Lee in Battle


ANY study of Lee would be incomplete without portrayal of him in the most dramatic crises of all. For my purpose it would have been convenient if some keen sighted journalist could have accompanied the general in his various battles and left a stenographic report of where he went and what he said and what he did. Unfortunately the many memoir writers who were in a good position to observe, were at the time, for the most part, excellently well occupied with their own affairs. Therefore I ask in vain as to Lee's whereabouts and action at certain very critical moments.

We like to imagine the master mind in a great conflict controlling everything, down to the minutest detail. But with vast modern armies this is far from being the case, even with the elaborate electrical facilities of to day; and in Lee's time those facilities were much less complete. Lee himself indicated the difficulty humorously when he was remonstrated with for taking unnecessary risks, and answered, 'I wish someone would tell me my proper place in battle. I am always told I should not be where I am.' And he expressed it with entire seriousness when he said, 'During the battle my direction is of more harm than use; I must then rely on my division and brigade commanders. I think and I act with all my might to bring up my troops to the right place at the right moment; after that I have done my duty.'

Some critics hold that Lee was inclined to carry the principle much too far. What impresses me in this, as in other things, is the nice balance of his gifts. Persons by nature predisposed to direct others almost always seek to direct them in everything. How wise and constant Lee's direction was, where he thought it needed, is shown by his son's remark: 'We were always fully instructed as to the best way to get to Lexington, and, indeed, all the roads of life were carefully marked out for us by him.' Yet the instant he reached the limit of what he felt to be his province, he drew back and left decision to others whom he knew to be, by nature or position, better qualified.

The amount of Lee's direction and influence seems to have varied greatly in different battles. At Fredericksburg he adopted a central position whence he could survey the whole field. Colonel Long's remarks in describing this must have given Longstreet exquisite pleasure. 'In the battle Longstreet had his headquarters at the same place, so that Lee was able to keep his hand on the rein of his "old war horse" and to direct him where to apply his strength.' At Antietam critics are agreed that Lee's management of things was perfect. 'He utilized every available soldier; throughout the day he controlled the Confederate operations over the whole field.' On the other hand, in the Peninsular battles, owing perhaps to imperfect organization and staff arrangements, his hold on the machine was much less complete; and at Gettysburg the vast extension of his lines made immediate personal direction almost impossible, with results that were disastrous.

It is at Gettysburg that we get one of the most vivid of the few pictures left us of Lee in the very midst of the crash and tumult of conflict. It is from the excellent pen of General Alexander, who says that the commander in chief code up entirely alone, just after Pickett's charge, 'and remained with me for a long time. He then probably first appreciated the extent of the disaster, as the disorganized stragglers made their way back past us . . . . It was certainly a momentous thing to him to see that superb attack end in such a bloody repulse. But, whatever his emotions, there was no trace of them is his calm and self possessed bearing. I thought at that time his coming there very imprudent, and the absence of all his staff officers and couriers strange. It could only have happened by his express intention. I have since thought it possible that he came, thinking the enemy might follow in pursuit of Pickett, personally to rally stragglers about our guns and make a desperate defense. He had the instincts of a soldier within him as strongly as any man... No soldier could have looked on at Pickett's charge and not burned to be in it. To have a personal part in a close and desperate fight at that moment would, I believe, have been at heart a great pleasure to General Lee, and possibly he was looking for one.'

And I ask myself how much of that born soldier's lust for battle, keen enjoyment of danger and struggle and combat, Lee really had. Certainly there is little record of his speaking of any such feeling. At various times he expressed a keen sense of all the horrors of war. 'You have no idea of what a horrible sight a battlefield is.' And again, 'What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.' Yet we must remember that at the time of his great military glory Lee was not a young man, and the fury of hot blood was tempered in him. I imagine that, in Mexico, he found an intense delight, 'when the musketballs and grape were whistling over my head in a perfect shower,' and when he was threading his way alone in night and solitude through the murky pitfalls of the Pedregal. Even at a later time one vivid sentence, spoken in the midst of the slaughter of Fredericksburg lights the man's tree instincts, like a flash: 'It is well that war is so terrible, or else we might grow too fond of it.' As to Lee's personal courage, of course the only point to be discussed is the peculiar quality of it. Judging from his character generally and from all that is recorded of him, I should not take his courage to consist in a temperamental indifference to danger, a stolid disregard of its very existence, such as we find perhaps in Grant or Wellington. Though far from being a highly nervous organization, Lee was sensitive, imaginative; and I take it that he had to accustom himself to being under fire and was always perfectly aware of any elements of peril there might be about him. By the time the war broke out, however, he was doubtless as indifferent to bullets as to raindrops, and went where duty took him without a moment's thought of the result.

Testimony to his entire coolness in battle is of course abundant. I do not know that there is any more striking general statement than that of Cooke in reference to the second battle of Bull Run: 'The writer of these pages chanced to be near the commander at this moment and was vividly impressed by the air of unmoved calmness which marked his countenance and demeanor. Nothing in the expression of his face, and no hurried movement, indicated excitement or anxiety. Here, as on many other occasions, Lee impressed the writer as an individual gifted with the most surprising faculty of remaining cool and unaffected in the midst of circumstances calculated to arouse the most phlegmatic.' A concrete instance of his self possession in the midst of turmoil is narrated by a Union soldier: 'A prisoner walked up to him and told him a rebel had stolen his hat. In the midst of his orders he stopped and told the rebel to give back the hat and saw that he done it, too.'

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