General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, Chapter 13

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier


THE advance to Gettysburg and the desperate fight are left to the historian. The Southern soldiers had fought well, and when repulsed, their leader mounted his war-horse Traveller and rode forward to meet and encourage his retreating troops. The air was filled with bursting shells, and the men were coming back without order. General Lee met them, and with his staff officers busied himself in rallying them, uttering, as he did so, words of hope and encouragement.

Colonel Freemantle,—an officer of the English army, who was a spectator of the fight, and who seems to have noticed General Lee with an admiring eye,—describes his conduct at this moment as being “perfectly sublime. Lee’s countenance,” he adds, “did not give signs of the slightest disappointment, care, or annoyance, but preserved the utmost placidity and cheerfulness. He rode slowly to and fro, saving in his grave, kindly voice to the men, ‘All this will come right in the end; we’ll talk it over hereafter; but in the meantime all good men must rally. We want all true and good men now.’ They did rally, and even some of the wounded returned with cheers for their beloved commander.”

Colonel Freemantle adds in his diary, that General Lee was fully alive, to the extent of the disaster, and said to him, “This has been a sad day to us, Colonel; but we can’t expect always to have victory.” And yet when General Wilcox came to report the failure, scarcely able to articulate with emotion, he said, cheerfully, “Never mind, General; all this has been my fault. It is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can.”

The English officer spoken of above seems lost in admiration of the affection and confidence shown him by the men in their hour of defeat. He quotes in his diary their homely phraseology in speaking of him: “We’ve not lost confidence in the old man. This day’s work won’t do him any harm. Uncle Robert will get us to Washington yet; you bet he will,” etc. The men loved him with devotion, because he loved them, sympathized in their sorrows, and always spoke kindly to them. Other great warriors have treated their soldiers as machines with which to execute their plans; but General Lee treated them as men and brothers. To the wounded he gave sympathy, to all kind words.

Immediately after this fight he returned to Virginia, and rested his army upon the banks of the Opequan.

At this time, Colonel Freemantle describes General Lee as “almost the handsomest man, of his age, I ever saw. He is tall, broad-shouldered, very well made, well set up, a thorough soldier in his appearance; and his manners are most courteous and full of dignity. He is a perfect gentleman in every respect. I imagine no man has so few enemies, or is so universally esteemed. Throughout he South, all agree in pronouncing him as near perfection as a man can be. He has none of the small vices, such as smoking and chewing; and his bitterest enemy has never accused him of any of the greater ones. He generally wore a long gray jacket, a high felt hat, and blue trousers tucked into his Wellington boots. I never saw him carry arms; and the only marks of his military rank are the three stars on his collar. He rides a handsome horse, which is extremely well governed. He himself is very neat in his dress and person; and in the most arduous marches he always looks smart and clean. . . . It is understood that General Lee is a religions man, though not so demonstrative in that respect as Jackson; and, unlike his brother-in-arms, he is a member of the Church of England. His only faults, as far as I can learn, arise from his excessive amiability.”

Such is the very correct sketch of the English officer; but the Englishman did not realize that his fault of “excessive amiability,” was the gift of God through His Spirit, engrafted on a gentle but high-toned nature.

The failure at Gettysburg was a sore disappointment to the South, but no one blamed General Lee. It was thought right that he should carry the war into the enemy’s country; and his want of success was mourned over, and the country sympathized with but never censured him. Confidence in and love for him increased, and the people meekly bowed in submission to His will who had not seen fit to crown the efforts of our brave troops with victory.

The 21st of August was appointed by the President as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. It was faithfully observed by the Confederacy.

From his return to Virginia General Lee had most successfully kept the Federal army at bay, and in December, 1863, we find him in winter-quarters at Orange Court-House.

Very pleasing accounts have been given of these quarters. The tent of the General in the middle, with those of the staff around it. The couriers amused themselves by cutting out and fashioning walks from one to the other. His staff was composed of gentlemen of fine soldierly qualities and courteous manners, making a delightful society in the woods. They lived on most harmonious terms with their General. They loved and revered him the more for being thrown with him intimately and without ceremony. He was free from the little weaknesses which disenchant the character of great men as we approach and enter into the recesses of every-day life.

General John B. Gordon, in his address made at Atlanta, Georgia, immediately after General Lee’s death, says of him, “I declare it here to-day, that, of any mortal man whom it has been my privilege to approach, he was the greatest; and I assert here, that, grand as might be your conceptions of the man before, he arose in incomparable majesty on more familiar acquaintance. This can be affirmed of few men who have ever lived or died, and of no other man whom it has ever been my fortune to approach.”

During this winter a revival of religion took place in his army, the extent of which was almost unprecedented. The gray-bearded veteran and the boyish soldier knelt together under the roof constructed by the men for houses of worship composed of evergreens. General Lee entered heartily into their feelings, went among them, joined them in prayer, conversed with and encouraged their chaplains, asked earnestly for their prayers, and in every way showed the deepest interest in their work. He was never demonstrative in his nature, and his religion was of that quiet kind, which was more conspicuous in action than word; but he felt too deeply his dependence on God’s guidance, not to solicit the prayers of the humblest chaplain of the army.

Meat was becoming more and more scarce during this winter, and the soldiers’ rations were greatly diminished. The General chose to fare no better than his men, and had meat on his table but twice a week. “His ordinary dinner,” says a newspaper of the day, “consisted of cabbage boiled in salt and water, and a pone of corn bread.”

The same paper tells an anecdote of the General’s having invited a number of gentlemen to dine with him; in a fit of extravagance he ordered a sumptuous repast of middling and cabbage. The dinner was served; and behold, a great pile of cabbage, and a bit of middling about four inches long and two inches wide! The guests, with commendable politeness, unanimously declined, middling, and it remained in the dish untouched. The next day, the General, remembering the delicate tit-bit, ordered his servant to bring that middling. The servant hesitated in some confusion, but at last owned that the middling was borrowed, and he had returned it to its owner. The exact truth of the anecdote cannot be positively asserted; but that General Lee considered that the use of meat more than twice a week was wrong while the country was so impoverished, cannot be doubted; and that he followed the dictates of conscience, and denied himself the use of it except when the soldiers could have it, is equally certain.

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