Washington and Lee University

Review of Douglas Southall Freeman's Robert E. Lee
E. H. O'Neill

Note: The following is taken from the June 1935 issue of The North American Review (volume 240), pp. 184–90


ROBERT E. LEE. By Douglas S. Freeman. Scribner's, 4 volumes, $15.00.

FOR FOR seventy years, Robert E. Lee was viewed by his numerous biographers through the rose-tinted glasses of romance. Douglas S. Freeman, in his “Robert E. Lee; a Biography,” has focused on him the pure white light of reality, revealing the man as he was rather than as we would like to have had him. In completeness and detail the four volumes of “Robert E. Lee” can be matched in American biography only by Beveridge's “Life of John Marshall.” They equal that superb biography not only in quantity but in quality.

When the first two volumes were published in the Fall of 1934, it was evident that the definitive life of Lee had been written; the appearance of the last two volumes in February, 1935, placed “Robert E. Lee” among the foremost biographies of our literature.

In 1915 Mr. Freeman was asked by the publishers to write an authoritative biography of the military leader of the Confederacy. He accepted the invitation unaware of the enormity of the task that had been set for him. Upon examining the published lives of Lee, Freeman found that little original research had been done on the subject, that few of the public or private collections of Civil War material in the South had been examined, that Lee's life before and after the Civil War had been almost entirely neglected, that Lee's earlier biographers were either inexperienced in the writing of military history, or had depended upon the accounts written by Lee's commanders after the war. Lee wrote nothing concerning the war himself.

The task of collecting and arranging the material, of digesting and passing judgment upon the official and unofficial accounts of the battles in which Lee participated, and of writing the narrative occupied all the free time of Mr. Freeman between 1915 and the publication of the first volumes in 1934.

The thoroughness with which the author tells the story of Lee's life and career is by no means its only recommendation. In the strictly biographical parts of the book, Freeman adopted the best methods of life-writing, interpretive narrative, reinforced by Lee's own letters and reports wherever possible. It is, however, in the narration of Lee's part in the Civil War that Mr. Freeman has made a definite contribution to the technique of military biography and history. He has placed his reader at Lee's side throughout the war, giving him the same information that Lee had regarding the size and movements of the Federal army from 1861 to 1865. By this method, the reader can use his own judgment as to the success or failure of Lee as a general. This method is not only striking in its originality, it makes the reader an actual participant in each battle.

The first two volumes carry Lee's story from his birth in 1807 to the loss of his principal lieutenant, Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson at Chancellorsville in May, 1863. In the first volume we are given a remarkable insight into the details of his early life and the formation of his character. The son of “Light-Horse” Harry Lee of Revolutionary fame, Robert E. Lee was born a soldier and a Virginia gentleman. If we add to this inheritance the fact that he married a daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, a grandson of Martha Washington, we can readily understand the traditions and the standards that went to the formation of Lee's character. He fashioned his own life as far as possible on that of Washington, though his sectional point of view, his blind loyalty to his state would never have swerved the first President from his primary allegiance to his country.

Lee received the best education available in Virginia in his youth. Latin, Greek and mathematics formed the basis of the curriculum, and in the latter Lee was particularly proficient. The straitened financial circumstances of the family would have prevented young Lee from securing anything more than a good secondary education had not West Point been available and most desirable, for did not Robert E. Lee come from a family of soldiers?

Lee's career at West Point was brilliant but uneventful. He was second or third in his class throughout the four years, on his graduation receiving a commission in the engineers, a branch of the service open only to the best students.

Before the publication of Mr. Freeman's volume, we knew comparatively little of Lee's life from his graduation to the opening of the Civil War. We can now follow him as he entered upon one tour of duty after another in the Engineer Corps of the United States Army. He repaired and built forts in Georgia and Maryland and New York; he built permanent dykes opposite St. Louis which were intended to restore the Mississippi to its original channel. He was doing the ordinary routine duty of an engineering officer, getting experience of a kind, but not the kind of which he would stand most in need when he came to direct the Army of Northern Virginia.

Even the Mexican War gave him precious little experience in actual fighting. It did, however, offer him an opportunity to exhibit his abilities to General Scott, the commanding general of the American army then as he was to be at the opening of the Civil War. Lee's services as engineer and intelligence officer were extremely valuable and thoroughly appreciated not only by Scott but by every field officer with whom he came in contact. Lee returned from Mexico a thoroughly experienced staff officer. He learned many phases of the science of war which would be of inestimable value to him in the great years to come, and he learned one thing, General Scott's theory of high command, which would be a contributing factor to the final defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1865.

General Scott believed that it was the business of the co[m]manding general to prepare an army for fighting, to provide transportation and supplies, to map out a campaign and to have the army at the proper place at the proper time. He further believed that it was then the duty of his commanders to fight the battles. Mr. Freeman is very careful to bring out this theory at this point in the narrative because it is to mean so much to Lee and the Confederacy later on.

The years between the Mexican and Civil Wars were busy ones for Major and later Lieutenant-Colonel Lee. Among his assignments during this period was his superintendency of West Point. The place had seen many changes since Lee's day and he made several himself, with the purpose of improving the scholastic standards. Lee made an ideal superintendent: he liked to deal with young men, he was intensely interested in improving the quality of the officer material in the army, and he was equally the soldier and the gentleman in his relations with the cadets and with his brother officers.

A reorganization of the cavalry was responsible for Lee's transfer from West Point to active service. Promotion was very slow in the engineers, and when the offer of a lieutenant-colonelcy in a cavalry regiment came it could not be turned down, though it meant separation from his family and the hard life of a frontier post in the West. Actually he was in Texas during the remainder of his service in the United States Army, a service largely devoted to Indian fighting, the only active field service in which Lee was ever engaged before the Civil War.

Meanwhile the “irrepressible conflict” was moving to a decision by arms. Lee, like almost every other soldier before or since, knew nothing about politics and cared less. I doubt if he had ever given the matter much thought. As an officer in the army he was a staunch up holder of the federal government, as a Lee he was a loyal son of the sovereign state of Virginia. When secession was first spoken of, Lee was unalterably opposed to it and sincerely hoped that Virginia would not leave the Union. When she did, Lee's decision was soon made. He must go with her.

Lee did not resign from the army because the institution of slavery was being threatened, for he did not believe in slavery. He did not resign because the federal government was attempting to dictate to the several states, for, although he believed in the theory of states' rights, he had not thought out the matter to any definite conclusion. He gave up his commission and his career because to do anything else was incompatible with his idea as to the manner in which a Virginia gentleman, a Lee, a connection of the great Washington, should act. After reading Freeman's brilliant chapter, “On a Train Enroute to Richmond” one is keenly aware of the simplicity and nobility of Robert E. Lee's character.

With Lee's arrival in Richmond, events began to move rapidly. He offered his services and was placed in command of the military affairs of the state. Conditions were chaotic; the provisional government of the Confederacy was at Montgomery, Alabama; the seat of the war was northern Virginia. Armies had to be recruited, officered, outfitted and provisioned before a war could be carried on. Lee was not only in command of Virginia's army, he was also responsible for the protection of her seacoast. Hastily assembling a staff, he began the creation of that fighting force that became known as the Army of Northern Virginia, that in the last desperate days of the struggle called itself Lee's Miserables.

After the removal of the capital of the Confederacy to Richmond, and after the appointment of four full generals of the Confederate army, of whom Lee was second in seniority, later becoming the senior general, he was placed in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. This was the most important unit of the whole fighting force, for upon it depended the safety of Richmond. Relieved of the numerous duties that occupied him in the first weeks of the war, Lee began his permanent organization. He gathered about him the best staff and commanders that he could find, relying on defensive tactics and the equally unsettled condition of the Northern army to protect him until he could perfect his plans for offensive operations.

The story of the first two years of the Civil War, which occupies the latter part of the first and the whole of the second volume of Freeman's biography, is comparatively well known. The first year saw the Confederates generally successful, though they could not decisively defeat the North or capture Washington. Their success was partly due to the inefficiency of the Northern commanders and the rawness of the armies they led. The Confederate army was equally raw but it was led by more experienced officers and the men seemed to put more energy into their attacks than did the rank and file in the North.

It would be impossible to go into details of the principal engagements at which Lee commanded. Mr. Freeman proves, in case after case, that Lee carefully planned his battles, doing everything in his power to achieve victory. He did win at times but gradually his losses became more frequent and more important. And he was not responsible for some of them, though he always took complete responsibility. His first great loss occurred at Chancellorsville. Here he lost, not a battle—he won that—but the services of his greatest commander Lieutenant-General Jackson. Though Jackson was not the only commander lost, he was the most important, for he was the greatest fighter the South had and one of the greatest strategists and tacticians produced by the Civil War. After his death, General Lee was compelled to reorganize his entire army, giving divisions and corps to men not really capable of handling them.

Chancellorsville was Lee's last great victory, Gettysburg his first great defeat. Suffice it to say that in winning the former he lost the man who might have made victory possible in the latter. Many reasons have been advanced by others and are advanced by Mr. Freeman for Lee's failure to win at Gettysburg, the latter's being brilliantly explained in the chapter titled “Why Was Gettysburg Lost?” in Volume III. Perhaps the greatest reason was the one which Lee took completely to himself, that he had expected more from his men than flesh and blood were capable of giving.

Whatever the reasons may have been, Gettysburg was the high point of the Civil War. It brought confidence to the North and, to a certain extent, lowered morale to the South. Though Lincoln had not yet found the ideal commander he knew that he had an army that would fight when properly led. On the other hand, the South began to feel that the man-power and wealth of the North would gradually win the war. With the Mississippi controlled by the North, Sherman about to begin his terrible march through the deep South, and Grant winning victory after victory in the West, the South must have recognized the beginning of the end.

General Lee was never able to take the offensive again after Gettysburg. He would win other battles but they would be relatively insignificant. His army would show time and time again the stuff of which it was made, but it would be fighting a losing battle. He would soon have pitted against him a man who had only one plan of battle: to strike and strike and strike until the enemy must surrender. Fortunately for his plan and for the perpetuation of the Union, General Grant had almost unlimited resources at his disposal. General Lee would have to watch his army disappearing before his eyes. Losses in battle were great; losses from disease, lack of equipment and desertion were equally great.

During the last year of the Civil War General Lee was confronted with the same problems that harassed General Washington during the whole of the Revolution. The winter of 1864–65 found the Confederate army frequently without food or clothing or supplies of any kind. The soldiers of Lee's army loved him as few military commanders have been loved by the men they led, but even that love did not prevent wholesale desertions as the army realized that the cause for which it was fighting and suffering was lost.

Early in 1865 it became apparent that the war must soon end. The North had men, supplies, the determination to win and a commander who counted not the cost when victory was in his grasp. The South had only the shadow of an army, practically no supplies and a courageous commander who knew that courage alone could not stem the tide that was set against him. The idea of surrender was painful to Robert E. Lee, the sight of the army starved and half naked was even more painful. Negotiations were opened, they failed, and finally on the afternoon of April 9, 1865, General Lee and General Grant met at the McLean house near Appomatox Courthouse where General Lee formally surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. The Civil War was over.

The last five years of Lee's life were in the nature of an anti-climax. He performed a valuable service as President of Washington College (later named Washington and Lee) at Lexington, Virginia, and by example helped the southern soldier to adjust himself to changed conditions after the war.

In the chapter which has for its title, “The Sword of Robert E. Lee,” Mr. Freeman has given one of the most magnificent summaries of a man that it has ever been my privilege to read. He shows us that Lee was a master of strategy as became a student of the art of war and an engineer, though his tactics left much to be desired until near the end of the war. He proves conclusively that Lee's theory of command, inherited from General Scott, proved disastrous on more than one occasion because his commanders sometimes lacked the self-confidence and the ability to carry out his plans. His third handicap lay in the gentleness of his nature. General Lee had learned obedience, submission to authority, coöperation; he could not enforce these necessary traits on his subordinates. The men of the South carried their political ideas into the army, resenting any authority but their own. Sullenness, jealousy, sheer obstinacy were obstacles which Lee hesitated to remove because he wished to treat his commanders as gentlemen rather than as subordinates. His patience was constantly strained, his failure to enforce his will lost more than one battle.

To balance these faults General Lee had the one great virtue of loyalty. He was a consummate organizer and administrator; his work in Virginia in the first weeks of the war is ample evidence of these qualities. Furthermore, he was able to work in harmony with his superiors and to handle graciously the multitudinous civilian matters that occupied too large a portion of the time of the commanding general of an army in the nineteenth century. Finally and most important, he had the confidence of his own men. It was the personal qualities of Lee that held the Confederate forces together for almost a year before Appomatox. The rank and file would go anywhere if they were led by Lee. No commander can ask more than that.

When we have finished Freeman's “Robert E. Lee,” we know the whole story of the life and career of a great and simple man. We have followed him from birth to death, and we are no longer in doubt as to what manner of man and soldier he was. Mr. Freeman has combined the best methods of biography and history to make a study that will not be forgotten. Carefully avoiding the many pitfalls that line the path of the modern biographer, Mr. Freeman has given us Robert E. Lee as he lived and was. The tempo of the narrative rises and falls with the tides of Lee's career, and we are always conscious that we are reading the biography of a man who led one of the greatest armies the world has seen.

There will be other books written on some or all of the phases of Lee's life and career, but there will be none which in power, vividness and accuracy will supersede the subject of this review.

E. H. O'NEILL