Lee in Battle

With the portrait of Lee himself in the shock of battle we should put a background of his soldiers and their feeling as he came among them. We have already heard their passionate cry when he rushed to put himself at their head and charge into the thickest of the fight. “Go back, General Lee! Go back!' General Gordon, who loved to throw a high light of eloquence on all such scenes, describes this one with peculiar vividness, giving his own remonstrance, 'These men are Georgians, Virginians, and Carolinians. They have never failed you on any field. They will not fail you now. Will you, boys?' and the enthusiastic answer, No, no, no!' Those who like the quiet truth of history, even when it chills, will be interested in an eyewitness's simple comment on this picturesque narrative. 'Gordon says," we need no such encouragement." At this some of our soldiers called out, "No, no!,” Gordon continuing, said, "There is not a soldier in the Confederate army who would not gladly lay down his life to save you from harm "; but the men did not respond to this last proposition.'

It cannot be doubted, however, that Lee's personal influence in critical moments was immense. On one occasion, just before battle, there was heard to pass from mouth to mouth as a sort of watchword the simple comment, 'Remember, General Lee is looking at us.' Stuart's aide, Von Borcke, describes a scene which is immensely effective as showing how little the general relied on words, and how little he needed to. Lee was riding through the ranks before a charge. 'He uttered no word. He simply removed his hat and passed bareheaded along the line. I had it from one who witnessed the act. "It was," said he, "the most eloquent address ever delivered." And a few minutes later he heard a youth, as he ran forward, crying and reloading his musket, shout through his tears that "any man who would not fight after what General Lee said was a damned coward."'

Perhaps the most splendid battlepiece of Lee in the midst of his fighting soldiers is Colonel Marshall's account of the triumphant advance on the third day at Chancellorsville. The enemy were retiring and the troops swept forward through the tumult of battle and the smoke of woods and dwellings burning about them. Everywhere the field was strewn with the wounded and dying of both armies. 'In the midst of this scene General Lee, mounted upon that horse which we all remember so well, rode to the front of his advancing battalions. His presence was the signal for one of those uncontrollable outbursts of enthusiasm which none can appreciate who have not witnessed them. The fierce soldiers, with their faces blackened with the smoke of battle, the wounded, crawling with feeble limbs from the fury of the devouring flames, all seemed possessed with a common impulse. One long unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle, and hailed the presence of the victorious chief. He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of - triumph.'

This was victory. But there came a day of defeat, when the Army of Northern Virginia, after four years of fighting and triumphing and suffering, shrunk almost to nothing, saw their great commander ride away to make his submission to a generous conqueror. Their love, their loyalty, their confidence, were no less than they had ever been. If he said further fighting was useless and inhuman, it must be so.

But this very absolute confidence increased the weight of the terrible decision. All these thousands trusted him to decide for them. He must decide rightly. What the burden was we can only imagine, never know. But under the noble serenity maintained by habitual effort, good observers detected signs of the struggle that must be taking place. 'His face was still calm, but his carriage was no longer erect, as his soldiers had been used to see it. The trouble of those last days had already ploughed great furrows in his forehead. His eyes were red as if with weeping; his cheeks sunken and haggard; his face colorless. No one who looked upon him then, as he stood there in full view of the disastrous end, can ever forget the intense agony written upon his features. And yet he was calm, selfpossessed, and deliberate.’ So great was his anguish that it wrung a wish to end it all, even from a natural selfcontrol complete as his. 'How easily I could get rid of this and be at rest. I have only to ride along the lines and all will be over. But,' he quickly added, 'it is our duty to live, for what will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to support and protect them?'

So the decision had to be made. And he made it. 'Then there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.' His officers protested passionately. 'O General, what will history say of the surrender of the army in the field?'—'Yes, I know, they will say hard things of us; they will not understand how we were overwhelmed by numbers; but that is not the question, Colonel; the question is, is it right to surrender this army? If it is right, then I will take all the responsibility.'

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In