Lee in Battle

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.'

I am not aware that Lee was wounded at any time during the war, or indeed in his life except slightly at Chapultepec. His hands were severely injured just before Antietam, but this was by the falling of his horse. He was, however, again and again under fire. At Antietam, A. P. Hill, who was close to the general, had his horse's fore legs shot off. On another occasion, when Lee was sitting with Stuart and his staff, 'a shell fell plump in their midst, burying in the earth with itself one of General Lee's gauntlets, which lay on the ground only a few feet from the general himself.' In 1864 Lee was inspecting the lines below Richmond, and the number of soldiers gathered about him drew the enemy's fire rather heavily. The general ordered the men hack out of range and himself followed at his leisure; but it was observed that he stopped to pick up something. A fledgling sparrow had fallen from its nest, and he took it from the ground and tenderly replaced it, with the bullets whistling about him.

As the following incident shows, Lee was extremely solicitous about the unnecessary exposure of his men. Once, when he was watching the effect of the fire of an advanced battery, a staff officer rode up to him by the approach which was least protected. The general reprimanded him for his carelessness, and when the young man urged that he could not seek cover himself while his chief was in the open, Lee answered sharply, 'It is my duty to be here. Go back the way I told you, sir.' At another time Lee had placed himself in a very exposed position, to the horror of all his officers. They could not prevail upon him to come down, so finally General Gracie stepped forward and interposed himself between his commander and the enemy. 'Why, Gracie,' protested Lee, 'you will certainly be killed.' 'It is better, General, that I should be killed than you. When you get down, I will.' Lee smiled and got down. But no protest and no entreaty could make the commander in chief protect himself as much as his officers wished. Perhaps the most amusing instance of this is an experience related of Lee and Davis together in the early days on the Peninsula. They were riding side by side under fire when Davis realized the danger and urged his companion to withdraw. Lee returned the compliment. Then they both forgot all about it, till A. P. Hill rode up and begged them to go back. They moved a few feet, without mending matters much, until finally Hill appeared again and insisted that they should betake themselves to some position out of range. When things became really critical, Lee completely threw aside all caution. In the terrific battles of the Wilderness, where at times it seemed as if Grant would succeed in breaking through, the Confederate general repeatedly (on three separate occasions, as it appears) rushed to the front to rally his men and charge, like Ney or Murat, at the head of them. 'Go back, General Lee, go back!' shouted the soldiers. But he would not go back till they had promised to do as much for him as they could have done with him. And they did as much. No men could have done more.

It was this occasional fury of combativeness which made Longstreet assert that the general was sometimes unbalanced, not by any personal exposure or excitement, but by critical situations affecting the army as a whole. Longstreet, defending his own conduct at Gettysburg, urges that Lee was particularly overwrought at the time of that battle. In what is, to say the least, peculiar phraseology, he writes of his commander: 'That he was excited and off his balance was evident on the afternoon of the first, and that he labored under that oppression till blood enough was shed to appease him.' The suggestion that Lee required blood to appease him is grotesque, and his loyal admirers ridicule the idea that at Gettysburg he was unbalanced. But there is evidence besides Longstreet's that, once in a fight, he hated to give it up, and perhaps occasionally allowed his ardor to overcome his discretion. The Prussian officer Scheibert remarks that while at Chancellorsville Lee was admirably calm, at Gettysburg he was restless and uneasy. General Anderson hears witness that at Gettysburg his chief was 'very much disturbed and depressed.'

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