Robert E. Lee : The Southern Confederacy – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders by John Lord

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders

Andrew Jackson : Personal Politics
Henry Clay : Compromise Legislation
Daniel Webster : The American Union
John C. Calhoun : The Slavery Question
Abraham Lincoln : Civil War and Preservation of the Union
Robert E. Lee : The Southern Confederacy

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders
John Lord

Topics Covered
Birth, lineage, personal appearance, and early career.
A Virginian, he joins his State and the South in secession.
His seven days’ fighting against McClellan; forces the latter to raise the siege of Richmond.
“Stonewall” Jackson and his efficient fighting machine.
Wins at Antietam and Fredericksburg.
Outmanoeuvres Hooker at Chancellorsville.
Successes at Gettysburg and at the second battle of Bull Run.
Grant changes the fortune of war for the North.
Confederate dearth of necessaries and “dear money”.
Lee’s retreat and capitulation at Appomattox.
His personal characteristics.
Skill shown in his military career.
His manoeuvring tactics and masterful strategy.
High name among the great captains of history.
Gains of his leadership, in spite of “a lost cause”.
Latter days, and presidency of Washington College, Lexington, Va.

Robert E. Lee : The Southern Confederacy

By E. Benjamin Andrews, LL.D.

Robert Edward Lee had perhaps a more illustrious traceable lineage than any American not of his family. His ancestor, Lionel Lee, crossed the English Channel with William the Conqueror. Another scion of the clan fought beside Richard the Lion-hearted at Acre in the Third Crusade. To Richard Lee, the great landowner on Northern Neck, the Virginia Colony was much indebted for royal recognition. His grandson, Henry Lee, was the grandfather of “Light-horse Harry” Lee, of Revolutionary fame, who was the father of Robert Edward Lee.

Robert E. Lee was born on Jan. 19,1807, in Westmoreland County, Va., the same county that gave to the world George Washington and James Monroe. Though he was fatherless at eleven, the father’s blood in him inclined him to the profession of arms, and when eighteen,–in 1825,–on an appointment obtained for him by General Andrew Jackson, he entered the Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1829, being second in rank in a class of forty-six. Among his classmates were two men whom one delights to name with him,–Ormsby M. Mitchell, later a general in the Federal army, and Joseph E. Johnston, the famous Confederate. Lee was at once made Lieutenant of Engineers, but, till the Mexican War, attained only a captaincy. This was conferred on him in 1838.

In 1831, Lee had been married to Miss Mary Randolph Custis, the grand-daughter of Mrs. George Washington. By this marriage he became possessor of the beautiful estate at Arlington, opposite Washington, his home till the Civil War. The union, blessed by seven children, was in all respects most happy.

In his prime, Lee was spoken of as the handsomest man in the army. He was about six feet tall, perfectly built, healthy, fond of outdoor life, enthusiastic in his profession, gentle, dignified, studious, broad-minded, and positively, though unobtrusively, religious. If he had faults, which those nearest him doubted, they were excess of modesty and excess of tenderness.

During the Mexican War, Captain Lee directed all the most important engineering operations of the American army,–a work vital to its wonderful success. Already, at the siege of Vera Cruz, General Scott mentioned him as having “greatly distinguished himself.” He was prominent in all the operations thence to Cerro Gordo, where, in April, 1847, he was brevetted Major. Both at Contreras and at Churubusco he was credited with gallant and meritorious services. At the charge up Chapultepec, in which Joseph E. Johnston, George B. McClellan, George E. Pickett, and Thomas J. Jackson participated, Lee bore Scott’s orders to all points until from loss of blood by a wound, and from the loss of two nights’ sleep at the batteries, he actually fainted away in the discharge of his duty. Such ability and devotion brought him home from Mexico bearing the brevet rank of Colonel. General Scott had learned to think of him as “the greatest military genius in America.”

In 1852 Lee was made Superintendent of the West Point Military Academy. In 1855 he was commissioned Lieutenant-Colonel of Col. Albert Sidney Johnston’s new cavalry regiment, just raised to serve in Texas. March, 1861, saw him Colonel of the First United States Cavalry. With the possible exception of the two Johnstons, he was now the most promising candidate for General Scott’s position whenever that venerable hero vacated it, as he was sure to do soon.

On the initiative of Mississippi, a provisional Congress had met at Montgomery on Feb. 4, 1861, and created a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America. By March 11 a permanent constitution was drafted, reproducing that of the United States, with certain modifications. Slavery and State-sovereignty received elaborate guarantees. Bounties and protective tariffs were absolutely forbidden. Cabinet members had seats in Congress. Parts of appropriation bills could be vetoed. The presidential term was six years, and a president could not be re-elected. This constitution, having been ratified by five or more legislatures, was set in play by the provisional Congress. Virginia on seceding was taken into the Confederacy, and the Confederate capital changed from Montgomery to Richmond.

Lee was a Virginian, and Virginia, about to secede and at length seceding, in most earnest tones besought her distinguished son to join her. It seemed to him the call of duty, and that call, as he understood it, was one which it was not in him to disobey. President Lincoln knew the value of the man, and sent Frank Blair to him to say that if he would abide by the Union he should soon command the whole active army. That would probably have meant his election, in due time, to the presidency of his country. “For God’s sake, don’t resign, Lee!” General Scott–himself a Virginian–is said to have pleaded. He replied: “I am compelled to; I cannot consult my own feelings in the matter.” Accordingly, on April 20, 1861, three days after Virginia passed its ordinance of secession, Lee sent to Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, his resignation as an officer in the United States army.

Few at the North were able to understand the Secession movement, most denying that a man at once thoughtful and honorable could join in it. So centralized had the North by 1861 become in all social and economic particulars, that centrality in government was taken as a matter of course. Representing this, the Nation was deemed paramount to any State. Governmental sovereignty, like travel and trade, had come to ignore State lines. The whole idea and feeling of State-sovereignty, once as potent North as South, had vanished and been forgotten.

Far otherwise at the South, where, owing to the great size of States and to the paucity of railways and telegraphs, interstate association was not yet a force. Each State, being in square miles ample enough for an empire, retained to a great extent the consciousness of an independent nation. The State was near and palpable; the central government seemed a vague and distant thing. Loyalty was conceived as binding one primarily to one’s own State.

It is a misconception to explain this feeling–for in most cases it was feeling rather than reasoned conviction–by Calhoun’s teaching. It resulted from geography and history, and, these factors working as they did, would have been what it was had Calhoun never lived.

With reflecting Southerners Calhoun’s message no doubt had some confirmatory effect, because, historically and also in a certain legal aspect, Calhoun’s view was very impressive. That the overwhelming majority of the early Americans who voted to ratify the national Constitution supposed it to be simply a compact between the States cannot be questioned, nor could ratification ever have been effected had any considerable number believed otherwise. The view that a State wishing to withdraw from the Union might for good cause do so was the prevalent one till long after the War of 1812, yielding, thereafter, at the North, less to Webster’s logic than to the social and economic development just mentioned.

At the South it did not thus give way. There the propriety of secession was never aught but a question of sufficient grievance, to be settled by each State for itself, speaking through a majority of its voters. When the Secession ordinances actually passed, many individual voters in each State opposed on the ground that the occasion was insufficient; but such opponents, of whom Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia was one, nearly to a man felt bound, as good citizens, to acquiesce in the decision of their States and even to uphold this in arms.

Whether voting secession or accepting it on State mandate, Southern men naturally resented being called traitors or rebels. By the Websterian conception of the nature of our government they were so, but by Calhoun’s they were simply acting out the Constitution in the best of faith. No recognized arbiter or criterion existed to determine between the two views. Massachusetts denounced seceding South Carolina as a traitor: South Carolina berated Massachusetts, seeking to impose the Union on the South against its will, as a criminal aggressor. An intelligent referee with no bias for either must have pronounced the judgments equally just.

These considerations explain how Colonel Lee, certainly one of the most conscientious men who ever lived, felt bound in duty and honor to side with seceding Virginia, though he doubted the wisdom of her course.

Lee was from the first Virginia’s military hero and hope, but he did not at once become such to the Confederacy at large. He did not immediately take the field. Till after Bull Run he remained in Richmond, President Jefferson Davis’s adviser and right hand man in organizing the forces incessantly arriving and pushing to the front.

In his brief West Virginia campaign, where he first came in contact with McClellan, being looked upon as an invader rather than a friend, Lee had scant success. Some therefore called him a “mere historic name,” “Letcher’s pet,” a “West Pointer,” no fighting general. He went to South Carolina to supervise the repair and building of coast fortifications there, and it was no doubt in large part owing to his engineering skill then applied that Charleston, whose sea-door the Federals incessantly pounded from the beginning, probably wasting there more powder and iron than at all other points together, was captured only at the end of the war and then from the land side. In March, 1862, General Lee again became President Davis’s military adviser.

But though thus in relative obscurity, Lee was not forgotten. President Davis knew his man and knew that his hour would come. When, in May, 1862, the vast Federal army stood almost at Richmond’s gates, Albert Sidney Johnston being dead and Joseph E. Johnston lying wounded, the Confederacy lifted up its voice and called Robert E. Lee to assume command upon the Chickahominy front. This he did on June 1, 1862.

The Confederates’ ill-success on the second day of the Fair Oaks battle was to them a blessing in disguise. It put McClellan at his ease, giving Lee time to accomplish three extremely important ends. He could rest and recruit his army, fortify the south of Richmond with stout works, a detail which had not been attended to before, and send Stonewall Jackson down the valley of Virginia, so frightening the authorities in Washington that they dared not re-enforce McClellan.

Brilliant victory resulted. Leaving only 25,000 men between his capital and his foe, Lee, on June 26, threw the rest across the upper Chickahominy and attacked the Federal right. Fighting terribly at Mechanicsville and Gaines’s Mill, A.P. Hill and Jackson, the latter having made forced marches from the Shenandoah to join in the movement, pushed back Fitz-John Porter’s corps across the Chickahominy, sundering McClellan entirely from his York River base. The Union army was now nearer Richmond than the bulk of Lee’s, which was beyond the Chickahominy, at that time none too easily crossed. Had McClellan been Lee or Grant or Sherman he would have made a dash for Richmond. But he was McClellan, and Lee knew perfectly well that he would attempt nothing so bold. Retreat was the Northerner’s thought, and he did retreat–in good order, and hitting back venomously from White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill–till he had reached Harrison’s Landing upon the James, where gunboats sheltered and supply-ships fed his men.

Lee felt disappointed with the seven days’ fighting in that he had not crushed McClellan. He had, however, forced him to raise the siege of Richmond and to retreat thirty or forty miles. The Confederacy breathed freely again, and its gallant chieftain began to be famous.

The new leader had thus far given only hints of his fertile strategy. McClellan’s army was still but two days’ march from Richmond. Its front was perfectly fortified,–McClellan was an engineer; gunboats protected its flanks. Lee–an engineer, too–knew that to attack McClellan there would be too costly; yet McClellan must be removed, and this before he could be re-enforced for an advance. His removal was accomplished.

General Pope was threatening Richmond from the North. The government expected great things of him. In a pompous manifesto he had given out that retreating days were over, that his headquarters were to be in the saddle, and, that, as he swept on to Richmond, where he evidently expected to arrive in the course of a few days, his difficulty was going to be not to whip his enemy but to get at him in order to do so.

When Pope wrote that manifesto he knew many men, but there was one man whom he did not yet know. It was Stonewall Jackson, the most unique and interesting character rolled into notice by those tempestuous years, unless Nathan Bedford Forrest is the exception. Like the great Moslem warrior,

“Terrible he rode, alone,
With his Yemen sword for aid;
Ornament it carried none
Save the notches on its blade.”

General Robert E. Lee Photograph by Levin Corbin Handy

General Robert E. Lee Photograph by Levin Corbin Handy

Jackson was an intensely religious man. Unlike many good soldiers he wore his piety into camp and on to the battlefield, and would not have hesitated to offer prayer to the God of battles where every one of his thirty thousand men could see and hear. And all those soldiers believed in the efficacy of their commander’s prayers. Jackson was also a stern disciplinarian. If men in any way sought to evade duty, provost-marshals were ordered to bring them into line, if necessary at the pistol’s point. In consequence, when the day of battle came, there was not a man in the corps who did not feel sure that if he shirked duty Stonewall Jackson would shoot him and God Almighty would damn him. This helped to render Jackson’s thirty thousand perhaps the most efficient fighting-machine which had appeared upon the battlefield since the Ironsides of Oliver Cromwell.

Pope was destined to make Jackson’s acquaintance speedily–and rather unceremoniously, for Jackson was ill-mannered enough, instead of passing in his card at Pope’s front door, as etiquette required, to present it at the kitchen-gate. Before Pope was aware, his enterprising opponent, whose war motto was that one man behind your enemy is worth ten in his front, had gone around through Thoroughfare Gap to Manassas Junction and planted himself (August 26, 1862) square across the only railroad that ran between Pope’s army and Washington. Pope should have volted and struck Jackson like lightning before the rest of Lee’s army could come up; but two considerations made him slow. One was that Longstreet’s wing of Lee’s army was now rather close in his front, and the other, mortification at turning back after having started southward with such a blare of trumpets.

Brave Confederate soldiers who were at Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, and Chantilly, bear witness that the blood Pope’s men shed in those battles ran red. But dazed, tired, lacking confidence, and at last on short rations, and faced or flanked by Lee’s whole army, while but part of McClellan’s was at hand, they fought either to fall or to retreat again.

No one witnessing it can ever forget the consternation which prevailed in the fortifications about Washington the night after the battle of Chantilly. The writer’s own troop, manning Fort Ward, a few miles out from Alexandria, stood to its heavy guns every moment of that dismal night, gazing frontwards for a foe. The name “Stonewall Jackson” was on each lip. At the break of dawn, when to weary soldiers trees and fences easily look “pokerish,” brave artillerists swore that they could see the dreaded warrior charging down yonder hill heading a division, and in almost agonizing tones begged leave to “load for action.”

Lee probably made a mistake in entering Maryland after the battle of Chantilly, and his report implies that he would not at this time have done so for merely military reasons. But, having crossed the Potomac, he did well to fight at Sharpsburg (Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862) before recrossing. This was well, because it was bold. Moreover, by bruising the Federals there he delayed them, getting ample time for ensconcing his army on the Rappahannock front for the winter.

Also for the battle of Fredericksburg (Dec. 13, 1862) Lee deserves no special praise. Doubtless his unerring engineer eye picked the fighting-line, and his already great prestige inspired his brave army. But that was all. The pluck of his officers and men and Burnside’s incapacity did the rest.

Never did a general carry to battle a better plan of battle than Fighting Joe Hooker’s at Chancellorsville (May 2-3, 1863), and rarely has one marched from a battle that had proved for his own side a more lamentable fiasco. Taking the offensive with vast advantage in numbers, he proposed to hold Lee in place with one of his wings while he thrust the other behind Lee’s left, between the Confederate army and Richmond. But he had started a game at which two could play and had challenged a more deft and daring gamester than himself. Early divining his purpose, Lee, leaving a small part of his force to engage Hooker’s left, with the rest vigorously assumed the counter-offensive, sending Jackson, as usual, around Hooker’s extreme right. Both movements completely succeeded.

Now appeared the folly of promoting a general to the headship of a great army simply because of his fighting-quality and his success with a division or a corps. Attacked in front and routed on his flank, Hooker did exactly what all who knew him would have taken oath that he would never do. Instead of going straight ahead with vengeance and bidding his far left do the same, he ordered and executed a retreat to his old position north of the Rappahannock.

There were those who laid this disaster to Hooker’s intemperance. President Lincoln probably had such a suspicion, when, sending General Hooker west to join General Sherman, he admonished him in passing through Kentucky “to steer clear of Bourbon County.” Though Hooker was not a total-abstainer, Chancellorsville is not to be explained by that fact any more than Jubal A. Early’s defeat by Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley is referrible to his use of apple-brandy.

Hooker did not create his own defeat, as Burnside may, with little exaggeration, be said to have done at Fredericksburg. Lee defeated him, and deserved the immense fame which the victory brought. No wonder he began to plan for the offensive again. Soon the ever-memorable Gettysburg campaign was begun.

The details of this campaign, even those of the battle itself (July 1-3, 1863), we cannot give here. Nor need we. The world knows them:–the first day, with Hill’s and Ewell’s success, costing the Union the life of its gallant General Reynolds, commanding the First Corps; the second day, when, back and forth by the Devil’s Den, Hood on one side and Dan Sickles on the other, fought their men as soldiers had never fought on the American continent before; and the third day, when for an hour a hundred cannon on Seminary Ridge belched hell-fire at a hundred cannon on Cemetery Ridge, prelude, in the natural key, to Pickett’s death-defying charge.

“A thousand fell where Kemper led,
A thousand died where Garnett bled.
In blinding flame and strangling smoke
The remnant through the batteries broke
And crossed the works with Armistead.”

The Union army was for the first time fighting a great battle on Union soil. The homes of many who were engaged stood within sound of the Gettysburg cannon. As the Confederates did in many other engagements, the Federals here felt that they were repelling an invader, and they fought accordingly, with a grim iron resisting power which they had never displayed before.

Great praise was due to General Hancock, and perhaps still more to General Howard, for early perceiving the strength of Cemetery Hill as a defensible position. On the first day, after General Reynolds had fallen at his post of duty with the First Corps, General Doubleday, next in command, was on the point of ordering a retreat, the attack seeming too fearful to be withstood. But Howard, coming up with the Eleventh Corps and assuming command of the field, overruled Doubleday, and, by enforcing a most stubborn resistance against Hill’s and Ewell’s desperate onsets, probably saved Cemetery Hill from capture that evening.

So far as has ever yet been made apparent, every plan which Lee formed for the battle of Gettysburg, every order which he gave, was wise and right. We do not except even his management on the third day. It is easy to find fault with dispositions when they have failed of happy results. Men have said that instead of attacking in front on that day Lee should have drawn Ewell from the left and thrown him to Longstreet’s right, manoeuvring Meade out of his position. But in this matter, too, Lee’s judgment was probably good. Changing his plan of attack would have been a partial confession of defeat, to some extent disheartening his men. The Union Sixth Corps, fresh and free, General John Sedgwick at its head, was sure to have pounced on any troops seeking to trouble Meade’s left, and, had Meade been successfully flanked and forced back, he would have retired to Pipe Creek and been stronger than ever.

Of course, Pickett should never have been sent forward alone. You could wade the Atlantic as easily as he, unsupported, could go beyond that stone wall. But, from all one can learn, Lee was in fact not responsible for Pickett’s lack of support, although in almost guilty nobleness of spirit he assumed the responsibility, and silently rested under the imputation of it till his death.

Had Lee’s great subordinates, Ewell at nightfall on the first day, and Longstreet on the other two days, seconded him with the alacrity and devotion usually displayed by them, or had Stonewall Jackson been still alive and in the place of either of these generals, the issue of the battle would almost to a certainty have been very different from what it was. A soldier who had often followed to victory the enterprising Graham of Claverhouse, but, under a weaker leader, saw a battle wavering, cried out, “O for one hour of Dundee!” So must Lee often have sighed for Stonewall, the loss of whom at Chancellorsville made that, for the Confederacy, a sort of Pyrrhic victory.

Lee’s skill at Gettysburg has been questioned in that he fought his army upon the longer line, the big fishhook described by his position lying outside the little one formed by the Federal army. But Lee fought on the outer line also at Second Bull Run, winning one of the neatest victories in modern warfare.

John Codman Ropes, the well-known military critic, says of this battle: “It would be hard to find a better instance of that masterly comprehension of the actual condition of things which marks a great general than was exhibited in General Lee’s allowing our formidable attack, in which more than half the Federal army was taking part, to be fully developed and to burst upon the exhausted troops of Stonewall Jackson, while Lee, relying upon the ability of that able soldier to maintain his position, was maturing and arranging for the great attack on our left flank by the powerful corps of Longstreet.”

In Prussia’s war with Austria in 1866, Von Moltke’s plan at the battle of Sadowa, where he splendidly triumphed, was in the same respect a close imitation of Lee’s at Gettysburg. The Prussians occupied the outer fish-hook line, the Austrians the inner. When the pickets closed in the morning Von Moltke saluted King William and said: “Your Majesty will to-day win not only the battle but the campaign.” At noon this did not appear possible. Prince Frederick Charles’s corps were withering under the hottest artillery fire of the century, save that at Gettysburg, just three years earlier to the hour. It seemed as if in fifteen minutes they must give way. But, hark! What means that cheering on the left? New cannons boom and the Austrian fire slackens! Von Moltke knows perfectly well what it means. The Crown-Prince has arrived with his fresh corps. He has stormed the Heights of Chlum–the Culp’s Hill of that battlefield. He enfilades the whole Austrian line. Benedek is beaten; on to Vienna; the war is ended!

It was with a heavy heart that General Lee ordered his brave men southward again–a heart made heavier by many a stinging criticism against him in the Southern press. The resolution that bore him up at this crisis was morally sublime. He could not hope to strengthen his army more. For a time he had to weaken it by sending Longstreet west to assist Bragg in fighting the battle of Chickamauga. Clothing, rations, animals, and forage, as well as men, were increasingly scarce. The South was exhausted much sooner than any expected, having greatly overestimated its wealth by taking exports and imports for gauge. Doubtful if ever before was so large and populous a region so far from self-sustaining. The force against Lee, on the other hand, was daily becoming stronger.

Till Gettysburg, Lee had toyed with the Army of the Potomac–not because the rank and file of that army was at fault, and not mainly because of its generals’ inability, but mostly because of political interference with its operations. The great and revered President Lincoln, with all his powers, was not a military man. No more was Secretary Stanton. They secured the best military aid they could. From an early period General Halleck–“Old Brains,” men called him because of his immense military information–was their constant adviser; and though he was a scholar rather than a genius, he could doubtless have saved them many an error had they heeded his counsel instead of civilian clamor.

How impressively did not the Civil War teach that fine military scholarship alone, while it may greatly add to a general’s efficiency, cannot make a true military leader! Compare Halleck with Grant or Sherman! The Creoles of Louisiana considered their Beauregard the ne plus ultra military genius of the South. One of them was once asked his opinion of General Lee. He replied in his broken English: “O, Gen Lee a ve’y good gen’l, ve’y good gen’l indeed; Gen Beaugar speak ve’y fav’ble of Gen Lee.” So, at last, did Halleck speak “ve’y fav’ble” of Grant.

But Gettysburg convinced Lee that he could toy with the Potomac army no longer, and this was more than ever impossible after Grant took command. Then Greek met Greek, and the death grapple began. At the Wilderness, at Spottsylvania, and most mercilessly of all at Cold Harbor, Grant drove his colossal battering-ram against Lee’s gray wall, only to find it solid as Gibraltar.

This struggle tested both commanders’ mettle to the utmost. At the end of the hammering campaign, after losing men enough to form an army as large as Lee’s, Grant’s van was full twice as far from Richmond as McClellan’s had been two years before. Not once was Lee flanked, duped, or surprised. As always hitherto, so now, his darling mode of defence was offence,–to fight,–Grant’s every blow being met with another before it hit. Only once were Lee’s lines forced straight back to stay. Even then, at the Spottsylvania “bloody angle,” the ground he lost hardly sufficed to graveyard the Union men killed in getting it. In swinging round to Petersburg, and again at the springing of the Petersburg Mine, Grant thought himself sure to make enormous gains; but Lee’s insight into his purposes, and lightning celerity in checkmating these, foiled both movements, giving the mine operation, moreover, the effect of a deadly boomerang.

Spite of all this, the end of the Confederacy was in sight from the moment of Grant’s arrival at Petersburg. During the three years that Lee and his indomitable aides and soldiers had been holding at bay brave and perfectly appointed armies vastly outnumbering them, and twice boldly assuming the offensive, with disaster indeed, yet with glory, two other grand campaigns had been going on wherein the Confederacy had fared much worse. The capture of New Orleans, of Island No. Ten, and of Vicksburg, had let the Father of Waters again run “unvexed to the sea.” A second line of operations via Murfreesborough, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Savannah, had divided the Confederacy afresh. Sherman’s army, which had achieved this, began on Feb. 1, 1865, to march northward from Savannah.

Bravery in camp and field and deathless endurance at home could not take the place of bread. The blockade was, to be sure, for some time extensively evaded, admitting English wares of all sorts in great quantities. But in no long time the blockade tightened. Moreover, comparatively little cotton was raised which could in any event have been exported. Credit failing, imports, if any, had to be paid for in money. This, of course, was soon spent, and then importation ceased. Privateers destroyed but could bring nothing home.

As the war progressed, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana, and with the fall of Vicksburg the whole immense Trans-Mississippi tract, were lost to the Confederacy. Sherman’s march isolated also Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

The dearth of necessaries, save corn and bacon, became desperate. Salt and wheat bread were rare luxuries. In 1864 a suit of jean cost $600, a spool of cotton $30, a pound of bacon $15. It should, of course, be borne in mind that these high prices in part represented the depreciation of Confederate paper money. Drastic drafting and the arming of negroes could avail little for lack of accoutrements and food. Thus Lee’s capitulation at Appomattox (April 9, 1865) represents less a defeat of his army than the breakdown of the Confederacy at large. So true and impressive is this that reflection upon it makes the last year of Lee’s commandership seem peculiarly glorious. Only by rarest genius, surely, were those dazzling tactics, that lynx-eyed, sleepless watchfulness, that superhuman patience and superhuman valor, protracted, incessant for a whole year, keeping intact, victorious, and full of inspiration that gray line, ever longer, ever thinner, of men outnumbered two, then three, and at last five to one, whose food and clothing grew scantier with the days, while the bounties of a continent replenished their opponents,–keeping that tenuous line unbroken till very starvation unfitted soldiers to handle muskets which must be used empty if at all, because ammunition was spent! And when we recall that all this was accomplished not because the Union army was cowardly, ill-led, or asleep, but in spite of Grant’s relentless push and an ably led army as brave, wary, and determined as ever marched: let us ask critics versed in the history of war, if books tell of generalship more complete than this!

Lee’s military conduct revealed, it must be admitted, one weakness, that of undue leniency toward slack, dilatory, and opinionated subordinates. This was, however, only in part Lee’s personal fault. Mainly it was the military counterpart of the rope-of-sand infirmity inherent in a Confederacy which in every possible way deified the individual State and snubbed the central power. Without jeopardizing the Confederacy, Lee could not at Gettysburg deal with Longstreet as Grant did with Warren at Five Forks, or as Sherman did with Palmer in North Carolina. It seems that Lee’s orders to his main subordinates were habitually of the nature of requests. Yet what obedience was not accorded him in spite of this!

Most striking among the characteristics of General Lee which made him so successful was his exalted and unmatched excellence as a man, his unselfishness, sweetness, gentleness, patience, love of justice, and general elevation of soul. Lee much loved to quote Sir William Hamilton’s words: “On earth nothing great but man: in man nothing great but mind.” He always added, however: “In mind nothing great save devotion to truth and duty.” Though a soldier, and at last very eminent as a soldier, he retained from the beginning to the end of his career the entire temper and character of an ideal civilian. He did not sink the man in the military man. He had all a soldier’s virtues, the “chevalier without fear and without reproach,” but he was glorified by a whole galaxy of excellences which soldiers too often lack. He was pure of speech and of habit, never intemperate, never obscene, never profane, never irreverent. In domestic life he was an absolute model. Lofty command did not make him vain.

The Southern army had one prominent officer with a high ecclesiastical title, the Rt. Rev. Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk, D.D., LL.D., Bishop of Louisiana, commanding a corps in Bragg’s army. He was killed in battle at Pine Mountain, Ga., during Sherman’s advance on Atlanta. Stonewall Jackson was so famed for his rather obtrusive though awfully real piety that men named him the Havelock of the army. But none who knew the three will call Lee less a Christian than either of the others. He prayed daily for his enemies in arms, and no word of hate toward the North ever escaped his tongue or his pen. He had the faith and devotion of a true crusader. His letters breathe the spirit of a better earth than this. Collected into a volume, they would make an invaluable book of devotional literature. No wonder officers and men passionately loved such a commander, glad, at his bidding, to crowd where the fight was thickest and death the surest.

Sir Thomas Malory’s words are not inaptly applied to Lee: “Ah, Sir Lancelot, thou wert head of all Christian knights; thou wert never matched of earthly knight’s hand; and thou wert the courtliest knight that ever bare shield; and thou wert the kindest man that ever strake with sword; and thou wert the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights; and thou wert the meekest man and the gentliest that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in rest.”

Exquisitely appropriate is also Professor Trent’s comparison of Lee “with Belisarius and Turenne and Marlborough and Moltke, on the one hand, and on the other with Callicratidas, and Saint Louis, with the Chevalier Bayard and Sir Philip Sidney.”

A remarkable trait of General Lee’s military character was his tireless and irresistible energy. While one whom he deemed a foe of his State remained on her soil, he could not rest. From the moment he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, all was action in that army. During the nine weeks after A.P. Hill struck Mechanicsville that earthquake shock, how did not the war-map change! Richmond was set free; Washington was threatened. Lee whipped McClellan before Pope could help, then Pope before McClellan could help. The first evening at Gettysburg, Longstreet having impressively pointed out the strength of Meade’s position on Cemetery Hill, Lee instantly replied, “If he is there in the morning, I shall attack him.” The second morning of the Wilderness battle, Grant, obviously expecting to anticipate all movement upon the other side, ordered charge at five o’clock. Lee charged at half-past four. Grant was determined to reach Spottsylvania first, but there, too, Lee awaited him, having had some hours to rest. Prostrate and half-delirious in his tent one day during Grant’s effort to flank him, he kept murmuring: “We must strike them; we must not let them pass without striking them.” Longstreet was too slow for him, and so was even the ever-ready A.P. Hill. Years later, Lee’s dying words were: “Tell Hill he must come up.”

To appreciate his cat-like agility, one must remember that Lee was the oldest general made famous by the war. It is thought that years accounted for Napoleon’s refusal to fight the Old Guard at Borodino, as his ablest generals urged. Napoleon was then forty-three, eleven years younger than Lee was when our war began. It is to young Napoleon we must turn to find parallels for Lee’s celerity. Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville may fitly be compared to Arcola and Rivoli. It has been observed that, like Napoleon, Lee avoided passive defence, seeming the assailant even when on the defensive. Like him, he was swift and terrible in availing himself of an enemy’s mistakes. It can hardly be doubted that Lee’s campaigns furnished more or less inspiration and direction for Von Moltke’s immortal movements in 1866 and in 1870-71.

That Lee was brave need not be said. He was not as rash as Hood and Cleburne sometimes were. He knew the value of his life to the great cause, and, usually at least, did not expose himself needlessly. Prudence he had, but no fear. His resolution to lead the charge at the Bloody Angle–rashness for once–shows fearlessness. Tender-hearted as he was, Lee felt battle frenzy as hardly another great commander ever did. From him it spread like magnetism to his officers and men, thrilling all as if the chief himself were close by in the fray, shouting, “Now fight, my good fellows, fight!” Yet such was Lee’s self-command that this dreadful ardor never carried him too far. Once, namely, at Fredericksburg, recovery from the fighting mood perhaps occurred too promptly. Some have thought this, suggesting that had the leash not been applied to the dogs of war so early, Burnside’s retreat might have been made a rout.

But Lee possessed another order of courage infinitely higher and rarer than this,–the sort so often lacking even in generals who have served with utmost distinction in high subordinate places, when they are called to the sole and decisive direction of armies: he had that royal mettle, that preternatural decision of character, ever tempered with caution and wisdom, which leads a great commander, when true occasion arises, resolutely to give general battle, or to swing out away from his base upon a precarious but promising campaign. Here you have moral heroism; ordinary valor is more impulsive. A weaker man, albeit total stranger to fear, ready to lead his division or his corps into the very mouth of hell, if commanded, being set himself to direct an army, will be either rash or else too timid, or fidget from one extreme to the other, losing all.

Hooker began bravely at Chancellorsville, but soon grew faint and afraid. Hood says that Hardee’s timidity lost him a great victory at Decatur, Ga., the day the Union General McPherson fell; and that Cheatham’s, at Spring Hill, during his northward pursuit of Thomas, lost him another. Yet Hooker, Hardee, and Cheatham were men to whom personal fear was a meaningless phrase. Stonewall Jackson was personally no braver than they; it was his bravery of the higher sort that set him as a general so incomparably above them. The same high quality belonged to Grant and Sherman, and to Washington and Greene in the Revolutionary War.

It was in this supreme kind of boldness that Robert Lee pre-eminently excelled. Cautious always, he still took risks and responsibilities which common generals would not have dared to take; and when he had assumed these, his mighty will forbade him to sink under the load. The braying of bitter critics, the obloquy of men who should have supported him, the shots from behind, dismayed him no more than did Burnside’s cannon at Fredericksburg. On he pressed, stout as a Titan, relentless as fate. What time bravest hearts failed at victory’s delay, this Dreadnaught rose to his best, and furnished courage for the whole Confederacy.

Lee’s campaigns and battles “exhibit the triumph of profound intelligence, of calculation, and of well-employed force over numbers and disunited counsels.”

Lee always manoeuvred; he never merely “pitched in.” As he right-flanked McClellan, so both at Manassas and at Chantilly he right-flanked Pope,–all three times using for the work Jackson, the tireless and the terrible. At Second Bull Run, to show that he was no slave to one form of strategy, he muffled up Pope’s left instead of his right, here using Longstreet. His tactics were as masterful as his strategy. At Second Bull Run, fearfully hammered by the noble Fifth Corps, that had fought like so many tigers at Gaines’s Mill and Malvern Hill, even Stonewall Jackson cried to Lee for aid. Aid came, but not in men. Longstreet’s cannon, cunningly planted to enfilade the Fifth Corps’ front, shattered the Federals’ attacking column and placed Stonewall at his ease.

Considering everything, his paucity of men and means, the necessity always upon him of reckoning with political as well as with military situations, and his success in holding even Grant at bay so long, Lee’s masterful campaigns of 1862, 1863, 1864, and 1865 not only constitute him the foremost military virtuoso of his own land, but write his name high on the scroll of the greatest captains of history, beside those of Gustavus Adolphus, William of Orange, Tilly, Frederic the Great, Prince Eugene, Napoleon, Wellington, and Von Moltke.

In a sense, of course, the cause for which Lee fought was “lost;” yet a very great part of what he and his confrères sought, the war actually secured and assured. His cause was not “lost” as Hannibal’s was, whose country, with its institutions, spite of his genius and devotion, utterly perished from the earth. Yet Hannibal is remembered more widely than Scipio. Were Lee in the same case with Hannibal, men would magnify his name as long as history is read. “Of illustrious men,” says Thucydides, “the whole earth is the sepulchre. They are immortalized not alone by columns and inscriptions in their own lands; memorials to them rise in foreign countries as well,–not of stone, it may be, but unwritten, in the thoughts of posterity.”

Lee’s case resembles Cromwell’s much more than Hannibal’s. The régime against which Cromwell warred returned in spite of him; but it returned modified, involving all the reforms for which the chieftain had bled. So the best of what Lee drew sword for is here in our actual America, and, please God, shall remain here forever.

Decisions of the United States Supreme Court since Secession give a sweep and a certainty to the rights of States and limit the central power in this Republic as had never been done before. The wild doctrines of Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens on these points are not our law. If the Union is perpetual, equally so is each State. The Republic is “an indestructible Union of indestructible States.” If this part of our law had in 1861 received its present definition and emphasis, and if the Southern States had then been sure, come what might, of the freedom they actually now enjoy each to govern itself in its own way, even South Carolina might never have voted secession. And inasmuch as the war, better than aught else could have done, forced this phase of the Constitution out into clear expression, General Lee did not fight in vain. The essential good he wished has come, while the Republic, with its priceless benedictions to us all, remains intact. All Americans thus have part in Robert Lee, not only as a peerless man and soldier, but as the sturdy miner, sledge-hammering the rock of our liberties till it gave forth its gold. None are prouder of his record than those who fought against him, who, while recognizing the purity of his motive, thought him in error in going from under the Stars and Stripes. It is likely that more American hearts day by day think lovingly of Lee than of any other Civil War celebrity, save Lincoln alone. And his praise will increase.

It was thoroughly characteristic of Lee that he would not after the war leave the country, as a few eminent Confederates did, and also that he refused all mere titular positions with high salaries, several of which were urged on him out of consideration for his character and fame. He was, however, persuaded to accept in 1865 the presidency of Washington College, at Lexington, Va., an institution founded on gifts made by Washington, and at present known as Washington and Lee University. In this position the great man spent his remaining years, joining refinement and dignity to usefulness, and revered by all who came within the charmed circle of his influence. Since 1863 he had suffered more or less with rheumatism of the heart, and from the middle of 1869 was never quite strong. Spite of this, with the exception of brief holidays, he performed all his duties till Sept. 28, 1870, when, at his family tea-table as he stood to say grace;–it was his wont to say grace before meat and to stand in doing so,–he was stricken, had to sit, then be helped to his bed. He never rose, though languishing a number of days. He died at nine in the morning, Oct. 12, 1870. Ave, pia anima!


E. Lee Child, “Life and Campaigns of Robert Edward Lee.” London, 1875.

Edward A. Pollard, “Life and Times of Robert Edward Lee.” New York, 1871.

John William Jones, “Personal Reminiscences of Robert E. Lee.” New York, 1874.

Walter II. Taylor, “Four Years with General Lee.” New York, 1878.

A.L. Long, “Memoirs of Robert E. Lee.” New York, 1887.

Charles Marshall, “Life of Lee.”

W.P. Trent, “Robert E. Lee.” Boston, 1899.

William Allan, “The Army of Northern Virginia in 1862.” Boston, 1892.

“Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.” New York, 1887.

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Founders