General Lee’s Unsolved Problem

PrintPrintEmailEmailLong after the Civil War was over, with contemplative years for perspective, Jefferson Davis wrote that Robert E. Lee always commanded subject to his orders. The former Confederate president made quite a point of this overlordship, and held to the concept of Davis, the leader, manipulating armies and generals and the destinies of a people. Of course, Davis was right. As he made of the Confederate experiment a one-man show, technically he was Lee’s boss.

Davis never imagined that the struggle was maintained by the extent to which Lee imposed his own ideas on him. The nature of the war in its main theater in Virginia changed in proportion to Lee’s influence in three main phases. The early indecisiveness was determined by Davis’ complete control before Lee emerged; the period of bold strokes and great hopes, 1862-63, reflected Lee’s influence; and the nature of “the long agony” beginning in 1864 was determined by the effect of the control Davis continued until it was altogether too late to do anything about it.

For Davis got in over his head as leader of an extemporized revolutionary movement, and lacked the flexibility of character and the suppleness of mind to change with changing conditions. While he lacked also the humility to admit to his limitations, his organism revealed the unnatural strain (as it invariably did under stress) by the psychosomatic ailments that afflicted him during the war years.

Actually he brought to the war only the bureaucratic technique learned as a peace-time secretary of war, and neither magnitude nor nature of disaster could budge his grasp on the familiar details of certainty. Likewise, his leadership was from the book, an abstraction, a part of his personal concept of the aristocrat.

Under the definition of aristocrat as a member of a ruling class, Davis was synthetic. He was a nouveau , characterized by the personal arrogance of the selfmade Bourbons of the new cotton kingdom. Davis was touchy about his dignity, while purblind about the feelings of others. He knew nothing about people, either as individuals or in the mass.


In Lee, Davis encountered the real thing, the perfected product of the ruling class which Davis presumably represented. Davis never quite knew what to make of him. Though in time Lee’s successes caused Davis privately to admit in a cry of anguish that Lee might act as his military equal in the field (“Oh, if only I could take one wing and Lee the other!”), it never occurred to him that Lee was able to achieve this recognized equality only by a character which made it possible for him to work through the commander in chief for the sake of his land.

Lee’s struggle in his relations with Jefferson Davis represented one of the great, undramatized achievements of the war, even though this undeclared and ceaseless struggle never reached a decision—and the president probably never realized it was happening.

The essence of Lee’s character and mental cast, as related to Davis, derived from a generic aristocracy of which he was a natural product—indeed, as has been said, “a flowering.” With all the nonsense about the Virginia Aristocrat, Lee’s family achieved that ideal of communal responsibility which the myth attributed to all. To Lee, leadership was a moral responsibility to the people from which his class arose and not a thing of personal pride.

For Lee there was no inner conflict in fulfilling his moral obligation through the constituted authority; deference to all constituted authority was inherent in his conservative society. That Davis made it personally difficult for Lee changed nothing: this was a detail, merely another burden to be borne in performing his duty to his state.

There is no question that Davis’ peremptoriness and insensitivity to others gave Lee trouble. He wrote Mrs. Lee, “Mr. Davis can be very sharp.” Harder to bear even than the unconscious rudeness of the self-aware aristocrat were the thoughtless wastes that Davis exacted of Lee’s time, energies, and talents. He would call Lee in for interminable conferences, in which the soldier was used as a sounding board while his advice was never heeded, and Lee’s aide mentions the harassed state in which he returned from these futile conferences.

But all this was in the realm of Lee’s personal difficulties. The real, though inarticulated, struggle was over the essential differences in the military purposes of Lee and of Davis.

Davis believed that a static defense of territory (accompanied by proclamations of their rights) would cause independence to be granted . Lee believed that independence would be won in the field, by counterstrokes designed to drive the enemy away and discourage future attempts at subjugation.