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Dressed in civilian clothes and silk hat,1 Lee departed from Arlington on the morning of April 22, never to enter its friendly portals again. Driving to Alexandria, he joined Judge Robertson, checked his trunk, and, with sombre face, climbed aboard the train of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, bound for Gordonsville, whence he was to travel via the Virginia Central to Richmond.
The first stage of his journey took him through a rolling countryside. Soon the Blue Ridge Mountains were faintly visible to the west, guarding the Shenandoah Valley. Every few miles the train would stop at some station, where an anxious crowd waited for the newspapers and inquired whether Virginia had yet been invaded. Well it was for him, as he gazed out of the window, that he did not know what the names of these simple places were soon to signify to him, or how many of those who looked up at him from the platforms were to die at his word. Else even his resolute heart might have grown faint. Here was Manassas Junction, where passengers who had come down the Manassas Gap Railroad took the train. Three months to the very day was to see the station and the road filled with bleeding men, and all the quiet fields covered with the victims and the debris of a great battle. Seventeen months and a little more were to find him close by, after one of the greatest of his victories. Did any of his fellow-passengers talk of crossing Thoroughfare Gap, of visiting Centreville, of passing Groveton Heights? The words were well-nigh meaningless to him, if they were uttered, but ere long they were to be forever associated with his name. Soon he was at Bristoe Station, in the very railway cut from which two of his brigades were to be repulsed bloodily one autumn day in 1863. p449 Catlett's Station, the conductor called, Catlett's Station, where "Jeb" Stuart was to capture the enemy's headquarters in a midnight hour of groping; Warrenton Junction next — how many times he was to look at its name on his map! Rappahannock bridge that was to be the scene of a dark tragedy for some of his soldiers; Fleetwood Hill and Brandy Station, at the mention of which every reader of history was to hear a bugle call; Culpeper, future objective of many of his marches — all these he passed. Clark's Mountain rose in the distance, and he crossed Rapidan River, down which were Raccoon Ford, Germanna, Ely's Ford. Presently he was at Orange Courthouse, whence two roads lead eastward into the tangled country that the natives rightly had styled the Wilderness. He changed cars at Gordonville, for the protection of which so many of his plans were later to be shaped; then he came down the Virginia Central Railroad, that was for many months to hold his army together. Trevilian's Station, Louisa, Frederick's Hall, Beaver Dam — all of them were to become a part of his biography. With much blowing of the whistle and grinding of the brakes, he reached Hanover Junction, where the Virginia Central crossed the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. The village had been unknown to fame, but it was to become, after Richmond, the chief object of his care for many anxious seasons.
At Orange and at Louisa he had to go to the rear of the car and bow to the crowds that insistently called for him.2 For the rest of the long journey he observed and pondered. Was he prepared for what lay ahead in that country that the fates seemed to spread out before him, as if to show him its simple beauty in peace, ere he saw it ruined by war? No, he was not prepared; no man could be. But did he possess the qualities that would make it possible for him to equip himself for leadership?
He was then fifty-four years of age and stood five feet eleven inches in height,a weighing slightly less than 170 pounds. In physique he was sound, without a blemish on his body.3 In the p450 whole of his previous life he had suffered only one recorded illness and that had not been severe.4 Without having the bulging muscles of bovine strength, he was possessed of great powers of endurance, as he had demonstrated that night on the pedregal in front of Padierna. Only at the end of the long-continued strain of the days preceding the attack on Chapultepec had his body failed him, and then only for a few hours.5 When he was past forty he had competed with his sons in high jumps at Arlington.6 He had skated and danced and had been an excellent swimmer. His vision and teeth were fine, his hearing was unimpaired, and his voice, which was of the lower middle register, was rich and resonant. Few men were the inheritors of a stronger nervous system. From the most strenuous efforts he could relax almost instantly, and if he sat down unoccupied, even in a church, he had to be on his guard lest he dropped quickly asleep.7
In appearance one fellow-traveller, who saw him that April day, considered Lee "the noblest-looking man I had ever gazed upon . . . handsome beyond all men I had ever seen."8 His fine large head, which had a circumference of •twenty-three and one-half inches,9 was broadly rounded, with prominent brows and wide temples, and was set on a short, strong neck. His hair was black, with a sprinkle of gray; his short mustache was wholly black. Brown eyes that seemed black in dim light and a slightly florid complexion gave warmth and color to his grave face. His mouth was wide and well-arched. His lips were thin.10 A massive torso rose above narrow hips, and his large hands were in contrast to very small feet.11 Sitting behind a desk, or on a horse, his shoulders, neck, and hands made him appear a larger man than he actually was.12 His finest appearance was when mounted, for he was an admirable rider, with the flat legs of the ideal cavalryman, and he always used the dragoon seat, with long stirrups.
p451 His manners accorded with his person. In 1861, as always, he was the same in his bearing to men of every station, courteous, simple, and without pretense. Of objective mind, free of any suggestion of self-consciousness, he was considerate in his dealings with others, and of never-failing tact. He made friends readily and held them steadfastly.
Close relations never lowered him in the esteem of his associates. He was clean-minded and frank with his friends, and confided in them more freely than has been supposed. Always he was unselfish, talked little of himself, and was in no sense egotistical. Although he was slow to take offense and was not quick to wrath, his temper was strong. Except when he was sick, he rarely broke the bounds of self-mastery for more than a moment. Then he was best left alone. In all that has been recorded of him prior to 1861, the only instance in which he is reported to have let his indignation overcome his self-control was when he told Charles Anderson of the threat of the Texas commissioners to refuse him transportation to the coast unless he resigned from the United States army and accepted a Confederate commission.
The company of women, especially of pretty women, he preferred to that of men. In the presence of the other sex, he displayed a gracious, and sometimes a breezy gallantry; but no suggestion of a scandal, no hint of over-intimacy, was ever linked with his name. His conversation with his younger female friends was lively, with many touches of teasing and with an occasional mild pun, but it was not witty. He had a good sense of humor, which his dignity rarely permitted him to exhibit in laughter. Those who observed him closely, in the midst of comical incidents, believed that he "laughed inwardly." The bitter strife that lay ahead was to check even these occasional evidences of mirth, as if the memory of the dead came to him just at the instant he had been tempted to smile at the narration of some hilarious story. In dealing with children his manners were at their finest. For them he always had a smile, no matter where he met them, and without indulging in foolish talk or grimaces, he won their confidence almost invariably. There is only one case of record — and that after the war — when a child would not talk confidently with him on first acquaintance. The farther he was p452 from his own offspring, and the longer the separation, the more he craved the company of other children.
His manners reflected his spiritual life. It has been in vain that some of his biographers have asked if his calm dignity did not cover some deep spiritual conflict. It was not so. His was a simple soul, humble, transparent, and believing. Increasingly through the years prior to that historic railway journey to Richmond, religion had become a part of his very being. So far as may be judged from his letters, he had not passed through a single period of doubt as to the existence of a personal God. The religious controversies of his mature years never touched him. Creeds meant little to him. Reading daily his Bible and his prayer book, spending much time on his knees, he believed in a God who, in His wisdom, sent blessings beyond man's deserts, and visited him, on occasion, with hardships and disaster for the chastening of the rebellious heart of the ungrateful and the forgetful. As Robert E. Lee viewed it, on the eve of his plunge into the bloody tragedy of a war among brothers, life was only a preparation for eternity. Whatever befell the faithful was the will of God, and whatever God willed was best. In every disaster, he was to stand firm in the faith that it was sent by God for reasons that man could not see.
The application of this faith was as simple as its content. Self-denial and self-control were the supreme rule of life. It was the basis of his code of conduct. He loved good food — fried chicken, game, barbecued shoat, roast beef13 — but he was ready to eat thankfully the hardest fare of the field. In the confused councils he was doomed to share, he bore the contention of braggarts and swaggerers with self-control because it was his duty as a soldier to be patient and his obligation as a Christian to be humble. In dealing with alcoholic beverages, his habits were abstemious lest he endanger his self-mastery. He had built up, in this way, a dislike for tobacco, which he never used, and a hatred for whiskey. "I think it better to avoid it altogether, as you do," he had written one of his sons, with reference to strong drink, "as its temperate use is so difficult."14 Even wine he drank rarely and in small quantities.
p453 His ideals had their embodiment, for unconsciously he was a hero-worshipper. He viewed his father not as "Light-Horse Harry" was in the tragic years of his speculation, but as he might have been if the promise of his Revolutionary record had been fulfilled. Above his father and every other man he had always placed Washington. The Father of his Country was no mere historical figure to him, great but impersonal and indistinct. Through Lee's long years of association with Mr. Custis, who knew Washington better than did any man alive in 1850, Washington was as real to him as if the majestic Virginian had stepped down nightly from the canvas at Arlington and had talked reminiscently with the family about the birth of an earlier revolution. Daily, for almost thirty years, whenever Lee had been at home, his environment had been a constant suggestion of the same ideal. He had come to view duty as Washington did, to act as he thought Washington would, and even, perhaps, to emulate the grave, self-contained courtesy of the great American rebel. The modesty of his nature doubtless kept Lee now from drawing the very obvious analogy between his situation and that of Washington in 1775, but the influence and the ideal were deep in his soul. He would not have shaped such a question, even in his own mind, but those who knew him as the inheritor of the Mount Vernon tradition must have asked if he was destined to be the Washington of the South's war for independence.
In intellect he was of an even higher order than had been demonstrated in his record of thirty-two years of army service without a single failure to his discredit. His mind was mathematical and his imagination that — and only that — of an engineer. The best of his results always were attained when originality and initiative could be employed. Routine office duties bored him. Although a specialist in his work and in his reading, his culture was wider than that of most soldiers. Well-grounded in Greek and in Latin, he kept some of the spirit of the classics when he had forgotten the texts. French, which he had mastered when he was in his first full vigor of mind, remained longer with him than the language of the antique world. For Spanish he had an enthusiasm born of a belief in its utility. Of some phases of American history, and particularly of those in which his family had figured, he had p454 a measure of precise knowledge. Fiction he avoided as an intellectual narcotic, but poetry he enjoyed and tenaciously remembered. His principal reading, never wide, was chiefly of the newspapers, to which he looked for that part of his information of public affairs not supplied by his conversation. There was music in his family, and a real if undiscriminating love of art. Essentially an out-of‑doors man, the pictures he enjoyed most were those of Nature's own painting, and his most understanding affection was for her creatures, horses, dogs, cats even. As other men might admire a great portrait, he delighted to look at a sunset or at a garden. Birds were a particular care to him. His own contribution to physical beauty was through the promotion of orderliness and in the planting of trees.
Prolonged travel had been his lot as an army officer, in New England, along the whole of the South Atlantic seaboard, and on the frontier, but he had been in no foreign land except Mexico. In his journeyings he was extremely sensitive to the natural charm of a picturesque country, and interested in the fertility of farm lands, but he never lingered to admire them, if delay would interfere with the precision of his schedule.
Outside his profession his chief interests were not cultural but agricultural and social. The ideal life, had he been able to fashion it, would have been to entertain or to visit pleasant people and friendly kinfolk, while riding daily over a small plantation that was tilled by white men and was improving in value and in appearance. As for society, he learned more from men than from books. His dignity cloaked no diffidence. The company of humans he sought and loved, unwearied by small talk and unvaryingly patient with dull minds. All manner of acquaintances were his — generals, professors, planters, politicians, engineers, laborers — for his life in isolated forts and at frontier stations had been relieved by assignments to the centres of thought and of political action. In meeting and remembering new acquaintances he had a singularly developed and highly useful memory for names.
Men had been the raw material of his work as an engineer and as an administrator. Alike to giving and to taking orders he had long been disciplined. His superiors, as a rule, had been trained; his laborers had often been inexperienced and awkward. He had p455 always been able to satisfy, and more than satisfy, the officers to whom he was responsible, while getting much toil from those in his charge. His methods were systematic. Essentially of a scientific mind, he would first study his problem exhaustively. Once he had found what he deemed the best solution within the money and resources at his disposal, he would start at the rough beginnings, with the simple tools at his command. The prospect of organizing a long and difficult project had no terrors for a man who had worked at Cockspur Island, at the Des Moines Rapids, and at Sollers' Point. Rapid in his work, and happily free of any trace of laziness, he was as mindful of detail15 as he was resourceful in design. Inborn thrift, his mother's thrift, strengthened by the discipline of his youth, made him economical in the public service, accurate in accounting, and prompt in report. Rarely ahead he enjoyed the luxury of more than one assistant; so frequently had he carried the whole burden on his own shoulders that it was second nature to make his decisions alone, and alone to direct the execution of his plans. With pride in his profession, he had all the engineer's zest for action and a profound aversion for delay. His delight was in getting results — and results were Virginia's instant need with the clouds of war blowing fast toward the capital whither Lee's train was carrying him.
After the first duty of helping to organize an army — in what capacity he did not yet know — Lee had to anticipate a bloody and a bitter war. What did he know of the grisly art he would have to apply?
In those two unchanging fundamentals of military service, discipline and co-operation, Robert E. Lee had received the precise training of a professional soldier. Obedience to orders was part of his religion. Adverse decisions on his acts he had schooled himself to accept in precisely the same spirit as approval. He could elicit the support of his superiors without flattery, and in the few instances where he had ever had subordinates, he had p456 won their allegiance without threats. He was a diplomat among engineers. Fully qualified to deal with the politician in executive office, he was suspicious of him in the field or in the forum, and none too confident of his sagacity in legislation, though he was as meticulous as his great model, Washington, in subordinating himself, at all times and in all things, to civil authority. His dealings with his brother officers had never been darkened by scheming or marred by jealousy. Of much that West Point taught and of all that it failed to inculcate, his observation had been close and personal. A knowledge of the capacity of some of his prospective opponents had been gained by his service at the academy, in Mexico, and in Texas. His tedious attendance upon dull courts-martial had not been time wasted, for there he had seen the rivalries, the animosities, and the occasional demoralization of camp life uncovered. Even the Pillow court of inquiry had been a useful part of his military education, for it had shown him how selfish political ambitions could rive an army in the field.
Familiarity with the history of war, another fundamental of the training of a leader, was his in limited measure. The American Revolutionary campaigns he had surveyed carefully. His reading of "Light-Horse Harry's" Memoirs had been emulous and detailed. Napoleon was the great captain whose battles he had most carefully followed from Jomini, and from such other books as were available. The operations in Italy, the descent on Egypt, and the Russian campaign he must have known with thoroughness. To the Crimean War he had devoted at least casual study. With Hannibal and with Julius Caesar he was not wholly unacquainted.
From these masters of war, and most of all from General Winfield Scott, he had learned the theory of strategy, and had learned it well. He had participated, too, in nearly all the strategical preparation of the most successful series of battles ever fought prior to 1861 by an American army. The strategy he had seen Scott apply had primarily been that of flank attack, based on careful reconnaissance and, where possible, on surprise. Cerro Gordo and Padierna, the two battles which were fought on the basis of Lee's own study of the ground, seem to have meant more p457 in shaping his views of strategy than all his reading. Chapultepec, also, had made a deep impression on him and perhaps suggested the final assault at Gettysburg. The strategical function of the high command he had learned from those same battles in Mexico. That function, as he saw it, was to develop the lines of communication, to direct the reconnaissance, to ascertain the precise position of the enemy, and then to bring all the combatant units into position at the proper time and to the best advantage. In Mexico Scott had never tried to handle his troops in action. He had left this to the divisional commanders; Lee's instinct was to do the same thing.
But if Lee was, in the spring of 1861, a well-schooled theoretical strategist, whose interest lay in that field of war, Scott's methods and his own lack of opportunity had given him a very limited knowledge of tactics. He was adept enough, of course, in the drill and manoeuvres of the cadet battalion at West Point, but of larger tactical experience he had little. Twenty-six of his thirty-two years in the army had been spent on the staff, and only six in the line. Of these six years something less than three had been passed with troops. At no time had he commanded more than 300 men in the field, and even that number simply for one brief uneventful scout through a desert. Since he had left West Point he had never served with infantry or with artillery, except in the battery at Vera Cruz.
Thanks, however, to the advantages that Scott had afforded him during the campaign from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, he had far more than the staff officer's approach to the duties that awaited him in excited Richmond. In reconnaissance his experience had been sufficient to develop great aptitude. One of the most compelling commandments of his military decalogue was to examine in person, fully and carefully, the ground of advance and anticipated action. He was an excellent topographer and not without training as an intelligence officer. Those anxious summer days spent at Puebla in 1847, when he had questioned travellers regarding the approaches to Santa Anna's capital, were to yield him many a dividend of advantage in the Virginia campaigns. He had seen something of what sea power meant, and he had watched observantly as Scott had made the hard calculation of the p458 chances the army must take when it prepared to abandon its line of communications and to subsist on the country through which it was to advance. Fortification, as an engineer, he knew thoroughly. Nearly every contemporary form of coast defense he had studied, and in the location and design of some types he was as well trained as any American soldier. The nascent art of field fortification he had examined in Mexico, but always from the standpoint of the attack.
Such was the positive equipment of Robert E. Lee at the beginning of the War between the States. It was, on the whole, the best equipment with which any soldier entered the struggle, for the capable leaders of Scott's divisions of 1847 were then either dead or too infirm for action, and few of the brigadiers of the Mexican campaigns had displayed special ability. The absence of any retirement law for their seniors had kept most of the colonels of 1846‑48 from becoming general officers before they had passed the age when they could adapt themselves to the intricate problems of a war in the United States.
Admirable as was the training of Lee it was not complete. He had scant knowledge of militia and little experience with hastily trained volunteers, wide as was his acquaintance with inexpert civilian labor. Only the regular soldier did he know well. Again, from the narrowness of his subordinate command, there was danger that his view would be microscopic. In the third place, all his battle experience had been on the offensive, though the situation and the comparative weakness of the South were to compel it to hold to a defensive in the larger sense of the word. Furthermore, having labored so long on detached projects, he was disposed to do work that could have been passed on to others. Most of all was he lacking in any detailed knowledge of the service of supply. Belonging to the élite corps of the army, he had never performed lengthy duty as quartermaster or as commissary, and he had not sought any such detail for the sake of promotion, as his friend Joe Johnston had. Nor had he and most of the other Confederate leaders been reared in a society that gave them a background for this homely but essential part of the work of a successful commanding general. Industry, with a few exceptions, had not attracted the best brains of the South. In plantation life, p459 while provision had to be made for clothing and feeding hundreds, this had been the task overseers — and overseers were not apt to be chosen to lead armies.
With Lee's excellent training in some directions set down in one column and his lack of equipment in some particulars placed opposite it, any person who knew him intimately would have said that the man who was now approaching Richmond would show himself a fine strategist, though he might perhaps be a bit theoretical, a popular leader though not a facile tactician — in short, an excellent man to organize an army, to make reconnaissance and to plan battles, but an unknown quantity in handling troops in action. What surprises one who studies the military education of Lee is the entire absence of anything to forecast his great skill in troop movements. His experience in logistics had been confined to what he observed in Mexico, where no railroad existed, coupled with the little he had learned during the Harpers Ferry insurrection. Yet from the hour he had responsibility for using the railroads to effect rapid concentration, he employed them as if he had spent his life in practising how to bring great bodies of men to a desired point at a predetermined moment.
All these were the abstract considerations that might have been argued in the case of any soldier whose background was known. There remained the basic, if less tangible, factor of temperament. He was a gentleman in every impulse: was he too much a gentleman for the dirty business of war? Was there enough of steel in his soul? That respect for civil authority — would it tie his hands in a revolution? Feeling that his duty was performed when he had obeyed his orders and had done his utmost, would he fight for his opinions? Would he escape the "subordinate complex" which is all too familiar in war? If the Southern cause ever depended on him and on him alone, was there in him the stuff of which military dictators are made?
If he thought at all of these things, as his train rolled down to the valley of the Chickahominy, it must have been in the humble conviction that he was not equal to the task that lay ahead, a task of which he was one of the few Southern men to realize the full p460 magnitude. Far better than the throngs that cheered the new Palmetto flag, he knew the might and the prestige of the old standard that had been hauled down. The crowds that filled the stations along his route may have been talking of easy victories and early independence, but he had measured the strength and determination of the North, and he foresaw a bloody test, a long war, a doubtful issue.
The passengers on the train began to stir. Peake's Turnout was passed, Atlee's was reached. To the southeast was a little village bearing the unpretending name of Mechanicsville, and beyond that a sleepy crossroads called Cold Harbor. Richmond was close now, Richmond that was soon to be "a torch and a trumpet." It had been a quiet city of 37,000 people when madness had seized the country, a place of peace and pleasantness. John Smith had come there at Whitsuntide in the year when Jamestown had been settled; a fort had been erected at the "falls of the James" before the massacre of 1622; slowly through the eighteenth century it had been built up until, in 1779, it had become the capital of the commonwealth, in succession to Williamsburg. On picturesque hills, that followed a wide bend in the river, successful merchants had reared ample homes. Flour that was sent "across the line" to South America had early been stencilled with the city's name; a capitol that Jefferson himself had modelled after an old Roman temple at Nîmes had been erected on the finest eminence. A generation later a canal had been started that was to link Richmond with the headwaters of the Ohio and rescue for Virginia the trade of the old Northwest that New York was diverting through the Erie. John Marshall had lived in Richmond and had been buried there; Edgar Allan Poe had called it home. To its large hotels the wealthy planters had come; from its platforms Clay, Webster, Thackeray, and Dickens had spoken. Wealthy for the time, with strong banks, varied manufactories, profitable shipping, and ample railroad connections with almost every part of the state, boasting a state arsenal and a large rolling mill, Richmond was the heart of Virginia, financially and economically. Most of all was she rich in her people. None of them had a mighty fortune; few of them were very poor, but nearly all of them had lived long in the town and had the homogeneity not less of understanding p461 than of blood. Together they rejoiced; as one they labored. Noblesse oblige was written larger in the civic code than any ordinance the common hall ever drafted. As Whigs and as Democrats, as "Union men" and secessionists, the voters had divided often and violently; but always for their city's honor they had been a unit. Fire and pestilence and the gray adversity that had followed "flush times" had left them like-minded. Save for long-forgotten Indian fights and a brush with the British, when Arnold had captured the place in 1781, Richmond had never heard the clash of combat, but now that the evil day was come she had cast her lot whole-heartedly with the South. All that she had symbolized in peace was to be forgotten in the battles that were to be waged for her. Alarms were to bewilder her; the first slaughter was to stun her; but soon she was to show the staunchness of her soul. She had meant little in the life of the gentleman who sat erect in his silk hat as the train pulled into the station, but from the moment the conductor cried, "All out for Richmond," the safety of that city was to be the supreme care of the military life of Robert E. Lee.
1 W. W. Scott, who saw him that day at Orange, in William and Mary Quarterly, 2d Series, 6, 279.
2 W. W. Scott, loc. cit., and Jones, L. and L., 137.
3 The undertaker who prepared his body for burial in 1870 attested that even then there was no blemish. (Information supplied by Gutzon Borglum.) His height, etc., are given with accuracy by E. C. Gordon, in Riley, General Robert E. Lee after Appomattox, 78 (cited hereafter as Riley).
6 R. E. Lee, Jr., 9.
7 R. E. Lee, Jr., 12.
8 T. S. Garnett, loc. cit.
9 Lee to Talcott, May 23, 1834, with reference to the purchase of a hat, Talcott MSS. (VHS).
10 E. V. Valentine, the sculptor who made measurements of Lee's head for a bust, was insistent that the portrait of Lee painted in 1831 and reproduced as the frontispiece of this volume shows Lee with much thicker lips than he had.
11 A pair of dress boots given by him to E. V. Valentine were No. 4‑1/2C (Riley, 152), but probably were too small for him.
12 Gordon in Riley, 78.
14 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, May 30, 1858; Jones, L. and L., 94.
15 In the autumn of 1860 some one from Arlington ordered a coulter of special design from a foundry in Washington. It had not been paid for when Lee joined the Confederacy. Learning subsequently of the debt, he arranged through secret channels to pay the maker two dollars in gold, late in 1861, and, busy as he was, he wrote a personal note of apology for the delayed settlement. This incident has often been cited as an illustration not only of his sense of honor but also of his attention to details (Jones, 286; Long, 39).
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Robert E. Lee
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