Un Vaincu/To my sons

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TO MY SONS[1]

As you well know, I love that which inspires worthy dreams. I love decent folks. I believe there is always something to gain in the company of noble souls.

Therefore -- and you have probably guessed it -- the defeated man I want to present to you was a noble-hearted one. One of those human beings whose pure and beneficent example must be saved from oblivion. And yet, during the war that tore America to pieces, this defeated man, while defending his native land, fought, as you will see, for the South -- the land of slavery.

You will discover with what deep conviction of obeying to his sense of duty, with what heart-rending suffering he made the ominous choice that decided his life.

For him, no more than for any other American, the war, in its beginning, did not have as its principle objective the suppression of slavery. No, he certainly was not pro-slavery -- he who, long before, had already liberated all the slaves of his estate ; but, grandson by marriage of George Washington, raised with the faith in the principles on which the union of the states had been built, he was convinced that on a land as vast as America, it was necessary to maintain the traditional independence of the states.

This independence was a protection against the eventual encroachments of the central power. Defending it was, in his eyes, defending state's rights, law, liberty, and so he took up arms.

I was reading recently a sad, but true, sentence which lead my thoughts back to the painful crisis that General Lee had struggled through between two contradictory duties.

"The most difficult thing during a revolution is not to do one's duty, but to know where it lies."[2]

If my hero made a mistake, his loyalty has never been questioned. Even his adversaries paid tribute to it when they gave him a nicknarne, sweet to French ears : "Bayard Américain"[3]

Such as he was, I want to acquaint you with him. I believe it is good to show you, in these days of universal intolerance, that men whose nobility is not easy to equal can march under a flag that would never be ours.

Wherever God has given rise to great characters, are they not our common assets ? Are we so rich that we can afford to let our minds forget them ? To let our minds forget invigorating examples ?

Whatever the name we give to the cause served by General Lee, you will discover that, for him, it was the cause of his country ; and you will consider him worthy of being known by all those of us who hope intensely for the resurrection of the two great feelings which restore honor to dispirited nations, love of duty, love of homeland.

If you conclude, from the narrative you are going to read, that those two feelings reach their full power and beauty only in the souls of believers who rest their terrestrial virtues on their heavenly hopes, you will have arrived at the same conclusion as I have.

And if, when you measure the accomplishments of devoted men, your hopes for our country become more optimistic, if you return to your tasks stronger and more devoted, our time, dear children, will not have been wasted.

Convince yourselves that they must bear fruit, our bitter memories. Everything has changed around us. Could we remain such as we were in the past ? We haven't taken enough heed -- and this is not new -- of our duties towards our home land. France was nothing more to us than a country full of charm, where life was pleasant. We thought we had done all our duty towards her when we paid our taxes, which paid the army.

Now we have received the lessons of suffering. We are at the hour of vital resolution, of patient labor. From now on, every child in France must have in front of his eyes, in his mind, deep in his heart, a realization that he no longer belongs to himself, but to a precise, sacred duty. That duty has nothing to do with hatred nor vengeance. That duty is to love our country with a devoted, active love. A love by which one lives, for which one dies.

Comfort France ! Bring back to her that sweet glory that mothers wish to receive from their children. Bring back to her the crown -- all the crowns -- she wore in the past among the nations. Rebuild her peaceful, learned, powerful -- rich even, you might wish -- and pray God to restore in her the feelings of faith and justice.

Nothing of what you will do to increase your value, to extend your knowledge, to accomplish more, will be wasted. A day will come when France will harvest the fruit of all your efforts. The child who takes pain over his science lessons -- the one who molds his tongue to the harsh inflections of a foreign language -- the young man who submits himself to patient research, higher studies -- all of them should be assured that they toil for their country.

The day the defeated hero I want to present to you felt, after four years of fighting, that his broken sword was falling from his hands, he did not weaken. Virginia still existed. He should still work for her. Defeat taught him neither hatred nor anger. It instilled into his heart only a greater ardor -- a purer, deeper devotion ; and Robert Lee, heir of Washington, glorious Commander in Chief of the Confederate Armies, wanting to put his remaining strength into the service of his country, chose to become president of a college.

"I have seen," said he, "a great number of Southern young men die under my flag. I want to consecrate my life making the survivors men with a sense of duty.


Lucie Boissonnas


  1. Mme B. Boissonnas is writing.
  2. Saint-René Taillandier
  3. Bayard le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. The fearless, spotless, knight.