The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton


NO one can appreciate Lee’s great military achievements who is not fully aware of the obstacles that beset the path of the Confederacy from the moment of its birth. These were all serious, and all the great advantages were with the North. The first of these advantages was having an organized Government with the departments in good working order. Of course the most important of these were the War, Treasury, and Navy Departments. The army was small, but it was well officered and trained. The navy, also small, was fair. The financial system of the Government was well established. The Government of the United States also had old and friendly relations with the various foreign powers, a thing which proved a great difficulty to the Confederacy when it sought recognition abroad as an’independent power. In the second place, the South was far outnumbered. The eleven States which seceded had a little more than nine millons of people, of whom about three and a half millions were negroes, most of them slaves. In addition, there was strong Union sentiment in the western parts of Virginia and North Carolina and in eastern Tennessee, and these sections furnished many troops to the Union. The twenty-two States which remained in the Union had more than twenty-two millions of people. In the third place, the immense area of the South was difficult to defend and easy to attack. All the Southern States touched the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, except Arkansas and Tennessee, and all of them had inland waterways formed by sounds and rivers, the latter extending far into their borders. And between the North and the South there was no natural boundary. In the fourth place, the Confederacy was made up entirely of agricultural States and was entirely dependent upon the outside world for most of its manufactured goods. The South could not supply its armies with shoes, clothes, medicines, arms, and ammunition. It has been well said that the South “could scarcely manufacture a tin cup, a frying-pan, a wool-card, or a carpenter’s tool.” It had difficulty in supplying itself with so universally necessary a thing as salt. All the bells in the South, practically, were melted down to make cannon. Old flintlock muskets, rifles, and pistols were brought out, and a number of Southern regiments went into the war armed with home-made pikes which they used until they were supplied with arms by the Government or were able to pick up muskets on the battle-field. The South also lacked sufficient railroads to transport supplies and troops rapidly from point to point, and so it was impossible, in spite of the vast supplies of food, to feed the armies properly. As the blockade of the coast tightened, all these difficulties were increased. Finally, the South suffered from the lack of a trained business class—manufacturers, financiers, engineers, and administrators—to help the Government carry on the war. As the war progressed, these conditions grew worse, and through them the Confederacy at last met defeat.

On the other hand, the South had at the beginning of the war certain advantages over the North. Her men were out-of-door men, most of them trained horsemen and almost all good marksmen. The ranks of the army were made up of men from all classes fighting with the common purpose of resisting what they counted invasion and oppression and of saving their homes and hearthstones from the enemy. It seemed to them that this was a repetition of the Revolution, which to the unchanged South was still a living memory. Thus there was created a unity of spirit, an enthusiasm hard to defeat. There were but few military schools in the South, but from these few, such as the Citadel, or South Carolina Military Academy, in Charleston, and the Virginia Military Institute, at Lexington, came a trained group of men who were now called upon to serve as officers. There were also a large number of Southern officers in the United States Army, West Point graduates, who, like Lee, followed their States and became the leaders of the,armies of the Confederacy. Colonel Henderson, a noted English student of the war, said, “Lee and Jackson were worth two hundred thousand men to any army they commanded.” Yet Lee spoke truly when he said, “It will be difficult to get the world to understand the odds against which we fought.”

Lee had been appointed a major-general in the Army of Virginia, but when that State joined the Confederacy, he at once lost his rank. He could, with a word, have kept Virginia from joining the Confederacy until his future high rank was secure, but he said no word. He did not know what his rank would be and was preparing to enlist as a private in his son’s cavalry company. Vice-President Stephens, on the day of Lee’s acceptance of the Virginia command, had a long interview with him and discussed this aspect of the situation. Lee did not hesitate a moment in urging that his own personal interests should not stand in the way of union with the Confederacy. Stephens said later: “I had admired him in the morning, but I took his hand that night at parting with feelings of respect and reverence never yet effaced. I met him at times later, and he was always the same Christian gentleman. I regard Lee as one of the first men I ever met. I was wonderfully taken with him in our first interview. I saw him put to the test that tries true character. He came out of the crucible pure and refined gold.”

By this time, Arlington, Lee’s loved home, was in the hands of Federal forces. At first every care was taken to protect the entire property, but later the trees were cut down and the many relics of the Washington, Parke, Custis, and Lee families were seized. Some of these were taken to Washington and were finally placed in the National Museum; but the greater part of them were stolen by individuals and became scattered. After the war, in speaking of this, Lee said: “I hope the possessors appreciate them and may imitate the example of their original owners whose conduct must at times be brought to their recollection by these silent monitors. In this way they will accomplish good to the country.”

Mrs. Lee, after the war, sought to secure the return of the relics stored at Washington, but Congress forbade their restoration, the committee in charge of the matter declaring her request “an insult to the loyal people of the United States.” But shortly before his death, President McKinley ordered them returned to the Lee family. Arlington itself was sold for taxes, though payment was offered by friends of the Lees. The Government bought the place and at once converted it into a military cemetery. Years afterwards the Supreme Court of the United States decided that it had been illegally taken and ordered it restored to General Custis Lee. But with sixteen thousand Union soldiers buried there it was impossible to give it up into private hands, and so it was purchased by the Government. It is so definitely associated with Lee, as well as with those who died to save the Union, that one likes to think, to-day, that the time is not far distant when to patriotic Americans it will seem also a cherished memorial of an undivided country.

As soon as the war began, Lee was made a brigadier-general in the Confederate Army. He was at this time busily engaged in organizing the raw volunteer troops who poured into Richmond, and, before two months had passed, he had sent to the front sixty regiments of infantry and cavalry and many batteries of artillery. When Virginia seceded, Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy. Its capture now became the chief end and aim of the Washington Administration. The South, on the other hand, bent every energy toward preventing its fall. In June Lee was made military adviser to President Davis, and in this capacity directed the movements of troops and chose the points in Virginia which should form the line of defense. It was his plan of defense which resulted in the battle of Manassas, or Bull Run. At this time the Confederate plan of campaign was to stand entirely on the defensive. The Confederate Government had no wish to attack the United States, but was most anxious to remain unmolested. This was the chief reason why, immediately after the battle of Manassas, when the road to Washington lay open to the Confederates, there was no attempt made to capture the city.

Soon after the battle Lee was sent to northwest Virginia to take command there. It was a section where there much opposition to the Confederacy; and General George B. McClellan had been sent into it from the West to gain the entire region for the Union, and, in particular, to hold the line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Confederate forces there were then under the command of General Garnett. The Confederates at first held Harper’s Ferry, but later abandoned it. McClellan at once seized the mountain passes and fortified them. Garnett’s force, divided into two parts, was then defeated, and McClellan reported that he had “annihilated two armies.” This report was believed in Washington, and, after the defeat at Manassas, he was called to take command of the Federal army between Washington and Richmond. He was replaced in the West by Generals Reynolds and Rosecrans. Garnett in the meantime was killed, and the Confederate forces, under two rival brigadier-generals who had been chosen for political reasons, were steadily losing ground. This was the difficult situation which Lee had to meet when he took command. Just at this time he was given the rank of general, that grade having been established by the Confederate Congress. He was outranked only by General Samuel Cooper, the adjutant-general, who had been adjutant-general of the United States Army, and Albert Sidney Johnston, who had outranked him also.

When he reached the mountains, a long rainy season had set in and the roads were almost impassable. The Confederate forces were also in the grip of epidemics of measles and typhoid fever. General Reynolds had taken up a position on Cheat Mountain and Valley River. This was too strong to be attacked on the front alone, but a way was found to flank it and attack it from all sides at once. The plan failed. The signal for the attack was to have been given by a colonel in command of one of the attacking parties. False reports heard from prisoners caused him to believe the Federal force much larger than it really was, and he did not give the signal. The other attacking parties waited until there was no chance of a surprise attack, and Lee then had to give the signal to retire, and fell back to Valley Mountain.

In the middle of September Lee went to the Kanawha region. Here the rival generals, Wise and Floyd, were in intense and bitter disagreement, and Lee found it difficult to reconcile them. General Rosecrans was in command of the Federal forces and occupied an unusually strong position on Big Sewall Mountain. Lee took one equally strong on a parallel plateau and here waited for an attack to be made upon him. Time passed and none was made, so Lee planned a flank movement. He was prevented from carrying this out by Rosecrans’s retreat, and, as his own force was in such poor condition, and as supplies could only be procured day by day, Lee thought a long pursuit over the terrible roads would be poor policy and kept it up only for one day. Winter came on and put an end to the campaign, and the Confederacy abandoned its efforts to hold the region. Its people leaned strongly to the North, and, during the following year, split off from Virginia, and set up the new State of West Virginia, which was soon admitted to the Union.

Lee came out of this campaign with a diminished reputation. Few people outside the army understood how difficult his task had been, and the newspapers criticized him bitterly. They said that he had been overrated, that all he had was a “showy presence” and an “historical name,” and that he could “dig entrenchments” better than he could fight. They sneered, too, at his “West Point tactics,” and called him “Evacuating Lee.” But President Davis’s faith in him held fast and he looked forward to a time when he could place Lee in a post of greater importance as well as of greater opportunity.

Lee returned to Richmond, and was soon ordered to take charge of the coast defenses in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. In the summer of 1861 a Federal fleet under Admiral Goldsborough and a military expedition under General Burnside had captured several important points on the North Carolina coast. A little later Port Royal, in South Carolina, was taken, leaving Savannah exposed. Charleston was also in danger, and it was clear that some decided action must be taken to strengthen the Southern coast defenses. Lee was by far the best person to plan and direct this work. He was already familiar with the coast and at once chose the points most needing fortification and placed there a few fine cannon brought through the blockade. After a close examination he decided to abandon all the islands and other exposed points and make a strong interior line of defenses against which vessels of war would be useless. Strong fortifications were made, and it was not long before the Federal attacking forces found themselves attacked. By this time the Confederacy was making its own heavy guns instead of depending on those brought through the blockade, and there was no longer any lack of cannon. Lee’s plan and the defenses erected were so effective that the coast was entirely protected until an inland attack was made upon it just before the close of the war.

By the time Lee’s work in the South was finished, spring was at hand. The outlook for the Confederacy was bad. Forts Henry and Donel- son, two important posts in Tennessee, controlling the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, had been captured by a comparatively unknown Federal brigadier-general whom Lee had once met in Mexico, and whom he was destined to know better. His name was Ulysses S. Grant. This capture not only opened the rivers to the Federal forces, but exposed a large part of the interior of several States. Nashville, the capital of Tennessee, at once fell, and for the rest of the war was in the hands of the Federal forces.

Even worse for the South than all this, Richmond was threatened by a large Federal army, superbly equipped, and now, thanks to the wonderful work of General McClellan, splendidly organized, disciplined, and trained. On account of this situation Lee was summoned back to Richmond, and, on March 13, 1862, again became military adviser to the President and was charged with the duty of oversight of all military operations under the direction of the President.

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