An Aide-De-Camp of Lee
Charles Marshall


COLONEL CHARLES MARSHALL, the writer of these papers, was born at Warrenton, Fauquier County, Virginia, on October 2, 1830. His great-grandfather, Thomas Marshall, commanded the Third Virginia Regiment in the Revolutionary War. Thomas Marshall’s eldest son, John Marshall, was Chief Justice of the United States and Charles Marshall’s great-uncle—he being descended from a younger brother. Charles graduated from the University of Virginia with the degree of M.A. in 1849, an d for a few years was a professor at the University of Indiana. He then began to study law, and had established a practice in Baltimore when the Civil War broke out. He went at once to Virginia, but as he was in a very poor state of health he had considerable difficulty in finding a place in the Confederate Army. At the beginning of 1862, however, his health improved, and as he tells us, he was appointed Aide-de-Camp to General R. E. Lee on March 21 of that year.

Of the little group of five officers which Marshall then joined, the senior, Colonel Long, was at first Lee’s military secretary, and he has given us his experiences and views of his beloved chief in Memoirs of R. E. Lee. Another, Major Taylor, wrote Four Years with General Lee, and yet another, Major Venable, contributed his quota to Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Now at last we have the papers of a fourth.1

Colonel Marshall’s point of view is different from that of any of the others. When he first joined Lee in Richmond, the great problem was to raise an army adequate to meet McClellan’s threatened invasion. This required legislation, and legislation of a kind suited to the exigencies of the military situation. Lee made use of Marshall’s legal training in the drafting of measures to be submitted to the Confederate Congress, and he was thus brought into close touch with that assembly and acquainted with the feelings and opinions of its members. He is therefore able to give us a very complete picture of the political difficulties, jealousies, and interests which prevented the complete adoption of Lee’s proposals, and of the consequences of the changes Congress found it necessary or convenient to make. This is a story which, as far as I have been able to ascertain, has not been told by anyone of like authority, and it is a story full of valuable lessons for governments, soldiers, and people.

When Lee became Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Marshall with the remainder of the personal staff followed the chief to the field. In the intervals between campaigns Marshall’s principal task became the collection and collation of material for Lee’s dispatches, and the preparation of the drafts of these dispatches.

“It was,” he says, “my duty to prepare the reports of General Lee under his directions. To do this as he required it to be done, I had first to read all the reports made by the different commanders of forces, who always forwarded the reports of all their subordinates, down to company commanders. From all these I prepared a statement in great detail, of course using such information as I possessed from my personal knowledge and observation as a staff officer and from orders and correspondence.

“One of the most difficult things I had to do was to reconcile the many conflicting accounts of the same affair. Sometimes this was impossible; and when the matter was important enough to warrant it, I was required to visit the authors of the conflicting accounts, or they were brought together and required to reconcile or explain their respective narratives. After exhausting every means to attain entire accuracy, a more general report of the whole was prepared and submitted to General Lee, who made such corrections as he thought proper and directed the omission of such things as he deemed unnecessary for a clear understanding of the subject. The report thus verified and corrected was then written for his signature.

“Some of the war stories I have heard remind me of an anecdote General Lee told me of General Zachary Taylor.2 I was in General Lee’s tent one day just before the battle of Chancellorsville, when an officer who had been with a scouting party came in with a report. The report was not a little affected by the excitement that usually begins to be felt when an engagement is pending, and did not in the least understate the number of the enemy that the scouting party had seen. General Lee listened very quietly and attentively to the narrative, which bore on its face the evidence of its own want of probability, though the narrator may have believed it to be accurate. When the officer left the tent General Lee said in his grave way: ‘That report reminds me of something I heard General Taylor say when I was with his army in Mexico, before I joined General Scott. As we advanced into the interior of the country there were rumours of the approach of General Santa Anna with an overwhelming force, and there was more or less excitement and anxiety on the subject. No considerable force of Mexicans had in fact been seen, and the alleged army of Santa Anna was left to the imagination, which always exaggerates the unknown and the unseen. One day a cavalry officer came to General Taylor and reported that he had seen 20,000 Mexicans with 250 pieces of artillery. General Taylor said to him: “Captain, do you say you saw that force?” The captain asserted that he had seen it. Thereupon General Taylor remarked, “Captain, if you say you saw it of course I must believe you; but I would not have believed it if I had seen it myself.” ’

“Narrators do not always restrict themselves to what they did themselves, but are much disposed to include in their reports what they think was done, or omitted to be done, by others. I remember a striking illustration of this which occurred during the battle of Fredericksburg. Fighting in that battle took place on the right and left of the Confederate Army; the centre had hardly been engaged at all. General Longstreet on the Confederate left had repulsed the repeated attacks made on the troops posted at the foot of Marye’s Hill and General Jackson had repulsed the assault made on our right near Hamilton’s crossing. The distance between the two scenes of combat was between three and four miles.

“In the afternoon I was sent to the right by General Lee with an order to General Jackson, and while looking for him I came across General D. H. Hill, who commanded a division in Jackson’s corps. As soon as he saw me, General Hill exclaimed: ‘Well, it is just as usual. This corps does all the fighting. Those fellows on the left have not fired a shot all day, except some little artillery firing.’ I offered, with great respect, to bet the General a very large apple that ‘the fellows on the left’ could show two dead in their front for every one the fellows on the right could show. Nearly fifteen hundred Federal dead lay in front of Marye’s Hill, and General Hill did not know that there had been any fighting there.”

It is obvious that the preparation of Lee’s dispatches must not only have given Marshall exceptional opportunities for ascertaining facts, but have made him very well acquainted with the opinions of his chief during the various phases of the campaigns. The dispatches were not finally approved without discussion, and indeed, Marshall says he was often disappointed and pained when an arduously acquired piece of information, showing clearly that the responsibility for some failure rested with a subordinate commander who had acted injudiciously or failed to act judiciously, was struck out by Lee. In vain Marshall would protest that in justice to himself Lee should include such passages. The answer invariably was: “The responsibility for this army is mine.” Failures were accounted for in the fewest possible words, and never in a public dispatch did the commanding General blame anyone under his command.

Naturally enough, as soon as the war ended Marshall burned to use the special knowledge that he had acquired in the course of his duties, to enhance the reputation of his chief. Not only had he had—from the circumstances of his employment—a more complete and general knowledge of the facts and of Lee’s intentions and opinions at various phases of the long war than anyone except perhaps the General himself, but for more than three years he had lived with the man, whom above all other men he loved and admired, in the closest association. Lee’s staff was always small, remarkably small when compared with the numbers of officers on the headquarters staffs of European armies of similar size. The states of the Confederate armies show that at the time of the battle of Fredericksburg, when the army numbered over 80,000 men, there were twelve officers, including the General commanding, at headquarters. In July 1863, on the eve of Gettysburg, when the army comprised three army corps and a cavalry division, the number was sixteen, and of this number the military secretary and the four aides-de-camp formed the inner circle around the Commander.

The life which this little band led was very simple and the circumstances naturally drew them closely together. General Long, in his diary of June 4, 1862,—that is, the day after Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia,—gives us an idea of the life at “Dabb’s House,” where Lee was established:—

“Our headquarters are very comfortable. The front room on the house floor is the Adjutant-General’s office. The General’s private office is in the rear of this. There all the confidential business of the army is transacted, the General’s usual attendant being the military secretary or some other member of his personal staff. In the front room the general business of the army is transacted by the Adjutant-General and his assistants. General Lee and his household mess together. The mess arrangements are not very ostentatious. Our meals are served and dispatched without any very great ceremony. The General is always pleasant at meals, and frequently hurls a jest at some member of his staff.”3

Such were the surroundings of Lee and his military family in the immediate neighborhood of Richmond. But from the time when the Army of Northern Virginia first drove McClellan down the Peninsula until, yielding stubbornly to Grant’s succession of hammer blows, it once more found itself engaged in the close defense of the capital, only the urgent entreaties of his staff, moved to insistence when their chief was sick, would induce Lee to seek the shelter of a roof. A foreign visitor marked by the scars and experiences of four campaigns came to Lee’s camp in the autumn of 1862, and has left us a description of what he then saw, which is worthy of rescue from the obscurity of an anonymous article in a magazine:—

“In visiting the headquarters of the Confederate generals, and particularly those of General Lee, anyone accustomed to see European armies in the field cannot fail to be struck with the great absence of all the pomp and circumstance of war in and around their encampments. Lee’s headquarters consisted of about seven or eight pole tents, pitched with their backs to a stake fence, upon a piece of ground so rocky that it was unpleasant to ride over it, its only recommendation being a little stream of good water which flowed close by the General’s tent. In front of the tents were some three or four wagons, drawn up without any regularity, and a number of horses roamed loose about the field. The servants—who were, of course, slaves —and the mounted soldiers called couriers, who always accompany each general of division in the field, were unprovided with tents, and slept in or under the wagons.

“Wagons, tents, and some of the horses were marked U.S., showing that part of that huge debt in the North had gone to furnishing even the Confederate generals with camp equipment. No guards or sentries were to be seen in the vicinity, no crowd of aides-de-camp loitering about, making themselves agreeable to visitors and endeavoring to save their generals from those who had no particular business. A large farmhouse stands close by, which in any other army would have been the General’s residence pro tem, but as no liberties are allowed to be taken with personal property in Lee’s army, he is particular in setting an example himself. His staff are crowded together two or three in a tent, none are allowed to carry more baggage than a small box each, and his own kit is but very little larger. Everyone who approaches him does so with marked respect, although there is none of that bowing and scraping and flourishing of forage caps which occurs in the presence of European generals; and whilst all honour him and place implicit faith in his courage and ability, those with whom he is most intimate feel for him the affection of sons for a father.”4

The direction of the complex affairs of an army in the field in these simple circumstances must have been no easy matter. The troops always suffer if the staff work at headquarters is not efficiently performed, and there are good reasons for making the conditions under which that work has to be done as easy as possible. Of greater importance still is the health of the commander; more than one vital battle has been lost because the chief was in failing health, and Lee’s own staff attributed to an untimely illness of their chief the fact that the chance was lost of dealing Grant an effective blow on the North Anna in May 1864.

There can be little doubt that the austere life which Lee elected to lead in the field affected his health. But it was from no desire to parade simplicity that Lee chose the simple life. Nor was it only that Lee, as Colonel Wolseley suggests, wished to set an example of respect for private property, though upon that he set great store. Indeed, marauding of any kind was one of the few things which moved him to fierce anger against his own men. Lee, as an experienced soldier, who had served on the headquarters of an army in the field in Mexico, knew well the suspicions and jealousies of the staff at headquarters, which in all armies to a greater or less degree are entertained by the men at the front. He knew also that he had to create in his army a type of discipline suited to the character of his men, and that the circumstances of the Confederacy would make it unusually difficult and often impossible to provide these men with reasonable subsistence and shelter. He set himself deliberately to bind his men to him by ties of respect and affection.

Strange as it may appear now, even respect was not won without considerable effort. As Marshall tells us, when Lee assumed active command he was regarded militarily as a failure. His predilection for entrenchments—an outstanding feature of his methods—was looked upon as the hobby of the engineer, and was resented by the men who had to dig and were unused to “niggers’ work.” So as a part of his policy Lee chose to live as nearly as possible the life of his men.

During a recent visit to Winchester, in the Valley, a survivor of the Army of Northern Virginia told me a story which illustrates the extent to which this was in Lee’s mind, and its effect upon the individual soldier. It happened that one day in the Valley Lee had gone into a house for a midday meal. He had just sat down at table with General Wade Hampton when a weary soldier in search of refreshment opened the door. The man’s embarrassment, when he suddenly found himself in the presence of two generals, may be imagined, and that embarrassment was not diminished when a moment later he recognized the Commander of his army. Lee promptly rose, and saying to Hampton, “Come on. General, this man needs this food more than we do,” made way for the private—who from that moment would have gone anywhere and done anything at a nod from his chief. We may believe that this story quickly made the round of the camps, and with others of a like kind created a spirit which no hardship or adversity could quell.

Marshall gives a more serious account of the effect upon his men of Lee’s methods. “While the army was on the Rapidan, in the winter of 1863–4, it became necessary, as was often the case, to put the men upon very short rations. Their duty was hard, not only on the outposts during the winter, but in the construction of roads to facilitate communication between the different parts of the army. One day General Lee received a letter from a private soldier informing him of the work he had to do, and saying that his rations were hardly sufficient to enable him to undergo the fatigue. He said that if it was absolutely necessary to put him upon such short allowance he would make the best of it, but that he and his comrades wanted to know if General Lee was aware that his men were getting so little to eat; he was sure there must be some necessity for it. General Lee did not reply direct to the letter, but issued a general order,5 in which he informed the soldiers of his efforts on their behalf, and that he could not then relieve their privations, but assured them that he was making every exertion to procure sufficient supplies. After that there was not a murmur in the army, and the hungry men went cheerfully to their hard work.”6

The absence of any elaborate equipment at Lee’s headquarters necessarily made the system of staff work simple. It was the business of the adjutant-general’s staff to relieve him as much as possible of army routine. One of Marshall’s colleagues, Colonel Taylor, says: “He had a great dislike to reviewing army communications. This was so thoroughly appreciated by me that I would never present a paper for his action unless it was of decided importance and of a nature to demand his judgment and decision.”7

Another of the functions of the personal staff is described by Colonel Venable:—

“While he was accessible at all times, and rarely had even an orderly before his tent, General Lee had certain wishes which his aides-de-camp knew well that they must conform to. They did not allow any friend of soldiers condemned by court-martial—when once the decree of the court had been confirmed by him—to reach his tent for personal appeal, asking reprieve or remission of sentence. He said that with the great responsibilities resting upon him he could not bear the pain and distress of such applications, and to grant them when the judge advocate-general had attested the fairness and justice of the court’s decision would be serious injury to the proper discipline of the army. Written complaints of officers as to injustice done them in regard to promotion he would sometimes turn over to an aide-de-camp, with the old-fashioned phrase: ‘’Suage him, Colonel, ‘suage him,’ meaning thereby that a kind letter should be written in reply. But he disliked exceedingly that such disappointed men should be allowed to reach his tent and make complaints in person.

“On one occasion in the winter an officer came with a grievance, and would not be satisfied without an interview with the commanding general. He went to the general’s tent and remained some time. Immediately after his departure General Lee came to the adjutant’s tent with flushed face, and said warmly, ‘Why did you permit that man to come to my tent and make me show my temper?’ The views which prevailed with many as to the gentle temper of the great soldier, derived from observing him in domestic and social life, in fondling of children, or in kind expostulation with erring youth, are not altogether correct. No man could see the flush come over that grand forehead and the temple veins swell on occasions of great trial of patience and doubt that Lee had the high strong temper of a Washington, and habitually under the same control.

“Cruelty he hated. In that same early spring of 1864 I saw him stop when in full gallop to the front—on report of a demonstration of the enemy against his lines—to denounce scathingly and threaten with condign punishment a soldier who was brutally beating an artillery horse.”8

The chief reason why Lee desired that this kind of business should be kept from him was not merely that he did not wish a tender heart to be wrung. He was, as regards the plans and operations of his army, in a great measure his own chief of the staff. He but rarely issued elaborate written orders for operations; when he did, he usually drafted them himself and gave them to his personal staff to make the necessary copies. In the field his preliminary orders were usually given direct to his divisional and corps commanders, subsequent orders being delivered verbally by his aides-de-camp.

This absence of detailed orders struck another foreign observer, Colonel Freemantle, who was with Lee at Gettysburg. Speaking of the second day of that battle, he says: “So soon as the firing began, General Lee joined Hill just below our tree, and he remained there nearly all the time, looking through his field glass, sometimes talking to Hill and sometimes to Colonel Long of his staff. But generally he sat quite alone on the stump of a tree. What I remarked especially was that during the whole time the firing continued he only sent one message and only received one report. It is evidently his system to arrange the plan thoroughly with his three corps commanders, and then leave to them the duty of modifying and carrying it out to the best of their abilities.”

There is no doubt that Lee’s reliance upon verbal explanations and messages was sometimes carried to excess, and at Gettysburg in particular led to mistakes which were one of the causes of failure. His reason was probably his keen appreciation of the importance of secrecy, and of the difficulty of preserving it in a war in which both sides spoke the same language.9 If we may judge from events, he was probably confirmed in his practice by his knowledge of the effect on his plans of the mischance which brought a vitally important order into McClellan’s hands before the battle of Sharpsburg. Be this so or not, Lee’s method has left us with less than the usual apparatus for judging of a commander’s thoughts and intentions when he formed his plans. This gives peculiar value to Colonel Marshall’s papers, for though Lee was usually reticent with his staff about his plans and intentions, he had to discuss them, during and soon after the event, with the man who drafted his dispatches; and that man has, in the papers which follow, told what he believed those intentions to have been.

As I have said, it was natural that Marshall, having lived for three years in circumstances of great intimacy with Lee, having special knowledge of his chief’s mind, and feeling that Lee had often, from motives of chivalry, failed to do himself justice in his dispatches, should desire to write the life of his hero. He had served with Lee to the very end, and been the only one of his staff to accompany him to the surrender of Appomattox. Therefore in the years which immediately followed the war he began to elaborate the contemporary notes which he had made for the dispatches, and to insert in them his recollections of the reasons why Lee had acted as he did. Having drafted the dispatches himself, he took these as the basis of his work, and the reader will recognize a number of passages which appear over Lee’s signature in the Official Records. But after the war Marshall had no longer the facilities which he had had in camp of meeting and questioning the chief actors in the events. Speaking in 1875 at a reunion of Confederate Veterans, he said:—“I have been engaged for two or three years, as some of you may know, in trying to write an account of the life and achievements of the great leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, and conscious of my inability to rise to the height of that great achievement, I have spared no labour to make what I have written accurate, however in other respects it may fall below the dignity of the subject. . . .

“The Secretary of War saw fit to deny my request, preferred by a distinguished Senator of the United States who honoured me with his confidence and friendship, to be permitted to examine the captured records of the Confederate Government, of the contents of which some Federal officers, more fortunate than myself, have from time to time given what lawyers call ‘parole testimony.’ I have thus been thrown back upon other sources of information; and while I am most grateful for the assistance I have received from officers, both Federal and Confederate, to whom I have applied, candour compels me to acknowledge that the seeker after truth has a hard time of it when he undertakes to describe with anything like minuteness any of the great battles of the war.”

Seeking, above all, accuracy, Marshall determined to await the publication of the Official Records; but by the time these had appeared the pressure of an expanding legal practice prevented him from resuming his task. In the interval he had written his reminiscences of his experiences at Richmond in the spring of 1862, had expanded a number of the dispatches, and had written a study of the Gettysburg campaign. These, with several addresses delivered on memorial occasions and the original drafts of some of the dispatches and some correspondence with persons prominent in the war, constitute the papers which have been placed in my hands. It is a proof that Marshall sought earnestly to follow his great chief’s example in endeavoring to heal the wounds and remove the bitterness of war, that the greater part of the last chapter, in which he describes, as an eyewitness,—I may add, the only Southern eyewitness to do so,—the memorable scene at Appomattox, was prepared for an address delivered at Grant’s tomb.

With this prelude, I give way to Colonel Marshall.