William P. Trent Professor of English Literature in Columbia University
Residence of Robert E. Lee, on Franklin street, Richmond, occupied by his family during the war— three of the portraits of General Lee that follow were taken in the basement of this house—it later became the home of the Virginia historical society|
has been the only great man with whom I have been thrown who has not dwindled upon a near approach.’
This is the significant remark of one of his personal friends, Major A. R. H. Ranson
of the Confederate artillery.
The present writer, who never had the privilege of seeing General Lee
, finds himself, in a sense, completely in accord with the veteran staff-officer, since he, too, can say that of all the great figures in history and literature whom he has had occasion to study through books, no one has stood out freer from human imperfections, of whatever sort, than the man and soldier upon whom were centered the affections, the admiration, and the hopes of the Southern
people during the great crisis of their history.
is the hero of his surviving veterans, of his fellow Virginians
and Southerners, of many of those Americans
of the North and West against whom he fought, and of his biographers.
He is the Hector
of a still-unwritten Iliad—a fact which the sketch that follows cannot prove, any more than it can set forth his claims to military fame in an adequately expert fashion, but to the truth of which it may perhaps bring a small bit of not valueless testimony—the testimony of personal conviction.1
Robert Edward Lee
, the third son of the cavalry leader ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee
by his second wife, Anne Hill Carter
, was born at the family mansion, ‘Stratford
,’ in Westmoreland County, Virginia
, on January 19, 1807.
‘Lee was essentially a Virginian’
Old Christ Church at Alexandria.
Virginia. The church attended by both Washington and Lee calls up associations that explain the reference of General Adams.
In 1811, at the age of four, Robert E. Lee removed from Westmoreland County to Alexandria, which remained his home until he entered West Point, in 1825.
During these years he was gaining his education from private tutors and devoting himself to the care of his invalid mother.
Many a Sunday he passed through the trees around this church, of which Washington had been one of the first vestrymen, to occupy the pew that is still pointed out to visitors.
The town serves to intensify love of Virginia; here Braddock made his headquarters before marching against the French, in 1755, with young George Washington as an aide on his staff; and here on April 13th of that year the Governors of New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia had met, in order to determine upon plans for the expedition.
In the vicinity were Mount Vernon, the estate of Washington, and Arlington, which remained in the family of Washington's wife.
The whole region was therefore full of inspiration for the youthful Lee.|
both sides he came of the best stock of his native State.
When he was four years old, his father removed to Alexandria
in order to secure better schooling for the eight children.
Later, the old soldier was compelled to go to the West Indies
and the South
in search of health, and it came to pass that Robert, though a mere boy, was obliged to constitute himself the nurse and protector of his invalid mother.
The beautiful relation thus established accounts in part for the blended dignity and charm of his character.
It does not account for his choice of a profession, but perhaps that is sufficiently explained by the genius for the soldier's calling which he must have inherited from his father.
As with Milton
before him, the piety and purity of his youth were inseparably combined with grace and strength.
He entered West Point
in 1825 on an appointment secured by Andrew Jackson
, and he graduated four years later with the second highest honors of the class and an extraordinarily perfect record.
Appointed second lieutenant of engineers, he hastened home to receive the blessing of his dying mother.
Two years later (June, 1831), after work on the fortifications at Hampton Roads
, he was married, at the beautiful estate of Arlington
on the Potomac
, to Mary Randolph Custis
, granddaughter of Washington
's wife, a lovely and accomplished young woman destined to be a fitting helpmeet.
As his father-in-law was wealthy, Lee
, who loved country life, must have been tempted to settle down at Arlington
to manage the estate that would one day pass to his wife, but his genuine devotion to his profession prevailed, and he went on building coast defenses.
In 1834, he was transferred to Washington
as first lieutenant assisting the chief engineer
of the army.
He was thus enabled to live at Arlington
, but, while in no sense of the term a society man, he also saw something of life at the capital.
Three years later he was sent West to superintend work on the upper Mississippi
His plans were approved and well carried
Lee in 1850 from the original daguerreotype—without the uniform painted on later
Through the courtesy of General G. W. C. Lee—who furnished information of much value concerning several portraits in this chapter—there is reproduced above the actual appearance of his distinguished father in 1850.
This portrait was copied, embellished with a uniform painted on by hand, and widely circulated.
To study the unretouched original is particularly interesting.
Lee at this period was in Baltimore, in charge of defenses then being constructed.
Three years before, in the Mexican War, he had posted batteries before Vera Cruz so that the town was reduced in a week.
After each of the battles of Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, and Chapultepec, he received promotion, and for his services in the last he was breveted colonel.
A born soldier, the son of a soldier, this handsome young man is not as handsome by far as the superb general who later lent grace and dignity to the Confederate gray.
He little realized the startling future when this photograph was taken.|
out; he was made captain in 1838, and, meanwhile, leading a somewhat uneventful life, he slowly acquired a reputation as a reliable officer.
In 1841, he was put in charge of the defenses of New York, and in this position he remained until the outbreak of the Mexican War
The part he played at this crisis throws much light upon his character and his after career.
He distinguished himself in Mexico
more brilliantly, perhaps, than any other officer of his years, and thus he gave proof of his native military bent and of the thoroughness with which he had studied the art of war. He was not in sympathy with the political ‘Jingoes’ of the time, a fact which affords a measure of his mental rectitude.
But he was modestly indisposed to speak out upon political matters, being, as he conceived, a soldier charged with executing the will of his country as expressed by its statesmen.
It might have been predicted that, in the event of a civil war, such a man would side with that part of the nation in which he was born and bred, that his services would be strictly military in character, that the thought of making himself a dictator or even of interfering with the civil administration would never cross his mind.
He would exhibit the highest virtues of the soldier and the private citizen; he would not, like Washington
, go farther and exhibit the highest virtues of the statesman.
It is probably best for his own fame and for the Nation that this should have been so. The Republic is fortunate in possessing three men, each consummate in private character, two illustrious in the separate spheres of military and civil command, Lee
the soldier, and Lincoln
the statesman, and one unique in combining the two high orders of genius, the greatest of Americans
, the ‘Father
of his Country.’
At the beginning of the Mexican War
was attached to General Wool
's command in the Northern
He attracted notice chiefly by his brilliant scouting.
Early in 1847, at the request of General Winfield Scott
, he joined the
Arlington, the home of Lee, from the great oak
The beautiful estate by the Potomac came to General Lee from the family of George Washington.
While Lee, as a boy and youth, lived in Alexandria he was a frequent caller at the Arlington estate, where Mary Lee Custis, the only daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, was his companion and playfellow.
Before he had completed his course at West Point the friendship had ripened into love and the two became engaged.
Her father is said to have considered her entitled to a more wealthy match than young Lee, who looked forward to a career in the army.
But in 1831, two years after his graduation, the ceremony was performed and on the death of Custis in 1857, the estate passed into the possession of Robert E. Lee as trustee for his children.
The management had already been in his hands for many years, and though constantly absent on duty, he had ordered it so skilfully that its value steadily increased.
On the outbreak of the Civil War and his decision to cast in his lot with Virginia, he was obliged to leave the mansion that overlooked the national capital.
It at once fell into the hands of Federal troops.
Nevermore was he to dwell in the majestic home that had sheltered his family for thirty years. When the war was over, he gave the Pamunkey estate to his son Robert and himself retired to the quiet, simple life of Lexington, Virginia, as president of the institution that is now known, in his honor, as Washington and Lee University.|
staff of that commander before Vera Cruz
In the fighting that ensued he displayed a skill and bravery, not unmixed with rashness, that won him high praise from his superior.
In the reconnaissances before the victory of Contreras
, he specially distinguished himself, and this was also the case at the battle of Chapultepec
, where he was wounded.
Having already been brevetted major and lieutenant-colonel, he was now brevetted colonel, and he took his share in the triumphant entry of the city of Mexico
on September 14, 1847.
He was soon busy once more, employing his talents as engineer in the surveys made of the captured city, and showing his character in endeavoring to reconcile the testy Scott
with his subordinates.
Later, he was put in charge of the defenses of Baltimore, and later still, in 1852, he was made superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point
During his administration the discipline was improved and the course of study lengthened.
In 1855, he was promoted lieutenant-colonel of the Second Cavalry, and in the spring of the next year he joined his regiment in western Texas
Pursuit of marauding Indians and study of animals and plants employed his hours, but he suffered from his separation from his wife and children, domestic affection being as characteristic a trait as his genius for battle.
In July, 1857, the command of his regiment devolved upon him, and three months later he was called to Arlington
on account of the death of his father-inlaw, Mr. Custis
Despite the change in his circumstances, he returned to his command in Texas
and remained until the autumn of 1859, when he was given leave to visit his family.
It was during this visit that he was ordered with a company of marines to Harper's Ferry
to dislodge John Brown
Then, after giving the legislature of Virginia some advice with regard to the organization of the militia, he took command of the Department of Texas.
From afar he watched sadly the
Lee's boyhood playground
When Robert E. Lee came over from Alexandria as a boy, to play soldier in the gardens and grounds around this beautiful mansion overlooking the Potomac, he could hardly have thought of its occupation during his life-time by a hostile force determined to bend his native State to its will.
When he was graduated from West Point in 1829 and proudly donned the army blue, he little imagined that thirty-two years later, after he had paced his room all night in terrible perplexity, he would doff the blue for another color sworn to oppose it. The estate about Arlington house was a fair and spacious domain.
Every part of it had rung in his early youth and young manhood with the voice of her who later became his wife.
He had whispered his love in its shaded alleys, and here his children had come into the world.
Yet here stand men with swords and muskets ready to take his life if they should meet him on the field of battle.
Arlington, once famous for its hospitality, has since extended a silent welcome to 20,000 dead. Lee's body is not here, but reposes in a splendid marble tomb at Washington and Lee University, where he ruled with simple dignity after the finish of the war.|
drift of the two sections toward war, and in February, 1861, upon the secession of Texas
, he was recalled to Washington
It is needless to discuss exhaustively Lee
's attitude on the questions that were dividing the country.
He did not believe in slavery or secession, but, on the other hand, he did not admit that the general Government had the right to invade and coerce sovereign States, and he shared the conviction of his fellow Southerners that their section had been aggrieved and was threatened with grave losses.
He sided with those whom he regarded as his ‘people,’ and they have continued to honor his decision, which, as we have seen, was inevitable, given his training and character.
It was equally inevitable, in view of the oaths he had taken, and of the existence of theories of government to which he did not subscribe, that his entering the service of the Confederacy
should seem to many Americans
a wilful act of treason.
His conduct will probably continue to furnish occasion for censure to those who judge actions in the light of rigid political, social, and ecclesiastical theories instead of in the light of circumstances and of the phases of character.
To his admirers, on the other hand, who will increase rather than diminish, Lee
will remain a hero without fear and without reproach.
spent the weeks immediately following the inauguration of Lincoln
in a state of great nervous tension.
There seems to be little reason to doubt that, had he listened to the overtures made him, he could have had charge of the Union
forces to be put in the field.
On April 20, 1861, he resigned the colonelcy of the First Cavalry, and on the 23d he accepted the command of the military forces of Virginia
in a brief speech worthy of the career upon which he was entering.
A little less than a month later he became a brigadier of the Confederacy
, that being then the highest grade in the Southern
For some time he chafed at not being allowed to take the field, but he could not be spared as an organizer of troops and
an adviser to President Davis
While others were winning laurels at First Manassas
) he was trying to direct from a distance the Confederate
attempts to hold what is now West Virginia
, and in August he took personal charge of the difficult campaign.
There is no denying the fact that he was not successful.
His subordinates were not in accord, his men were ill supplied, the season was inclement, and the country was unfavorable to military operations.
Perhaps a less kindly commander might have accomplished something; it is more certain that Lee
did not deserve the harsh criticism to which for the moment he was subjected.
He was next assigned to command the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida
, and he showed remarkable skill in laying down plans of coast defenses which long held the Union fleet at bay. In March, 1862, he was recalled to Richmond
to direct the military operations of the Confederacy
under President Davis
, who was not a merely nominal commander-in-chief.
's self-control and balance of character enabled him to fill the post without friction, and for a time he was permitted to be with his wife and children, who were exiles from the confiscated estate of Arlington
He prepared men and supplies to oppose McClellan
's advance toward Richmond
, and successfully resisted ‘Joe’ Johnston
's plan to withdraw troops from the South
and risk all on a pitched battle with McClellan
near the capital.
When, later, Johnston
was wounded at Seven Pines
, the command of the Confederate army on the Chickahominy
devolved upon Lee
(June, 1862) and he was at last in a position to make a full display of his genius as a strategist and an offensive fighter.
He at once decided, against the opinions of most of his officers, not to fall back nearer Richmond
, and, after sending J. E. B. Stuart
on a scouting circuit of the Union
army, he prepared for the offensive.
The attack made on June 26th failed because ‘Stonewall
's fatigued soldiers, who
had just performed brilliant feats in the Valley of Virginia
were not brought up in time.
The next day's struggle resulted in a Pyrrhic victory for Lee
, who was left, however, in complete control of the north bank of the Chickahominy
The remainder of the great Seven Days fighting around Richmond
need not be described.
himself did not escape criticism; he was often badly supported; the Federals
, as at Malvern Hill
, showed themselves to be gallant foes, but the net result was the retreat of McClellan
to the shelter of his gunboats, the relief of Richmond
, and the recognition of Lee
as the chief defender of the South
The Confederate commander was not fully satisfied, believing that with proper support he ought to have crushed his adversary.
Perhaps he was oversanguine, but it is clear that aspiring aggressiveness is a necessary element in the character of a general who is to impress the imagination of the world.
His next procedure, McClellan
having again begun to retreat, was to join Jackson
, who had been threatening the Piedmont
After complicated operations, in which the Federal
general showed much bewilderment, and after daringly dividing his army in order to enable Jackson
to move on Pope
's rear, Lee
won the complete victory of Second Manassas
on August 30, 1862.
Despite his inferior numbers, his aggressiveness and his ability to gage his opponents had enabled him to rid Virginia
of Federal forces, and he resolved to invade Maryland
acquiesced in his farsighted plan, and the march began on September 5th.
The detaching of Jackson
to take Harper's Ferry
and the loss of one of Lee
's orders, which fell into McClellan
's hands, soon gave a somewhat sinister turn to the campaign.
's boldness and extraordinary capacity on the field enabled him, however, to fight the drawn battle of Sharpsburg
, or Antietam
, on September 17th with remarkable skill, yet with dreadful losses to
Lee—the General who shouldered ‘all the responsibility’
The nobility revealed by the steadfast lips, the flashing eyes in this magnificent portrait is reflected by a happening a few days before its taking.
It was 1865.
The forlorn hope of the Confederacy had failed.
Gordon and Fitzhugh Lee had attacked the Federal lines on April 9th, but found them impregnable.
Lee heard the news, and said: ‘Then there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant.’—‘Oh, General, what will history say to the surrender of the army in the field?’—Lee's reply is among the finest of his utterances: ‘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.’|
In the end he was forced to withdraw into Virginia
, the campaign, from at least the political point of view, having proved a failure.
As a test of efficient handling of troops in battle, Antietam
, however, is a crowning point in Lee
's military career.
The Army of Northern Virginia repassed the Potomac
in good order, and Lee
took up his headquarters near Winchester
, doing his best to obtain supplies and to recruit his forces.
Here, as later, one sees in him a figure of blended dignity and pathos, making a deep appeal to the imagination.
His bearing and attire befitted the commander of one of the most efficient armies ever brought together; yet his most impressive qualities were his poise, his considerateness for others, his forgetfulness of self.
No choice morsel for him while sick and wounded soldiers were within reach of his ministrations.
Bullets might be whizzing around him, but he would stoop to pick up and care for a stunned young bird.
No wonder that when, on a desperate day in the Wilderness
, he attempted to head a charge, his lovingly indignant soldiers forced him back.
They had visions of a hapless South deprived of its chief champion.
To-day their sons have visions of a South fortunate in being a contented part of a great, undivided country and in possessing that choicest of possessions, a hero in whom power and charm are mingled in equal measure.
But we must take up once more our thin thread of narrative.
, and Lee
, with the support of Longstreet
, encountered him at Fredericksburg
, where, on December 13, 1862, the Federals
suffered one of the most disastrous defeats of the war. Hooker
and began operations well by obtaining at Chancellorsville
a position in Lee
Then came the tremendous fighting of May 2 and 3, 1863, followed by Hooker
's retreat across the Rappahannock
on the 6th.
Lee in Richmond after the war
The quiet distinction and dignity of the Confederate leader appears particularly in this group portrait—always a trying ordeal for the central figure.
Superbly calm he sits, the general who laid down arms totally unembittered, and set a magnificent example to his followers in peace as he had in war. Lee strove after the fall of the Confederacy, with all his far-reaching influence, to allay the feeling aroused by four years of the fiercest fighting in history.
This photograph was taken by Brady in 1865, in the basement below the back porch of Lee's Franklin Street house in Richmond.
On his right stands General G. W. C. Lee, on his left, Colonel Walter Taylor.
This is one of five photographs taken by Brady at this time.
A second and third are shown on pages 65 and 69, a fourth on page 83 of Volume I, and a fifth on page 23 of Volume III.|
erate victory was dearly paid for, not only in common soldiers but in the death of ‘Stonewall
Weakened though Lee
was, he determined upon another invasion of the North
—his glorious, but ill-fated, Gettysburg campaign
Was it justifiable before those three days of fierce fighting that ended in Pickett
merely candid, not magnanimous, when he took upon himself the responsibility for the failure of his brilliant plans; or are his biographers in the right when they seek to relieve him at the expense of erring and recalcitrant subordinates?
In his confidence in himself and his army, did he underrate the troops and the commander opposing him?
, after July 3d, have crushed Lee
and materially shortened the war?
However these military questions may be finally answered, if final answers are ever obtained, Lee
's admirers need feel little apprehension for his fame.
The genius to dare greatly and the character to suffer calmly have always been and will always be the chief attributes of the world's supreme men of action.
These, in splendid measure, are the attributes of Lee
, and they were never more conspicuously displayed than in the Gettysburg campaign
Success is not always a true measure of greatness, but insistence upon success as a standard is a very good measure for a certain kind of smallness.
not acting on the offensive, Lee
began to retreat and at last got his army across the Potomac
followed him into Virginia
, but no important fighting was done in that State during the remainder of 1863, a year in which the Confederacy
fared badly elsewhere.
suggested that he should be relieved by a younger man, but President Davis
was too wise to accede, and the Southern
cause was assured of its champion, even though the gaunt forms of famine and defeat kept drawing nearer and nearer.
's army suffered severely during the winter of 1863– 64 in the defenses behind the Rapidan
, but its chief bore all privations with a simple Christian fortitude that renders super-
Lee in 1865
The gray-haired man who wears his uniform with such high distinction is the general who had shown every kind of bravery known to the soldier, including the supreme courage to surrender his army in the field when he saw that further fighting would be a useless sacrifice of lives.
This was a photograph taken by Brady, shortly before Lee left his home to become president of Washington University.|
fluous any reference to Roman stoicism.
With the spring he girded himself to meet his future conqueror, Grant
, in campaigns which proved that, although he himself could be finally crushed by weight of numbers, he was nevertheless the greater master of the art of war. Grant
's army was nearly twice as large as that of Lee
, but this superiority was almost neutralized by the fact that he was taking the offensive in the tangled region known as the Wilderness
The fighting throughout May and June, 1864, literally defies description.
Grant at last had to cease maneuvering and to fight his way out to a junction with Butler
on the James
He would attack time and again with superb energy, only to be thrown back with heavy losses.
used his advantage of fighting on interior lines and his greater knowledge of the country, and so prevented any effective advance on Richmond
Finally, after the terrible slaughter at Cold Harbor, he forced Grant
to cease hammering.
Yet, after all, the Federal
commander was not outfought.
He had to submit to the delay involved in taking Petersburg
before he could take Richmond
, but the fall of the Confederate
capital was inevitable, since his own losses could be made up and Lee
's could not.
On June 18, 1864, Lee
's forces joined in the defense of Petersburg
, and Grant
was soon entrenching himself for the siege of the town.
The war had entered upon its final stage, as Lee
The siege lasted until the end of March, 1865, Grant
's ample supplies rendering his victory certain, despite the fact that when he tested the fighting quality of his adversaries he found it unimpaired.
In one sense it was sheer irony to give Lee
, in February, 1865, the commander-ship-in-chief of the Confederate armies; yet the act was the outward sign of a spiritual fact, since, after all, he was and had long been the true Southern commander, and never more so than when he bore privation with his troops in the wintry trenches around Petersburg
Lee and his staff as the war ended: men who stayed through Appomattox.
These twelve members of General Robert E. Lee's staff surrendered with him at Appomattox Court House, and with him signed a parole drawn up by Grant, to the effect that they would not take up arms against the United States until or unless they were exchanged.
This military medallion was devised by the photographer Rockwell during General Lee's stay in Richmond in April, 1865.
These facts are furnished by Major Giles B. Cooke (No. 12, above), who had verified them by writing General Lee himself after the surrender.|
Late in March and early in April, the Federals
's position untenable, and he pressed on to Amelia Court House
, where the expected supplies failed him, Richmond
having meanwhile surrendered on April 3, 1865.
, drawing near, sent Lee
on April 7th a courteous call to surrender.
, still hoping against hope for supplies, asked Grant
Before the final surrender he took his chance of breaking through the opposing lines, but found them too strong.
Then he sent a flag of truce to Grant
, and a little before noon on April 9th held a meeting with him in a house at Appomattox Court House.
It is superfluous to say that in his bearing at the interview and in the terms he offered his exhausted foes, Grant
illustrated as completely the virtue of magnanimity as Lee
did that of dignified resignation.
With tears in his eyes, Lee
told his ragged but still undaunted veterans that their cause was lost.
Then he issued a noble address to the survivors of his army, received visits from old friends among his opponents, and rode away on ‘Traveller’ toward Richmond
In the fallen capital, even the Federal
troops greeted him with enthusiasm, and he was at last once more in the bosom of his family.
In June, he went to the country for rest, and later in the summer he accepted the presidency of Washington College at Lexington
, now Washington and Lee University.
He had previously refused many gifts and offers of positions which seemed tainted by mercenary considerations.
As a college president, General Lee
both in character and in poise of intellect ranks with the first.
During the five years of his administration the institution prospered financially, and the course of studies was liberally enlarged, no narrow military conceptions being allowed to prevail.
He was as beloved by his students as he had been by his soldiers, and he was content with his small sphere of influence, declining most wisely to accept the governorship of the State
and a political career
for which neither his years nor his temperament fitted him.
His health, which had begun to be impaired in 1863, gradually failed him, and in 1869 grew somewhat alarming.
In the spring of 1870, he took a trip South with little result, and then he went to some springs for the summer.
He resumed his duties at the college, but soon was taken ill in consequence of an accidental exposure, and after a short illness he died on October 12, 1870.
His last words were of the war and his often dilatory subordinates: ‘Tell Hill he must
Tributes came from friend and foe, and now, after forty years have passed, they continue to come.
is to the Southern
people and to many military experts in foreign countries the greatest commander of armies that America
has ever produced.
He is to all who have studied his character, and to many who have merely heard or read of him in a general way, one of the noblest of men. He is the ideal gentleman, not merely of Nature's making, but of race and breeding; in other words, a true aristocrat.
Yet to his aristocratic virtues, he added the essentially democratic virtues, and he was an ideal Christian as well as an ideal gentleman and man.
's rank among the great men of the world is not so easy to determine, yet it seems clear that he must be named with the greatest of all time, with soldiers like Marlborough
, for example, and that an additional luster attaches to his fame which few other great captains enjoy, since he attracts sympathy and love almost more than he does admiration.
More completely perhaps than any other modern man of AngloSaxon stock he is qualified to be at once a hero of history and a hero of romance.
He is the representative of a people that has suffered; hence his character and career possess a unique spiritual value not fully to be estimated by those who apply to him the normal tests of historical greatness.