General Lee’s Unsolved Problem


Lee made no announcement of the plan, which grew in scope as it evolved between Jackson and him. In fact, with a guile unassociated with his legend, he urged Jackson to hurry. Lee knew that when Johnston, nearing Richmond, re-established communications with the distant troops, he would call off any movement that threatened to keep reinforcements away from him . As it worked out, Jackson’s dazzling Valley campaign caused the Union authorities to withhold McDowell’s troops, north of Richmond, whereupon Davis forced Joe Johnston to attack McClellan seven miles east of Richmond, at Seven Pines. There Johnston was hit by a stray bullet. By the accident of this Yankee shot, Lee was finally given field command in June, 1862, and the first phase of the war in Virginia was over—though the president did not realize it.

Lee in the field was not Lee the “advisor.” From the assumption of command of the loosely-organized divisions, brigades, legions and whatnot called an army, Lee planned the strategy to effectuate his own aggressive policy. Though he deferentially cleared the plans (of the Seven Days and then the great Second Manassas Campaign) through Davis, the plans were his and the army became his as no other army in the war was identified with its leader. From the mob he inherited, Lee moulded the Army of Northern Virginia. In less than three months, Lee cleared Virginia of the enemy and was invading north!

With this success, Lee’s influence over the president entered the positive phase. Lee had to beg for the release of troops from garrisons and fixed positions, and Davis always compromised; Lee was constantly thwarted by the inefficiency of supply services which fell foul of the bureaucracy; but for his strategy Lee made the plans and the president formally approved. In the field, Lee commanded without advice or interference from anyone.


In his first battle (Mechanicsville, which opened his Seven Days Campaign), Davis had rushed to the field with a large entourage and even issued orders to a brigade of D.H. Hill without consulting anybody. When Lee saw him, he showed a tough side and, in effect, ordered Davis away. When Lee led an army on the field, he was the constituted authority there, and he let the president know it. Davis never ventured on another field commanded by Lee.

Within that pattern of relationship, Lee suffered a temporary decline in the extent of his power after the invasion failed at Sharpsburg, Maryland, in September, 1862. Back in Virginia, he wanted to withdraw deeper toward Richmond in order to draw the enemy after him and catch him in a counterstroke, as he had caught General John Pope at Second Manassas. This of course expressed his policy of destroying the enemy; but Davis ordered him to fight on an arbitrarily drawn line across the waist of the state, on a terrain from which no fruits of the victory were possible. The repulse of the clumsy Union attack at Fredericksburg was the most pointless important battle of the war, and Lee knew it. But Davis was pleased that his territorial defense was intact, and Lee remained chained to the line of the Rappahannock River for the coming spring. There he tried to destroy the enemy, but even the Civil War masterpiece at Chancellorsville achieved only another repulse of the Union Army.

However, the mere fact of field victories restored his influence with the president in the policy area sufficiently for him to gain a partial approval for another try for decision through invasion. Lee wanted his invasion to be part of a general advance, with immobilized units striking out from their positions and garrisons stripped to protect Virginia against raids. But the other forces remained fixed, and a number of battle-wise, war-hardened veterans of Lee’s army were held in Virginia. One-fourth of Pickett’s crack Virginia division was uselessly guarding a supply depot near Richmond during the attack at Gettysburg.

The Gettysburg stroke was Lee’s last chance at executing his own policy. Arithmetic was overtaking his defense of his land. Yet, now that it was too late, for the last phase of the slow-coming end that began in the spring of 1864, Lee became for the first time in complete control of his whole area.

Under the massive, three-pronged Union thrust for a decision, Lee’s battleground became of necessity the state of Virginia; and, against the almost overwhelming pressure of Grant, Lee defended, from day to day, with an army which revealed the ravages of attrition. While he gave a more personalized and active field generalship to his own declining army, he unofficially assumed the combined roles of commanding general and chief of staff for the theater. Had he not done so, the war would have ended (as Grant expected) in the summer.

While thwarting Grant’s thrust at Richmond, always for his desperate measures Lee ceremoniously cleared through the bureaucratic structure of the president. Sick half the time, his beard and hair whitening, and with the army 24 hours a day, Lee had no time for the president’s cherished conferences.