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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Chapter I
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. I
p. vii

After I had accepted the invitation Charles Scribner's Sons extended me in 1915 to write a biography of General Robert E. Lee, I was surprised to find that much the larger part of the source material had never been consulted. The records of the Bureau of Engineers and of the United States Military Academy had not been explored for information on Lee's professional career. Few collections of manuscripts belonging to Southern families had been searched for his letters. No effort apparently had been made to determine his state of mind in the winter of 1860‑61 by examining the correspondence and memoirs of those who had been with him in Texas. His own unpublished military papers had never been assembled. Of his labors as a military administrator, and of the perplexities he faced in the perennial reorganization of an army that suffered ceaselessly from attrition, virtually nothing was known. Thousands of pages there were on the details of his battles, but surprisingly little concerning the development of his strategy. The wealth of illustrative incident had not been sifted from the lesser-known personal narratives of the War between the States. Even the files of Washington and Lee University, covering the years when he was laboring to save the South from becoming a second Poland, had been in great measure neglected by biographers.

For these reasons it became necessary to conduct a long research. As this brought new facts to light, a work projected for one volume grew to four. Had not the world war demonstrated the importance of the careful study of the campaigns of great strategists, I should feel disposed to apologize for such elaborate presentation. It is, however, indisputable that the British in that struggle certainly were the gainers for their close reading of Henderson's Jackson, and Foch for his familiarity with Napoleon. The professional soldier who will follow, step by step, the unfolding of Lee's strategic plans, will, I think, learn much and perhaps equally from the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia.  p. viii Should this biography facilitate that study, I shall not feel that I have trespassed too much on the time of military men. I hope the general reader, especially if he already has some knowledge of Lee, will find in this book enough of fresh incident to justify his labor in turning so many pages.

Prolonged as my investigation has been, and puzzling as some of its problems have appeared to be, I have been fully repaid by being privileged to live, as it were, for more than a decade in the company of a great gentleman. A biographer can ask no richer compensation. Second only to that has been the satisfaction of meeting many grateful inheritors of the Lee tradition. In the dark period after the War between the States, the most glamorous memory of the South was the Confederate cause, whose finest figure was Lee. In his military achievement, Southern people saw the flowering of their racial stock; in his social graces they beheld their ideals embodied; in the honors paid his memory, every one of Lee's former soldiers felt that he himself had received the accolade. An old veteran, after meeting "Marse Robert" only once on the road, in the midst of some hurried military movement, would speak of him with a reverence no less marked than that of Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Talcott or Colonel Taylor, who had seen Lee daily and in all the revealing cross-lights of victory and of disaster. Nearly all those who gave me their personal recollections of General Lee are dead now, but their sons and their daughters have like devotion to his name. It has been profoundly gratifying to search out these men and women, to gather their family stories of Lee, and to copy those of his letters that they have saved from destruction. These individuals form a company so numerous and so helpful that I have thought it proper to list them, and others to whom I am indebted, in a special appendix of acknowledgments, which will be found at the end of the last volume of this work. I should like to add that in all my research I encountered only three individuals, one historical society, and one private library possessing Lee papers that did not cheerfully permit their use.

For the periods of Lee's life before and subsequent to the War between the States, my principal task was the interesting but comparatively easy one of bringing material together from many  p. ix scattered sources. Once these documents revealed Lee as in all respects a man of normal impulses and of simple soul, presentation was not difficult. There were no "secrets" and no scandals to be exposed or explained. His quiet life, as engineer and as educator, did not lend itself to the "new" biography which is already becoming conventionalized. Neither was there any occasion to attempt an "interpretation" of a man who was his own clear interpreter.

Portrayal of Lee the soldier was, from the very nature of war, a more complex undertaking. For military biography, like military history in general, may fail to be instructive because, paradoxically, it is too informative. On occasion I have tried to master some narrative of a campaign, written by an author who manifestly knew the facts, but I have found my guide hustling me from one opposing line to the other and back again so often that he hopelessly confused me and wholly dissipated the "fog of war." The existence of that "fog" is, however, in military history as in actual hostilities, one of the prime realities. Every soldier's strategy must be judged, inter alia, by the efforts he makes to get information, by the nature and extent of the information he collects, and by the skill with which he analyzes it. Military biography written without regard for the scope and limitations of this intelligence cannot be accurate. To avoid an unscientific method, which is more often recognized than remedied, I have endeavored to give the reader no information beyond that which Lee possessed at a particular moment regarding the strength, movements and plans of his adversary. Except in one or two instances, as when he follows Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, the reader remains at Confederate G. H. Q. throughout the war and receives the intelligence reports only as they arrive. Even happenings in the Army of Northern Virginia are not mentioned until they are announced to Lee, though this sometimes has necessitated the lengthy employment of the awkward past-perfect tense. When explanation must be made of Federal operations that were unknown to the Confederate high command, this has usually been done in footnotes.

Whether to include or to exclude military matters not directly  p. x related to Lee's strategy and battles was a second puzzling question. He was constantly hampered because the authority of the Richmond administration was restricted and because the individualism of many of its supporters could not be bent, even in the fire of war, to reasonable co-operation. A revolutionary government was daily brought nearer to death by striving to live constitutionally. Professional soldiers, accustomed to the co-operation of a trained staff, shared responsible command with lawyers, planters, and politicians. Certain men whose names are now forgotten and whose generalship did not rise above mediocrity were figures so powerful at the moment that Lee had to take their peculiarities into account and sometimes had to entrust them with important operations. The necessities of war required the imposition of a strict discipline on an army which, in the words of one of its brilliant survivors, regarded itself at the outset as a "voluntary association of gentlemen, organized to drive out the enemy." There could be no cold impersonality in directing such a force. Moreover, from the late summer of 1862, the subsistence of the army was a major factor in determining when and where Lee could give battle. The decline in the horse supply progressively decreased the mobility of his forces.

Were these things properly to be explained in a biography of Lee or should they be dismissed with mere mention? And if they were to be treated extensively, how were they to be kept from encumbering and perhaps obscuring the account of field-operations? All these factors, I concluded, were as truly a part of a biography of Lee as his defense of Richmond in 1862 or his march into Pennsylvania. I decided that the simplest way to discuss subjects of a collateral character was to place them in the chapters devoted to winter quarters or in those covering the occasional long pauses in the fighting. This method, I hope, saves the narrative from being loaded with extraneous detail.

The continuity and close relationship of the campaigns on all the Confederate fronts had likewise to be made plain. Never was the government at Richmond able to consider the supply or the reinforcement of the Army of Northern Virginia in the absolute terms of that army's requirements. Always Lee's operations were bound up with those in Tennessee, in the Gulf States or along  p. xi the seaboard. Similarly, the times were very few when Lee could regard any campaign on his front as definitely ended. After June 1, 1862, a new operation was dictated, in almost every instance, by the one that had preceded it. The losses in one limited the possibilities of the next. From Mechanicsville to Appomattox, Lee's strategy formed a continuous whole not readily broken into chapters or divided into periods. Looking backwards, it is obvious, of course, that the reduction of the food supply, the death of Jackson, the defeat at Gettysburg, the virtual starvation of the horses in the winter of 1863‑64, the inability of Lee to force Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant back across the Rappahannock after the battle of the Wilderness, and the failure of conscription in the summer of 1864 marked definite stages in the approach of defeat that may have been inevitable from the first. None of this was plain at the time, and even if it had been apparent to the rest of the world, it would not have been admitted by the majority of Southerners. Lee saw clearly and without illusions, but most men hoped the experience of Washington's continentals would be repeated and that a final Yorktown would redeem disaster. This state of mind was a ponderable factor in the war in Virginia. Any formal grouping of campaigns might, therefore, dispose the reader to attribute to the Confederates a sense of approaching defeat that was never theirs until the winter of 1864‑65. I consequently have not essayed to divide Lee's operations into periods.

In respect to military terminology, I have applied that of Hardee's Tactics to all manoeuvres covered by that standard work, which both armies used. For strategical description, I have, as a rule, adhered to the terms used in the reports of the period I have treated; but where those terms have a different meaning today, or where force and clarity seemed to require it, I have not hesitated to adopt the language of modern war. I have, for example, often referred to a "sector," and I have changed the familiar phrase "corps of observation" to "column of observation," because "corps" had at that time another and a more generally employed meaning.

Direct quotation, always a vexing question in historical writing, is doubly so in the case of Lee, who wrote thousands of letters  p. xii over a period of nearly forty years. There is opportunity, of course, of presenting the "man entire" by the liberal use of his correspondence, but the advantage of this is more than offset, I think, by the fact that a letter which begins with one subject may cover a dozen others and thereby divert attention from the main theme. Those who wish to see Lee as his own biographer, in his writings to his family and friends, will do well to consult Captain Robert E. Lee's delightful Recollections and Letters of General Lee and the two works on Lee by Reverend J. William Jones. It has seemed to me desirable to avoid long quotations and, instead, to weave into the narrative those brief sentences in which, with characteristic directness, General Lee epitomized his opinions. It has been necessary, however, to publish many letters hitherto unknown and to reprint in extenso a few that have heretofore appeared. In some of these latter cases, the failings of Doctor Jones as a copyist have prompted me to refer directly to the originals. Instances will be given where sharp and critical passages in some of the best-known letters of General Lee were deleted by Jones without any notice to the reader of an omission.

It will be found that I have retained many direct quotations of Lee's conversation. As these often are embodied in reminiscences written after the occurrence, they present possibilities of misinterpretation at the same time that they may help to create an atmosphere of reality. The canons of criticism that I have applied in accepting or rejecting direct quotation of this character are familiar and simple. I can only hope they have been rigidly applied. The nearer the quotation is to the event, of course, the more reliable it is apt to be. Remarks made by Lee to young soldiers or students, and to those who met him infrequently were, as a rule, more accurately remembered than those addressed to old generals or to staff officers who saw him often and might easily confuse two or more interviews. Exchanges of small moment, thought typical of the man, are less overdrawn than those cited by partisans in historical disputes. Several cases are mentioned in the footnotes where Lee's plain words have been expanded and glossed until he is made to deliver orations — which he never did. The alleged quotations that are most justly subject  p. xiii to suspicion are those that occur in publications prepared late in life by professional lecturers or raconteurs. In the very few instances where I have accepted direct quotations of this sort I have given in footnotes my reasons for doing so.

A propos of footnotes, it should perhaps be explained that while this biography has been written from the primary sources, some of the early works on Lee are in a classification midway between first and second-hand testimony. A very good illustration is the Life of General Robert E. Lee by John Esten Cooke. Its author was one of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jeb Stuart's staff officers and was frequently with Lee. When he and others who enjoyed a like advantage are cited, it will be understood that, unless otherwise indicated, the references are to their direct evidence on events they witnessed. If secondary sources are quoted on incidents in the career of Lee or of his army, it is because the authors of those works appear to have had access to valid material which, in theº absence of specific reference on their part, it is impossible to identify. For the general background of the narrative, I have not attempted to duplicate work of reliable historians but have freely and gratefully availed myself of their findings.

It may be that I shall irritate some readers by restraint and disappoint others by failing to answer some of Lee's detractors. On the one point, it seems to me that the fame of no man is promoted by extravagant utterance. Truth is not furthered thereby. Seventy years after the event, assertive rhetoric has no place in historical narrative. Comparison of Lee with other great soldiers falls, I think, into much the same category, for, as I have stated in the general review of his achievements as a soldier, in Volume IV, military circumstance is incommensurable. Lee, like every other leader, is to be judged by what he accomplished, where he was, with what he had at his command. Except to call attention to divergent opinion or to conflicts of testimony, I have purposely avoided historical controversy. I have tried to state the facts and to interpret them when it has seemed proper to do so.  p. xiv If other writers have a different interpretation, it is for the reader, and not for me, to sit in judgment.

A biographer, like a dramatist, has no place on the stage. When he has made his bow to his audience and has spoken his prologue, telling what he will try to exhibit, it is his duty to retire to the wings, to raise the curtain and to leave the play to the actors. Before I do this, I have one confession to make. For more than twenty years the study of military history has been my chief avocation. Whether the operations have been those of 1914‑18, on which I happened to be a daily commentator, or those of the conflict between the states, each new inquiry has made the monstrous horror of war more unintelligible to me. It has seemed incredible that human beings, endowed with any of the powers of reason, should hypnotize themselves with doctrines of "national honor" or "sacred right" and pursue mass murder to exhaustion or to ruin. I subscribe with my whole heart to the view of General Lee that had "forbearance and wisdom been practised on both sides," the great national tragedy of 1861 might have been prevented. If, in this opinion, I have let my abhorrence of war appear in my description of Malvern Hill after the battle, and in a few indignant adjectives elsewhere, I trust the reader will understand that in these instances I have momentarily stepped back on the stage only because I am not willing to have this study of an American who loved peace interpreted as glorification of war.

D. S. F.

William Byrd Park,
Richmond, Virginia.
Aug. 7, 1934.

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