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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
However, for Davis, Lee’s communications, along with military items from the war office, served to satisfy his sense of participation as commander in chief. War clerks mention the president staggering homeward at the end of the day up the steep walks of Capitol Square burdened with the paper work he was taking home.
For Lee, the added burden of working through the inefficiency of Davis’ bureaus was nerve-racking, and he revealed the strain with uncharacteristic short bursts of temper. Once Beauregard, resurrected in the East and commanding a Department within Lee’s area, entered a telegraphic debate with the Old Man on the subject of proper channels to go through for reinforcements, and Lee cut loose even at the president in angry impatience.
Lee was finally forced into the strictly defensive position which he had always dreaded. Tied to Richmond and its railroad junction with the South, he was actually withstanding a siege—and he knew victory that way was hopeless.
During the spring and summer of 1864, he and Davis had perforce worked at the level of details. For the last fall, winter, and brief spring, Lee continued to work with the commander in chief on details (because for Davis by then there was nothing else) but there was time again to resume the conferences. Davis would write Lee wistfully when military duties in the lines kept him from a meeting.
They had come, full cycle, round to the first days when Davis came to Richmond, only now, when it was all over, the two men met as equals. Of course, Lee conferred with the president for the larger plans but, as in the first summer, Lee could not bring himself to express opinions outside the proper sphere of his authority. Though he knew the war was lost, and wanted peace, he continued to report dutifully on the actions that whittled away his disintegrating army.
To Davis, Lee had come to exist as an immutable abstraction: his army had never been driven from a field—therefore, it never would. Davis clung to his irrational belief in defense during that fall and winter when the country collapsed outside of Lee’s area, and Lee’s area dwindled to the ground he held.
So the president and Lee would meet in the little room off the White House parlor, with their boots spread on the white rug to get warmth from the slagfire in the grate, and Mrs. Davis would bring in substitute coffee in thin china cups, and in the winter afternoons the erect gentleman and the aging aristocrat discussed the details of their defense as if they were talking about the same thing.
Lee, longing for a climax to the ordeal, consulted the president on the advisability of abandoning the Richmond area. He wanted movement in the open for one final throw, and he outlined the physical needs in minutest detail. Davis, in his memoirs, recalled how stoutly he suggested that Lee “anticipate the need” and move at once. In memory, he attributed the Old Man’s remaining in the freezing trenches to Lee’s reluctance to retreat. He had not heard a word Lee said about the need of subsistence for man and beast, for more horses, for more wagons—and, above all, for the drying of the muddy roads.
Even when Grant’s superb army overwhelmed Lee’s survivors at Petersburg, and Lee wired the war office that Richmond must be evacuated, Davis in reply asked if Lee could not delay his retreat in order that papers be removed from the capital!
When Lee, in final fulfillment of his moral obligation, suffered the last long week of the retreat that ended at Appomattox, the president still clung to his abstract defense. He was the only leader, Confederate or Union, who did not accept the end with the end of Lee. He missed the whole point of the Confederacy’s struggle when, from the beginning, he missed the point of Lee.
In the first year, before Lee held any authority, the Confederacy stood on the verge of defeat; during the fifteen months of Lee’s limited authority, though conditions were far less favorable than at the beginning, the Confederacy most nearly won its independence; during the last fifteen months of Lee’s complete authority in his own area, a defeat which overtook the rest of the weakening Confederacy was staved off in his area only by virtue of this belated authority.
Without the authority he won through his own character, the war would have ended sooner; had this authority been granted from the beginning, clearly the war would have taken quite a different course. The end might have been the same but it definitely would not have come about through attrition which prolonged the agony and brought (as Sherman said) “ruin and misery” to a people about whom Davis never knew anything.