Lee in Battle

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.'

Curious independent testimony to a state of affairs between Lee and Longetreet just before the surrender, precisely similar to what Longstreet depicts at Gettysburg, is furnished by Captain Hanson in Harper's Magazine, though I confess that I cannot quite adjust it to Longstreet's own narrative. The captain involuntarily overheard a conversation between the two generals. 'I must have slept an hour at least when again I was awakened by the loud, almost fierce tones of General Lee, saying, "I tell you, General Longstreet, I will strike that man [Grant] a blow in the morning." General Longstreet again recounted the difficulties, ending as before, "General, you know you have only to give the order and the attack will be made, but I must tell you that I think it a useless waste of brave lives." And that excellent critic Colonel T. L. Livermore proposed to solve the difficult question, why Lee did not earlier abandon Petersburg, by accepting Davis's suggestion that the general's too combative temperament made him reluctant to retire from an enemy.

The most heroic picture that is left us of Lee highwrought by the excitement of battle and determined to fight to the end, is the account, received by Henderson from a reliable eyewitness, of the chief's decision to remain north of the Potomac after Antietam. General after general rode up to the commander's headquarters, all with the same tale of discouragement and counsel of retreat. Hood was quite unmanned. 'My God!' cried Lee to him, with unwonted vehemence, 'where is the splendid division you had this morning?' 'They are lying on the field where you sent them,' answered Hood. Even Jackson did not venture to suggest anything but withdrawal. There were a few moments of oppressive silence. Then Lee rose erect in his stirrups and said, 'Gentlemen, we will not cross the Potomac tonight. You will go to your respective commands, strengthen your lines, send two officers from each brigade towards the ford to collect your stragglers and bring them up. Many have come in. I have had the proper steps taken to collect all the men who are in the rear. If McClellan wants to fight in the morning, I will give him battle. Go!' They went; and in this case, at least, Lee's glorious audacity was justified; for he proved to all the world that McClellan did not dare attack him again.

However Lee's judgment may have been affected by the excitement of battle, it made little alteration in his bearing or manner. Fremantle tells us that the general's dress was always neat and clean, and adds, 'I observed this during the three days fight at Gettysburg, when every one else looked and was extremely dirty.' Stress of conflict sometimes seems to alter men's natures. Odd stories are told in the war books of officers quite saintly in common converse who in battle would swear like reprobates. Conversely, it is said of the great Condé that in his daily dealings with his soldiers his tongue was incredibly rough, but the moment he got under fire he addressed everybody about him with exquisite politeness. Lee's politeness was always exquisite. It was only very, very rarely that some untoward incident stirred either his temper or his speech. 'Probably no man ever commanded an army and, at the same time, so entirely commanded himself as Lee,' says the coolblooded Alexander. 'This morning [after Chancellorsville] was almost the only occasion on which I ever saw him out of humor.'

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