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Getting Right With Robert E. Lee
How to know the unknowable man
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
In opening the Gettysburg campaign a month after Chancellorsville, Lee was once again acting to hold the strategic initiative, and he was once again challenging a general, George G. Meade, who was commanding an army in battle for the first time. It was a familiar pattern, one that Lee had exploited with great success before, and it is not surprising that he would try it again.
In the first two days of the fighting at Gettysburg, Lee came tantalizingly close to winning his Cannae. His blood was up, as Longstreet put it, and he continued the offensive and so committed the deadly mistake of Pickett’s Charge. That attack makes the best argument for critics of Lee’s overaggressiveness, but the order for it came out of everything Lee was, everything that made him a great general; only this time he failed. “All this has been my fault—it is I that have lost the fight,” he told Pickett’s surviving soldiers. Still, so imposing was his reputation in that July of 1863 that General Meade was content with the battle’s outcome and launched no counterattack and offered no pursuit when Lee retreated to Virginia. “Gettysburg,” the historian Shelby Foote sums up, “was the price the South paid for having R. E. Lee.”
The two bruised armies sparred inconclusively through the autumn as the war’s focus shifted west, where Vicksburg had fallen and the Federals threatened to break through the Chattanooga gateway to the Deep South. Longstreet’s corps was sent west as reinforcement, and Jefferson Davis proposed that Lee go west himself and take command there. He would do so if the president wished, Lee said, but he suggested it be a permanent change; the Western high command would never cordially support a visiting general. Of equal concern, who would command the Army of Northern Virginia in his stead? Jackson was dead and Longstreet was in the West, and Lee could suggest no one else competent for the post. Davis agreed, and Lee remained in the East. In the weakening Confederacy Lee’s army was preeminent, and Lee was irreplaceable.
Lee’s contest against Grant in the spring and summer of 1864, from the Wilderness and Spotsylvania to Cold Harbor and Petersburg, is in many respects as remarkable as anything in his Civil War record. With an army failing steadily and inevitably, against a general who was at last a true match, Lee countered every advance and repelled every charge and inflicted nearly twice the casualties he suffered. At Petersburg the two armies went to ground in a siege that lasted nine months. Here the Army of Northern Virginia was finally brought to bay by Grant, who was the sixth general to attempt it, yet at the same time the effort stalemated the Army of the Potomac, leaving the war in the East on dead center. The Confederacy’s two Western generals, Joe Johnston and John B. Hood, could not achieve a comparable stalemate, however, and by the spring of 1865 Lee saw that final defeat was inevitable. “This is the people’s war,” he said at the time. “When they tire, I stop.”
In February he had been appointed general in chief of all the Confederacy’s armies, but by then there was little left for him to direct. In line with his earlier call for the entire Southern nation to mobilize for war, he advocated arming the slaves, which act would earn them their freedom. As regards black soldiers in Confederate gray, he said, “I think we could at least do as well with them as the enemy.”
Lee felt duty-bound that spring to attempt one last campaign, and he managed to extricate his army from Petersburg and head it westward, hoping to join Joe Johnston in North Carolina and somehow carry on the fight. By the time he approached Appomattox Courthouse he had but eight thousand armed men left and knew he must meet General Grant and end it.
Gen. Porter Alexander urged Lee not to surrender but instead to let the men scatter to the hills to carry on a guerrilla war against the Yankee invaders. No, said Lee, that would mean ultimate ruin for the South; “a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover.” To destroy what he had fought so hard to preserve would be senseless. “We have now simply to look the fact in the face that the Confederacy has failed.” By his surrender, which initiated the surrender of the rest of the Confederacy’s forces, Lee performed one of his most lasting services for the Confederate States of America.
When all is said and done, getting right with Robert E. Lee is a task that requires less analysis of his psyche and more analysis of his deeds. He was not by nature eloquent or introspective; even his personal farewell to his army at Appomattox was composed for him by one of his aides. “General Lee has done wonders—and no words wasted,” the Charleston diarist Mary Chesnut said of him in 1865. For Henry James there was eloquence enough just in the figure of the man. In the few years left to him after the war, Lee never explained or justified in a memoir, as did so many other generals. Among the major figures of the Civil War, he left the least words and the fewest inner thoughts for historians and biographers to pick over. It was Lee’s actions that spoke volumes.
If Douglas Freeman’s Lee sometimes has the shadings of a mythic figure, he was surely right to dismiss the idea that there was anything enigmatic about his subject. Lee was simply a professional soldier who found his true calling in war, who, in Bruce Catton’s phrase, “understood the processes of war as few men have ever done.” Part of that understanding was a Midas’s touch for Grafting remarkable battlefield feats from limited resources.