purity he must be the ideal man. He must not only be personally an example but he must have the genius of inspiring men to sympathize with his ideal, and he must have the power to organize and to move men in the line of his ideal.

These things must be in the efficient leader and certainly these things were preeminently in this man. Whoever made an apology for Robert E. Lee's conduct? I heard a personal acquaintance and friend of his say: "Did you know that Robert E. Lee was a man of tremendous temper?"... But he said he had complete mastery of it and never let it master him.

America has had few Christian public men. How pious was Thomas Jefferson? How pious was John C. Calhoun? How much did Alexander Hamilton fear God? How much concern did Burr have of God? A Christian nation have we been, but our public men have been poor illustrations of faith in God. Never did anyone leave the earth with a more spotless Christian record than Robert E. Lee. He is the one American character that we can put against Gladstone of England.

For these reasons, I believe that Robert E. Lee should hold the first place in our history and be the guiding star in the Southern heavens. For these reasons, I believe the South would be greater and grander if baptized with his spirit; and if this celebration of his one hundredth birthday will leave something of a revival of Leeism then it will be a period of civic revival, of political revival, of religious revival, and you young men just rising toward the station of duty trying to select for yourselves some line of action and some guiding spirit, let Lee exhort you, turn to this man; know this man; follow this man.