previous next

Glowing tribute to General R. E. Lee.

An unequalled leader of an incomparable host.

With a tribute to the character and ability of General R. E. Lee

From Lord Wolseley, commander-in-chief of the British Army.

In celebration of General Lee's birthday, on January 19th, 1899, the tenth annual banquet of Pickett-Buchanan Camp, Confederate Veterans, held at Atlantic Hotel, in Norfolk, was an interesting occasion. Among the toasts responded to was that entitled ‘Lee and His Men; An Unequalled Leader of an Incomparable Host,’ to which Judge T. S. Garnett addressed himself. Judge Garnett's remarks were received with great enthusiasm, and he paid a lofty tribute to General Lee and the private Confederate soldier.

Judge Garnett said: [107]

My Brothers,—It is generally believed that the cruel and unusual punishment known as ‘hazing,’ has been abolished from all respectable military schools and organizations.

I regret to feel that I am a victim to a process quite as heartless at the hands of your committee this evening, who have literally, at the eleventh hour, and at the last minute thereof, bound me hand and foot, bucked and gagged, placed upon me the well remembered barrel-shirt and paraded me before the Camp under the disguise of a speaker, duly labelled and set up in type as responding to a toast.

I never witnessed even the ordinary culprit undergoing his well merited punishment in winter-quarters, doing double duty or toting wood, without a feeling of sympathy, nor did I ever see a deserter shot to death in the presence of the brigade, without a pang of regret.

May I then beg of you a little tenderness of heart as I tell you that I had rather be shot as a deserter than afflict you with my crude, hasty and undigested thoughts upon the noble theme to which I have been summoned. Because, of all the subjects which can engage our minds this day, the greatest and best must be the ‘Life, Character and Memory of General Lee.’

As to his life and character it would be scarcely less presumptuous for me to speak to you, his faithful followers and friends, than if I undertook to narrate your several family histories or tell you your own fathers' virtues. The prominent and ever-memorable facts of General Lee's life are stamped indelibly upon your minds, and his military glories are so fixed in the memories of every veteran, that when the last trumpet shall have been sounded, and the dead-the unforgotten dead who sank to death at his commanding, shall have all been quickened, in the twinkling of an eye, they will arise from beneath the shade of Jackson's beloved trees, on the far side of the cold river, and take their old places in the solid ranks where steel once glistened, ready to move at ‘early dawn’ to meet the judgment then to be passed upon him who had so often ridden old ‘Traveler’ through their midst.

I dare not, therefore, repeat the story of his fame to you who shared it in some part on every field of glory or in the tented camp, or on the long march or in the cheerless bivouac.

Precious as earth can give.

Rather let me speak of him as I remember him—a memory as precious as earth can give—and lest I pitch my key too high, let me go back to my boyhood's happy days, when at school near Arlington, [108] I used to see Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Lee ride over on his chesnut sorrel from Arlington to Seminary Hill, near Alexandria, alone, quietly dismount, tie his horse to the fence and enter the little chapel, taking his seat near by me, as Sunday after Sunday was his custom, whenever he happened to be at home on furlough. At that time he was Lieutenant-Colonel of the Second Cavalry, and a little later he became Colonel of the First, as the following letter shows:

Arlington, Washington City P. O., April 20, 1861.
Honorable Simon Cameron, Secretary of War:
Sir,—I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commission as Colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry.

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

R. E. Lee, Colonel First Cavalry.

The very next morning, just at daybreak, as I was checking my trunk, coming South, at Alexandria, I brushed up against a military-looking man, with a dark moustache, but otherwise clean-shaven face, getting his trunk checked at the door of the same baggage car. This was Colonel Lee, and had I known at that moment that he had just come from the presence of General Scott, who had prevailed upon President Lincoln to tender to Colonel Lee the command of the Active Army of the United States and that he had declined it, I would have fallen at his feet and thanked God for his unparalleled devotion to duty.

How few of us ever think of this! How many of us know what would have happened if he had chosen the other course.

Imagine Lee at Sharpsburg with 87,000 men, and McClellan opposing him with 27,000.

Picture to yourself Lee at Chancellorsville with 120,000 men confronted by Hooker with 40,000.

Suppose, for one moment, that at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Lee, with 125,000 had moved against Grant with 45,000 men—where would Grant's place in history be to-day?

The journey to Richmond was interrupted at Gordonsville, and there I saw Colonel Lee uncheck his trunk, as we had to do in those days, and have it transferred to the Richmond train. I can remember distinctly as I stood at his elbow, that I said to myself—here is a man who is destined to high command, and as I am going to follow [109] him, I will take a good look at him. I studied every feature of his face, and though his countenance was serious and clouded with sombre thought that day, I turned away as he left me with the thought that he was handsome beyond all the men I had ever seen.

Again I saw him when I enlisted in May, 1861, and once or twice in 1862, notably at his headquarters below Richmond, just after the raid of General Stuart around McClellan, on the Chickahominy. He had allowed his beard to grow and it had turned very gray.

I saw him no more until the 2d day of July, 1863, at Gettysburg, nor can I dwell on that view of him further than to speak of carrying dispatches from General Stuart there.

At Hagerstown I carried messages to General Lee and found him flying at his headquarters for the first time ‘The Milk White Banner of the Confederacy,’ with the battle-flag at its union, which formed the next to the last national flag of our country.

The greatest of men.

With occasional glimpses of him on the march as we entered upon the fall campaign of 1863, I was learning to look upon him as no longer a curiosity. I knew nothing of him personally up to that time.

But in the winter of 1864 I was sent to him frequently and as the aid-de-camp of General Stuart was admitted on occasion to the commanding general's tent. He would speak to me briefly, but with a cordial and gentle deep tone, and would ask after Stuart with good will and kindly interest.

I can recall the deep impression these interviews made upon me. No emperor on his throne, nor prince nor potentate on earth could inspire me with the sense of superiority which I felt General Lee possessed over all mankind. The atmosphere about him was that of the high mountains, rare and invigorating, and the mental vision was treated to a sense of the sublime.

I saw him often as we entered the Wilderness. I saw him rally the troops of Heth's Division that evening near Parker's store. I heard him say to some rushing out from ‘the firing line,’ as it is now called, ‘Steady, men, go back! We need all good men at the front now,’ and Colonel Venable remonstrated with him for being so close under fire, but ‘Mars Robert’ wouldn't leave until the line was restored.

This was not the incident which occurred (next morning) at the [110] same spot, when the Texans yelled, ‘You go back, General Lee, to the rear,’ as they plunged into the masses of the enemy and hurled them back at the point of the bayonet.

But I saw him again that day, just a few minutes after Longstreet had been wounded, May 6th.

I had come across the Wilderness from Stuart. I dismounted and delivered a verbal message to General Lee.

He motioned me to follow him, and retiring on foot to an old dead tree, he sat down on the ground, and taking out his field map, ordered me to show him where Stuart was fighting. I pointed out the spot on the map, away off to our right flank, and said: ‘General Stuart has struck a heavy line of battle, held by infantry and artillery, and cannot break through them.’

And here for the first time I experienced what I afterward learned was almost a habit with General Lee--to think aloud. He murmured to himself as if addressing me: ‘Well, Captain, what shall we do?’ To which inquiry I am pleased to say I had sense enough to make no reply, and, indeed, to appear as if I had not heard it.

The man who knew and did.

The same question escaped his lips as if in soliloquy when I came to him and told him that the battle of Five Forks had gone against General Pickett, and as I heard his deep bass voice asking, ‘Well, Captain, what shall we do?’ I felt that nothing short of Almighty Wisdom could provide a way out of that calamity. But it meant nothing. He knew what to do, and he did all that man could do to rectify the blunders that some of his people were constantly committing.

Again I saw him the evening of the battle of Sailor's Creek. It was a few minutes before he learned of the great disaster that had befallen Custis Lee's Division and General Ewell's troops.

We (that is to say, General Roberts' Cavalry Brigade), had just crossed the creek and were watching the gallant fight of Walker's Stonewall Brigade, against the surging host of Yankees on the opposite bank. General Lee came up to our line, entirely alone, and dismounted near a cabin, holding ‘Traveler’ by the bridle, and using his field glasses with the other hand. He was looking across the country at a large collection of white objects, which appeared like a flock of sheep, and as I stood beside him, he said: ‘Are those sheep or not?’ ‘No, General, they are Yankee wagons.’ [111] He looked through his glasses, and then said slowly: ‘You are right; but what are they doing there?’ It was an unexpected appearance, and indicated a closer pursuit than he had anticipated, and soon he rode away to the High Bridge, only to learn that his son had been captured, Custis Lee's Division annihilated and Ewell's troops eliminated from further action.

Lee at Appomattox.

I saw him last at Appomattox, but not after the surrender. It was just before he moved out against Sheridan and Ord's troops and his manner was in no wise different from what it had always been.

You, who witnessed his majestic bearing when all was over, can tell your children and all the generations to come, that ‘Human fortitude has equalled human calamity.’

A few weeks after Appomattox, I was seated in his parlor on Franklin street, Richmond, talking with his daughter, when the General entered the room. Never can I forget his gentle manner as he extended his hand, and put me at my ease with a few cordial words of welcome, which he so well knew how to speak to a young and embarrassed visitor.

This was my last view of him. I saw him no more; he visited this city not long before he died, when in feeble health, and received the hospitality and homage of the people of Norfolk.

Faith perfect in love.

Many weary years have passed since his death, October 12th, 1870, but the men who were with Lee have not forgotten. You who were with him cannot forget. Shall I praise you for that? Faith in him has become perfect in love. The works that you have wrought in his name, they shall testify of you to the end of time. The natural state of man is war, but how different seem the wars of this generation from our war.

The men of Lee, though few and feeble, and fading, like the last leaf, into the grave, can smile at the toy soldiers of the day, as they see the fighters, with the new-fangled cat-rifles, smokeless powder and dum-dum bullets, cut down ten officers and 270 men out of several thousand engaged and call it ‘the bloodest battle in the history of the world.’

The beautiful long-range, amphibious navy breech-loader, with a time lock attachment and a telephonic range finder, warranted equal [112] to pine-top whiskey or new-dip brandy to kill at ten miles, has proven about as effective as one of our little mountain Howitzers, which, on the back of a mule, at the Gauley River fight, would shoot to the foot of a steep hill and carry the mule with it. But, gentlemen, we are modest.

Of course, my brothers, you perceive that I am jesting. I would not detract one particle from the glory, if that is the right name for it, won by Roosevelt's Rough Riders at Santiago, or of Fred Funston's Volunteers, the F. F. V.'s at Malolos, but I still insist that we did more execution with our old-fashioned arms at short range and in shorter time, with smaller numbers, than the Mausers and the Krag-Jorgensens can ever do. The only thing in modern warfare worth mentioning is the adoption of the old Confederate slouch hat, which, as a means of grace, has served to keep off the weather and keep up the spirits of the United States Volunteers. But I am wandering from my toast.

Honor to the hero.

Here's to the men who ‘in tattered uniform, but with bright muskets,’ sustained their cause against the whole world.

Here's to our ‘Caesar, without his ambition; our Frederick, without his tyranny; our Napoleon, without his selfishness; our Washington, without his reward!’

Other heroes, having won great fame, sullied it by some selfish folly or unworthy act. Marlborough was a great gift-taker—so was Grant. Sherman fought for plunder, and malicious, fiendish revenge—so, did Hannibal.

Yea, even now it seems good unto the modern warriors, by land and sea, to tarnish their laurels by suits for prize-money, great gifts of lands and dwelling houses, silver, gold and precious stones, as if a part of their contract for service in battle was a payment down in hard cash or a furnished mansion in the fashionable quarter of some great city. So much victory for so much preferred stock.

I forbear to name the long list of those who have accepted such rewards of their valor, but I point you to some of our companions-in-arms who held their glory above rubies and their reputation over much fine gold.

Maury, the illustrious path-finder of the seas, preferred the quiet shades of classic Lexington to the dazzling palaces of the Czar of all the Russias. He chose poverty among his own people to vast riches among strangers. [113]

President Davis declined gift after gift proffered in sincere sympathy for his misfortunes. Lands, houses, salaries from big corporations, all were tendered him and refused.

And when the other day the noble old homesteads, first of Wade Hampton and then of John B. Gordon, were committed to the devouring flames, and all the priceless relics of their glorious past were turned into ashes, their loving comrades, out of pure brotherly feeling, urged each of them to let the veterans of this Lost Cause restore their homes, they steadily, firmly and affectionately declined the generous offer.

And what of our great commander? Money in vast sums was offered him if he would fall down and worship at its shrine.

An immense salary was offered him if he would but let the three letters of his name be used by a huge corporation for the purposes of gain. Positions of honor and vast profit were his at a word. But he turned to the quiet chair of Washington College, and there, as its president, ended a life of purity, dignity and unsullied honor.

Like leader—like men.

Like leader—like men!

Unselfish—always brave, cheerful under all adversities, the men we knew beside us in war are worthy of the tribute paid them by a Northern historian in an address before the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts. Brevet Brigadier-General Charles A. Whittier, United States Volunteers, spoke as follows:

‘The Army of Northern Virginia will deservedly rank as the best army which has existed on this continent; suffering privations unknown to its opponents, it fought well from the early Peninsula days to the surrender of that small remnant at Appomattox. It seemed always ready, active, mobile; without doubt it was composed of the best men of the South rushing to what they considered the defence of their country against a bitter invader, and they took the places assigned them, officer and private, and fought until beaten by superiority of numbers. The North sent no such army to the field.’

When time with relentless hand and unerring blade shall have cut down the last of the Men of Lee the revolving years shall continue to bring round this auspicious birthday. God grant that our children, to the latest generation, may gather fresh hope for Liberty from the contemplation of his virtues, his great deeds, and his illustrious character. [114]

A copy of the foregoing having been sent by its accomplished author (now Grand Commander of the Department of Virginia United Confederate Veterans, with rank of Major-General to Lord Wolseley, Commander-in-chief of the British Army, elicited the following response:


(Seal of Commander-in-Chief.)

war office, London, S. W., 10th April, 1900.
Dear General Garnett:

I am much obliged for the newspaper containing a report of your recent speech upon the character and great military ability of General Robert E. Lee.

I have always placed him high amongst the world's few great men and still fewer great leaders of nations. But you had the privilege of serving under him and had so many more opportunities of judging his worth as a strategist and as a tactician than any mere students of war can ever have, that what you say of him is specially valuable.

As a man, he will ever stand out in American history on the same level as Washington, the lofty minded national hero. As a great military genius he will be by future generations classed with the very few world-known leaders of armies who tower above humanity as leaders born of God to lead others.

The more one studies his private character as a Christian and as a patriot, the more lovable and estimable he stands out before us; the more we know of his history in public life, the more all men must admire his devotion to country and to duty. And when the scientific soldier, with map before him, analyzes his campaigns, he is struck with his highly cultivated military genius.

With many thanks, believe me to be,

Very faithfully yours,


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: