Napoleon said that "the personality of the general is indispensable, he is the head, he is the all of the army." This was never truer than with Robert E. Lee and his army--the character of Lee was the source of the indomitability of the Army of Northern Virginia from the time he took command of it in June 1862. Lee had hardened and strengthened his character through a lifetime of almost Biblical self-denial. He had lived his life strictly by devotion to the self-sacrificing virtues of duty and religion. There is thus an impenetrability to Lee's personality; he presents a profound enigma to anyone raised after the advent of Freud, accustomed as we are to looking for dark corners in the hopes of finding the keys to a man's character. Even in his own time, Confederate diarist Mary Chesnut asked, "Can anyone say that they know Robert E. Lee?"
His own father's misspent life provided Lee with a horrifying cautionary tale about the consequences of a lack of self-control. Robert E. Lee was the son of "Light Horse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War hero whose reputation had become blackened by vain financial schemes. By 1807, when Robert was born, the family mansion was already a cheerless, barren place with chains placed across the doors to keep out creditors. Before Robert was two, his father had served two stretches in debtor's prison. In 1813, Light-Horse Harry, who had been badly injured in a Baltimore political riot, boarded a boat for a retreat in Barbados, and his family never saw him again.
By the age of twelve, Robert, the youngest of five children, was the only child still at home when his mother's health worsened, and at that early age he shouldered the burdens of managing the household and ministering to his ill mother. As he approached late adolescence in genteel poverty, Lee's options were limited. Although he loved the soil, and would have been most fulfilled by a planter's life, there was no soil for him to till--his father had lost all the family land. There were signs that he was interested in a career in medicine, but the a family could not afford the cost of a medical education. Finally, since Robert had long been interested in the military, he accepted an appointment to Military Academy at West Point, to prepare for the only profession for which his family could afford to train him.
Lee performed brilliantly as a student, graduating with high honors, 2nd among the 46 cadets in the class of 1829. But more illuminating was his record of conduct. West Point regulated cadets' behavior with a demerit system. Called "crimes," demerits were given for tardiness or absence at roll calls for meals, chapel, drill, and inspections; for dirty quarters or equipment; for visiting after taps; for disturbances during study hours; for any of a number of lapses in personal grooming; for smoking in the barracks during the evening; for improper behavior toward cadet officers and academy officers; and for altercations or fights. The system was so comprehensive and administered so rigidly that only one cadet in the history of the academy ever passed the four-year course of instruction without one infraction. That cadet was Robert E. Lee.
Highly placed graduates were given their choice of assignments, and Lee chose to go into the engineers, the elite branch of the army. He was a stunningly handsome young officer, vibrant and gregarious, a man who enjoyed flirting with young, pretty ladies and one who fell easily in love. A care-free period after graduation was no more than a brief interlude, however, ended by Lee's ready adherence to a tradition of five generations of Lee men, that of bettering or maintaining their status by marrying well. In 1831, just two years out of West Point, he married his childhood playmate and distant cousin Mary Custis, the only daughter of George Washington's adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis.
Robert and Mary were wed in the Custis family mansion at Arlington overlooking the Potomac River. The house had become a shrine to the memory of George Washington, full of museum pieces and articles used by the venerated Father of the Country. The marriage, in fact, had the effect of making Robert E. Lee conscious of himself as the heir to the Washington tradition. Washington had always been Lee's hero. Now, as he ate on Washington's china and took up Washington's knife and fork, Lee also took up Washington's view of duty, and acted as he thought Washington would. His self-conscious effort to emulate Washingtonian tact and grave self-discipline caused Virginia governor Henry Wise to remark, "General Lee, you certainly play Washington to perfection."
In 1835, Lee's wife's health started to deteriorate, beginning thirty years of constant illness which would in the end reduce her to a total invalid. During the decades before the Civil War, Lee moved from military assignment to assignment, separated from his wife and children (who would eventually number four daughters and three sons). Here again the Washingtonian virtues prevailed-- Lee tried to see his duty clearly and do it to the best of his ability without complaint. The long separations from his family were hard on the young officer, however, and by the 1850's produced in him a state of melancholy. Lee's letters in this period were often tinged with a discouragement exacerbated by the painfully slow promotion rate in the Regular Army engineers--by 1855, he had risen only to lieutenant colonel. A theme of personal suffering as God's retribution for his sins crept increasingly into his letters; when he left home for Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis in 1855, he viewed the separation as "a just punishment for my sins," and prayed that "I may truly repent of the many errors of my life, that my sins may be forgiven." By 1857, he was considering leaving the army, as in this letter to Albert Sidney Johnston:
I can see that I have at least to decide the question, which I have staved off for 20 years, whether I am to continue in the Army all my life, or to leave it now. My preferences which have clung to me from boyhood impel me to adopt the former course, but yet I feel that a man's family has its claims too.
When the Civil War came in 1861, the private wilderness that had produced Lee's decade of self-doubt suddenly fell away. Lee had always been held in high esteem by his fellow military men, both for his abilities and character. He had no greater admirer than the highest ranking officer in the United States, Mexican War hero General Winfield Scott. He had won Scott's undying respect for his brilliant service as a scout on the entire Mexican War campaign from Veracruz to Mexico City. Lee had been praised in Scott's battle reports more than any other officer, and in the banquet after the final victory, the victorious Scott had risen, rapped on the table, and proposed a toast to "the health of Captain Robert E. Lee, without whose aid we should not now be here."
When Sumter fell, Abraham Lincoln along with Scott tried to make Lee the principal Union field commander. When Virginia seceded, however, Lee's visceral allegiance to the soil of his native state would not allow him to take up arms against it, and he declined the offer when it was tendered on April 18, 1861. On April 23, he accepted the command of Virginia's army and navy, and worked tirelessly for the next three months organizing Virginia's fledgling military forces.
In late July 1861 he was given his first field command, in western Virginia. His first campaign in September-October 1861 was a disaster, and Lee's popularity plunged. He was now widely referred to as "Granny Lee," and when Jefferson Davis reassigned him to command the department of the Carolinas and Georgia in November 1861, the appointment was protested by the locals--Davis wrote later of "the clamour which then arose followed him when he went to South Carolina, so that it became necessary on his departure to write a letter to Governor of that State, telling him what manner of man he was."
Lee's next appointment, as military advisor to President Davis in March 1862, went virtually unnoticed in Southern newspapers, even in Richmond. When Lee took command of the Virginia army on June 1, after its previous commander Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had been wounded at Seven Pines, the Richmond Examiner announced: "Evacuating Lee, who has never yet risked a single battle with the invader, is commanding general." This moment, however, marked the emergence of one of history's great army commanders. Immediately naming his Confederate divisions the "Army of Northern Virginia," Lee proceeded to throw McClellan's larger and better-equipped army back from the gates of Richmond in the Seven Days' Battles at the end of June, coming agonizingly close to completely destroying the Union army and leaving it cowering under the cover of gunboats on the James River. Turning on the newly formed Army of Virginia under Maj. Gen. John Pope northwest of Richmond, he divided his army in the face of the enemy, sending Maj. Gen. T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson into the enemy rear, then reuniting his army and routing Pope's army in the campaign's climax at the Battle of Second Manassas, sending the remnant fleeing into the safety of the Washington defenses. Virginians were wild with joy. In two months, Lee had taken over an outnumbered army defending Richmond from within the sound of its church bells, defeated two different Union armies, and thrown them both all the way back to Washington.
Then there was a costly misstep. Feeling that to withdraw after such an exhilarating triumph would demoralize his army, and wanting to take the war onto the Union-occupied soil of Maryland where he was hopeful of catalyzing the enlistment of droves of Marylanders into the Confederate ranks, Lee crossed the Potomac with a weary, ill-shod and ill-clad army in September 1862. Fighting a battle that would have been better avoided at Sharpsburg, he was fortunate to be able to retreat his army across the Potomac at the end of the Maryland Campaign. At the year's end, he recovered his earlier fortune and dealt renascent Union war hopes a crushing blow at the one-sided Battle of Fredericksburg, where new commanding Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside obliged him by hurling division after blue division in hopeless charges against Lee's impregnable defensive positions.
Lee repeated his earlier magic in the first battle of his second year of campaigning at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Outnumbered two-to-one and initially outmaneuvered by the Army of the Potomac's latest chief, Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker, Lee took bigger risks than ever before, dividing his army in the face of a superior enemy. . . and then dividing it again. A flanking force under Stonewall Jackson crushed the Union right flank, setting in motion a series of Union reverses that took the fight out of Hooker and sent him and his sullen Yankee host back across the Rappahannock. To capitalize on his momentum, as he had tried to do the year before, Lee again decided to march into the North, this time aiming at Pennsylvania. This invasion (or, more properly, "raid," since the incursion was never intended to permanently hold enemy territory), which promised to be the deciding campaign of a war now two years old, would become known as the Gettysburg Campaign.
That Lee's character should play such decisive role in the character of his army was due in part to the "cavalier tradition" among the Virginia population from which much of his army sprang. As opposed to the democratic tradition which animated the New England recruits with the feeling that just about anybody with common sense and enough vigor could be a great military leader, the cavalier tradition which inspired the Virginians was an aristocratic holdover from the supporters of the King in the English Civil War which held that the "best men" were born to lead, victory being guaranteed by the wholehearted backing of those born to follow. Lee, who was steeped in this tradition, was undoubtedly one of the "best men" by breeding and refinement of character. Lee's command relationships were therefore very clear-cut: he, as a gentleman, possessed authority, and knew it, and applied it judiciously. There was a subtle balance in Lee between his ability to dominate and inspire by his mere presence and yet not become intoxicated by such power.
This second component--Lee's essential humility--was evident in battle. He rarely made himself conspicuous. He preferred to lead by his moral strength, and trust execution of his orders to other professionals, preferrably with a formal military education (for him, warmaking was too important to entrust to amateurs). His command style derived from his twin guiding principles of duty and religion. He confided to a Prussian visitor the essential features of his leadership: "I plan and work with all my might to bring the troops to the right place at the right time," he said; "with that I have done my duty. As soon as I order the troops forward into battle, I lay the fate of my army in the hands of God." There were obvious defects in this philosophy--sometimes his subordinates were paralyzed by the discretion Lee afforded them. Yet Lee's command technique had succeeded over and over again in his first year with the Army of Northern Virginia because he had surrounded himself with lieutenants who were not afraid to use their own discretion.
Another facet of Lee's cavalier credo went a long way toward explaining the success of his army--his ability to work well with a wide assortment high-strung prima donnas in subordinate positions. Lee believed that a gentleman "does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong," and not only forgives "but can forget." (Braxton Bragg, by contrast, ruined the Western army for lack of this talent.) Lee was constitutionally non-confrontational, never humiliating his subordinates, even when he believed they had failed him. His response to such failure--as after the Seven Days' Battles with Generals Magruder, Huger, and Holmes--was to quietly reassign offenders to other tasks or other departments.
Lee was a man of continuous activity, frequently engaging in humble tasks. John Hood told about going to see Lee when he had reached Richmond. Arriving at Lee's office on the fourth floor of the Mechanics Institute, he found Lee surrounded by every cobbler in the capital. Lee was showing them how to make cartridge boxes, haversacks, bayonets and scabbards, which the Confederacy then badly needed. "He was studiously employing his great mind to this apparently trivial but most important work."
Perhaps the biggest conundrum of Lee's personality was how his legendary calm could exist side-by-side with the most striking feature of his generalship--his audacity. As Davis staffer Colonel Joseph Ives predicted in a conversation E. Porter Alexander just after Lee took over the Virginia army, when the newspapers were still calling the general "Granny Lee": "[Lee] will take more desperate chances and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South.. . . . His name might be Audacity." As Maj. Gen. Henry Heth said later of Lee at Gettysburg:
This determination to strike his enemy was not from the position he found himself [in], but from a leading characteristic of the man. General Lee, not excepting Jackson, was the most aggressive man in his army.
Lee had been unfailingly aggressive ever since the Seven Days, and while it had cowed his adversaries and, by the summer of 1863, already created a legend that was worth a division on the battlefield, it was bleeding the Confederacy of manpower. Lee's thrilling assaults were winning astounding victories in the short run, but over the course of the war they would eventually rob him of his offensive power and condemn him to a war behind entrenchments, one he could not win.
But what Southerner would not sacrifice himself for a man such as Lee? Approaching Gettysburg, he must have been magnificent to look at. Most of those who encountered him during this period remarked on his handsome strength. Fremantle judged him "the handsomest man of his age I ever saw . . . tall, broadshouldered, very well made, well set up, a thorough soldier in appearance." Sorrel commented on "the perfect poise of head and shoulders," and wrote that "his white teeth and winning smile were irresistible" (features that were never shown in any photograph). Age had given gravity to what had always been a dignified bearing. In his fifty-seventh year, his hair, which had been black at the outset of the war, was grizzled. His black mustache had given way to a full gray beard. Five feet ten inches tall and 165 pounds, he was short in the legs, so when he rode a horse he seemed much taller. In this campaign he wore a long gray jacket that showed wear, and a high black felt hat. He tucked blue trousers into high leather Wellington boots which covered the knee in front but were cut low behind. His only insignia of rank were three stars on his collar. As always, he carried no weapons but had his binoculars handy, hung on a strap around his neck in battle. Notwithstanding the frayed coat, Fremantle called his appearance "smart and clean."
Lee was not yet the South's most beloved soldier as he marched with his army into Pennsylvania--Jackson was. And Lee for the first time was campaigning without Jackson, a loss that he knew was irremediable. Lee was not in good health; pleurisy and an infection in April had weakened him. As he crossed the Mason-Dixon line, he had the sense that complete victory or utter defeat hung in the balance, and it created an unusual tension in him. He was fretted by the cavalry's disappearance under Jeb Stuart. A number of observers noted that Lee was uneasy, anxious, uncharacteristically excitable. It augured poorly that for the first time anyone could remember, Lee's many concerns, in Longstreet's words, "threatened his superb equipoise."
| Lee woke up on the morning of July 1 at his headquarters on the
outskirts of Chambersburg, about 25 miles west of Gettysburg. He expected that
a battle was imminent somewhere along the Chambersburg-Gettysburg Pike, and he
had one or two conferences with Lieut. Gen. A.P. Hill, who was headed toward
Gettysburg that morning with his Third Corps, stressing his desire not to begin
an engagement before his widespread army was concentrated. Lee had given
orders for the concentration of the army at Cashtown on the Chambersburg Pike
eight miles west of Gettysburg, but it would take most of the day for Ewell's
Second Corps to arrive from the north and for the rest to snake along the
single road over South Mountain from Chambersburg. He determined to move his
headquarters forward to Cashtown that morning.|
As he rode toward Cashtown with Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet, he heard the rumble of cannon from the east. Arriving in Cashtown about 11:00 A.M., he knew from the heavy sounds of battle that a big fight was underway. Not knowing the location of the Army of the Potomac and believing that the enemy army outnumbered his two to one, he became acutely anxious that Stuart's cavalry, his "eyes and ears," return soon from a wide-ranging raid into the enemy rear. After listening intently to the sound of the guns a while longer, Lee felt he had no choice but to ride ahead to see for himself what was happening. Sometime after 1:00 P.M. he arrived at the ridge a mile to the east of Herr Ridge where Heth's guns were banging away. Off to the left he could see Rodes's division on Oak Hill attacking the Federals in front of Heth from the north. Heth rode up begging for orders to attack in concert with Rodes, but Lee at first would not permit it, still reluctant to commit his army to battle with so little information about the enemy in front of him. About 2:30 P.M., however, Lee saw the opportunity to crush the Union First Corps in front of him, and gave Heth the order to attack, with Pender's division in support.
The overwhelming Rebel combination swept the First Corps off the ridges on the west of town by 4:30 P.M. Also, by good luck, Early's division had arrived from the northeast and had outflanked and routed the enemy Eleventh Corps (which had briefly deployed facing north in the shallow valley north of town where Lee could not see it). In the late afternoon, masses of enemy soldiers from both corps were running back through Gettysburg to rally on Cemetery Hill, the eminence just south of town. Lee's men were pursuing them and rounding them up by the thousands as Lee rode forward to Seminary Ridge to observe the spectacle. This was a substantial Confederate victory, but the Federal forces had not been thoroughly crushed, and with about four hours of daylight remaining, Lee was unsure what to do next. Fresh forces at hand were slim. Still uncertain about enemy strength, he had halted Anderson's arriving division two miles west of town as a reserve. According to Lee's report of the battle, he sent Second Corps chief Lieut. Gen. Richard Ewell instructions "to carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement until the arrival of the other divisions of the army, which were ordered to hasten forward." Ewell, who was lacking fresh troops himself and felt constrained by Lee's order not to bring on a full-fledged battle, did not make an attack that evening. For that, Lee, who had left too much discretion to Ewell in his order and had included too many factors in it for that general to weigh, must take the responsibility.
That evening, Longstreet joined Lee and urged him to move the army to the right, around the Union left, then take a strong position nearby--between the Federal army and Washington--and await attack, Fredericksburg-style. By that time, however, Lee considered a battle unavoidable. "No," he said, "the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there." Sometime before sunset, Lee rode from Seminary Ridge over to Ewell's headquarters near Gettysburg to make plans for the next day. The Second Corps commanders were reluctant either to attack from where they were or withdraw and come to the right to shorten the army's lines. Their solution was that Longstreet should come up and attack on the right. As Lee headed back to his tent for the night, his plans for the next day had not matured.
Lee spent the morning of July 2 near his headquarters on the west slope of Seminary Ridge just south of the Chambersburg Pike, talking quietly with Longstreet, Hill, McLaws, Hood, and various staff officers. Stuart and his cavalry had not yet reported, so Lee still knew little more about the strength or position of the Army of the Potomac than what he could see from the seminary, but he felt he had to maintain the initiative by attacking. Shortly after sunrise, Lee sent a scouting party to Little Round Top to examine the enemy left. They returned three hours later and reported that they had seen no sign of the enemy in force. (Given the thousands of Federals active in the area that morning, the scouts' report is one of the enduring mysteries of the battle).
After receiving this news, Lee decided to attack from his right with Longstreet's two available First Corps divisions. Within a short time, Lee gave McLaws orders to move south of the Peach Orchard, place his brigades across the Emmitsburg Road perpendicular to it, and attack toward Gettyburg, driving in the Federal left flank with Hood's division in support--a reprise of Chancellorsville. Longstreet was visibly upset by Lee plan to attack the enemy in place, but the matter was settled. About 9:00 A.M. Lee rode over to Ewell's headquarters. The Second Corps commander persuaded Lee to let his men remain where they were and create a diversion when they heard the sound of Longstreet's guns. Tthis would be converted to an all-out attack on the enemy on Culp's and Cemetery Hills if a good opportunity presented itself. Lee then rode back to Seminary Ridge and found Longstreet dawdling, still waiting to move his divisions toward their jump-off positions near the Peach Orchard. Meanwhile, Anderson's division was filing south on Seminary Ridge. Longstreet would form on Anderson's right, and Anderson would continue the attack of Longstreet's two divisions when the attack reached his position. Thus, before 11:00 in the morning, Lee had marked out the responsibilities in the day's attack, with every division on hand (except Pender's and Heth's, which had been badly cut up on the first day of battle) slated to participate .
Longstreet balked and blundered and did not get into position until 4:00 that afternoon, and when his two divisions reached the area of the Peach Orchard, they were surprised to find Federals posted there in strength. Lee had ridden south to be with Longstreet in mid-afternoon, and the plan to attack up the Emmitsburg Road was quickly changed: Hood would now form on McLaws's right and start the attack. McLaws would attack next, then Anderson.
Once he had gotten his men into position, Lee did not interfere with the conduct of the battle by his subordinates. He went back to the Lutheran seminary to watch the progress of the fighting until dark. One man said his face betrayed no anxiety, another reported that he received only one message and sent only one. Meanwhile, in some of the hardest few hours' fighting of the war, victory eluded him--nowhere was the Union line permanently broken, with the exception of a lodgment on Culp's Hill by one of Ewell's divisions. Yet, imbued with the overconfidence of Chancellorsville, Lee was still optimistic. He believed that another attack the next day would ultimately succeed, strengthened by Pickett's fresh division, which had arrived that afternoon.
Lee's first plan for July 3 was for dawn attack which would continue the assaults of the day before: Longstreet on the right, strengthened by Pickett's division, would drive forward to the Taneytown road. Ewell on the left would attack and place himself across the Baltimore Pike. With their two lines of retreat cut, the Union army would collapse. Three things immediately went wrong with this plan, however. First, either Lee was so exhausted he forgot to give proper orders to Pickett or Longstreet did not transmit them, because at dawn Pickett's brigades were still far to the rear. Second, Ewell was himself attacked on Culp's Hill at dawn by the entire Union Twelfth Corps. Third, when Lee rode to Longstreet's headquarters that morning he found Longstreet preoccupied with his own plans for an attack around the enemy left, a fixation with "Old Pete" which had not diminished since the beginning of the battle.
Seeing that an early, well-coordinated attack was no longer possible, Lee rode back toward his headquarters and called a conference of generals to discuss a new plan. Lee chose the bare section of Cemetery Ridge--which General Wright reported seizing briefly with his brigade the evening before, in the Union center opposite Hill's front--as the new focus of the day's attack. Making the assault would be Pickett's division, joined on their left by Heth's division (now led by Brig. Gen. Johnston Pettigrew) and half of Pender's Division (to be led by Maj. Gen. Isaac Trimble) which had not been engaged the day before and which were already situated close to the correct jump-off positions. Two brigades of Anderson's division would provide support on Pickett's right. The 2_ attacking divisions would converge on an easily visible Clump of Trees on Cemetery Ridge. The assault would be opened by a cannonade from 150 massed guns, the heaviest of the war, which would pulverize the Union defenders in the target area.
Longstreet did not like the plan and said so, but Lee insisted it be made--and commanded by Longstreet himself, even though the majority of the attackers were Hill's men. During the lengthy preparation of that morning, Lee rode up and down the lines, consulting with Longstreet and others and inspecting positions and troops. It was not until this time that he realized how badly shot up Hill's divisions were. Noticing the scores of men in the lines with blood-soaked bandages, Lee was shocked. "Many of these poor boys should go to the rear; they are not able for duty," he said to Trimble. By the time Lee had noticed his mistake in choosing these brigades, however, the die had been cast. Many observers mentioned a nervousness in his manner that morning, but there were no indications that he ever faltered in his decision.
Once the men and guns were in position, as was his way, Lee committed the battle to Longstreet and sat quietly nearby. At one time during the cannonade he rode out in front of Pickett's men; when they shouted and pleaded with him to leave for someplace safer, he waved his hat and rode on.
Only after the disaster of the climactic attack, when the slaughtered brigades of "Pickett's Charge" trickled back from the enemy lines, did he ride forward again, this time to rally their spirits, saying things like "The fault is mine." "It will be all right in the end." "Go back and rest yourself." Fremantle called his conduct at this terrible moment "perfectly sublime." Soon Lee was preparing Seminary Ridge for a counterattack by the victorious Union forces. It never came. The battle of Gettysburg was over.
The next morning Lee said simply to Longstreet, "It is all my fault. I thought my men were invincible." Next to Malvern Hill, the last two days at Gettysburg represent Lee's worst failure of judgment of the entire war. But by the summer of 1863, Lee more than any other man embodied the southern cause--blame for the defeat was therefore deflected from him. He continued to lead the Army of Northern Virginia, with no faltering in the devotion of his men or diminution of their belief in his leadership, until the end of the war. The casualties he had sustained at Gettysburg so crippled his army, however, that he would never again be able to contemplate an offensive campaign.
For further reading:
Connelly, Thomas L. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society, New York. 1977
Dowdey, Clifford. Lee. Boston, 1965
Freeman, Douglas S. R.E. Lee: A Biography. 4 vols. New York 1934-5
Gallagher, Gary, ed. Lee the Soldier. Chapel Hill, 1997
Lee, Robert E., Jr. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. Garden City, 1924
Sangborn, Margaret. Robert E. Lee. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1966-7