Lee the American, by Gamaliel Bradford, Chapter 8

Lee the American


IN the year 1901 I was invited to attend a meeting called to discuss the question, who was the greatest man of the nineteenth century. I accepted with pleasure. As all those present were citizens of the Northern portion of the United States they happily arrived at unanimous agreement upon Abraham Lincoln, just as they would have agreed upon Napoleon, if they had been French, or, if they had been Germans, upon Bismarck.

What interested me most was that no one seemed disposed to inquire very carefully into the essential or comparative elements of greatness. How was it about the great artists, painters, sculptors, and musicians? How about the poets, or the novelists, who, like Scott, had brought delight to millions? How about the great discoverers in science? Or the great philanthropists? Was the greatest man he who had shown the highest development of human power and genius, as perhaps Napoleon? Or he who had pushed the standard of pure truth some steps further into outer darkness, as perhaps Darwin? Or he who—and I know not even whom to instance without too much begging of the question—had been simply of the greatest use and service to humanity? And I could not but be reminded of Edward FitzGerald’s caustic sentence: “It is wonderful how Macaulay, Hallam, and Mackintosh could roar and bawl at one another over such questions as which is the Greatest Poet? Which is the greatest work of that Greatest Poet? etc., like Boys at some Debating Society.”1

FitzGerald, too, here narrows the discussion to a particular field. And with a poem or a picture we can at least say, this I prefer, this the majority of men seem to prefer, though Heaven knows that even such decision is difficult enough. But in more complicated lines of human activity the problem is far more puzzling, and in none more than in that of soldiership. When I see the readiness with which persons whom I should not suppose especially competent grade, classify, and adjust, setting A above B, B above C, D above B and C but below A, with the nicest accuracy of discrimination, I can only wonder and be forcibly reminded of FitzGerald’s little quip.

There are so many things to be taken into account Lord Roberts quotes Napoleon’s remark that “the first quality of a general is that he shall have a cool head,” and, as Wellington had a supremely cool head, infers that he was equal, if not superior to Napoleon. But surely a general may use a few other qualities besides coolness. Ropes admirably suggests the difficulties in the discussion in his comparison of Joseph E. Johnston with Lee. “Johnston,” he says, “possessed as good a military mind as any general on either side; but in that fortunate combination of qualities—physical, mental, and moral—which go to make up a great commander, General Lee was unquestionably more favored than any of the leaders in the Civil War.”2 Yet even here—“physical, mental, and moral”—how much room there is for question and distinction.

After which, it must be admitted that humanity will go on forever grading and ranking, like the great schoolboys that we all are. And the instinct that impels us to do so is a right instinct. We can never settle which is the greatest man, or what is true greatness. Yet we must be always trying to settle it. Only so can we choose our models and examples. Only so can we establish the standard by which, however shifting, and uncertain, and imperfect, we must guide our lives.

A series of studies of Lee which did not include “Lee as a General “would be absurd. Yet it cannot be expected that a civilian should attempt any scientific analysis of military genius. Some civilians have attempted it, which does not encourage me in the least. Even professional men would do well to remember Lee’s own reply, when he was asked to review a book on the Austro-Prussian war in 1866: “At the time of the occurrence I thought I saw the mistakes committed by the Austrians; but I did not know the facts, and you are aware that, though it is easy to write on such subjects, it is difficult to elucidate the truth.”3 If we were all as modest as this, I fear nothing would be written about anything. Fortunately we commanders: “He was a Cæsar without his ambition: a Frederick without his tyranny; a Napoleon without his selfishness; and a Washington without his reward.”4 Or to General Gordon’s masterly rhetoric, which is more specifically military: “Compare this, my friends, the condition of France, with the condition of the United States, in the freshness of her strength, in the luxuriance of her resources, in the lustihood of her gigantic youth, and tell me where belongs the chaplet of military superiority, with Lee, or with Marlborough or Wellington? Even the greatest of captains, in his Italian campaigns, flashing his fame, in lightning splendor, over the world, even Bonaparte met and crushed in battle but three or four (I think) Austrian armies; while our Lee, with one army, badly equipped, and in time incredibly short, met and hurled back, in broken and shattered fragments, five admirably prepared and most magnificently appointed invasions. . . . Lee was never really beaten. Lee could not be beaten! Overpowered, foiled in his efforts, he might be, but never defeated until the props which supported him gave away. . . . On that most melancholy of pages, the downfall of the Confederacy, no Leipsic, no Waterloo, no Sedan can ever be recorded.”5 One is reminded of Matthew Arnold’s remark about Macaulay’s essay on Milton: “Truly, with what a heavy brush does this man lay on his colors.” Reverend J. William Jones, however, manages to produce as great an effect with much simpler means. “I think I put it very conservatively when I say that he had proven himself the greatest soldier of the war, if not of history.”6 What would the reverend gentleman have said, if he had not wished to be conservative?

Now let us turn to those who are as evidently prejudiced against Lee as these eulogists in his favor. The fault-finders are not all Northerners. In the early days, before the general’s reputation was established, there was plenty of criticism in the South. Thus Pollard, who afterwards became an enthusiastic admirer, could say in regard to the West Virginia campaign, “a general who had never fought a battle, who had a pious horror of guerrillas, and whose extreme tenderness of blood inclined him to depend exclusively upon the resources of strategy”;7 and even after the Peninsula, “Lee, who by no fault of his own was followed by toadies, flatterers, and newspaper sneaks in epaulets who made him ridiculous by their servile obeisances and excess of praise.”8 Longstreet, who loved Lee personally, was goaded by the attacks of Lee’s admirers on his own record into a frankness of comment which sounds far different from the ecstasies quoted above. “On the defensive Lee was absolutely perfect . . . but of the art of war, more particularly of that of giving battle, I do not think General Lee was a master. In science and military learning he was greatly the superior of General Grant, or any other commander on either side. But in the art of war I have no doubt that Grant and several others were his equals. In the field his characteristic fault was headlong combativeness.”9

Longstreet’s strictures, as indeed those of most critics, are chiefly connected with Gettysburg, in Longstreet’s case not unnaturally, since the responsibility for the failure of that battle has usually been made to rest either with Longstreet or with Lee. Longstreet had his own ideas beforehand of what should be done. He tried to persuade Lee to accept them. Lee declined, and told Longstreet what he himself wished. Longstreet either would not or could not carry out the general’s wishes, and the battle was lost The following are a few of Longstreet’s remarks. “The cause of the battle was simply General Lee’s determination to fight it out from the position in which he was at that time.”10 “He seemed under a subdued excitement, which took possession of him when ‘the hunt was up’ and threatened his superb poise.”11 “There is no doubt that General Lee during the crisis of that campaign lost the matchless equipoise that usually characterized him.”12 And the lieutenant supports himself by a quotation which it takes all the authority of his character as a soldier and a gentleman to make us accept. He says that when he was in Tennessee Lee wrote him, “If I only had taken your counsel even on the 3d, and had moved around the Federal left, how different all might have been.”13 Lee’s own quiet comment elsewhere on the battle does not sound to me entirely consistent with this: “It would have been gained, could one determined and united blow have been delivered by our whole line.”14

If we wish to get the extreme Northern partisan view of Lee’s generalship, we must come down a little later than Gettysburg, to the Wilderness, and listen to Badeau. Badeau had, of course, but one object, to exalt Grant; and it is extremely curious to see how his disposition to do this directly by depreciating Lee is constantly checked by his realization that since Grant finally won, the more able Lee can be shown to have been, the greater is the glory of having beaten him. Some reserves are, therefore, made in favor of Lee’s defensive generalship. But for the most part, he is unequal to his opportunities and much overrated. In the first place, he is morally not all he should be: “The fact is that Lee was often disingenuous in his reports. He did not absolutely falsify, but he colored and concealed so as to convey a very incorrect impression.”15 Militarily, his genius served for little more than to be a foil to Grant’s. “The genius of the leader as well as the valor of his men was reserved for negative displays.”16 His was the “natural policy of a second-rate commander.”17 “Grant himself, in Lee’s situation, would never have been content with a negative defense.”18 “And whether his spirit was cowed and acknowledged its master, or whether Grant’s skill was so absolute as to allow no opportunity, the rebel general never again [after the Wilderness] assumed a completely offensive attitude.”19

This sort of thing would appear quite as hyperbolical as the Southern praise, were it not that so great an authority as Grant himself uses very much the same expressions. During his trip around the world he said to Young: “I never ranked Lee so high as some others in the army, that is to say, I never had so much anxiety when he was in my front as when Joe Johnston was in front. [Yet Grant said to Meade in the Wilderness, “Joe Johnston would have retired after two days’ such punishment.”20] Lee was a good man, a fair commander, who had everything in his favor. He was a man who needed sunshine. . . . Lee was of a slow, cautious nature, without imagination or humor, always the same, with grave dignity. I never could see in his achievements what justified his reputation. The illusion that heavy odds beat him will not stand the ultimate light of history. I know it is not true. Lee was a good deal of a headquarters general, from what I can hear and from what his officers say. He was almost too old for active service—the best service in the field.”21 Grant’s written words in his “Memoirs,” though more guarded, are to the same effect. I am not aware that he ever said anything in commendation of Lee’s military ability. Lee is reported—to be sure, on rather circuitous authority—to have remarked after the war: “I have carefully searched the military records of both ancient and modern history, and have never found Grant’s superior as a general.”22

With the flight of years and the cooling of passion, Northern judgment has come to take an attitude very different from Badeau’s.23 To begin with, Lee’s immense difficulties are better appreciated. Grant says he needed sunshine and support. It may be so, but he did not always get them. Often he was obliged to relinquish his own plans for those of others, and even in carrying out his own he was so hampered by superior authority that the results could not properly be said to be his. And the limitation of authority was less serious than the limitation of resources. Grant had men, money, means of all sorts at his back. Lee’s numbers shrank daily and could not be replaced, and the men he had could not be armed or shod or clothed or fed. The pitifulness of his disabilities in this respect can only be appreciated by wide reading of his correspondence and that of others. He was not a man to complain, yet passage after passage like the following occurs: “I can do nothing for want of proper supplies. With these and effective horses I think I could disturb the quiet of the enemy and drive him to the Potomac.”24 When he was asked, after the war, why he did not advance upon Washington after the Second Bull Run, he answered, “Because my men had nothing to eat. I could not tell my men to take that fort [pointing to Fort Wade] when they had had nothing to eat for three days. I went to Maryland to feed my army.”25 Palfrey’s comment on this sort of thing, though not well taken in the South, has a good deal of force in it. He says, in substance, that one reason the Army of Northern Virginia fought so splendidly was that victory meant a square meal at last.

The Northern critics who are most favorable to Lee of course all admit that he made mistakes. He himself would have been the first to recognize this, as in his well-known humorous comment on the newspaper editors: “Even as poor a soldier as I am can generally discover mistakes after it is all over. But if I could only induce these wise gentlemen who see them so clearly beforehand to communicate with me in advance, it would be far better for my reputation and—what is of more consequence—far better for the cause.”26

In regard to Gettysburg, Northern writers generally feel that Lee was wrong. He did not mean to fight there and never should have fought there, as he did. They hold that he violated Jomini’s fundamental principle: “These two bloody days [of Eylau] prove how dubious must be the success of an attack which is directed at the front and centre of a well-concentrated enemy: even if victory is won, it is too dearly bought to be of any use.”27 “He [Lee] could easily have manœuvred Meade out of his strong position on the heights and should have done so,” says Doubleday,28 though he remarks a little later that “the great effort of Wilcox and Wright would have been ruinous, if followed up,”29 which surely shows that the second day might have proved successful for the South. Ropes and Colonel W. R. Livermore go further, holding that Gettysburg was merely the culmination of a series of unjustifiable audacities. Ropes maintained that the risk of the Second Bull Run campaign was greater than was justified by the chance of advantage. “The rules of war allow of no such dangerous movement as Jackson’s, unless the object is far more important than the one which on this occasion he proposed to himself.”30 Elsewhere he says that Lee “showed on several occasions a singular lack of caution.”31 And although he contrasts Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville with others as a case where the risk was worth running for the great results to be obtained, he agrees in the main with Colonel Livermore that Gettysburg may be regarded as the last act of a drama that began long before.32 “It is certainly a mistake,” writes Ropes, “for a general to overestimate his adversary’s strength and prowess; it is no less a mistake, however, to underrate them. But this was, as we know, the habit of General Lee’s mind; and his subsequent successes confirmed him in it. It was not until the disastrous assault on the heights of Gettysburg that he found out his mistake.”33

Nor do the Northern critics confine their strictures to Gettysburg and its immediate antecedents. They insist that in the earlier Peninsula campaign, important as the results were, they might have been much greater, and that Malvern Hill was almost as ill-managed as Gettysburg. And they recognize that the failure to anticipate Grant’s crossing of the James, was a very serious and unfortunate oversight.

Yet, in spite of all this, it would be difficult for intelligent enthusiasm to be warmer or more generous than that of many of these Northern writers for their ancient adversary. Some of them by no means agree in condemning even Gettysburg. General Hunt thought that “a battle was necessary to Lee and a defeat would be more disastrous to Meade, and less so to himself, at Gettysburg than at any other point east of it”34 Ropes cannot refuse his admiration to the very rashness which he blames. “One hardly knows which is the more remarkable—General Lee’s sagacity in estimating the inertia of his antagonist [before Fredericksburg], or his temerity in confronting him so long with a force only one third as strong, and actually for a time refusing the aid which Jackson was bringing to him.”35 As to the conduct of the Wilderness campaign there is a general concord of commendation. Instead of agreeing with Badeau that Lee was cowed out of all initiative, Colonel Dodge says: “Grant’s method was just what Lee preferred. He was right in not coming out of his intrenchments to fight.”36 “Grant had been thoroughly defeated in his attempt to walk past General Lee on his way to Richmond,” writes General Webb.37 And Colonel W. R. Livermore, the latest authority on the subject, declares (in answer to a frequent comment on the Wilderness battles) that “it was due to Lee’s skill that he fought behind breastworks,”38 that “if Grant in the spring of 1864 had come to the Army of Northern Virginia and Lee to the Army of the Potomac, it is not impossible that the war would have ended then and there,”39 and that “this campaign alone would entitle him to the high place he justly holds among the great commanders of the world.”40

Nor is Northern eulogy of Lee confined to the conduct of special campaigns. Mr. Bache, in his “Life of Meade,” writes, “He had not, like most successful generals, as Tacitus says, become insolent with success, but had never failed in gentle courtesy to his officers, in boundless tenderness to his men, in humanity to all, and in word and deed had proved himself the rarest type of soldier and gentleman.”41 Colonel W. R. Livermore calls him “the greatest general of the day.”42 Ropes says that the feeling in the army towards the commander was “one of entire confidence and enthusiastic devotion. This was not because it was a Southern army, but because the Army of Northern Virginia was so fortunate as to have in Lee a man who was head and shoulders above his colleagues.”43 And Colonel Roosevelt has added his testimony to all the rest: “As a mere military man Washington himself cannot rank with the wonderful war-chief who for four years led the Army of Northern Virginia.”44 And again: Lee “will undoubtedly rank as without any exception the greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking people have brought forth—and this, although the last and chief of his antagonists may claim to stand as the full equal of Marlborough and Wellington.”45

Now let us turn to the opinion of foreign military experts and critics, which should be more impartial than that of any American. As a matter of fact, in the early days the foreigners who wrote about the war were certainly not impartial. The Comte de Paris, excellent as his history is, was distinctly Northern in his sympathies. Fremantle and Scheibert were even more distinctly Southern. And when Lord Wolseley said of Lee, “He was the ablest general, and to me seemed the greatest man I had ever conversed with; and yet I have had the privilege of meeting Von Moltke and Prince Bismarck. . . . General Lee was one of the few men who ever seriously impressed and awed me with their natural and their inherent greatness,”46 he was probably somewhat influenced by personal sympathy with the Southern leader and the cause he served.

Within the last ten or fifteen years, however, there has come up a generation of English critics whose interest in our Civil War seems to be almost purely impersonal and scientific. They are perfectly ready to find ability and military genius on the Northern side as well as on the Southern. Indeed, I think they are generally inclined to estimate Grant’s soldiership more highly than is usual with many of the more rigorous Northern writers. The judgments of these Englishmen in regard to Lee have, therefore, a peculiar interest and suggestiveness.

Here again, there is of course no attempt to overlook or belittle Lee’s errors. Henderson is inclined, in many cases, to criticize Lee’s use of his cavalry, especially during the early part of the war. As to the sequel, or lack of sequel, to Malvern Hill, Captain Battine remarks, “It can now be said that Lee missed a grand opportunity;”47 and the same writer says of the movements against Meade in the autumn of 1863, “It cannot be denied that Lee, great strategist as he was, on this occasion, as on the march to Gettysburg, clung too long to his preconceived scheme of how the campaign should develop, nor did he watch as narrowly as he should have done for the first good chance to strike.”48 As to the great crux of Gettysburg I think the English critics are a little more lenient than the American, and Battine even declares that the decision to attack was “sound and wise, the failure lay in faults of execution which were caused, to some extent, at any rate, by the want of sympathetic coöperation of the corps commanders,”49 while Wood and Edmunds hold that Jackson in Longstreet’s place would have “annihilated the greater part of Meade’s army and forced the remainder to retreat on Washington.”50 Beside this it is well to place Henderson’s quiet comment, substantially in accord with Ropes and Colonel Livermore: “I am forced to the conclusion that at Gettysburg Lee’s whole army suffered from overconfidence.”51 Henderson is also decidedly critical as to Lee’s failure to keep track of Grant’s crossing of the James. “Grant certainly outmanœuvred Lee. It was only the slackness of one of his subordinates that saved the Confederate army not indeed from defeat, but from being driven back into Richmond itself.”52

On the other hand, these critics unite in the warmest admiration for Lee’s greatness and genius. This appears in the remarks on individual operations. Henderson says, speaking of the Second Bull Run, “If, as Von Moltke avers, the junction of two armies in the field of battle is the highest achievement of military genius, the campaign against Pope has seldom been surpassed. . . . Tried by this test alone, Lee stands out as one of the greatest soldiers of all times.”53 In regard to the Wilderness campaign Captain Vaughan-Sawyer writes: “In this [Lee’s not taking the offensive] only a few of his detractors have seen evidence of failing courage. Actually, it is only another exhibition of his genius, which enabled him to see that the day for those tactics was passed. His unerring perception told him that his only chance lay in wearing out his enemy and he would not be tempted into a false move.”54 And Captain Battine’s verdict is even more favorable: “Lee had emerged triumphant from a campaign which is surpassed by no other in gallant fighting and skillful direction. Even the glories of the campaign of France in 1814, and Frederick’s wonderful defiance of his enemies in the Seven Years’ War, pale before Lee’s astonishing performance; for neither Napoleon till he met Wellington, nor Frederick at any time, was opposed to such a dangerous enemy as Grant.”55

The general summaries as to Lee’s ability are in the same enthusiastic tone. Henderson, like Colonel Roosevelt, improved on Von Moltke’s reported dictum that the Southern commander was in all respects the equal of Wellington by calling him “undoubtedly one of the greatest if not the greatest soldier who ever spoke the English tongue.”56 And Captain Battine, concluding his estimate of the general’s character, says: “In the tact and diplomatic skill with which he softened the jealousies of his people and tightened the combination of the different states he is only to be compared with the great Duke of Marlborough. In the boldness and sagacity of his strategy and in the affectionate devotion he inspired in his troops he resembled Napoleon himself. He enjoyed alike the confidence of the nation, government, and army, which he never lost for an instant in the darkest days of misfortune. . . . Such as he was, brave, chivalrous, and conscientious to a fault, he will remain the most attractive personality among American heroes and one of the most famous of the world’s great generals.”57

For the eulogy of Lee which is at once the most enthusiastic and the most discriminating we must, however, return to the United States. Colonel Eben Swift, in his paper read before the American Historical Society in 1910, reviews the Wilderness battles in the light of the military equipment and conditions of to-day, and incidentally discusses Lee’s handling of the material and resources that he had. Colonel Swift is a member of the United States General Staff, and his opinion should, therefore, represent the latest and most scientific military judgment. He writes as follows: “All great soldiers before him inherited a ready-made army, but Lee made his own army. None of the others probably encountered as dangerous an adversary as Grant, and none of them except Hannibal, and Napoleon in the last two years, were opposed to soldiers as good as their own. The odds of numbers were greater against Lee in the Wilderness campaign than they were against Napoleon in the Waterloo campaign. But Lee had his army at the end and Napoleon’s disaster was complete. In the Wilderness campaign Lee inflicted losses in killed and wounded almost as great as the army he commanded. Lee made five campaigns in a single year; no other man and no other army ever did so much. . . . Lee practiced his own theory of the art of war. Although indebted to Napoleon, he treated each problem as a concrete case, which he solved according to circumstances, and he had his greatest success when he departed furthest from established rules. Napoleon formulated the principle at St. Helena that you must never uncover your line of retreat or fight a battle with a front to a flank. Lee’s violation of that rule placed Grant’s plans in the Wilderness in greater danger than they ever were at any period of the campaign. But Lee’s art seems to have died with him. Up to the present he has taught no pupil and he has inspired no successor.”58

After feasting on this luxury of comparative estimates of Lee’s military greatness, the reader certainly has no desire to hear mine. It will now, however, be profitable to dwell for a moment on some special elements of his character which are particularly significant in connection with his soldiership.

In the first place, there is his organizing, systematizing ability. As Colonel Swift says, “All great soldiers before him inherited a ready-made army, but he made his own army.” So far as the civil authorities would allow, he built it up from its component elements and made it one of the finest fighting machines in the world. As a little minor instance of his thoughtfulness, it is interesting to note that he is credited with having suggested the gray uniform on account of its protective quality.59 But in a thousand details, large and small, he was always caring for the effectiveness of his soldiers and for their comfort. This talent for organization is apt to go, as it did in McClellan’s case, with too great deliberation, a constitutional reluctance to give up plans and depart from programmes. What is remarkable about Lee is that he instantly responded to the demands of the occasion and strode right out of all rules and right over them.

Then there is his boldness—or rashness. Some of his detractors assert that he failed in offense. Others that he was too aggressive. These charges contradict each other, say his friends. They do not. Nothing requires a cool head and perfect calm, so much as a vigorous and daring system of attack. And if Lee’s offensive really failed, it was because a too great combativeness hurled him for the moment off his balance. As Sainte-Beuve says of Napoleon, there were times when he broke loose from the world of men into the world of Titans. When Lee first took command of the army, General Alexander asked General Ives whether he had audacity enough. “Alexander,” said Ives, “if there is one man in either army, Confederate or Federal, head and shoulders above every other in audacity, it is General Lee. His name might be Audacity. He will take more desperate chances and take them quicker than any other man in this country, North or South.”60 At the same time, it should be remembered that Jackson felt obliged to defend Lee against the charge of excessive caution and to point out that he had the responsibility of a great army on his hands and felt it.

In regard to this matter of taking chances, Lee should be heard in his own defense. He recognized perfectly again and again that he ran enormous risks; but he felt that in his situation it was absolutely necessary. “If you can accomplish the object, any risk would be justifiable,”61 he writes to D. H. Hill, early in the war. Again, “There is always hazard in military movements, but we must decide between the possible loss of inaction and the risk of action.”62 And after all was over, his cool observation on the matter was that criticism of his rashness was obvious, but that the disparity between the forces rendered such risks unavoidable.63 It may at least be observed that when a man thrice in succession takes the apparently fearful chances of the Second Bull Run, of Antietam, of Chancellorsville, and comes out whole, if not triumphant, there may be something more in it than the mere luck of the successful gambler.

Another quality of Lee’s, and one that will hardly be disputed, is energy and rapidity of action. Napoleon said, “In the art of war, as in mechanics, time is the great element that balances the force and the resistance,”64 The promptness with which Lee drew Jackson to himself before the Peninsular battles and before Fredericksburg, the vigor and swiftness of the retreat from Gettysburg, above all, the instant preparedness which met Grant at point after point as he circled about Richmond, would surely have won the approval of Napoleon himself.

As to energy, and especially as to independence, of decision there is more dispute. It is sometimes asserted that Lee deferred too much to the judgment of his officers. I feel that there may be some misapprehension here. Lee, when he chose’ could be as secret as Jackson. He liked to consult his subordinates because they liked it. He was genuinely interested in their opinions. I doubt if he ever felt the need of any one’s support for his own judgment or, at any rate, the desire to divide his responsibility. As to the great latitude he gave his division commanders in the field, Henderson believes that he was simply anticipating the latest developments of modern war, which prescribe “first, that an army cannot be effectively controlled from headquarters; second, that the man on the spot is the best judge of the situation; third, that intelligent coöperation is of more value than mechanical obedience.”65 It can hardly be denied, however, that Lee was too considerate, not of the opinions but of the feelings of his subordinates. As his nephew said of him, “He had a reluctance to oppose the wishes of others or to order anything that would be disagreeable or to which they would not consent.”66

Among the foremost of Lee’s military qualities we must put his knowledge of human nature. I have already dwelt upon the importance of this in his dealings with his own army. It was quite as useful to him in his dealings with the enemy. Possibly his divination of actual plans and movements may have been somewhat exaggerated. Sir Edward Hamley gives us an excellent caution in this regard. “Historians,” he says, “are fond of ascribing to successful generals such endowments as ‘prescience,’ ‘intuitive divination of their enemy’s designs.’ There will be evidence in subsequent pages that these gifts, in the preternatural extent implied, exist only in the imagination of the chroniclers, and in this campaign [Jena] Napoleon had in three days made three erroneous calculations of the Prussian doings.”67

But although Lee may not always have foreseen the actual plan, he had the keenest appreciation of the man who made it and the way in which he was likely to carry it out. Certainly no one could say of him what Lord Wolseley, rather surprisingly, says of Napoleon: “Although I believe Napoleon to have been by far the greatest of all great men, he has always struck me as having been a bad judge of character.”68 Lee’s comments on McClellan, on Pope, on Hooker, on Meade, on Grant, still more his conduct when confronted with each of them, show how watchful and how careful his judgment was with regard to them all. And, as always with him, this results not merely from intuition, but from profound study. Polybius said, two thousand years ago, “It is to be ignorant or blind in the science of commanding armies to think that a general has anything more important than to apply himself to learn the inclinations and character of his adversary.” Lee so understood his business. He made use of every bit of information that could possibly be acquired. He read the Northern papers systematically. And, on learning that McClellan was superseded, he is said to have expressed with much humor the difficulty of his task: “I am sorry to part with McClellan. We understood one another so well.” While he remarked to a Northern genera1 after the war: “You people changed your commanders in front of me so frequently that it was no small labor to study them and it was a work constantly to be renewed.”69

In short, what impresses me perhaps more than anything else in Lee’s purely military success is the splendid triumph of intelligence, of brains, and I do not find any really more satisfying eulogy than Henderson’s simple phrase, “He was the clearest-sighted solider in America.”70

It is hardly necessary to say, however, that it is not Lee’s excellence as a general that has led me to these extensive studies of his life. Modest as he was, if it had not been for the necessities of war, he might have left no mark on the history of his country. But the mark he has left is far deeper and more permanent than a merely military one. Perhaps he is as often compared with Wellington as with any other great leader. Wellington loved his country and saved England. Yet Lord Roberts says of him, “That he was honest, straightforward, resolute, and patriotic, none can deny; but there appears to be no instance in his military career of his adopting a course where his duty was opposed to his own interest.”71 How different is the record of Lee! Emerson says of Napoleon: “His soldiers called him Cent Mille. Add honesty to him and they might have called him hundred million.” To military qualities not unlike Napoleon’s how much did Lee add besides honesty!


1. Letters (1894 edition), vol. II, p. 200.

2. J. C. Ropes, The Story of the Civil War, vol. II, p. 158.

3. Jones, Rem., p. 258.

4. Quoted in Jones, Rem., p. 223.

5. Quoted in Jones, Rem., p. 50.

6. Life, p. 381.

7. E. A. Pollard, A Southern History of the War, vol. I, p. 168.

8. E. A. Pollard, A Southern History of the War, vol. I, p. 354.

9. H. D. Longstreet, Lee and Longstreet at High Tide, p. 83.

10. Battles and Leaders, vol. III, p. 350.

11. S.H.S.P., vol. V, p. 61.

12. S.H.S.P., vol. V, p. 72.

13. Battles and Leaders, vol. III, p. 349.

14. Jones, Rem., p. 266.

15. Adam Badeau, Military History of U. S. Grant, vol. II, p. 524.

16. Badeau, vol. II, p. 166.

17. Badeau, vol. II, p. 220.

18. Badeau, vol. II, p. 227.

19. Badeau, vol. II, p. 132.

20. Colonel T. Lyman, in M.H.S. of M., vol. III, p. 171.

21. J. R. Young, Around the World with General Grant, vol. II, p. 459.

22. J. G. Wilson, General Grant, p. 367.

23. Criticism, taking, in a more or less modified form, the view of Badeau and Grant, is, of course, still often met with. Colonel T. L Livennore’s clear and forcible discussions in the volumes of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts are perhaps the best examples of it. Colonel Livermore, in summing up the Appomattox Campaign, says: “No fault appears in Grant’s generalship. To Lee’s failure to make timely retreat from Petersburg and Richmond, and perhaps his delay in ordering supplies to Amelia Court House, must be attributed his failure to reach the Roanoke.” (Vol. VI, p. 501.) It may be worth while to refer here to the very remarkable anecdote told by the Reverend Dr. McKim (A Soldier’s Recollections, p. 258) of Grant’s having discovered in a waste-basket a sketch of Lee’s plan of retreat from Petersburg. The story seems well authenticated, but is rather difficult to accept.

24. O.R., vol. 60, p. 1185.

25. R.E.L., p. 416.

26. Jones, Life, p. 152.

27. Quoted in Sainte-Beuve, Nouveaux Lundis, vol. XIII, p. 96.

28. A. Doubleday, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, p. 158.

29. Page 175.

30. J. C. Ropes, The Army under Pope, p. 111.

31. J. C. Ropes, The Story of the Civil War, vol. II, p. 468.

32. Colonel W. R. Livermore, Gettysburg, Mass. Hist. Soc. Proceeding, 1910, p. 232.

33. J. C. Ropes, The Story of the Civil War, vol. II, p. 352.

34. Battles and Leaders, vol. III, p. 293.

35. J. C. Ropes, The Story of the Civil War, vol. II, p. 454.

36. T. A. Dodge, A Bird’s-Eye View of Our Civil War, p. 218.

37. Battles and Leaders, vol. IV, p. 162.

38. W. R. Livermore, Lee’s Conduct of the Wilderness Campaign, Am. Hist. Assoc. Papers, 1910, p. 236.

39. Wilderness Campaign, p. 233.

40. Wilderness Campaign, p. 243.

41. R. M. Bache, Life of Meade, 549.

42. Mass. Hist. Soc. Proceed., 1910, p. 230.

43. J. C. Ropes, The Army Under Pope, p. 35.

44. T. Roosevelt, Gouverneur Morris, p. 52.

45. T. Roosevelt, Thomas H. Benton, p. 38.

46. Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley, Story of a Soldier’s Life, vol. I, p. 135.

47. Cecil Battine, The Crisis of the Confederacy, p. 19.

48. Battine, p. 322.

49. Battine, p. 207.

50. Wood and Edmunds, p. 242.

51. G. F. R. Henderson, The Science of War, p. 305.

52. Henderson, Science of War, p. 330.

53. Henderson, Jackson, vol. II, p. 231.

54. The Wilderness Campaign, p. 124.

55. Cecil Battine, The Crisis of the Confederacy, p. 380.

56. G. F. R. Henderson, The Science of War, p. 314.

57. Cecil Battine, The Crisis of the Confederacy, p. 114.

58. American Historical Association, Annual Report, 1910, p. 246.

59. H. E. Shepherd, Life of R. E. Lee, p. 117.

60. E. P. Alexander, Military Memoirs of a Confederate, p. 110.

61. O.R., vol. 14, p. 590.

62. O.R., vol. 45. p. 868.

63. W. Allan, The Army of Northern Virginia in 1862, p. 200.

64. Correspondance de Napoléon, vol. XVIII, p. 218.

65. G. F. R. Henderson, The Science of War, p. 4. It is interesting to compare with this remark of Hendereon, Scheibert’s assertion that Lee in some points anticipated the later tactics of the Prussian army.

66. F. Lee, quoted by Colonel W. R. Livermore, Wilderness Campaign, p. 239.

67. Sir E. B. Hamley, The Operations of War, p. 95.

68. Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley, The Decline and Fall of Napoleon, p. 30.

69. General W. F. Smith in M.H.S. of M., vol. III, p 115.

70. Vol. I, p. 294.

71. Rise of Wellington, p,. 186.

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