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Lee in the Capitol


(April, 1866.)


Hard pressed by numbers in his strait,
  Rebellion's soldier-chief no more contends--
Feels that the hour is come of Fate,
  Lays down one sword, and widened warfare ends.
The captain who fierce armies led
Becomes a quiet seminary's head--
Poor as his privates, earns his bread.
In studious cares and aims engrossed,
  Strives to forget Stuart and Stonewall dead--
Comrades and cause, station and riches lost,
  And all the ills that flock when fortune's fled.
No word he breathes of vain lament,
  Mute to reproach, nor hears applause--
His doom accepts, perforce content,
  And acquiesces in asserted laws;
Secluded now would pass his life,
And leave to time the sequel of the strife.
  But missives from the Senators ran;
Not that they now would gaze upon a swordless foe,
And power made powerless and brought low:
  Reasons of state, 'tis claimed, require the man.
Demurring not, promptly he comes
By ways which show the blackened homes,
  And--last--the seat no more his own,
But Honor's; patriot grave-yards fill
The forfeit slopes of that patrician hill,
  And fling a shroud on Arlington.
The oaks ancestral all are low;
No more from the porch his glance shall go
Ranging the varied landscape o'er,
Far as the looming Dome--no more.
One look he gives, then turns aside,
Solace he summons from his pride:
"So be it! They await me now
Who wrought this stinging overthrow;
They wait me; not as on the day
Of Pope's impelled retreat in disarray--
By me impelled--when toward yon Dome
The clouds of war came rolling home"
The burst, the bitterness was spent,
The heart-burst bitterly turbulent,
And on he fared.

In nearness now He marks the Capitol--a show Lifted in amplitude, and set With standards flushed with a glow of Richmond yet; Trees and green terraces sleep below. Through the clear air, in sunny light, The marble dazes--a temple white.

Intrepid soldier! had his blade been drawn For yon stirred flag, never as now Bid to the Senate-house had he gone, But freely, and in pageant borne, As when brave numbers without number, massed, Plumed the broad way, and pouring passed-- Bannered, beflowered--between the shores Of faces, and the dinn'd huzzas, And balconies kindling at the sabre-flash, 'Mid roar of drums and guns, and cymbal-crash, While Grant and Sherman shone in blue-- Close of the war and victory's long review.

Yet pride at hand still aidful swelled, And up the hard ascent he held. The meeting follows. In his mien The victor and the vanquished both are seen-- All that he is, and what he late had been. Awhile, with curious eyes they scan The Chief who led invasion's van-- Allied by family to one, Founder of the Arch the Invader warred upon: Who looks at Lee must think of Washington; In pain must think, and hide the thought, So deep with grievous meaning it is fraught.

Secession in her soldier shows Silent and patient; and they feel (Developed even in just success) Dim inklings of a hazy future steal; Their thoughts their questions well express: "Does the sad South still cherish hate? Freely will Southen men with Northern mate? The blacks--should we our arm withdraw, Would that betray them? some distrust your law. And how if foreign fleets should come-- Would the South then drive her wedges home" And more hereof. The Virginian sees-- Replies to such anxieties. Discreet his answers run--appear Briefly straightforward, coldly clear.

"If now," the Senators, closing, say, "Aught else remain, speak out, we pray" Hereat he paused; his better heart Strove strongly then; prompted a worthier part Than coldly to endure his doom. Speak out? Ay, speak, and for the brave, Who else no voice or proxy have; Frankly their spokesman here become, And the flushed North from her own victory save. That inspiration overrode-- Hardly it quelled the galling load Of personal ill. The inner feud He, self-contained, a while withstood; They waiting. In his troubled eye Shadows from clouds unseen they spy; They could not mark within his breast The pang which pleading thought oppressed: He spoke, nor felt the bitterness die.

"My word is given--it ties my sword; Even were banners still abroad, Never could I strive in arms again While you, as fit, that pledge retain. Our cause I followed, stood in field and gate-- All's over now, and now I follow Fate. But this is naught. A People call-- A desolted land, and all The brood of ills that press so sore, The natural offspring of this civil war, Which ending not in fame, such as might rear Fitly its sculptured trophy here, Yields harvest large of doubt and dread To all who have the heart and head To feel and know. How shall I speak? Thoughts knot with thoughts, and utterance check. Before my eyes there swims a haze, Through mists departed comrades gaze-- First to encourage, last that shall upbraid! How shall I speak? The South would fain Feel peace, have quiet law again-- Replant the trees for homestead-shade. You ask if she recants: she yields. Nay, and would more; would blend anew, As the bones of the slain in her forests do, Bewailed alike by us and you. A voice comes out from these charnel-fields, A plaintive yet unheeded one: 'Died all in vain? both sides undone' Push not your triumph; do not urge Submissiveness beyond the verge. Intestine rancor would you bide, Nursing eleven sliding daggers in your side?

"Far from my thought to school or threat; I speak the things which hard beset. Where various hazards meet the eyes, To elect in magnanimity is wise. Reap victory's fruit while sound the core; What sounder fruit than re-established law? I know your partial thoughts do press Solely on us for war's unhappy stress; But weigh--consider--look at all, And broad anathema you'll recall. The censor's charge I'll not repeat, The meddlers kindled the war's white heat-- Vain intermeddlers and malign, Both of the palm and of the pine; I waive the thought--which never can be rife-- Common's the crime in every civil strife: But this I feel, that North and South were driven By Fate to arms. For our unshriven, What thousands, truest souls, were tried-- As never may any be again-- All those who stemmed Secession's pride, But at last were swept by the urgent tide Into the chasm. I know their pain. A story here may be applied: 'In Moorish lands there lived a maid Brought to confess by vow the creed Of Christians. Fain would priests persuade That now she must approve by deed The faith she kept. "What dead?" she asked. "Your old sire leave, nor deem it sin, And come with us." Still more they tasked The sad one: "If heaven you'd win-- Far from the burning pit withdraw, Then must you learn to hate your kin, Yea, side against them--such the law, For Moor and Christian are at war" "Then will I never quit my sire, But here with him through every trial go, Nor leave him though in flames below-- God help me in his fire!" So in the South; vain every plea 'Gainst Nature's strong fidelity; True to the home and to the heart, Throngs cast their lot with kith and kin, Foreboding, cleaved to the natural part-- Was this the unforgivable sin? These noble spirits are yet yours to win. Shall the great North go Sylla's way? Proscribe? prolong the evil day? Confirm the curse? infix the hate? In Unions name forever alienate?

"From reason who can urge the plea-- Freemen conquerors of the free? When blood returns to the shrunken vein, Shall the wound of the Nation bleed again? Well may the wars wan thought supply, And kill the kindling of the hopeful eye, Unless you do what even kings have done In leniency--unless you shun To copy Europe in her worst estate-- Avoid the tyranny you reprobate."

He ceased. His earnestness unforeseen Moved, but not swayed their former mien; And they dismissed him. Forth he went Through vaulted walks in lengthened line Like porches erst upon the Palatine: Historic reveries their lesson lent, The Past her shadow through the Future sent.

But no. Brave though the Soldier, grave his plea-- Catching the light in the future's skies, Instinct disowns each darkening prophecy: Faith in America never dies; Heaven shall the end ordained fulfill, We march with Providence cheery still.


Among those summoned during the spring just passed to appear before the Reconstruction Committee of Congress was Robert E. Lee. His testimony is deeply interesting, both in itself and as coming from him. After various questions had been put and briefly answered, these words were addressed to him:

"If there be any other matter about which you wish to speak on this occasions, do so freely." Waiving this invitation, he responded by a short personal explanation of some point in a previous answer, and after a few more brief questions and replies, the interview closed.

In the verse a poetical liberty has been ventured. Lee is not only represented as responding to the invitation, but also as at last renouncing his cold reserve, doubtless the cloak to feelings more or less poignant. If for such freedom warrant be necessary the speeches in ancient histories, not to speak of those in Shakespeare's historic plays, may not unfitly perhaps be cited.

The character of the original measures proposed about time in the National Legislature for the treatment of the (as yet) Congressionally excluded South, and the spirit in which those measures were advocated--these are circumstances which it is fairly supposable would have deeply influenced the thoughts, whether spoken or withheld, of a Southerner placed in the position of Lee before the Reconstruction Committee.


Herman Melville