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General Lee’s Unsolved Problem
A southern writer analyzes the handicaps unwittingly laid on the general by President Davis
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
So Lee had to fight two wars—the open fight against the avowed enemy and the tacit fight to achieve his ends through the constituted authority. That Lee, a superb physical specimen, aged more than any other general on either side can fairly clearly be attributed to the dual strain of the two wars he fought. Not a self-analytical or reflective man, Lee suffered the strain mutely with no faltering in the loyalty he gave the man in the office.
From first to last, Davis’ policy expressed itself militarily through a system of defense in which immobilized units were placed, in bureaucratic order, to represent the territorial dominion of the Confederacy. In 1862, before Lee took command, when all the troops in Virginia would not have equalled the one main Union army in the state, Davis had seven “armies” scattered so as to form, with pins on a chart, an imposing outline of the map of the Old Dominion.
On resigning from the U.S. Army in the spring of 1861, Lee offered his services directly to Virginia, which had not then joined the Confederacy, and was offered the thankless and Herculean assignment of fortifying its many avenues of entree against the coming invasion. He was then a magnificent looking man of 54, with a strong build and fine carriage. He had not yet grown his beard, and his mustache and hair were dark. A former engineer and cavalryman who disliked paper work intensely (all during the war it tried his temper), he perceived that his task must be performed from a desk—and that was where Davis found him when the Confederacy’s capital was changed to Richmond.
From Davis’ arrival in Richmond, with the Virginia troops mustered into the Confederate Army, Lee was unceremoniously thrust into an anomalous position. Retained at the desk where Davis first encountered him, he became something like an unofficial executive officer of the commander in chief for the Department of Virginia. Davis used the proven soldier, not where his services would contribute to his state’s defense, but where his courteous self-negation and patriotic subordination served the president personally.
To the crucial military sector at Manassas Junction, Davis had sent glory-loving P.G.T. de Beauregard, and Davis and the Creole wrote back and forth on important matters of the Virginia defense as if Lee did not exist. Then, when the first big conflict—“Manassas” to the South: “Bull Run” to the North—was fought (on the lines of defense drawn by Lee), Lee was left to cool his heels in his Richmond office, while Davis rushed off to Manassas. There he took part in the conference, of later controversy, with Beauregard and Joe Johnston, who between them managed to immobilize the victorious army then and for months to come—or until the Federals had built a larger war machine to come at them again the following spring.
During these months of inaction in Virginia, while events took a serious turn against the Confederates, Davis sent Lee on an ignominious assignment to western Virginia (“an inspector’s job,” a Richmond newspaper called it) to act as Davis’ representative-without-authority in a squabble between political generals. After that, Lee was sent to erect coastal fortifications in the Charleston area. Then Lee was brought back to Richmond for another desk job—this time as “advisor to the commander in chief.” His brother officers regarded the assignment as such a humiliation that only the elaborately courteous “Prince John” Magruder could bring himself to congratulate Lee.
Though Lee accepted this “advisory” role without complaint, and patiently trotted back and forth the block between the war office and the president’s office like a glorified clerk, he was depressed by the futile, nerve-straining assignment. His change to a position of influence came about indirectly. Disaster was threatening from all sides and very close to Richmond, and Joe Johnston, the field commander in Virginia, was stubbornly refusing to confide in the president. Instead, the sprightly little general was retreating up the Peninsula before the Federal General, George B. McClellan, in defiance of the Administration’s expressed wishes. Further to complicate the situation, Joe Johnston was in titular command of the troops in northern Virginia confronting McClellan’s pincer under General Irvin McDowell, and of Stonewall Jackson’s small, detached force in the Shenandoah Valley. With Johnston out of communication with them, the president allowed the clerical details concerning those troops to fall on Lee. This was the chance seized by the long-suffering Lee to perform as a soldier. He quietly began a correspondence with the aggressive-minded Jackson that was to change the nature of the Confederacy’s struggle in Virginia, as well as Lee’s relations to Davis.
At the time, the Unions had more men than the Confederates at each of three danger spots—the Peninsula toward Richmond from the east, the Piedmont toward Richmond from the north, and the supply-land of the Valley. Joe Johnston’s idea was to concentrate all Confederates in front of Richmond to meet McClellan, but Lee reasoned that if the Confederates concentrated, so would the Unions. Lee perceived that he and the strange Presbyterian in the Valley were thinking along the same lines: a threat to the North from the “covered way” of the Valley (as Grant called it) would immobilize the Unions in middle Virginia and keep them away from McClellan.