August 1911 The Civil War

Lee in Battle

A Northerner pays tribute to the general’s humility and heroism.

General Robert E. Lee, astride his beloved horse, Traveller. An officer serving under Lee once noted that the horse “always stepped as if conscious that he bore a king on his back.” (Corbis)

When war erupted in April 1861, the Union offered command of its forces to Robert E. Lee, a top West Point graduate with a distinguished 32-year military record. But Lee, a Virginia native, reluctantly declined and instead offered his services to the Confederate army. He would lead his men to a string of victories and be widely hailed in the South as a brilliant tactician and a hero before ultimately surrendering to the Union army, which dramatically outnumbered his own.

In the years after the war, Lee would be lionized by the defeated Confederates as the embodiment of all they had fought for and lost. Even a Northerner like Gamaliel Bradford Jr.—a prolific Massachusetts-born writer sometimes called “the dean of American biographers”—took up the tradition, venerating Lee for his chivalry and gentility in the popular 1912 biography Lee the American. In a preview published in the August 1911 Atlantic, Bradford paid tribute to Lee’s humility and heroism and to his graceful acceptance of defeat.

—Sage Stossel

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 this humorously when he was remonstrated with for running unnecessary risks, and answered: “I wish some one would tell me my proper place in battle. I am always told I should not be where I am” …

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 deep 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” … One vivid sentence, spoken in the midst of the slaughter of F[r]edericksburg, lights the man’s true instincts, like a flash: “It is well that war is so terrible, or else we might grow too fond of it” …

When matters 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 …

Once in a fight, he hated to give it up, and perhaps occasionally allowed his ardor to overcome his discretion …

The most heroic picture that is left us of Lee high-wrought by the excitement of battle and determined to fight to the end, is the account, received by Henderson from a reliable eye-witness, 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 … Even Jackson did not venture to suggest anything but withdrawal. There were a few moments of oppressive silence. Then Lee rose in his stirrups and said, “Gentlemen, we will not cross the Potomac to-night. 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 …

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 …

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” …

His officers protested passionately. “O General, what will history say of the surrender of the army in the field?” …

The scene that ensued has been described often: the plain farmhouse room, the officers, curious, yet sympathetic, the formal conversation, as always painfully unequal to the huge event it covered, the short, ungainly, ill-dressed 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 self-contained 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.

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