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Getting Right With Robert E. Lee
How to know the unknowable man
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
In 1905, on a visit to Richmond, the noted man of letters Henry James was struck by the sight of the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee high atop its pedestal overlooking Monument Avenue. There was about it, James thought, “a strange eloquence … a kind of melancholy nobleness.” Something in the figure suggested “a quite sublime effort to ignore, to sit, as it were, superior and indifferent … so that the vast association of the futile for the moment drops away from it.” Several decades later Lee’s biographer Douglas Southall Freeman passed the Lee statue in Richmond daily and invariably saluted it. “I shall not fail to do that as long as I live,” Freeman said. Lee has that effect on people. For almost a century and a third, Americans, Northerners and Southerners, have been trying to get right with Robert E. Lee.
Such is the paradox of the man that today both those who consider General Lee a detriment to the Confederacy and those who consider him an undefiled military genius reach the same conclusion: The South would have been better off without him. The detractor says Lee squandered the South’s slim resources of men and matériel, destroying any chance for ultimate Confederate victory; the admirer says that without Lee the Confederacy would have crumbled early, thus saving numerous Southern lives and much Southern suffering. It is at least safe to say that the course of the Civil War as we know it would have been very different without this one man.
Creating the mythic Robert E. Lee began only after his death, for in life he would never have permitted it.
Getting right with Lee has never been a simple task. Mary Chesnut, who observed him carefully during the war, wondered if anyone could really know him: “He looks so cold and quiet and grand.” When Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862, writes Bruce Catton, “This gray man in gray rode his dappled gray horse into legend almost at once, and like all legendary figures he came before long to seem almost supernatural, a man of profound mystery.” To the poet Stephen Vincent Benét, Lee was:
Benét called him “the marble man.”
In the aftershock of Appomattox most Southerners were not immediately drawn to idolizing their generals. The war, after all, had been lost on the battlefields, and now there was nothing at all to celebrate except the end to the killing. To be sure, of all the South’s generals Lee was even then the most respected, for back in the days when there had been victories to celebrate, most of them were his. In the years after the war, first in Richmond and then as president of little Washington College in Lexington, Lee was quietly honored by his fellow Virginians whenever they had the opportunity. At his death in Lexington in 1870 there was a modest military cortege and bells tolled and a battery from the Virginia Military Institute fired minute guns. The general’s last words had been “Strike the tent,” and that seemed to sound the proper final note for the old soldier’s passing.
But of course that was not the end of it. The tent was never struck. Creating the mythic Robert E. Lee began only after his death, for in life he would never have permitted it. In life Lee was not without ambition, nor was he self-effacing to the point of false modesty, and he harbored pride in what he had accomplished in the war. ‘There is nothing left me to do but to go and see General Grant,” he had said on the day he surrendered his army at Appomattox, “and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” But the process whereby he was canonized to secular sainthood would have triggered in him that icy anger that withered anyone at whom it was aimed. Those who created him the marble man, however, were out of his reach from beyond the grave. The marbling process, writes the historian C. Vann Woodward, “was the work of many hands, not all of them pious, the product of mixed motives, not all of them worthy.”
In The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society, Thomas L. Connelly chronicles the rise of what he terms the Lee cult. Two initially rival Lee cliques, in Lexington and Richmond, coalesced and within a decade, by the end of the 1870s, were hard at work. Theirs was an all-Virginian operation—States’ Rights energized the cult as well as the Confederacy—spearheaded by the former Army of Northern Virginia generals Jubal Early, William N. Pendleton, Fitzhugh Lee (General Lee’s nephew), Lee’s former staff members Walter Taylor and Charles Marshall, and J. William Jones, a Baptist minister. The cult’s mission, Connelly writes, was to appropriate Robert E. Lee “as a balm to soothe defeat” and as the paladin of the lost cause. “To justify Lee was to justify the Southern cause.”
Through speeches, articles, biographies, campaign narratives, and the editorship of the Papers of the Southern Historical Society, cult members seized control of Confederate historiography and turned it to their own purposes, which was the production of Lee hagiography. This veneration, explains the Lee biographer Marshall Fishwick, resulted in a St. George of Virginia, a remarkable phenomenon in white Southern Protestantism. To a beaten South, suffering under the lash of Reconstruction, this sainted Lee, so without blemish of character that his defense of the cause and his ultimate failure could only be examples of God’s will, was truly a figure of worship.
Lee’s elevation was necessarily accomplished at the expense of other Confederate generals, and here the mixed motives of the Lee cult became apparent. Such rivals for military eminence as P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston were systematically diminished in the pages of the Southern Historical Society Papers, which its editor, the Reverend Jones, turned into a showcase for General Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Even the heroic Stonewall Jackson, struck down at his moment of victory at Chancellorsville, was carefully reduced to simply Lee’s lieutenant, his triumphs gained under the all-seeing direction of the general commanding. But these various demotions pale next to what Connelly terms the “crucifixion” of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet.
The assault on Longstreet was tied directly to the most difficult task the cult faced in its burnishing of Lee’s military reputation: explaining the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee partisans would not admit that Gettysburg was an outright Confederate defeat—it was merely a check—yet there was no way they could transmute it into any semblance of a victory either. The greatest single battle of the war could not be reshaped into anything much better than a failure to achieve Lee’s goals.
By the turn of the century a saintly Lee was no longer seen merely as a Virginian or a Southerner but as a national hero.
It could be reshaped into someone else’s failure instead of Lee’s, however, and Jubal Early took charge of that effort. Early was a grouchy, disagreeable sort with an undistinguished war record. He had actually been relieved of his last command, in the Shenandoah Valley, by Lee, who normally juggled subordinates without resorting to dismissal. Furthermore, at Gettysburg it was Early’s failure to press an attack on July 1, the first day of the battle, that was widely regarded as a main reason the Federals retained their hold on Cemetery Ridge, from which they repelled the later Confederate attacks. By directing fire at Longstreet, Early was intent on diverting fire from himself.
Longstreet made an easy target. Not only had his second-day attack at Gettysburg failed (albeit narrowly), but in the years after the war he dared to criticize Lee’s conduct of the battle. To compound his felony, during Reconstruction Longstreet embraced Republicanism. A barrage of articles on Gettysburg in the Southern Historical Society Papers, heavily freighted with innuendo and unsubstantiated charges, locked Longstreet into the scapegoat’s role. Jubal Early put the matter with perfect clarity. “Either General Lee or General Longstreet was responsible for the remarkable delay that took place in making the attack,” Early wrote of the fighting on July 2. “I choose to believe that it was not General Lee.” In that kind of contest Longstreet had no chance.
By the turn of the century the heroic, saintly Lee was no longer being seen merely as a Virginian or a Southerner but instead as a national hero. In a series of influential addresses and essays, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., grandson and great-grandson of Presidents, firmly ensconced Lee in this new role. Adams spoke of “the debt of gratitude this reunited country of ours—Union and Confederate, North and South—owes to Robert E. Lee of Virginia.” Journalists linked Lee with Washington and Lincoln as the “first triumvirate of greatness.” When the Hall of Fame was established at New York University in 1901, Lee was one of the first welcomed into the pantheon. Gamaliel Bradford’s wide-selling 1912 biography was called simply Lee the American. A Southerner nicely summed up the enhanced stature of the foremost soldier of the Confederacy: “Whatever else we may have lost in that struggle, we gave the world Robert E. Lee.”
While Lincoln remains unchallenged as the Civil War’s most written-about figure, the volume of words expended on Lee, especially when Lee-related accounts of Gettysburg are included, holds second place. Heading the vast Lee literature is Douglas Southall Freeman’s monumental four-volume biography, published in 1934 and 1935. With literary mastery and eminent scholarship Freeman firmly fixed greatness on Lee. In his hands Lee the general was certainly not above criticism, but it was never diminishing criticism. Freeman saw Lee’s military failings as both few and proper. In Lee the man, Freeman found no contradictions, no secret self that was proof against the picklocks of biographers. “Robert Lee,” he wrote, “was one of the small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved. What he seemed, he was—a wholly human gentleman, the essential elements of whose positive character were two and only two, simplicity and spirituality.”
Thomas Connelly sees considerable irony in the hagiographical efforts of the Lee cult. The general’s “military greatness alone would have assured his niche as a major national figure,” he writes, without all the manipulation that went into creating the marble man. Perhaps in reaction to the image of the marble man, and certainly in challenge to it, historians in recent years (including especially Connelly) have sifted through everything Lee wrote and was quoted as saying to uncover the real man behind the improbable mask of the demigod. At the same time, Lee’s military thought, his wartime strategy and tactics, have been plumbed anew in efforts to reinterpret his role in Confederate history. These efforts constitute one more attempt to get right with Robert E. Lee.
The Lee who emerges from these investigations is marked by more humanity and affected by more normal emotions than the demigod Lee. There can be little doubt, for example, that his youthful ambition to succeed and his awesome sense of duty were goaded by the cautionary tale of his father, Light-Horse Harry Lee, the Revolutionary War hero but a ne’er-do-well who deserted his family when Lee was just six years old. No doubt, too, the slack pace of promotion in the antebellum Army caused Lee frequently to question the worth of a career that brought him a colonelcy only after thirty-two years of service. Whether his marriage was less than a success, as has been argued, is not something that can be clearly settled at this distance, but it is clear that Lee complained about the seemingly endless separations from wife and family during his service in the old Army. And it is hardly surprising that amid the uncertainties of war he would fall back increasingly on the rationalization that God ruled all human affairs, the outcome of which were beyond earthly control.
In reaction to the image of the “marble man,” historians have been struggling to see what lies behind the mask of the demigod.
At the same time, it must be said that Lee was hardly singular in his musings about the unfairness of life and in questioning his choice of the Army as a career. There cannot have been a single officer in the 1850s who expressed himself satisfied with his lot in that bureaucracy-ridden, glacier-paced antebellum army. The only surprise is that Lee did not resign to pursue a civilian career, as many others did. As for his religious fatalism, that too was common enough among Civil War generals. It was, after all, the duty of a field commander in wartime to organize and make efficient the mass killing of human beings, and anyone at all sensitive to the paradox of that was likely to seek reassurance that what he was doing was God’s will.
Connelly offers the speculation that these various background pressures on Lee’s psyche produced in him a repressed personality, turning him overly audacious and aggressive when in command on the battlefield. Lee’s penchant for attack was in the end more than the Confederacy could afford, he writes; the Army of Northern Virginia “was bled to death by Lee’s offensive tactics.”
Such an explanation for Lee’s military persona seems unduly complicated. In December 1862, watching a series of doomed Yankee attacks smash against his line at Fredericksburg, Lee remarked, “It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it.” That thought lends weight to an observation by Paul C. Nagel, the biographer of the Lees of Virginia. “At two points in his life,” Nagel writes of the general, “he showed daring and imagination. These were on the battlefields of the Mexican War and the Civil War. But across the longer stretches of time, he seemed lethargic and inclined to stick with what was familiar and at hand.” It was the opportunity for leadership and command in battle that raised Lee’s consciousness and energized him; possibly his trust in himself did wane at other times, but never in war. It was this supreme confidence in his own generalship that enabled Lee to face down every general he met in the war but the last one, U. S. Grant, who possessed equal confidence in himself as a commander.
The corollary to this battlefield selfconfidence is equally important to any understanding of Robert E. Lee the soldier: He invariably fought to win. Not every Civil War general fought that way. The Federals’ Henry W. Halleck, for example, was primarily interested in gaining territory when in field command. General McClellan was notorious for fighting, when he did fight, so as not to lose. Joseph E. Johnston, when he opposed McClellan in Virginia and later Sherman in Georgia and the Carolinas, constantly retreated in order to avoid defeat. Lee’s critics T. Harry Williams and the Englishman J. F. C. Fuller charge him with being both overly aggressive and strategically parochial, interested only in the Virginia theater of war. Williams terms him un-modern, “the last of the great old-fashioned generals.” In fact Lee was neither parochial nor old-fashioned. He understood exactly where the South might win this war and what was required to win it, and he singlemindedly bent every effort to that victory. It was a decidedly modern concept.
Southerners might win the war through foreign intervention, as their forefathers had won the Revolution, or they might win on the battlefield and so force the North to the peace table. Militarily the best the Confederacy could hope from any Western victories was simply to arrest the Federal advance there and gain a stalemate. On the other hand, the Confederacy could win its independence at a stroke by winning victories, or just one great victory, in the East. The destruction of the Union’s principal army and guardian of Washington, the Army of the Potomac, at a Sharpsburg or a Gettysburg or perhaps at Washington itself, offered the best chance to force the Lincoln administration to sue for peace. Even achieving a bloody stalemate against that army, as Lee nearly accomplished in the summer campaign of 1864, might go far toward gaining at least a negotiated peace and status quo antebellum—the South’s return to the Union with its “rights” and its peculiar institution intact.
While Lee did not discount the possibility of British and French intervention, he was realistic in warning against relying on it. “We must make up our minds to fight our battles ourselves,” he wrote in December 1861. “Expect to receive aid from no one. … The cry is too much for help.” There was nothing at all parochial in his outlook. One of his staff recorded his observation that “since the whole duty of the nation would be war until independence should be secured, the whole nation should for the time be converted into an army, the producers to feed and the soldiers to fight.” Toward this end Lee strongly endorsed a Confederacy-wide manpower draft, and the conscription bill that passed the Confederate Congress in Richmond in April 1862 was largely of his making.
That Lee frequently acted very aggressively in his strategy and often in his tactics is beyond dispute. That he often had no other practical choice is not always appreciated by those critics who, viewing Civil War battles through the lens of hindsight, rule them inherently indecisive because of the new weaponry and the old tactics of that day. It is true that Lee never gained the great war-winning battle, like Hannibal’s Cannae, that he sought, but that result was not foreordained. In 1862 and 1863, before the two armies became locked in the trenches before Petersburg, Lee fought battles that were decided by chance or by fate or simply by human frailty.
He grasped the enormous advantage in war of holding the initiative, of forcing the enemy to march to his drum, especially so since his was always the smaller army. At every opportunity he aggressively seized the strategic initiative, as he did on taking field command for the first time in June 1862 during the Peninsula campaign.
In fighting McClellan for Richmond in the Seven Days’ Battles, which opened in the last week of June, Lee adopted the offensive tactically as well as strategically. While his overall strategy was excellent, his tactics reflected his inexperience: his battle plans were too complicated, his staff work was poor, his orders were too demanding. The closest he came to a Cannae was at Glendale on June 30; Malvern Hill, the next day, was a disaster. Yet Lee had no real alternative to playing the role of aggressor in this week-long battle. To remain on the defensive was to allow McClellan to besiege Richmond, and to lose Richmond was a blow the Confederacy could not have survived, armchair generals to the contrary. In the event, Lee’s offensive, flawed as it was, was relentless, and his opponent gave way before it. This was also McClellan’s first experience of field command, and he broke under the strain. Lee took note of that lesson.
If Chancellorsville can be considered Lee’s tactical masterpiece, his strategic masterpiece was the Second Manassas (Second Bull Run) campaign in August of 1862. In it, demonstrating an unerring sense of time as an element in warfare, he broke John Pope’s army, one of the two arrayed against him, before the other one, under McClellan, could join it to overwhelm him. His margin in accomplishing this feat was a matter of only a few hours, but Lee was unruffled. When asked if he was not worried that his advance, under Stonewall Jackson, might be destroyed before he came up with the rest of the army, he replied calmly, “Not at all. I knew he could hold on till we came, and that we should be in position in time.” Second Manassas, too, demonstrated how well he had learned the lessons of tactical command during the Seven Days. Now, as Robert Frost put it, “his dispositions for battle were beautiful. His two great divisions under Longstreet and Jackson were like pistols in his two hands, so perfectly could he handle them.”
Lee’s decision after the victory at Second Manassas to cross his country’s northern frontier (as he called the Potomac) and march into Maryland toward Pennsylvania has been much debated. Was it intended as an invasion? A raid? What could he hope to gain by changing the Confederacy’s overall posture from defensive to offensive? Lee’s rationale was simple and straight-forward: Crossing the Potomac was the only way to retain the initiative, and marching north offered the best way toward victory. General McClellan, he had learned, was once again his opponent, and he considered McClellan “an able general but a very timid one.” Looking back on the campaign, Lee put the case with nice brevity: "I went into Maryland to give battle,” and had all gone as intended, "I would have fought and crushed him.”
Pickett’s Charge is the best argument for critics of Lee’s overaggressiveness. But the order for it came out of everything Lee was.
Of course, all did not go as Lee intended, for chance intervened. A careless courier lost a copy of his campaign plan, and it was found by a Yankee soldier and brought to McClellan. The consequence was the Battle of Sharpsburg (or Antietam), on September 17. Sharpsburg was a battle Lee did not have to fight; so slow was McClellan to act on the lost order that Lee could have slipped back across the Potomac had he wished. Porter Alexander, an artillerist in Lee’s army and a particularly astute observer, was blunt in calling it “the greatest military blunder that Gen. Lee ever made.” However, Alexander offered the further observation that when General McClellan brought his greatly superior army to the banks of Antietam Creek, “he brought himself also.” This was the actual reason Lee blood and fought there. He was certain he could beat the timid, cautious McClellan in any pitched battle, and indeed, he did out-general him that day and gain a narrow tactical victory, inflicting 20 percent more casualties than he suffered. Even at that, his army was too badly hurt to continue the campaign, and he had to fall back to Virginia. The profit of Sharpsburg was not worth the cost.
To say this is not to say that Lee was being overly aggressive in crossing the Potomac and marching north. With his army intact and rested and operating as he intended on ground of his own choosing, facing a general he was supremely confident he could beat, Robert E. Lee had every reason to believe he would win the showdown battle he sought. In these fall months of 1862 his troops and his lieutenants were in good form and good morale, and he was at the peak of his own powers, and when he insisted that without the mischance of the lost order he would have crushed McClellan, his opinion is worth respect.
The wounding of his army in Maryland forced Lee to surrender the strategic initiative for the first time since taking command, but thanks to the two generals who faced him next, this proved to be no disadvantage. “I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find some one whom I don’t understand,” Lee said when he learned of McClellan’s dismissal after Sharpsburg. He need not have worried. He understood these two perfectly.
December saw McClellan’s successor, Ambrose Burnside, hurl his army fruitlessly against the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg in the most senseless attack of the war. Longstreet remarked that so long as his ammunition held out and they kept coming, he would kill Yankee soldiers until there were none left in the North. Five months later, in May 1863, it was “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s turn to challenge. Lee sarcastically referred to him as “Mr. F. J. Hooker” and once again took cruel advantage of the fact that his opponent was commanding an army in battle for the first time.
At Chancellorsville, Hooker lost his nerve and halted. “For once I lost confidence in Hooker,” he admitted, “and that is all there is to it.” Seizing the moment, Lee divided his forces in front of an army outnumbering him almost two to one and sent Stonewall Jackson on one of his patented flank marches. Jackson’s attack sent the Yankees flying, Lee exerted pressure on all points of the line, and Hooker hastily admitted defeat and took his army back to its starting point. For Lee the great victory was marred by the mortal wounding of Jackson; with Jackson gone, he said, he had lost his right arm.
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.
When all is said and done, knowing Lee is a task that requires less analysis of his psyche and more analysis of his deeds.
Porter Alexander recorded a prophecy about Lee, made early in the war, before he had a record as a battlefield commander, that has been widely quoted. Alexander asked an aide to President Jefferson Davis if he thought Lee had audacity enough to lead a field army. “Lee is audacity personified,” the man replied. “His name is audacity, and you need not be afraid of not seeing all of it that you will want to see.” Lee’s was an instinctive audacity for doing whatever was necessary for winning, and if it resulted in such repulses as Malvern Hill and Pickett’s Charge, it was also responsible for the brilliance of Chancellorsville and Second Manassas and a dozen other combats that extended the life of the Confederacy beyond all reasonable expectations. That singular accomplishment is the mark of the man.