General Robert E. Lee
He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression; and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition; Frederick without his tyranny; Napoleon without his selfishness; and Washington without his reward.
Benjamin H. Hill on Robert E. Lee
“It’s a warm spring Sunday at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. As the minister is about to present Holy Communion, a tall well-dressed black man sitting in the section reserved for African Americans unexpectedly advances to the communion rail; unexpectedly because this has never happened here before.
The congregation freezes. Those who have been ready to go forward and kneel at the communion rail remain fixed in their pews. The minister stands in his place stunned and motionless. The black man slowly lowers his body, kneeling at the communion rail.
After what seems an interminable amount of time, an older white man rises. His hair snowy white, head up, and eyes proud, he walks quietly up the isle to the chancel rail.
So with silent dignity and self-possession, the white man kneels down to take communion along the same rail with the black man.
Lee has said that he has rejoiced that slavery is dead. But this action indicates that those were not idle words meant to placate a Northern audience. Here among his people, he leads wordlessly through example. The other communicants slowly move forward to the altar with a mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation. In the end, America would defy the cruel chain of history besetting nations torn apart by Civil War.”
From “April 1865: the Month that Saved America” Continue reading
Ah, Jefferson Davis. During the War he was a devil figure for the North and after the War many Southerners blamed him for their loss. Actually Davis was a highly accomplished man who came close, against all odds, to achieving independence for his new nation. Often regarded as a bloodless pedant, Davis was instead a man who usually wore his heart on his sleeve, for good and ill. A good example of this is the letter he drafted on August 11, 1863 in which he responded to the offer to resign made by General Robert E. Lee in the wake of the Gettysburg defeat:
Richmond, Va., August 11, 1863.
General R. E. Lee, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia:
Yours of the 8th instant has just been received. I am glad that you concur so entirely with me as to the wants of our country in this trying hour, and am happy to add that after the first depression consequent upon our disasters in the West, indications have appeared that our people will exhibit that fortitude which we agree in believing is alone needful to secure ultimate success.
It well became Sydney Johnston, when overwhelmed by a senseless clamor, to admit the rule that success is the test of merit; and yet there has been nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant, who pronounce everything a failure which does not equal their expectations or desires, and can see no good result which is not in the line of their own imaginings. I admit the propriety of your conclusions that an officer who loses the confidence of his troops should have his position changed, whatever may be his ability, but when I read the sentence I was not at all prepared for the application you were about to make. Expressions of discontent in the public journals furnish but little evidence of the sentiment of the army. I wish it were otherwise, even though all the abuse of myself should be accepted as the results of honest observation.
Were you capable of stooping to it, you could easily surround yourself with those who would fill the press with your laudations, and seek to exalt you for what you had not done, rather than detract from the achievements which will make you and your army the subject of history and object of the world’s admiration for generations to come. Continue reading
Hattip to my friend Jay Anderson for advising me of this tidbit of history. Today is the 178th birthday of Mary Custis Lee, the eldest daughter of Robert E. Lee. She could be a pill. Described by her siblings as “bossy” and “stern”, she asked only one thing out of life: her own way. She did not suffer those she considered fools gladly, and she was never shy about reminding people that she was the eldest daughter of Robert E. Lee.
On June 13, 1902 she and her black maid had sat down on an Alexandria street car, laden with packages. Miss Lee was now in her 67th year, so no doubt she was tired. She and her maid sat in the back of the street car. A “Jim Crow” ordinance had recently been passed in Alexandria , and among other odious provisions it mandated racial segregation on street cars, with blacks relegated to the back.
The conductor Thomas Chauncey explained the law to her and asked her to move. She did not. When a black man boarded the street car, Chauncey advised her that she was occupying a seat to which he was entitled, and Chauncey threatened her with arrest. She still refused to move. When she got off the streetcar a few blocks later she was met by two police officers who put her under arrest. Word spread of her arrest. Men protested at the police station against their holding Miss Lee, some of the men doubtless having served under her father. She was released.
She did not bother showing up for her trial on June 14. The bond of $5.00 that a friend had posted for her was forfeited.
Was Mary just being Mary, a fairly contrary lady who wasn’t going to be pushed around by an officious conductor, or was this a protest against the new ordinance? No one knows for sure. However when she was asked to move perhaps this incident from the life of her great father came into her mind: Continue reading
“We made a great mistake, Mr. Hill, in the beginning of our struggle, and I fear, in spite of all we can do it will prove to be a fatal mistake.”
“What mistake is that, general?”
“Why, sir, in the beginning we appointed all our worst generals to command the armies, and all our best generals to edit the newspapers. As you know, I have planned some campaigns and quite a number of battles. I have given the work all the care and thought I could, and sometimes, when my plans were completed, as far as I could see, they seemed to be perfect. But when I have fought them through, I have discovered defects and occasionally wondered I did not see some of the defects in advance. When it was all over, I found by reading a newspaper that these best editor generals saw all the defects plainly from the start. Unfortunately, they did not communicate their knowledge to me until it was too late.” Then, after a pause, he added, with a beautiful, grave expression I can never forget: “I have no ambition but to serve the Confederacy, and do all I can to win our independence. I am willing to serve in any capacity to which the authorities may assign me. I have done the best I could in the field, and have not succeeded as I could wish. I am willing to yield my place to these best generals, and I will do my best for the cause in editing a newspaper.”
Georgia Senator Benjamin H. Hill relating a conversation with General Robert E. Lee
Okay all you armchair generals! Go here to see if you could have done better than Lee at Gettysburg.
It is the third day.
The morning wears with a stubborn fight at Culp’s Hill
That ends at last in Confederate repulse
And that barb-end of the fish-hook cleared of the grey.
Lee has tried his strokes on the right and left of the line.
The centre remains–that centre yesterday pierced
For a brief, wild moment in Wilcox’s attack,
But since then trenched, reinforced and alive with guns.
It is a chance. All war is a chance like that.
Lee considers the chance and the force he has left to spend
And states his will.
Dutch Longstreet, the independent,
Demurs, as he has demurred since the fight began.
He had disapproved of this battle from the first
And that disapproval has added and is to add
Another weight in the balance against the grey.
It is not our task to try him for sense or folly,
Such men are the men they are–but an hour comes
Sometimes, to fix such men in most fateful parts,
As now with Longstreet who, if he had his orders
As they were given, neither obeyed them quite
Nor quite refused them, but acted as he thought best,
So did the half-thing, failed as he thought he would,
Felt justified and wrote all of his reasons down
Later in controversy.
We do not need
Such controversies to see that pugnacious man
Talking to Lee, a stubborn line in his brow
And that unseen fate between them.
Lee hears him out Unmoved, unchanging.
“The enemy is there
And I am going to strike him,” says Lee, inflexibly.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
Lee’s mistake in ordering the assault on Cemetery Ridge of the third day of Gettysburg, erroneously called Pickett’s Charge since Pickett was merely attempting to carry out an impossible mission, was not an uncommon one in that War even by good generals. Grant ordered two such hopeless attacks at Cold Harbor and Sherman did so at Kenesaw Mountain. The problem was that such charges occasionally succeeded. The Army of the Cumberland chased the Army of the Tennessee out of an immensely strong position on Missionary Ridge just a few months later. The improvement in weaponry had made such assaults a bad gamble, but occasionally the gamble did pay off. At Gettysburg it did not. The attack produced nothing but 6500 Confederate casualties, 1500 Union casualties, an end to Lee’s Northern invasion and an undying legend.
As the survivors of the attack came back to the Confederate lines Lee rode out to meet them. His first words were “All my fault”. After Lee got his Army back to the Confederacy, a feat in itself which speaks well of his generalship and poorly of that of General Meade, he wrote a letter offering his resignation to Jefferson Davis: Continue reading
On the second day of Gettysburg, July 2, 1863 the battle became unstuck for General Lee. If all the attacks had been properly coordinated and launched at the same time, it is quite possible that Lee’s plan of attack would have succeeded. Instead the attacks went in piecemeal, giving the wavering Union forces opportunities throughout the day to shift troops to threatened areas and to rest troops that had been engaged. It was the worst performance by the Army of Northern Virginia since its early days during the Seven Days battles in 1862. Here is Lee’s report of the second day: Continue reading
An interesting character in his own right, a Confederate senator from Georgia during the Civil War and a powerhouse in Georgia politics his entire life, Benjamin H. Hill in a speech in 1874 uttered this statement on Robert E. Lee that captures that very great man perfectly:
“When the future historian shall come to survey the character of Lee he will find it rising like a huge mountain above the undulating plane of humanity, and he must lift his eyes high toward heaven to catch its summit. He possessed every virtue of other great commanders without their vices. He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression; and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition; Frederick without his tyranny; Napoleon without his selfishness; and Washington without his reward. He was obedient to authority as a servant, and royal in authority as a true king. He was gentle as a woman in life; modest and pure as a virgin in thought; watchful as a Roman vestal in duty; submissive to law as Socrates; and grand in battle as Achilles.”
“And Thou knowest O Lord, when Thou didst decide that the Confederacy should not succeed, Thou hadst first to remove thy servant, Stonewall Jackson.”
Father D. Hubert, Chaplain, Hay’s Louisiana Brigade, upon the dedication of the statue of Stonewall Jackson on May 10, 1881 in New Orleans
Something for the weekend. After the 150th anniversary of Chancellorsville only Stonewall Jackson’s Way, sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford, seems appropriate. The song is a fitting evocation of the man, who, if he had not been mortally wounded at Chancellorsville, might well have with Lee brought about a war ending victory for the Confederacy at Gettysburg. I fully agree with Father Hubert that the death of General Jackson was probably a necessary factor in the defeat of the Confederacy. As a military team he and Lee were able to accomplish military miracles and with his death the Confederacy could still rely upon the endless courage of their ragged warriors and the brilliance of Lee, but the age of military miracles in the Civil War ended with the passing of Jackson.
The song was taken from a poem found on the body of a dead Confederate sergeant after the First Battle of Winchester, May 25, 1862: Continue reading
After the brilliant flank attack of Jackson on May 2, 1863 which wrecked the Union 11th Corps, Lee still faced a daunting situation as morning dawned on May 3. Hooker had been reinforced by Reynolds Corps overnight which made good his losses and Lee’s Army of approximately 43,000 faced 76,000 troops under Hooker. His forces were also divided with Jackson’s Corps, now temporarily commanded by General Jeb Stuart after Jackson’s wounding, located behind the right of the Union army. If this were not a bad enough situation, Lee still had Sedgwick south of Fredericksburg with 40,000 men confronting the 11,000 of Early. If Sedgwick attacked, Lee could be facing an attack from his rear. Unbeknownst to Lee, in the wake of the flank attack of Jackson, Hooker had sent an urgent message to Sedgwick ordering him to attack immediately.
The first thing Lee had to do was to reunite his army confronting Hooker. Lee in his official report details how this was done: Continue reading
Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. On that single day more American casualties were sustained than in all of America’s prior wars, except for the American Revolution, combined. As for the American Revolution, the 23,000 killed and wounded at Antietam on a single day were more than one-third of the total of 58,000 Americans killed and wounded in the eight years of the Revolution.
Antietam was the culmination of Lee’s Maryland campaign. Lee had decided to enter Maryland in early September 1862 to take the pressure off war-torn Virginia, to gain supplies in Maryland and possibly recruits from sympathetic Marylanders and to inflict, if he could, punishing defeats on Union forces and, with luck, help opponents of the Lincoln administration do well in the fall elections as a result of those defeats. Go here to read a post detailing Lee’s motivation for the Maryland Campaign.
All went superbly for Lee initially in the Maryland Campaign. Supplies were abundant in Maryland. Recruits from Marylanders, while not as abundant as the Confederates would have wished, were first-rate as to quality. The Northern papers, and General Lee gained much valuable intelligence throughout the War by reading carefully every Northern newspaper he could obtain, were largely hysterical about the Confederate offensive, more than a few predicting that the War was lost. General Stonewall Jackson’s II corps was detailed by Lee to capture Harper’s Ferry, which he did on September 15, 1862 against pathetically weak Union opposition, and inflicting one of the worst defeats on the United States Army in its history, the 12,000 Union troops being the largest mass surrender of United States military personnel until the surrender on Bataan in 1942. Go here to read a post on the sorry tale.
Lincoln, desperate to stop Lee, placed Major General George B. McClellan, in disgrace after his humiliating defeat in the Peninsula Campaign, back in command of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan followed Lee in a lethargic pursuit, obviously fearful of being defeated by Lee again. The situation altered dramatically when McClellan was the beneficiary of the biggest intelligence coup of the Civil War, obtaining a copy of Lee’s Special Order No, 191 on September 13, 1862, which revealed to McClellan that Lee had divided his force and the routes that the portions of Lee’s army were to follow. Go here to read a post on the finding of the famous Lost Order. With this order in hand McClellan boasted that he would whip Bobby Lee or go home.
On September 14, 1862 McClellan attacked three gaps at South Mountain to seize them, to allow him to march over the mountain and fall on Lee’s separated units. Lee held two of the gaps after a hard day’s battle. Go here to read a post on the battle of South Mountain. With one of the gaps lost, Lee retreated and began to swiftly reassemble his Army of Northern Virginia to confront the Army of the Potomac. McClellan, inexplicably, threw away his advantage by doing almost nothing on September 15, instead of immediately following Lee in hot pursuit.
At dawn on September 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac confronted part of the Army of Northern Virginia along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Three of the divisions of the Army of Northern Virginia were still on the road from Harper’s Ferry, marching all night to reach Lee. McClellan enjoyed more than a two to one advantage at the beginning of the battle, his 75,000 force confronting less than 30,000 Confederates. McClellan, as he did throughout the War, assumed, against all evidence, that the Confederates outnumbered him.
MClellan issued attack orders for each corps. He made no effort to coordinate attacks between the corps. With the Union advantage in numbers McClellan could have annihilated Lee’s army if he had simply had each corps get into assault position and then attack simultaneously. Instead, this very long day consisted of piecemeal attacks by individual Union corps which gave Lee the opportunity to shift his heavily outnumbered units to meet each threat in turn.
One of the more important series of battles in American history, collectively known as the Seven Days, occurred in Virginia 150 years ago this week. By driving away McClellan’s larger Army of the Potomac from Richmond, Robert E. Lee ensured that the Civil War was not going to be a quick Union victory, and that the Civil War, instead of a minor blip in US history, would, by the beginning of 1863, be transformed into a revolutionary struggle that would destroy slavery and alter the Union forever.
Before taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia after the wounding of General Joe Johnston at the battle of Seven Pines, Robert E. Lee had acquired the nickname of “Granny Lee” due to his construction of fortifications and a perception that he was too cautious and lacked an aggressive spirit. Few nicknames in history have been more inapposite. As a commander Lee was a gambler and far preferred to attack the enemy than to passively await an attack. After taking over command from Johnston at the beginning of June, Lee began working towards a big offensive to drive the larger Union army away from the outskirts of Richmond. To accomplish this he began to draw reinforcements to Richmond from throughout Virginia, most notably Jackson’s Valley Army.
From June 12-15th he had the cavalry of his army, brilliantly commanded by Jeb Stuart, ride around McClellan’s army to ascertain what portion of McClellan’s army was north of the Chickahominy River.
Lee got the information he needed from Stuart’s reconnaissance. McClellan had about 25,000-30,000 men north of the Chickahominy. The remainder of his army, about 60,000, was south of the Chickahominy, in front of the Richmond defenses. Lee’s plan was bold. Leaving about 25,000 men in the Richmond defenses, he would take the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, and attack McClellan’s troop north of the Chickahominy, giving him a two-one battlefield superiority over the Union forces that side of the Chickahominy. The plan of course was contingent on McClellan remaining passive in front of Richmond. Lee planned on cutting McClellan’s supply lines by turning McClellan’s flank after winning on the north side of the Chickahominy and crossing to the south side and forcing McClellan to retreat or to be destroyed by the converging Confederates from Richmond and Lee’s forces. The plan was daring and complicated, especially for an army as green as the one Lee led. Continue reading
I was four years old when the Civil War centennial began and eight years old when I ended, but even I recall what a big hoopla it all was. In the midst of it all, Thomas Lawrence Connolley, who would become the foremost historian of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, brought out a book in 1963 entitled Will Success Spoil Jeff Davis?, a satirical look at the often over the top aspects of the centennial observations. The book is a howlingly funny look at Civil War mania and still is relevant today. Here is a tiny sample:
The easiest way to publish something on the War is to submit an article to a historical journal. Better still, start your own journal. There are some two thousand in print and, judging by the tone of the articles, many of them are in need of material. Journal writing has its advantages. If he cannot write good prose, the writer can bury himself in footnotes. The footnote is a clever device, designed to confuse the general reader and absolve the author of any lawsuits. For example, consider a typical footnote to the statement “General Crumbley was a bastard.” 34
34. Ibid, see also, Cornstalk, Bastards in Gray, loc. sic.* op. sit., loc. site, sob. Many maintain that General Crumbley was not a bastard. See Thirty Years View by Mrs. Crumbley, op. sit., sic. hoc. Major Kumpley maintained that the General may have been a bastard but that he was indeed a “magnificent old bastard at that/* See diary of Isaac Bumpley, Moose University Archives, XXCI, pt, 2, Sept. 21, 1863. In addition to being a bastard, the General was also a Mason. See diary of Cornelius Kraut, 1st Wisconsin Infantry, SWMVHR (XXI, Je. 45).
Paul Zummo, the Cranky Conservative, and I run a blog on American History: Almost Chosen People. Yesterday Paul raised the question: Is Robert E. Lee Overrated?
Yeah, the post title is somewhat deliberately provocative, but it’s also meant to be a serious question that I hope will spark some discussion. I was going to ask it in the comments to Donald’s post below, but thought it might be useful fodder for debate in its own right.
Hattip to commenter Dennis McCutcheon for giving me the idea for this post. We Americans today view the Civil War as part of our history. If different decisions had been made at the end of that conflict, the Civil War could still be part of our current reality. Just before the surrender at Appomattox, General Porter Alexander, General Robert E. Lee’s chief of artillery, broached to Lee a proposal that the Army of Northern Virginia disband and carry out a guerrilla war against the Union occupiers. Here history balanced on a knife edge. If Lee had accepted the proposal, I have little doubt the stage would have been set for an unending war between the North and the South which would still be with us. Douglas Southall Freeman, in his magisterial R. E. Lee, tells what happened next, based upon Alexander’s memoirs, Fighting for the Confederacy.
“Thereupon Alexander proposed, as an alternative to surrender, that the men take to the woods with their arms, under orders to report to governors of their respective states.
The video above was produced 2 years ago. If D-Day were to occur today under the current administration I suspect that the coverage of most of the media would be in the nature of “OBAMA STORMS ASHORE IN NORMANDY!” or “THE NAZIS ARE AFRAID OF OBAMA!”. When the press isn’t in the tank however, their coverage of military matters normally is in accord with this sarcastic comment of General Robert E. Lee:
“We made a great mistake in the beginning of our struggle, and I fear, in spite of all we can do, it will prove to be a fatal mistake. We appointed all our worst generals to command our armies, and all our best generals to edit the newspapers.”