American Portraits

North or South: Robert E. Lee’s Fateful Decision

In this lesson, students will learn about the life of Robert E. Lee and how it was shaped by integrity. They will explore his actions and how they helped shape his identity and purpose. Through his example, they will learn how they can pursue integrity in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Narrative

Robert E. Lee was born in Virginia at Stratford Hall in 1807. He and his family were part of the upper crust of the Virginia planter culture. Lee’s great grandfather, Henry Lee, had been one of the first to arrive and settle in the colony of Virginia. Robert’s father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee, had been one of George Washington’s most trusted cavalry officers during the Revolutionary War….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

What can Robert E. Lee’s integrity teach us about having integrity in our own lives?

Virtue Defined

Integrity is personal consistency in moral goodness.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the life of Robert E. Lee and how it was shaped by integrity. They will explore his actions and how they helped shape his identity and purpose. Through his example, they will learn how they can pursue integrity in their own lives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Robert E. Lee’s life and actions leading up to the Civil War
  • Students will understand how acting with integrity can affect their purpose and identity
  • Students will apply this knowledge to the pursuit of integrity in their own lives

Background

The American Civil War was a bloody conflict that pitted the nation against itself in a desperate fight for its identity. Countless numbers of tragic stories can be found of family members being forced to face each other on the field of battle. The causes of the war are debated, even today. The arguments over whether the southern states fought for the preservation of slavery alone, for state sovereignty, or a combination of both has filled countless thousands of pages.

What is harder to determine, however, is why the individual soldiers fought. When the call came for men in 1861, thousands of volunteers from across the nation flooded both Union and Confederate recruiting stations and pledged to fight for their own interpretation of the cause. Some sought adventure, some to end slavery, others to preserve the Union, and others to protect their rights and traditions.

The experience was the same for the leaders of both sides. Ulysses S. Grant was a former officer working at a leather shop when war broke out. He answered his country’s call, raising a company of volunteers to defend the union. Another man, Lewis Armistead, was a United States officer in California when the war came. He promptly gave up his commission and returned to Virginia to fight for his state.

The decision for which side to fight on and why was not easy for these men. Many were guided by one principle alone: integrity. One of the most well-known of these men was General Robert E. Lee.

Vocabulary

  • Company
  • Commission
  • Integrity
  • Demerits
  • Tumult
  • Artillery
  • Regiment
  • Deftly
  • Secession
  • Calamity
  • Ensconced
  • Anarchy
  • Gravely

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Robert E. Lee?
  • What did Robert E. Lee do before the war?
  • What do Robert E. Lee’s actions say about his personal integrity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Davis, William C. The Commanders of the Civil War. London: Salamander Books Ltd, 1999.
  • Fellman, Michael. The Making of Robert E. Lee. Random House, 2000.
  • United States. National Park Service. “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service. June 17, 2015. http://www.nps.gov/arho/index.htm.

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