The Spirit That Was In Lee
It has been many years since a North Carolina governor addressed the public on the birthday of General Robert E. Lee. Governor Charles Brantley Aycock (1901-1905) was a North Carolinian who as a young boy saw the ragged, defeated American patriots return home in 1865, and try to rebuild their lives. The birthday of Lee remains a legal holiday in North Carolina.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
The Spirit That Was In Lee:
“That day was not unlike most January nineteenths until Aycock rose to speak. He had been sitting reminiscent, with a far-away look in his eyes after greeting the men in gray. As a small boy he had seen his own brother and kinsmen come back after Appomattox. He had heard of how the bravest had given all they had and hoped to be in the cause.
As he sat through the preliminary exercises, his mind going back to the early years of the sixties. Before him were the remnant of that mighty army—men broken by the wheel of life, some wearing the scars of honorable service, the snow that never melts fallen upon all their heads.
Governor Aycock had not spoken half a dozen sentences before the little chapel was transformed. The simple seats seemed cushioned chairs and the men in gray who sat upon them seemed no longer bruised and bent under the stress of war and burden of age. They seemed to stand out as they rushed the Bloody Angle at Gettysburg or charged with Jackson up the Valley. His Voices had carried him to heights where mortals do not dwell. He was telling of the deathless deeds of the men of the South.
His hearers felt themselves on holy ground and listening to the melody of an eloquence to which hitherto they had been strangers. There was a holy hush, as if an angel wing had fluttered over the place. Almost inspired, Aycock traced the march and counter-march of the men of Lee’s and Jackson’s armies as they ascended the glory-mountains of sacrifice. He pictured their return, foot-sore and ragged, to poverty and struggle. But they had never bent the knee!
Neither want nor hardship broke their spirits. They had in their hearts something glorious and imperishable. It was the spirit that was in Lee. Aycock held that little company in hushed ecstacy as he limned the nobility of Robert E. Lee in words so eloquent as to defy reproduction. “We can only ourselves catch a few rays of light from the sunshine of his face” was his peroration.
There was no applause. There are times when applause seems out of place, a sort of cheap substitute for deep emotions. This was such a time. His audience felt as if they had ascended to mountain tops and beheld the light that never was on sea or land, separated with a strange glow in their hearts. It has never faded. Not one who heard that master tribute will ever lose its benediction.
A score and more years have passed, but I never ride by the little chapel that in my memory it is not illumined by the lasting glow and glory with which Aycock’s eloquence filled it that January afternoon. I drove back to the Capitol with the Governor. He was silent. My heart had been stirred too deep for words. It seemed that conversation would be a sacrilege and would break a spell I hope will abide with me until I greet him on the other shore.
As I have reflected on that perfect tribute, it has seemed to me to be paralleled by only one other address. The difference between Aycock’s address at the Confederate Home and Lincoln’s at Gettysburg, is that Aycock’s audience was so thrilled that nobody could put pencil to paper. At Gettysburg, the audience that heard Lincoln was little impressed, and was disappointed with its brevity. Unfortunately Aycock’s [spoken words] were lost. It lives only in the hearts of the few privileged to hear it. But to those few, it is forever an inspiration. If I could but give you the hint of its beauty and majesty, you would feel that you had been admitted to heavenly places.”
(Charles Brantley Aycock, Historical Address, Hon. Josephus Daniels, NC Historical Review, 1924, pp. 261-262)