General Lee, by Fitzhugh Lee, Chapter 17

General Lee


IT is difficult to accurately compare Lee’s military genius even with that of the more modern great captains of war, except in strategical science, for he believed with them that “in planning all dangers should be seen, in execution none, unless very formidable.” The great improvements in firearms have changed the tactics of the battlefield. Troops are no longer brought to a halt in the polite phrase of the French, “Halt your banners, in the name of God, the king, and St. Denis,” but by bugle notes. Armies are no longer unable to contest because the strings of crossbows are slackened by rain; short lances have been replaced by bayonets on revolving breech-loading rifles; arbalest, phalanx, and other former military terms are no longer heard, and wonderful transformation has taken place since the day on which the blind King of Bohemia was led on the field of Créçy that he might deal one blow of his sword in battle. Marvelous metamorphoses have taken place even since 1815. Imagine the Federal and Confederate armies in a campaign in Belgium in 1861–1865, and that the Federal commander had accepted battle on the field of Waterloo and taken up the line of defense adopted by Wellington. He would not have compressed sixty-seven thousand six hundred and sixty-one[1] men in battle lines within a space of two miles on the Wavre road, on a slope void of intrenchments. The château of Hougoumont and its inclosures might have been strongly occupied to add increased strength to the right of the line of battle; but it is improbable that La Haye Sainte, three hundred yards in front of the center on the Charleroi turnpike, and the little villages of Papelotte, La Haie, and Smohain, from a quarter to a half mile in front of the left, would have been occupied except by skirmishers. The flanks of a Federal army equal in numbers to the English would have been twice as far apart, and the whole line well protected by earthworks. Lee would not have attacked as Napoleon did if the Union troops had been placed precisely as Wellington arranged his, nor would his seventy-one thousand nine hundred and forty-seven troops (number of the French) been tactically formed like the Emperor’s.

The battle of Gettysburg was fought forty-eight years after that of Waterloo. A comparison of the two strikingly shows the changes in the art of war in a half-century only. There was a similarity of purpose on the part of Lee on the third day’s encounter at Gettysburg and the French emperor at Waterloo. The sun rises in Belgium in June at 3.48 A.M., in Pennsylvania in July at 4.30 A.M. Napoleon, at 11.30 A.M., ordered Reille, on his left, to attack Hougoumont on the English right with his left division as a diversion, while his main intention was to attack the British center and left center by his first corps, under D’Erlon, and brought up seventy-eight cannon to fire an hour and a half, at less than a third of a mile from the crest-which the English occupied; but D’Erlon was not ordered forward until half-past one. Ewell, on Lee’s left, was ordered to make a demonstration on the Federal right; cannon fired for hours, and then Pickett’s assaulting column attempted to pierce the center and left center of the Union lines. Count Reille managed to get nearly the whole of his corps engaged, but effected nothing. Ewell got his troops early in action, but with no results. The fighting of both had terminated before the main operations began. Napoleon’s object was to seize Mont St. Jean, in rear of Wellington’s center, so as to possess himself of the principal avenue of retreat open to the British—the road to Brussels. Lee’s object was to get possession of the Baltimore pike and road to Westminster, Meade’s chief route of retreat to his base of supplies. D’Erlon was unsuccessful; so was Pickett. Before the former moved out, the Prussians of Blücher were seen on the heights of St. Lambert; and the Sixth French Corps, instead of supporting the operations of the First Corps, as had been intended, was taken away and employed in resisting their progress. The troops ordered to support General Pickett lay on their arms waiting orders from a corps commander charged with the assault, which were never given.

The formation of Count d’Erlon’s corps for the charge in 1815, and that of Pickett in 1863, is an apt illustration of tactical mutability. D’Erlon’s attack was made in four columns in echelon, the left in advance; the first or left column was composed of two brigades, each brigade of four battalions, one behind the other; each battalion was in three ranks, and the distance between the battalions five paces; the next column had nine battalions, and the other two eight each-twenty-nine battalions in all. Sixteen thousand men in twenty-nine battalions would give approximately six hundred men to the battalion: and when in three ranks a front of two hundred men for each one of the four charging columns. If the front of each column had been on the same line, instead of in echelon, eight hundred men would have been in the front rank. It was intended that this force should break through by impact, for only the few men in front could fire. Pickett, with nearly as many troops,[2] had nine brigades in two ranks, in two long lines—six brigades in the first and three in the second. The front line had some ten thousand men, which in two ranks would give a front of five thousand men instead of eight hundred! The dense masses of D’Erlon’s corps would have been butchered by the concentrated, converging, rapid fire of modern breech-loading guns, big and small, before their banners could have been shaken to the breeze. We say, therefore, it is not easy to compare Lee with the great soldiers of former ages, except as a strategist.

In strategy it is certain Lee stands in the front rank of the great warriors of the world. He was a greater soldier than Sir Henry Havelock, and equally as devout a Christian. “There was not a heart in England,” it was said, when Havelock died, thirteen years before Lee, at about the same age, “that did not feel it to be a subject for private as well as public mourning”; and so the South felt toward Lee. It is stated that it was impossible to gauge the full measure of Moltke’s potentialities as a strategist and organizer, but perhaps Lee with the same opportunities would have been equally as skillful and far-seeing. The success of the former and failure of the latter does not prevent comparison. Kossuth failed in Hungary, but the close of his long life has been strewn with flowers. Scotland may never become an independent country, but Scotchmen everywhere cherish with pride the fame of Wallace and Bruce. If given an opportunity, said General Scott, who commanded the army of the United States in 1861, Lee “will prove himself the greatest captain of history.” He had the swift intuition to discern the purpose of his opponent, and the power of rapid combination to oppose to it prompt resistance. The very essence of modern war was comprised in the four years’ campaign, demanding a greater tax upon the mental and physical qualifications of a leader than the fifteen years of Hannibal in the remote past. Military misconceptions have been charged to him; but Marshal Turenne has said, “Show me the man who never made mistakes, and I will show you one who has never made war.”

The impartial historian, in reviewing Lee’s campaigns and the difficult conditions with which he was always confronted, must at least declare that no commander could have accomplished more. In his favor was, however, that ponderous force known as the spirit of the army, which counterbalanced his enemy’s excess of men and guns. Important battles are sometimes lost in spite of the best-conceived plans of the general commanding. The battle of Ligny, with the fate of a great campaign trembling on the result, was not made a decisive victory because Ney, at Quatre-Bras, showed a distrust of his emperor’s judgment, was unwilling to take the most obvious step, and finally disobeyed orders; and like behavior of a corps commander at Gettysburg defeated the well-devised designs of Lee.

It has been wisely said that man is under no circumstance so nearly independent as he is when the next step is for life or death; and an infinite number of such independent forces influences the course of a battle—a course which can never be foreseen, and can never coincide with that which it would take under the impulsion of a single force. There are always inevitable conditions under which a commander in chief carries on his operations. The world places Lee by the side of its greatest captains, because surrounded on all sides by conflicting anxieties, interests, and the gravity of issues involved, he only surrendered his battle-stained, bullet-riddled banners after demonstrating that all had been done that mortal could accomplish. The profession of the soldier has been honored by his renown, the cause of education by his virtues, religion by his piety.

The greatest gift the hero leaves his race
Is to have been a hero.


[1] Number of English troops engaged at Waterloo.

[2] Exclusive of Wilcox’s brigade, which was not in the charge proper.

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