06/23/2010 11:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lincoln and Lee: A Seldom-Told Tale

For a girl growing up in Wisconsin, Abraham Lincoln was the president next door, the one whose corner house we went to see in Springfield.

Like so many who fell under his spell since he was born 200 years ago today, I feel that to know Lincoln is to love him. I dream about the sound of his voice. I don't go through a day without him, especially these momentous days of the first African-American president, also a lanky lawyer from Illinois. It's almost as if Greek goddesses have smiled on us after a long present-day civil war.

As a woman in Washington writing on history and politics, I see it took the first president from the egalitarian Midwest -- or simply "the West" -- to finally force the nation's sectional divide over slavery to an absolutely furious finale. Years before giving his most eloquent speeches, the Great Emancipator was a brilliant triangulator and a bold symbolist.

Lincoln, neither Northerner nor Southerner, brought his wisdom, common sense and uncommon determination to holding the Union together in the face of the Confederate rebellion. He could see each side more clearly than they could see themselves, from high-minded Massachusetts to hot-headed South Carolina.

No other electable man alive, even in the formidable "team of rivals" in his Cabinet, could have accomplished that feat. Up until the turning point of Gettysburg in the middle of the Civil War, it looked like the military prowess of General Robert E. Lee and the bravado of his gray-clad troops were winning the war.

But guess what Lincoln did to discredit Lee early on? This is a seldom-told tale, but extremely revealing. Lincoln confiscated his beautiful mansion Arlington, right across the river from Washington. The elegant property is today the national military cemetery, as Lincoln intended it to be. By seizing an estate once connected to George and Martha Washington by marriage, Lincoln made the unceremonious point that Lee was nothing but a traitor to the government he had served as a career Army general.

Lincoln started the practice of burying the bodies of Union soldiers right there in Lee's former front yard outside the gracious neoclassical home. Not that Lee was there to see them, but the point was plain as the nose of Lincoln's craggy face. The blood was on Lee's hands and literally running in soil that had belonged to Lee. See, Lee had done the unforgivable: he put his state of Virginia and its charming customs before his country.

This devastating move gave the moral high ground to the Union. It may not have hurt Confederate morale as much as it helped Union morale, but Lincoln could not have cut Lee's reputation into shreds any more clearly and swiftly. In the last 150 years, of course, Lee has had some of the best publicists in American history portraying him as noble, dashing and gallant in serving a some sort of romantic losing cause. Am I right?

Lincoln has the look of a dreamy and sad-eyed poet, but that expression can fool you. The president breathed new life into the English language and crystallized profound truths that we are still catching up with. But he was not a man to be crossed on either side of the river. The shrewd, hard-headed Lincoln played politics just the way he fought the war: to win.


Jamie Stiehm is a political journalist in Washington.