General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, Chapter 9

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier

CHAPTER IX.
GENERAL LEE BECOMES COMMANDER OF THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA.

IT was at the battle of “Fair Oaks,” the day after the glorious battle of “Seven Pines,” that General Joseph E. Johnston received so severe a wound in his shoulder, from the fragment of a shell, as to render it impossible for him to retain the command of the army. To supply the loss of one so beloved and confided in by the soldiers, all eyes turned upon General Lee. The confidence of the authorities, and of the people at large, in his abilities was unbounded; and while they deeply regretted the loss of General Johnston, and while the soldiers sorrowed much for the necessity of giving up their old commander, yet the people of Richmond, at least, breathed more freely when they knew that their safety was intrusted to their own able and God-fearing General. How he defended their city and the Confederate cause, through a long series of bloody battles, assisted by that great Christian soldier, as God-fearing as himself, the wonderful Stonewall Jackson, the brilliant young Christian cavalry officer, General J. E, B. Stuart, and an untold host of the bravest, best, most glorious warriors, both of the rank and file, which ever adorned the annals of a country’s history, has been given by abler pens than ours. It is theirs to tell of the mighty military deeds which marked those seven days around Richmond; it is ours to speak of our great leader as a Christian.

It pleased the Almighty Ruler of events to give us Christians at the head of our affairs. In their prosperity they praised God for His mercies to them; in their adversity they prayed to Him, and trusted in His goodness. We have seen our President again and again bend his venerable head, and kneel humbly at the Lord’s table, a recipient of the emblems of the body and blood of Christ, which are spiritually taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper. Our Adjutant-General Cooper, and others of the living, walk humbly with their God, and what may not be said of Lee and Jackson, “who having fought the good fight, and finished their course,” are now rejoicing in the rest prepared for the people of God. Though naturally men of very different temperaments, and members of different religious sects, their sentiments and their hearts were governed by the same living principle of duty to their Creator. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” was a command which seemed never to be forgotten by either. General Lee frequently issued Army Orders enjoining the observance of the Sabbath—commanding that nothing should be done but what was absolutely necessary for the subsistence or safety of the array, directing officers to give their men every facility for attending divine service, and urging all to make diligent use of the means of grace thus afforded them. He was always an example for good to those around him, whether at home or in the camp; always attending public worship punctually on the Sabbath, and showing reverence for the day in every particular. It was his habit, under ordinary circumstances, never to read secular books, newspapers, or even letters on that day. In his immense and important correspondence, letters would often reach him on Sunday which must be delivered at once. He would open the letters to see if it was necessary to attend to them; if not, they would be laid aside with the newspapers for inspection on Monday. The same conscientiousness was a striking characteristic of General Jackson. The observance of the Sabbath seemed never forgotten by him in the army. His habit of resting on that day while on a march, if it could be done with propriety, was universal, and, in camp, having the gospel preached regularly at his headquarters. Like General Lee, he was extremely scrupulous about reading newspapers and letters. In writing to a friend upon the subject, he says: “For fifteen years I have refused to mail letters on the Sabbath, or take them out of the office on that day, except since I came into the field; and so far from having to regret the course, it has been a source of true enjoyment, I have never sustained loss in observing what God enjoins. My rule is to let the mails remain unopened, unless they contain a dispatch.” He never read a letter of friendship or compliment on Sunday, “for his Sabbaths,” says his biographer, “were sacredly reserved from the smallest secular distractions,” On one occasion, before he left Lexington, a letter, about which he felt deep interest, was received and placed carefully away. As he was walking to church with an intimate friend, he said to him:

“Surely, Major, you have read your letter.”

“Assuredly not,” said he.

“Where is it?” asked his friend.

“Here,” replied Major Jackson, tapping his pocket.

“What obstinacy!” exclaimed the friend. “Do you not know that your curiosity to learn its contents will distract your attention during divine worship far more than if you had read it?”

“No,” replied he. “I shall make the most faithful effort I can to govern my thoughts, and guard them from unnecessary distraction; and as I do this from a sense of duty, I expect the Divine blessing upon it.” And the letter was read and enjoyed on Monday morning.

In yet another respect our two most distinguished Generals were alike in their habits. We have seen General Lee’s marked abstemiousness in taking stimulating drinks. Jackson observed the same abstinence. Thus, when reconnoitring the enemy’s front on one occasion in the winter of 1862, when prudence forbade the use of fire, he became so chilled that a medical attendant, in alarm for his safety, urged him to take some ardent spirit; as there was nothing else at hand, he agreed to it. As he experienced a difficulty in swallowing it, his friend asked him if it was very unpleasant. “No,” said he; “no. I like it; I always did, and that is the reason I never use it.” At another time, he took a long exhausting walk with a brother officer, who was also a temperate, godly man. The walk terminated at his quarters. He proposed to General Jackson, in consequence of his fatigue, to join him in a glass of brandy and water. “No,” said he; “I am much obliged to you; I never use it. I am more afraid of it than I am of Federal bullets.” Another point of resemblance was that habit of not only feeling, but of expressing their trust in and their dependence on an over-ruling Providence under all circumstances. It seems strange, indeed, that this habit is not more general among men professing and calling themselves Christians; but alas, alas, it is too often neglected! General Lee and General Jackson both ascribed glory to God for all blessings, and looked to Him prayerfully in all danger. They were both eminently men of prayer and faith; in every general order, in every report of victory, each gave glory to God for success, and each expressed submission to His will in the hour of defeat.

The first care of General Lee, on taking charge of the army, was to put it in a condition for an effective campaign. By the 20th of June, he brought the strength of the army of Northern Virginia to upwards of seventy thousand men.

At first, the appointment of General Lee was not popular in the army. It had great confidence in General Johnston, and was devotedly attached to him; and the partial failure of the Western Virginia campaign had placed General Lee somewhat under a cloud with the soldiers, and they were not willing to be permanently separated from their old commander. The people at large, and the soldiers, were ignorant of the great character of the man in whose hands the fate of the army was now placed; but it was not long before this feeling of doubt and uncertainty gave place to the most unbounded admiration and love for him, and by the end of June, it is thought that the troops would have mutinied, had he been taken from them. Never as the master mind of Lee more actively called forth than in this great campaign. If “success is the test of merit,” as said the lamented Albert Sydney Johnston, then was our cause in the hand of the most meritorious officers and men that ever adorned the pages of history.

Never was there a more desperate conflict than that which, for seven days, crimsoned the wooded and swampy banks of the sluggish Chickahominy. To take Richmond was the burning desire of the Northern Government, and every city, town, and village within the boundaries of its mighty territory, entered warmly into the feeling. A host, innumerable for multitude, splendidly equipped, attended by all the “pomp and circumstance of grim-visaged war,” were led on by the then idol of the North, the brave McClellan. The South had to oppose them with an array not to be compared in number or equipment, but composed of men of brave, determined hearts, fired by as pure and exalted patriotism as ever animated the breast of man; who fought, as they believed, for liberty or death, led on by gallant and heroic chieftains, among them that brilliant cavalry officer, J. E. B. Stuart, with a body of cavalry not a man of which, but was eager to begin the fight. He had lately returned from that daring reconnoissance which, in compliance with General Lee’s orders, he had undertaken and accomplished with a picked force. They left Richmond an the 12th of June, and returned to it on the evening of the 14th. Besides gaining reliable and definite information concerning the position and strength of the Federal army, he had captured many prisoners, horses, and mules, and a number of small arms, and inflicted on the enemy the loss of millions of dollars in the destruction of stores. All this was done with the loss of but one man, the lamented Captain Latané, whose body was rescued from the enemy by his brother, who, at the risk of being captured, placed it in a mill-cart, took it to a neighboring horse and left it in the hands of ladies, who, having dressed it for the grave with the tenderness of sisters, gave it Christian burial in a family burying-ground, by the side of a brother soldier. This was done fearlessly by devoted women in the sight of the enemy, who were picketing around the plantation on which they lived, with no Confederate near them of proper age to bear arms.

The troops behaved nobly. They were in the saddle from Thursday morning until Saturday evening, never stopping for rest or food, except a brief halt on Thursday night; and this “ride around McClellan,” as the soldiers called it, must ever be regarded as one of the most brilliant fests ever performed by cavalry,—the result of which determined General Lee’s plan of attack, and his arrangements were made accordingly.

The glorious Seven Days came and passed away. The carnage was over. McClellan had been forced to retire to the protection of his gun-boats, thirty miles below Richmond. The city was safe, and we fondly hoped that the war would end; but the end was not yet. General Lee depicts the glory of the victory in his address to the army while in front of McClellan’s position on James River. President Davis had been on the field cosstantly during six days, and had witnessed the conduct of the army. He then tendered to it the thanks of the country the following address:

TO THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA.

Soldiers:—I congratulate you on the series of brilliant victories which, under Divine Providence, you have lately won; and, as President of the Confederate States, do heartily tender to you the thanks of the country, whose just cause you have so skilfully and heroically served. Ten days ago, an invading army, greatly superior to you in numbers and in the material of war, closely beleaguered your Capital, and vauntingly proclaimed its speedy conquest. You marched to attack the enemy in his intrenchments; with well-directed movements and death-defying valor you charged him in his strong positions, drove him from field to field over a distance of more than thirty-five miles, and, despite his reinforcements, compelled him to seek safety under cover of his gunboats, where he now lies cowering before the army so lately derided and threatened with entire subjugation. The fortitude with which you have borne toil and privation, the gallantry with which you have entered into each successive battle, must have been witnessed to be fully appreciated; but a grateful people will not fail to recognize your deeds, and to bear you in loved remembrance. Well may it be said of you that you have “done enough for glory;” but duty to a suffering country, and to the cause of constitutional liberty, claims from you yet further efforts. Let it be your pride to relax in nothing which can promote your future efficiency,—your one great object being to drive the invader from your soil, carrying your standards beyond the outer boundary of the Confederacy, to wring from an unscrupulous foe the recognition of your birthright—community independence.

(Signed,) JEFFERSON DAVIS.

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