[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
mail:
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]
Italiano

[Link to a series of help pages]
Help
[Link to the next level up]
Up
[Link to my homepage]
Home

[image ALT: link to previous section]
previous
Chapter
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.


[image ALT: link to next section]
next
Chapter

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. IV
p165
Chapter XI

The Sword of Robert E. Lee


[image ALT: zzz]
THE PEN WITH WHICH THE SURRENDER OF THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA WAS SIGNED,
AND THE SWORD GENERAL LEE WORE AT THE TIME
The pen is the property of Sydney Smith Lee, and the sword belongs to Mrs. Hunter De Butts and Mrs. Hanson Ely,
daughters of Captain R. E. Lee. Both pen and sword are in the Confederate Museum, Richmond.

Amid the deep shadows of some of the old tombs in Europe and cathedrals the observant traveller occasionally sees a sword that bears the marks of actual combat. Hacks and gaps there still remain, not made, like Falstaff's, to adorn a tale of pretended valor, but won in war when furious blade met challenging steel. No scratch was on the sword that General Lee laid away that April day in Richmond on his return from Appomattox. His weapon had never been raised except in salute. Rarely had it been even drawn from its scabbard. Yet it was the symbol of a four-year war, the symbol of an army and a cause. Where it had been, the red banners of the South had flown. About it all the battles of the Army of Northern Virginia had surged. As he puts it down, to wear it no more, the time has come, not to fix his final place as a soldier, but to give an accounting of his service to the state in whose behalf alone, as he had written on another April day, back in 1861, he would ever have drawn his blade in fratricidal strife.

Had his sense of duty held him to the Union, as it held Winfield Scott and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George H. Thomas, how much easier his course would have been! Never, then, after the first mobilization, would he have lacked for troops or been compelled to count the cost of any move. He would not have agonized over men who shivered in their nakedness or dyed the road with shoeless, bleeding feet. Well clad they would have been, and well fed, too. They would not have been brought down to the uncertain ration of a pint of meal and a quarter of a pound of Nassau bacon. The superior artillery would have been his, not his adversary's. On his order new locomotives and stout cars would have rolled to the front, p166 swiftly to carry his army where the feeble engines and the groaning trains of the Confederacy could not deliver men. He would have enjoyed the command of the sea; so that he could have advanced his base a hundred miles, or two hundred, without the anguish of a single, choking march. If one jaded horse succumbed on a raid, the teeming prairies would have supplied two. His simplicity, his tact, his ability, and his self-abnegation would have won the confidence of Lincoln that Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McClellan lost and neither Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pope, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Burnside, nor Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hooker ever possessed. He would, in all human probability, have won the war, and now he would be preparing to ride up Pennsylvania Avenue, as was Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant, at the head of a victorious army, on his way to the White House.

But, after the manner of the Lees, he had held unhesitatingly to the older allegiance, and had found it the way of difficulty. Always the odds had been against him, three to two in this campaign, two to one in that. Not once, in a major engagement, had he met the Federals on even terms; not once, after a victory, had his army been strong enough to follow it up. To extemporize when time was against him, to improvise when supplies failed him, to reorganize when death claimed his best lieutenants — that had been his constant lot. From the moment he undertook to mobilize Virginia until the last volley rolled across the red hills of Appomattox, there had been no single day when he had enjoyed an advantage he had not won with the blood of men he could not replace. His guns had been as much outranged as his men had been outnumbered. He had marched as often to find food as to confound his foe. His transportation had progressively declined as his dependence on it had increased. The revolutionary government that he espoused in 1861 had been created as a protest against an alleged violation of the rights of the states, and it made those rights its fetish. When it required an executive dictatorship to live, it chose to die by constitutionalism. Fighting in the apex of a triangle, one side of which was constantly exposed to naval attack by an enemy that had controlled the waterways, he had been forced from the first to accept a dispersion of forces that weakened his front without protecting his communications. Always, within this exposed territory, his prime mission had been that of defending a capital close to the frontier. With poverty he p167 had faced abundance; with individualism his people had opposed nationalism.

Desperate as his country's disadvantage had been, it had been darkened by mistakes, financial, political, and military. Of some of these he had not been cognizant, and of others he had not spoken because they lay beyond a line his sense of a soldier's duty forbade his passing. Against other errors he had protested to no purpose. From the first shot at Sumter he had realized that the South could only hope to win its independence by exerting itself to the utmost; yet he had not been able to arouse the people from the overconfidence born at Bull Run. Vainly he had pleaded for the strict enforcement of the conscription laws, exempting no able-bodied man. Times unnumbered he had pointed out that concentration could only be met by like concentration, and that the less important points must be exposed that the more important might be saved. On the strategy of particular campaigns he had been heard and heeded often; on the larger strategy of full preparation, his influence had not been great, except as respected the first conscription act. Regarding the commissary he might as well not have spoken at all, because Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mr. Davis held to Northrop until it was too late to save the army from the despair that hunger always breeds.

Lee had himself made mistakes. Perhaps no one could have saved Western Virginia in 1861, but he had failed to recover it. With it the Confederacy had lost the shortest road to the Union railway communications between East and West. In his operations on that front and during the Seven Days, he had demanded professional efficiency of an amateur staff and had essayed a strategy his subordinates had been incapable of executing tactically. After Second Manassas he had overestimated the time required for the reduction of Harpers Ferry. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet had been permitted to idle away in front of Suffolk the days that might have been spent in bringing his two divisions back to Chancellorsville to crush the baffled Hooker. In reorganizing the army after the death of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson, Lee had erred in giving corps command to Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell. Apart from the blunders of that officer and the sulking of Longstreet at Gettysburg, he had lost the Pennsylvania p168 campaign because his confidence in his troops had led him to assume the offensive in the enemy's country before his remodelled machine had been adjusted to his direction. At Rappahannock Bridge he had misread the movements of the Federals, and in the Wilderness, on the night of May 5‑6, 1864, he had left Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wilcox and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Heth in a position too exposed for their weary divisions to hold. Wrongly he had acquiesced in the occupation of the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania. Incautiously, that blusterous 11th of May he had withdrawn his artillery from Johnson's position. The detachment of Hampton and of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Early, however necessary, had crippled him in coping with Grant when the Army of the Potomac crossed the James. He had strangely underestimated Sheridan's strength in the Shenandoah Valley, and he had failed to escape from Petersburg. Until the final retreat, none of these errors or failures, unless it was that of invading Pennsylvania so soon after the reorganization of the army, affected the outcome of the war, but together they exacted of the South some of its bravest blood.

Deeper still had been the defect of Lee's excessive amiability. When every hour of an uneven struggle had called for stern decision, he had kept all his contention for the field of battle. The action opened, he was calm but terse and pugnacious; the fighting ended, he conceded too much in kind words or kinder silence to the excuses of commanders and to the arguments of politicians. Humble in spirit, he had sometimes submitted to mental bullying. Capable always of devising the best plan, he had, on occasion, been compelled by the blundering of others to accept the second best. He had not always been able to control men of contrary mind. His consideration for others, the virtue of the gentleman, had been his vice as a soldier.

Perhaps to this defect may be added a mistaken theory of the function of the high command. As he explained to Scheibert, he believed that the general-in‑chief should strive to bring his troops together at the right time and place and that he should leave combat to the generals of brigade and division. To this theory, which he had learned from Scott, Lee steadfastly held from his opening campaign through the battle of the Wilderness. It was for this reason, almost as much as because of his consideration for the feelings p169 of another, that he deferred to Longstreet at Second Manassas and did not himself direct the attacks of the Confederate right on July 2 and 3 at Gettysburg. Who may say whether, when his campaigns are viewed as a whole, adherence to this theory of function cost the army more than it won for the South? If this policy failed with Longstreet, it was gloriously successful with Jackson. If the failure at Gettysburg was partly chargeable to it, the victory at Chancellorsville was in large measure the result of its application. Not properly applicable to a small army or in an open country, this theory of command may have justified itself when Lee's troops were too numerous to be directed by one man in the tangled terrain where Lee usually fought. Once adopted where woods obscured operations, Lee's method could not easily be recast for employment in the fields of Pennsylvania.

When Lee's inordinate consideration for his subordinates is given its gloomiest appraisal, when his theory of command is disputed, when his mistakes are written red, when the remorseless audit of history discounts the odds he faced in men and resources, and when the court of time writes up the advantage he enjoyed in fighting on inner lines in his own country, the balance to the credit of his generalship is clear and absolute.

In three fast-moving months he mobilized Virginia and so secured her defense that the war had been in progress a year before the Unionists were within fifty miles of Richmond. Finding the Federals, when he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, almost under the shadow of the city's steeples, he saved the capital from almost certain capture and the Confederate cause from probable collapse. He repulsed four major offensives against Richmond and by his invasion of Pennsylvania he delayed the fifth for ten months. Ere the Federals were back on the Richmond line again — two years to the day from the time he had succeeded Johnston — Lee had fought ten major battles: Gaines's Mill, Frayser's Farm, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. Six of these he had indisputably won. At Frayser's Farm he had gained the field but had not enveloped the enemy as he had planned. Success had not been his at Malvern Hill and at Sharpsburg, but only at Gettysburg p170 had he met with definite defeat, and even there he clouded the title of his adversary to a clear-cut victory.1 During the twenty-four months when he had been free to employ open manoeuvre, a period that had ended with Cold Harbor, he had sustained approximately 103,000 casualties and had inflicted 145,000. Holding, as he usually had, to the offensive, his combat losses had been greater in proportion to his numbers than those of the Federals, but he had demonstrated how strategy may increase an opponent's casualties, for his losses included only 16,000 prisoners, whereas he had taken 38,000.2 Chained at length to the Richmond defenses, he had saved the capital from capture for ten months. All this he had done in the face of repeated defeats for the Southern troops in nearly every other part of the Confederacy. In explanation of the inability of the South to capitalize its successes, one British visitor quoted Lee as saying: "The more [the Confederates] followed up the victory against one portion of the enemy's line the more did they lay themselves open to be surrounded by the remainder of the enemy." Lee "likened the operation to a man breasting a wave of sea, who, as rapidly as he clears a way before him, is enveloped by the very water he has displaced." These difficulties of the South would have been even worse had not the Army of Northern Virginia occupied so much of the thought and armed strength of the North. Lee is to be judged, in fact, not merely by what he accomplished with his own troops but by what he prevented the hosts of the Union from doing sooner elsewhere.3

The accurate reasoning of a trained and precise mind is the prime explanation of all these achievements. Lee was pre-eminently a strategist, and a strategist because he was a sound military logician. It is well enough to speak of his splendid presence on the field of battle, his poise, his cheer, and his manner with his men, but essentially he was an intellect, with a developed aptitude for the difficult synthesis of war. The incidental never obscured the fundamental. The trivial never distracted. He had the ability — who can say how or why? — to visualize his fundamental p171 problem as though it had been worked out in a model and set before his eyes. In Richmond, during May, 1862, to cite but one instance, he saw clearly where others saw but dimly, if at all, that Jackson's little army in the Valley was the pawn with which to save the castle of Richmond.

Once his problem was thus made graphic, he projected himself mentally across the lines to the position of his adversary. What was the logical thing — not the desirable thing from the Confederate point of view — for his opponent to do? Assuming that the Federals had intelligent leadership, he said, "It is proper for us to expect [the enemy] to do what he ought to do."4 After he had studied the probabilities, he would turn to his intelligence reports. Prisoners' statements, captured correspondence, newspapers, information from his spies, dispatches from the cavalry outposts — all these he studied carefully, and often at first hand. Every stir of his enemy along the line he canvassed both for its direct meaning and for its relation to other movements.

In assembling this information he was not more adept than many another capable general, and in studying it he was not more diligent, but in interpreting it he excelled. Always critical of the news that came from spies, few of whom he trusted, he was cautious in accepting newspaper reports until he learned which correspondents were close-mouthed or ill-informed and which were reckless or well-furnished with fact. When he discovered that the representative of The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, knew what he reported and reported what he knew, he attached high importance to his statements. A credulous outpost commander received scant attention when he forwarded countryside rumor; but Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart's "sixth sense" Lee soon learned to appreciate, and when the tireless officer affirmed that the enemy was marching toward an objective he named, Lee rarely questioned it. The infantry were apt to move quickly in the hoof-prints made by Stuart's returning courier. If Lee's strategy was built, in large part, on his interpretation of his intelligence reports, that interpretation was facilitated more by Stuart and Stuart's scouts than by anything else.

Lee did not rely so much as has been supposed upon his knowledge p172 of his adversaries. He knew that McClellan would be meticulous in preparation, and that Meade, making few mistakes himself, would be quick to take advantage of those of which he might be guilty. But these were the only Federal generals-in‑chief with whom he had been closely associated before the war. The others, save Grant, were in command for periods so brief that he scarcely knew them before they were gone. Grant's bludgeoning tactics and flank shifts he quickly fathomed, but he was progressively less able to combat them as his own strength declined.

Whether it was the cooking of rations in the Federal camps, coupled with verified troop movements on the Baltimore and Ohio; whether it was the ascent of transports on the James and the knowledge that McClellan would not renew his attack on Richmond until he felt himself strong enough to sustain the offensive; whether it was the gabble of deserters and a careful report of what Stuart himself had seen of dust clouds and covered wagons — whatever the information on which Lee acted, it was almost always cumulative. In nothing was he more successful, as an analyst of intelligence reports, than in weighing probabilities, discarding the irrelevant, and adding bit by bit to the first essential fact until his conclusion was sure. The movement from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania was perhaps the most dramatic example of this method, but it was only one of many where Lee built up his strategy from information steadily accumulated and critically examined.

Having decided what the enemy most reasonably would attempt, Lee's strategy was postulated, in most instances, on a speedy offensive. "We can only act upon probabilities," he said, "and endeavor to avoid greater evils,"5 but he voiced his theory of war even more fully when he wrote, ". . . we must decide between the positive loss of inactivity and the risk of action."6 His larger strategy, from the very nature of the war, was offensive-defensive, but his policy was to seize the initiative wherever practicable and to force his adversary to adapt his plans thereto. If a "fog of war" was to exist, he chose to create it and to leave his opponent to fathom it or to dissipate it.

Once he determined upon an offensive, Lee took unbounded p173 pains to execute it from the most favorable position he could occupy. As far as the records show, he never read Bourcet, but no soldier more fully exemplified what the master taught of the importance of position. The student can well picture Lee in his tent, his map spread on his table before him, tracing every road, studying the location of every town and hamlet in relation to every other and choosing at last the line of march that would facilitate the initial offensive and prepare the way for another. A monography of high military value might be based entirely on his use of the roads of Piedmont Virginia and the gaps of the Blue Ridge, now to further his own strategic plan, now to block that of the enemy. All this might be termed the "ground strategy of position." Of his great aptitude for reconnaissance and of the wise strategic employment, in combat, of ground that had been previously selected, or occupied from necessity, enough has already been said in comment on particular campaigns. Lee's career does not prove that a soldier must be a great military engineer to be a great strategist, but it does demonstrate that if a strategist is an engineer as well he is doubly advantaged.

If Lee on occasion seemed "slow" to his restless and nervous subordinates, it was because some unvoiced doubt as to the enemy's plan or his own best position still vexed his mind. For when his military judgment was convinced, he begrudged every lost hour. Herein was displayed the fourth quality that distinguished his strategy, namely, the precision of his troop movements, the precision, let it be emphasized, and not the speed nor always the promptness of the march. The army as a whole, under Lee's direction, could never cover as much ground in a given time as the Second Corps under Jackson or under Ewell. It was very rarely that the whole force completed, under pressure, what "Old Jack" would have regarded as an average day's march. Usually Lee had to ride with Longstreet to accomplish even as much as was credited to the slow-moving commander of the First Corps. Lee, however, could calculate with surprising accuracy the hours that would be required to bring his troops to a given position. This was true, also, of the various units in a converging movement unless the units were Longstreet's and were not operating under Lee's own eye. After the Seven Days' campaign had acquainted p174 him with his men and their leaders, Lee made only three serious mistakes in logistics. One of these was in the time required to occupy Harpers Ferry and to reconcentrate the army at Sharpsburg. The next was in calculating when the First Corps would arrive at Gettysburg, and the third was in estimating the hour at which that same corps would overtake A. P. Hill in the Wilderness. In two of these three instances, Lee based his advance on Longstreet's assurances, which were not fulfilled. Against these three cases of the failure of Lee's logistics are to be set his transfer of the Army of Northern Virginia to meet Pope; the movement down the Rappahannock to confront Burnside at Fredericksburg; the quick and sure detachment of Anderson and then of Jackson at Chancellorsville; the convergence of Hill's and of Ewell's corps at Gettysburg; the march from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania; the shift to the North Anna, and thence to the Totopotomoy and to Cold Harbor, and the careful balancing of force north and south of the James during the operations against Petersburg — the list is almost that of his battles. Had his mastery of this difficult branch of the art of war been his only claim to distinction as a soldier, it would of itself justify the closest scrutiny of his campaigns by those who would excel in strategy.

His patient synthesis of military intelligence, his understanding employment of the offensive, his sense of position and his logistics were supplemented in the making of his strategy by his audacity. Superficial critics, puzzled by his success and unwilling to examine the reasons for it, have sometimes assumed that he frequently defied the rules of war, yet rarely sustained disaster in doing so because he was confronted by mediocrity. Without raising the disputable question of the capacity of certain of his opponents, it may be said that respect for the strength of his adversaries, rather than contempt for their abilities, made him daring. Necessity, not choice, explains this quality. More than once, in these pages, certain of his movements have been explained with the statement that a desperate cause demanded desperate risks. That might well be written on the title-page of his military biography, for nothing more surely explains Lee, the commander. Yet if "daring" is an adjective that has to be applied to him again and again, "reckless" is not. Always in his strategy, daring was measured p175 in terms of probable success, measured coldly, measured carefully. If the reward did not seem worth the risk, nothing could move him — except the knowledge that he had no alternative. In detaching Jackson for the march against Pope's communications, and in dividing his forces at Chancellorsville, examination of the circumstances will show that daring was prudence. In ordering Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, he felt that he had a fair chance of success if he attacked, and ran worse risks if he did not. The same thing may be said of the assault on Fort Stedman. From the Seven Days to Gettysburg, his daring increased, to be sure, as well it might, with his army performing every task he set before it; but the period after Gettysburg affords proof, almost incontrovertible, that he never permitted his daring to become recklessness. Throughout the spring and early summer of 1864, he felt, as he said on the North Anna, that he must "strike a blow"; but each time, save on May 5‑6, his judgment vetoed what his impulse prompted.

These five qualities, then, gave eminence to his strategy — his interpretation of military intelligence, his wise devotion to the offensive, his careful choice of position, the exactness of his logistics, and his well-considered daring. Midway between strategy and tactics stood four other qualities of leadership that no student of war can disdain. The first was his sharpened sense of the power of resistance and of attack of a given body of men; the second was his ability to effect adequate concentration at the point of attack, even when his force was inferior; the third was his careful choice of commanders and of troops for specific duties; the fourth was his employment of field fortification.

Once he learned the fighting power of his army, he always disposed it with the utmost care, so as to maintain adequate reserves — witness Fredericksburg. Only when his line was extended by the superior force of the enemy, as at Sharpsburg and after the Wilderness, did he employ his whole army as a front-line defense. In receiving attack, he seemed to be testing, almost with some instrument of precision, the resistance of every part of his line, and if he found it weakening, he was instant with his reserves. Over and again, in the account of some critical turn of p176 action, it is stated that the reserves came up — rather accidentally than opportunely — and restored the front. Behind this, almost always, was the most careful planning by Lee. On the offensive it was different. "It is only by the concentration of our troops," he said in November, 1863, "that we can hope to win any decisive advantage."7 He was writing then of the general strategy of the South, but he applied the same principle to every offensive. At Gaines's Mill and at Malvern Hill he early learned the wastefulness of isolated attacks, and thereafter, confident of the élan of his troops, it was his custom to hurl forward in his assaults every man he could muster, on the principle that if enough weight were thrown against the enemy, there would be no need of reserves. The final attack at Second Manassas and the operations of May 3 at Chancellorsville illustrate this. Only when he was doubtful of the success of an assault, as on the third day at Gettysburg, did he deliberately maintain a reserve. In partial attacks he somehow learned precisely what number of men would be required, with such artillery preparation as he could make, and he rarely failed until the odds against him became overwhelming.

For swift marches and for desperate flank movements, Lee relied on the Second Corps as long as Jackson lived; to receive the attack of the enemy he felt he could count equally on the First. Within the corps he came to know the distinctive qualities of the different divisions, and even among the divisions he graded the brigades. He was guided less in this, perhaps, by the prowess of the men than by the skill and resourcefulness of the different general officers. If danger developed unexpectedly in some quarter, his first question usually was, "Who is in command there?"8 and he shaped his course according to his knowledge of the type of leadership he could anticipate.

Whether that leadership was good or bad, Lee gradually developed fortifications to support it. The earthworks he threw up in South Carolina were to protect the railroad he had to employ in bringing up his army. Those built around Richmond, in June, 1862, were designed in part to protect the approaches from siege tactics and in part to permit of a heavy concentration north of the Chickahominy. The works were too light to withstand the continued p177 hammering of siege guns, but, quickly constructed, they served admirably to cover his men and to discourage assault. They thus were midway between permanent fortifications of the old type and the field fortifications he subsequently employed. The same might be said of the works he constructed at Fredericksburg. His digging of trenches in the open field, while actively manoeuvring, began with the first stage of the Chancellorsville campaign and was expanded at Mine Run. After May, 1864, when increasing odds forced him unwillingly to the defensive, he made the construction of field fortifications a routine of operations. The trenches, well laid, well sighted, and supplied where possible with abatis, served both a strategical and tactical object. They were strategical in that they made it possible for him to detach troops for manoeuvre; they were tactical in that they enabled him successfully to resist a superior force with a steadily diminishing army. General Sir Frederick Maurice has held this to be Lee's major contribution to the art of war.

As a tactician, Lee exhibited at the beginning of hostilities the weaknesses that might be expected of one who had been a staff officer for the greater part of his military career. Until he lost many of his most capable officers he held strictly to his theory of the function of the high command — that of bringing the troops together in necessary numbers at the proper time and place. Yet he continued to learn the military art as the war progressed, and of nothing did he learn more than of tactics. He overcame his lack of skill in the employment of his cavalry. In the end he was deterred from elaborate tactical methods only because, as he confided to Hill in their conversation at Snell's Bridge,9 he did not believe the brigade commanders could execute them. He was often desirous of delivering an attack perpendicular to the line of the enemy and of sweeping down the front. This was his plan for the Confederate right on the second day at Gettysburg, and it was often suggested to his mind thereafter, but it was never successfully executed on a large scale. His subordinates could not get their troops in position for such a manoeuvre. Almost invariably the attack became frontal.

Predominant as was strategy in the generalship of Lee from the p178 outset, and noteworthy as was his later tactical handling of his troops on the field of battle, it was not to these qualities alone that he owed the record he closed that day when he unbelted his sword after Appomattox. It had been as difficult to administer the army as to use it successfully in combat. Never equipped adequately, or consistently well-fed after the early autumn of 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia had few easy marches or ready victories. Lee had to demand of his inferior forces — as he always affirmed the administration had to exact of the entire population — the absolute best they could give him. The army's hard-won battles left its ranks depleted, its command shattered by death or wounds, its personnel exhausted, its horses scarcely able to walk, its transportation broken down, its ammunition and its commissary low. That was why its victories could not be pressed. Earnestly, almost stubbornly, he had to assert, "The lives of our soldiers are too precious to be sacrificed in the attainment of successes that inflict no loss upon the enemy beyond the actual loss in battle."10

On him fell the burden of an endless reorganization that is as much a part of his biography as it is of his title to fame. Out of the wreckage of battle, time after time, he contrived to build a better machine. He did not work by any set formula in administering the army, but by the most painstaking attention to the most minute details. Hungry men had to be restored by better rations: if the commissary could not provide them, he would seek them by raids or by purchases in the surrounding country, even if he had to send out details to thresh wheat and to grind it at the country mills. Rest was imperative: he would choose a strategically sound position, where the troops could have repose without uncovering the approaches to Richmond. To select men to succeed the general officers who fell in action, he would confer with those who knew the colonels of the regiments and he would examine each officer's record for diligence, for capacity, and for sobriety. Had the men worn out more shoes than they had been able to capture from the enemy? Then he would present their plight to the administration and would continue writing till the footgear was forthcoming, or else he would organize his own cobblers, save and tan the skins of the animals the commissaries had p179 slaughtered, and out of them would seek to make shoes that would keep his men, at least, from having to march barefooted over snowy roads. If state pride demanded that troops from the same area be brigaded together and commanded by a "native son," he might disapprove the policy, but he would shift regiments and weigh capabilities and balance fighting strength until the most grumbling congressman and the most jealous governor were satisfied. The very soap his dirty men required in the much of the Petersburg trenches was the subject of a patient letter to the President. His mobilization of Virginia, though it was among his most remarkable achievements and afforded sure evidence of his rating as an administrator, was equalled by the speed and success of his reorganization of the army after the Seven Days, after Sharpsburg, and after Gettysburg.

One aspect of his skill in administration deserves separate treatment as a major reason for his long-continued resistance. That was his almost uniform success in dealing with the civil government, a sometimes difficult business that every military commander must learn. Although the front of his army may be where the general-in‑chief can direct every move, its rear stretches back far beyond the most remote bureau of the War Department. Few generals are ever much stronger than their communications with the authorities that sustain them, and few are greater, in the long view, than the confidence they beget. Often and tragically, both North and South illustrated this maxim during the War between the States. It was by the good fortune of former association that Lee had the esteem of President Davis; it was by merit that he preserved that good opinion, by merit plus tact and candor and care. During the war, General Lee received a few sharp messages from Mr. Davis, and he must have known him to be nervous, sensitive, and jealous of his prerogatives; yet it cannot be said that Lee found Davis a difficult man with whom to deal. This was because Lee dominated the mind of his superior, yet applied literally and loyally his conviction that the President was the commander-in‑chief and that the military arm was subordinate to the civil. He reported as regularly to the President as Stuart or Jackson, those model lieutenants, reported to him. Reticent toward his own staff about military matters, he rarely made a move without explaining his full purpose to the President in advance. In judgment he always deferred to Mr. Davis. The detachment of troops frequently diminished the army's power of resistance, and sometimes threatened its very life, but Lee usually closed his reasoned protest with the statement that if the executive thought it necessary to reduce the forces under his command, he would of course acquiesce. Although he was entrusted with the defense of the capital of the Confederacy, and had constantly to seek replacements, Lee never put the needs of his army above those of the Confederacy. Steadfastly he worked on the principle he thus stated: "If it is left to the decision of each general whether he will spare any troops when they are needed elsewhere, our armies will be scattered instead of concentrated, and we will be at the mercy of the enemy at all points."11 He never vexed a troubled superior by magnifying his difficulties. If, to the unsympathetic eye, there frequently is a suggestion of the courtier in the tone of Lee's letters to the President, it was because of Lee's respect for constituted authority.

Dealing with four Secretaries of War in order — Walker, Benjamin, Seddon, and Breckinridge — Lee encountered little or no friction. Benjamin was reputed to be the most exacting of them all in that he was charged with desiring to dictate the strategy as well as to administer the department. Johnston's friends have said if that officer had not forced the issue with Benjamin, no other general in the field would have been free to command his army. Lee had no occasion to fear this would be so. His relations with Benjamin, though never close, were consistently pleasant. To each of the secretaries Lee reported and before each of them he laid his difficulties. Usually he was candid with them as to his plans, so much so, indeed, that often if a letter were not addressed to the "Hon. Secretary of War," one would think it were intended for the confidence of the President. Only when important moves were afoot and secrecy was imperative was Lee ever restrained in addressing the war office.

Increasingly as the emergencies demanded, Lee addressed directly the administrative heads of the bureaus of the War Department, without reference to the secretary, but in so doing he p181 escaped clashes with their superior. Colonel Northrop, of course, was a thorn in his flesh. In correspondence with him Lee was always courteous and always restrained. In a long controversy over the impressment of food from farmers,12 Lee simply held his ground in the face of all the arguments of Colonel Northrop. Sometimes, when the commissary general insisted that rations be reduced, Lee ignored the suggestion and, from available supplies, fed his men what he considered necessary to restore their vitality or to maintain their health. This provoked complaining endorsements by Northrop on papers meant for the President's eye, but it brought Lee no rebuke from Mr. Davis. Northrop was Lee's one outspoken critic in the administration. Most of the others were his open admirers.

With Congress, Lee had little directly to do. Perhaps it was fortunately so. He often captivated politicians, and at one time, it will be remembered, he virtually acted for the administration in dealing with that difficult and positive individual, Governor Zebulon Vance of North Carolina; but Lee had seen too much of Congress in Washington to cherish any illusions regarding it in Richmond. He had, in fact, an ineradicable distrust of politicians. Although he rarely broke the bounds of his self-imposed restraint, he was convinced that Congress was more interested in the exemptions than in the inclusions of the conscript laws. In the winter of 1864‑65, he thought the lawmakers were playing politics when the existence of the Confederacy depended upon the enlistment of every able-bodied man. His outburst in his conversation with Custis Lee, after his conference with the Virginia delegation in Congress, revealed many things that he had long felt but had not said.

Next in order, among the reasons for Lee's success as a soldier, is probably to be ranked his ability to make the best of the excellencies and of the limitations of his subordinate officers. Thanks to the President's understanding of the need of professional training for command, and thanks, also, to the wisdom of his own early selections, Lee had some of the best graduates of West Point among his officers. He saw to it that such men held the posts of largest responsibility. At one period of his warring, p182 a council of his corps and divisional commanders would almost have been a reunion of alumni of the Military Academy. Yet these officers were not all of them outstanding in ability, nor were they sufficient in number to command the divisions, much less the brigades. Even when he availed himself of the well-schooled former students of the Virginia Military Institute, and of like schools in other states, he had to entrust the lives of many thousands of his men to those who had received no advanced training in arms prior to 1861. Along with the individual jealousies, ambitions, and eccentricities that had to be encountered in every army, he had to cope with political generals and with those who had a measure of class antagonism to the professional soldier. Perhaps Lee's most difficult labor was that of taking a miscellaneous group of Southern individualists, ranging in capacity from dullness to genius, and of welding them into an efficient instrument of command.


[image ALT: zzz]

LEE BEFORE THE FIRE OF BATTLE HAD FADED FROM HIS EYES
A photograph taken by Brady in rear of the Lee House, Richmond, a few days after the General's return from Appomattox. The officers him are (left) General Custis Lee and (right) Colonel Walter Taylor.

No commander ever put a higher valuation on the innate qualities of leadership. "It is," he wrote, "to men . . . of high integrity and commanding intellect that the country must look to give character to her councils."13 He was not quick to praise but he was sparing in criticism. When he offended the amour propre of any officer, he made amends. Unless a man was grossly incapable, he was slow to relieve him of command. He preferred to suffer the mediocrity he knew than to fly to that of which he was not cognizant. If a general was disqualified by slowness, by bad habits, or by obtuseness, Lee sought quietly to transfer him to a post where his shortcomings would be less costly. In some instances, perhaps, officers did not know that they owed their change of command to the fact that Lee had weighed them and had found them wanting. Indecision, notorious ill-temper, intemperance, and a pessimistic, demoralizing outlook were the qualities he most abhorred in a soldier. "I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself," he said, and, in the saying, explained why some men of capacity, even of brilliance, never rose high in the army or remained long with it. For personal cowardice he had a soldierly scorn, but he rarely encountered it. There was only one brigadier general in his army, and p183 none above that grade, concerning whose personal courage in the presence of the enemy there ever was serious question.

Lee would listen patiently to suggestions from any quarter, even when they were given by those who seemed disposed to usurp his function as commanding general; and he was always patient in dealing with personal idiosyncrasies, unless they touched his sense of honor and of fair play. Whatever the station of an officer, Lee endeavored to see that full justice was done him, though he avoided personal dealings, if he could, with those who had no merit with which to sustain their grievances.

Except perhaps in the case of Longstreet, the more a soldier was capable of doing, the more Lee demanded of him. Never brusque unless with extreme provocation, Lee was least suave and most exacting in dealing with those whose conception of duty he knew to be as high as his own. Once he got the true measure of Jackson, he would have considered it a reflection upon that officer's patriotism to bestow soft words or to make ingratiating gestures. He had a personal affection for the praise-loving Stuart, but he rarely put flattery or flourishes into his letters to that remarkable man. Yet when a dull brigadier or a stupid colonel came to his quarters, Lee did his utmost to hearten him. For young officers he always had kind words and friendly, considerate attention, except when it was manifest that they needed a rebuke. If he had nothing else to give an exhausted lieutenant who brought dispatches through the burning dust of a July day, he would proffer him a glass of water in the same tones he would have employed in addressing the President. Although he realized that a trained and disciplined officers' corps was the greatest need of the army, he was almost alone among the higher commanders of the Confederacy in realizing that the volunteer leaders of a revolutionary force could not be given the stern, impersonal treatment that can be meted out to the professional soldiers of an established government. How different might have been the fate of Bragg and perhaps of the Confederacy if that officer had learned this lesson from Lee!

Lee's social impulses aided him in dealing with his officers. He kept a frugal table, as an example to the army, and he entertained little, but he was an ingratiating host and a flawless guest. p184 Mindful of the amenities, he never failed to show captivating courtesies to the wife of any officer of his acquaintance when she visited the army. His calls were always prompt and cordial, and in talking to the wife he usually had more kind things to say of the husband than he ever voiced to the soldier in person. If grief came in the loss of a child, he was among the mourners. When a general was wounded, his were the most encouraging words to the alarmed wife. At every review held in the season when the "ladies of the army" might visit it, he personally arranged that they should witness the ceremonies from a point of vantage, and usually he rode over to speak to them. His subordinates respected him for his ability and his rectitude; their wives made them love him.

All that can be said of Lee's dealings with his officers as one of the reasons for his success can be said in even warmer tones of his relations with the men in the ranks. They were his chief pride, his first obligation. Their distress was his deepest concern, their well-being his constant aim. His manner with them was said by his lieutenants to be perfect. Never ostentatious or consciously dramatic, his bearing, his record of victories, his manifest interest in the individual, and his conversation with the humblest private he met in the road combined to create in the minds of his troops a reverence, a confidence, and an affection that built up the morale of the army. And that morale was one of the elements that contributed most to his achievements. The men came to believe that whatever he did was right — that whatever he assigned them they could accomplish. Once that belief became fixed, the Army of Northern Virginia was well-nigh invincible. There is, perhaps, no more impressive example in modern war of the power of personality in creating morale. More than one writer has intimated that Lee's forbearance in dealing with Longstreet showed him too much of a gentleman to be a commander of the very first rank. It would be well for these critics to remember that the qualities of a gentleman, displayed to those in the ranks, contributed to far more victories than Longstreet ever cost Lee.

The final major reason for Lee's successes in the face of bewildering odds is akin to the two just considered. It was his ability p185 to maintain the hope and the fighting spirit of the South. The confidence aroused by the first victory at Manassas sustained the South until the disasters at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. Thereafter, for a season, the belief was strong that Europe's need of cotton would bring recognition and intervention. As months passed with no hopeful news from France or from England, while the Union forces tightened their noose on the Confederacy, the Southern people looked to their own armies, and to them alone, to win independence. Vicksburg fell; the Confederacy was cut in twain. The expectations raised by the victory at Chickamauga were not realized. The Army of Tennessee failed to halt the slow partition of the seceded states. Gradually the South came to fix its faith on the Army of Northern Virginia and on its commander. Elsewhere there was bickering and division; in Virginia there was harmony and united resistance. The unconquered territory was daily reduced in area, but on the Rapidan and the Rappahannock there was still defiance in the flapping of each battle flag. The Southern people remembered that Washington had lost New York and New England, Georgia and South Carolina, and still had triumphed. Lee, they believed, would do no less than the great American he most resembled. As long as he could keep the field, the South could keep its heart. So, when the despairing were ready to make peace and the cowardly hid in the swamps or the mountains to escape the conscript officer, the loyal Confederate took his last horse from the stable for his trooper-son, and emptied his barn of corn in order that "Lee's army" might not starve. Morale behind the line, not less than on the front of action, was sustained by Lee. Conversely, he could count upon a measure of popular support that neither the President, the Congress, nor any other field commander could elicit.

The qualities that created this confidence were essentially those that assured Lee the unflagging aid of the President, the loyalty of his lieutenants, and the enthusiastic devotion of his men. But the order in which these qualities were esteemed by the civil population was somewhat different. Mr. Davis and the corps commanders knew that Lee was better able than any other Southern soldier to anticipate and to overthrow the plans of the enemy; the men in the ranks were satisfied he would shape his strategy to defeat p186 the enemy with the least loss to them. The people in the Southern towns and on the farms of the Confederate states saw, in contrast, a series of military successes they were not capable of interpreting in terms of strategy or tactics. They understood little of all the subtle factors that entered into army administration and into the relations of commander with President and with soldiers. But for them the war had taken on a deeper spiritual significance than it had for some of those who faced the bloody realities of slaughter. In the eyes of the evangelicals of the South, theirs was a contest of righteousness against greed, a struggle to be won by prayers not less than by combat. They saw in Lee the embodiment of the faith and piety they believed a just Heaven would favor. A war that would make a partisan of God works other changes no less amazing to the religious concepts of a nation, and among the Southern people, during the last year of the struggle, it lacked little of lifting Lee to be the mediator for his nation. The army, seeing him in battle, put his ability first and his character second. The civilian population, observing him from afar, rated his character even above his ability.

These, then, would seem to be the signal reasons why Lee so long was able to maintain the unequal struggle of a Confederacy that may have been foredoomed to defeat and extinction. To recapitulate, the foundation stone of his military career was intellect of a very high order, with a developed aptitude for war. On that foundation his strategy was built in comprehensive courses. Visualizing a military problem with clarity, he studied every report that would aid in its solution. If it were possible, he put his solution in terms of the offensive. With care he would select his position; with skill he would reconnoitre it; with precision of logistics he would bring his troops to it, and with daring he would engage them. For every action he sought to concentrate adequately, and for every task he endeavored to utilize the lieutenant best suited. In combat, however excellent his constantly improving tactics, he begrudged the life of each soldier he had to expose, yet he hurled his whole army into the charge, sparing not a man, when his daring gave him an opening for a major blow. As his numbers diminished and he was forced to the defensive, he perfected a system of field fortification that had a strategic no less p187 than a protective value. A diligent army administrator, self-controlled and disciplined in his dealings with his superiors, he chose his subordinates wisely and treated them with a justice that Washington himself could not have excelled. He had, besides, a personality and a probity that combined with his repeated victories to gain for him the unshakable confidence of his troops and of the civil population. The tactics he employed in the 1860's belong to the yesterday of war, but the reasons for his success remain valid for any soldier who must bear a like burden of responsibility, whether in a cause as desperate or where the limitless resources of a puissant government are his to command.

When the story of a soldier is completed, and the biographer is about to leave the last camp-fire of a man he has learned to respect and to love, he is tempted to a last word of admiring estimate. May he not, by some fine phrase, fan into enduring flame the spark of greatness he thinks he has discovered in the leader whose councils he has in spirit shared? May he not claim for him a place in the company of the mighty captains of the past? Yet who that reverences historical verities can presume to say of any soldier who rises above the low shoulders of mediocrity, "In this he outshone or in that he rivalled another who fought under dissimilar conditions for a different cause in another age?" Circumstance is incommensurable: let none essay to measure men who are its creatures. Lee's record is written in positive terms; why invoke comparatives? The reader who can appraise the conditions under which he fought can appraise the man. Others need not linger at the door or watch him take off his sword, or strain to hear the words he spoke to Mrs. Lee in the first moment of their meeting.


The Author's Notes:

1 See supra, vol. III, p154, note 101.

[decorative delimiter]

2 Prisoners are reckoned in the total estimates, which, compiled from a variety of sources, cover roughly the period June 1, 1862-May 31, 1864.

[decorative delimiter]

3 Herbert C. Saunders, quoted in R. E. Lee, Jr., 232‑33.

[decorative delimiter]

4 O. R., 25, part 2, p624.

[decorative delimiter]

5 O. R., 19, part 2, p715.

[decorative delimiter]

6 O. R., 27, part 3, p868.

[decorative delimiter]

7 O. R., 29, part 2, p819.

[decorative delimiter]

8 Cf. Cooke, 368.

[decorative delimiter]

9 See supra, vol. III, p331.

[decorative delimiter]

10 O. R., 21, 1086.

[decorative delimiter]

11 O. R., 29, part 2, p820.

[decorative delimiter]

12 See supra, vol. III, p251.

[decorative delimiter]

13 O. R., 21, 1067.


[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 20 Feb 14