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.'

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.'

Nor was it only a question of mere politeness. Lee was as tender and sympathetic to man and beast in the fury of combat, in the chaos of defeat, as he could have been in his own domain at Arlington. After the great charge on the third day at Gettysburg, an officer rode up to him lashing an unwilling horse. 'Don't whip him, captain, don't whip him,' protested the general. 'I have just such another foolish beast myself, and whipping doesn't do any good.' And as the tumult of disaster increased, the sympathy took larger forms of magnanimity than mere prevention of cruelty to animals. There was no faultfinding, no shifting of perhaps deserved blame to others, nothing but calmness, comfort, cheerfulness, confidence. 'All will come right in the end; we'll talk of it afterwards; but in the mean time all good men must rally,'—'Never mind, General. All this has been my fault. It is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can.'

So, with incomparable patience, tact, and energy, the great soldier held his army together after defeat and kept it in a temper and condition which went far to justify Meade's reluctance to follow up his success. Only, to complete the picture, one should turn to General Imboden's brief sketch, taken after the work was done and natural human exhaustion and despair claimed some little right over even a hero's nerve and brain. It must be remembered that this was a man fifty-six years old. Towards midnight Lee rode up to Imboden's command. 'When he approached and saw us, he spoke, reined up his hone and endeavored to dismount. The effort to do so betrayed so much physical exhaustion that I stepped forward to assist him, but before I reached him, he had alighted. He threw his arm across his saddle to rest himself and fixing his eyes upon the ground, leaned in silence upon his equally weary horse; the two formed a striking group, as motionless as a statue. After some expressions as to Pickett's charge, etc., he added in a tone almost of agony, "Too had l Too bad! Oh, too had!"

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.'

The scene that ensued has been described often: the plain farmhouse room, the officers curious, yet respectful, the formal conversation, as always painfully unequal to the huge event it covered, the short, ungainly, illdressed man, as dignified in his awkwardness almost as the royal, perfectly appointed figure that conferred with him. Lee bore himself nobly, say his admirers; nobly, but a little coldly, say his opponents. And who shall blame him? Then it was over. One moment he paused at the door, as he went out, waiting for his horse, and as he paused, looking far into the tragic future, or the tragic past, he struck his gauntleted hands together in a gesture of immense despair, profoundly significant for so selfcontained a man. Then he rode away, back to his children, back to the Army of Northern Virginia, who had seen him daily for three years and now would never see him any more.

In all this scene two figures of course stand out beyond every other, the man who succeeded and the man who failed. In some respects there are remarkable resemblances between them. Though one had old family traditions behind him and the other had not, both were absolutely simple, democratic, and indifferent to fuss, parade, or show. Both were frank and straightforward, yet both were men of extreme reticence, using as few words as possible and only for the deliberate conveyance of their purposes. Both, under a calm, if not frigid exterior, covered genuine sympathy and human kindness.

But one was a man of the eighteenth century, the other of the nineteenth, one of the old America, the other of the new. Grant stands for our modern world, with its rough, business habits, its practical energy, its desire to do things no matter how, its indifference to the sweet grace of ceremony and dignity and courtesy. Lee had the traditions of an older day, its high beliefs, its grave stateliness, its feeling that the way of doing a thing was almost as much as the thing done. In short, Grant's America was the America of Lincoln, Lee's the America of Washington. It is in part because of this difference and because I would fain believe that without lose of the one we may some day regain something of the other that I have given so much thought to the portrayal of Lee's character and life.

Long ago Milton said that he who would be a great poet must make his own life a true poem. Lee had certainly no care for being a great poet, but if ever man made his own life a true poem, it was he. Grant's career has the vigor, the abruptness, the patness, the roughness, of a terse military dispatch. It fits its place and fills it, and all is said. Lee's has the breadth, the dignity, the majesty, the round and full completeness of a Miltonic epic, none the less inspiring because its end is tragic. It was indeed a life lived in the grand style. Only, in these days so few people care for poetry.

Presented by

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

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

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In