General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, Chapter 15

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier


IT was about this time (January, 1864,) that General Lee issued an order, offering a furlough to every soldier who would procure an able-bodied recruit; and several additional cavalry brigades were organized.

In the latter part of January, Richmond was endangered by a raiding party sent out by General B. F. Butler from the Peninsula. This failed in consequence of the party finding the fortification more secure than had been anticipated. It soon retreated, having lost a good many men, without the smallest compensation.

Then followed the still more threatening “Dahlgren raid.” The plans for destroying the city by fire, seizing the President and Cabinet, and liberating the prisoners, were said to have been well arranged, but by the blessing of God, and the valor and arrangement of parties of our troops, they were all frustrated. Colonel Dahlgren, the leader of one of the detachments, was killed, and about eighty of his party surrendered. He was a young man of high social position, and is described as peculiarly gentle in manner and refined in sentiment and education, and scarcely over twenty years of age. It seems very sad, that so cruel a purpose should have been entrusted to one so young and highly gifted, and that he should have been the instrument to execute the evil designs of older and more violent men. Had he succeeded, the first of March would have witnessed the doom of our devoted city ; but its time was not yet; its inhabitants had much to do and to suffer before the final blow.

The night when this raiding party was so near us can never be forgotten by those persons who were in the city. It was known that the attachés of the War Department were detained there during the night; why, we knew not. About midnight brigades were seen marching up the streets; the moon shone brightly, and everybody seemed to be on the watch. The porticos and pavements were filled with ladies, as if it were in the day. Each inquired, “What is the matter?” a question which none could answer; yet every one seemed calm, quiet, and prayerful. There was no panic. Our city had often been saved as if by a miracle, and all felt I that we were in God’s hands.

About two o’clock, a telegram came from General J. E. B. Stuart that he was in pursuit of the enemy. It was soon spread abroad from the War Department, and we felt safe and thankful. In a few moments the streets were deserted except by soldiers passing out, and the sentinels. Families had retired into their homes with a feeling of perfect security.

Next day General Stuart telegraphed that the enemy had been overtaken at Ashland, by Lomax’s brigade, and handsomely repulsed. But on that very day, May 11th, just one year and one day after the death of General Jackson, the telegraphic wires brought the overwhelming news that our great cavalry leader, General Stuart, the Prince Rupert of the South as he has been called, had received the wound which proved to be mortal.

He was borne from the field by his staff, placed in an ambulance, and brought to Richmond with great difficulty, turning from the road and going hither and thither to avoid the enemy, every jolt inflicting the intensest agony. They at last reached the house of his brother-in-law, Doctor Brewer, in safety. But this brave young officer, the very head and front of our cavaliers, died the next day.

He had the unspeakable comfort, so often denied to the soldier, of dying among friends, with a devoted servant of God by his side, who came to administer to him the consolation of religion according to the rites of the Episcopal Church, of which he was a member, and to whom he expressed his resignation to the will of God; and soon after, having united with his feeble voice in singing “Rock of Ages, cleft for me,” he quietly breathed his last.

There was one dear solace which his dying hour did not experience. His beloved wife was but fifteen miles off, but the city was so hemmed in by the enemy that she could not reach him. From time to time he turned his head to ask, “Is she come?” But she for whom his loving heart so yearned came not until that heart was stilled in death.

The President stood by him, and thanked him, in the name of the country, for his services. “I have but done my duty,” was the soldier’s reply.

The next evening his funeral services were performed in St. James’s Church, by the Rev. Dr. Peterkin, and then his body was borne to that city of the brave and martyred dead, Hollywood Cemetery; and as the procession slowly and sorrowfully moved on,—

   —the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing,

says a letter written at the time, “was his funeral knell, sounding at intervals the solemn peal, with which, in the haste and uncertainty of the time, it was impossible for us to honor him.”

His death was a grievous blow to the South, and particularly to General Lee. It is said by his officers that he was plunged into the deepest grief. When the intelligence reached him, he retired from those around him, and seemed engaged in earnest prayer. He afterwards spoke of him with great feeling, saying, “I can scarcely think of him without weeping.” This was a most critical time for the country, and his loss was peculiarly severe.

General Lee had from the beginning of spring fully realized the odds that were against him. The Federal Government had made immense efforts for the campaign. General Grant had become commander of the Northern myriads. The whole “Army of Northern Virginia” did not exceed fifty thousand men, and there was no immediate hope of reinforcements. Then our Christian warrior turned to the Lord of Hosts for help in his weakness, and issued a General Order, recommending Friday, the 8th of April, as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. He invited the army to join in the observance of the day. Chaplains wire ordered to hold services in their regiments and brigades, and the officers and men were requested to attend. He concluded the order with these words:

Soldiers! let us humble ourselves before Almighty God, asking, through Christ, the forgiveness of our sins, beseeching the aid of the God of our forefathers in the defence of our homes and our liberties, thanking Him for His past blessings, and imploring their continuance upon our cause and people.

In the beginning of this campaign of 1864, the great importance of it was deeply impressed on the minds of the people. Wives, mothers, and sisters worked and prayed for their stricken country; earnest were their exhortations to their loved ones to be true to their country and the glorious cause. The veterans of Lee were inspired by patriotism, and buckled on their armor with determined hands for the coming conflict. The battle was not yet to the strong.

On the 5th and 6th of May was fought and won the desperate battle of “The Wilderness.” The same entangled wilderness which had been the field of victory the year before, where the forests were so thick that it was impossible for a regimental commander to see the whole of his line at once. General Lee had chosen his own ground, and his troops had the advantage of a thorough acquaintance with the country. Generals A, P. Hill, Longstreet, Ewell, Gordon, Kershaw, and other general officers, took part in this glorious victory. Here the gallant Gen. Jenkins, of South Carolina, was mortally wounded by a party of our own men, and Gen. Longstreet received a severe wound in his throat from the same party.

The next day Gen. Grant took up the line of march for Spottsylvania Court-House, hoping to place himself between Lee and Richmond. In this attempt he was foiled by General Lee’s having seen through the plan, and having ordered Longstreet’s corps, now commanded by General Anderson, to march to that place, where he was soon followed by the whole army.

On the morning of the 9th both armies were concentrated—the Confederates on the southern bank of the river Po, the Federals on the northern. The fighting was desperate on both sides for three days, without great advantages to either. It was during this time, and in connection with the movement on Spottsylvania Court-House, that Sheridan sent out raiding parties towards Richmond, which parties acted in concert with those already mentioned.

Now General Lee began that wonderful retreat, said to be the most masterly on record, from the Rappahannock to the James, fighting ah occasion required, with more or less success, but keeping General Grant at bay.

On the 5th of June occurred the decisive battle of Cold Harbor, in Hanover County, which closed the campaign, leaving General Grant again foiled.

“During these critical days,” says John E. Cooke, in his excellent biography of General Lee, himself an eye-witness, “General Lee acted with the nerve and coolness of a soldier, whom no adverse event can shake. Those who saw him will testify to the stern courage of his expression; the glance of the eye, which indicated a great nature aroused to the depth of its powerful organization.”

On one occasion, at the battle of Spottsylvania Court-House, he witnessed a scene too characteristic of the devotion of men and officers to their leader to be omitted.

Lee was on fire with the ardor of battle, which so seldom mastered him. He went forward in front of his line, and taking his station beside the colors of one of his Virginia regiments, took off his hat, and, turning to the men, pointed towards the enemy. A storm of cheers greeted the General as he sat on his gray war-horse ill front of the men, his head bare, his eye flashing, and his cheek flushed with the fighting-blood of the soldier. General Gordon spurred to his side, and seized his rein. “General Lee!” he exclaimed, “this is no place for you. Go to the rear. These are Virginians and Georgians, sir,—men who have never failed! Men, you will not fail now!” he cried, rising in his stirrups and addressing the troops.

“No, no!” was the reply of the men; and from the whole line burst the shout, “Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!” Instead of being needed, it was obvious that his presence was an embarrassment, as the men seemed determined not to charge unless he retired. He accordingly did so; and the line advanced, led by General Gordon, who was never so happy as when the air around him was filled with bullets.

Three days after the battle of Cold Harbor, General Grant determined to retire south of the James and besiege Richmond from that direction. In the retreat from the Rappahannock, he had lost twenty men to Lee’s one; but the depletion in the Southern army, though comparatively small, could not be repaired. The South had done her best—men and means were exhausted. The soldiers in the field were veterans. The courage of rank and file was wonderful; hope still filled the soldiers’ breasts. The people, too, never yielded to despair. Sheridan and Hunter had spread ruin through the beautiful valley of Virginia. “Over two thousand barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming utensils had been destroyed; seventy mills with grain burned.” This quotation is from Sheridan’s dispatch, of which one of their own historians says, “This dread bulletin recites acts some of which are indefensible.”

From this time, during the summer and autumn of 1864, hostilities continued with varied success. The soldiers looked to General Lee as to one inspired; he was the hope of the country, and all prayed for his safety, feeling that the weapon that should end his life would also end the life of the beloved Confederacy. He must have known that the cause was almost hopeless; and yet, with a firm and calm reliance upon Providence, he never for a moment wavered in his duty to his country. Remembering his great maxim, that “Human virtue should be equal to human calamity,” he seemed never to lose his “heart of hope.” “For myself,” said he to one of the Senators, “I intend to die sword in hand;” but God had willed it otherwise, and reserved His great Christian soldier to set an example of pure and undefiled religion amid the peaceful shades of civil life.

During this winter the Confederate Congress appointed him Commander-in-chief of the armies of the Confederacy, with was confirmed by the Executive on the same day, He accepted the appointment with his usual modesty, and then issued a characteristic General Order, invoking the guidance of Almighty God, and expressing his reliance upon the courage and fortitude of the troops, sustained by the and firmness of the people, feeling confidence that their united efforts, under the blessing of Heaven, would secure peace and independence.

A Northern editor at that time, commenting on his appointment and the evacuation of Charleston, says, “It has been said that the rebellion was a shell. The shell is ours; and while we hold the worthless fragments, its invulnerable core—the great strong heart—defies and baffles us. To one who truly conceives the meaning of the change of policy that has been inaugurated by the abandonment of Charleston, the shadow of coming battles looks darker and more vast than ever before. To one brain, we know how fertile the resources; to one heart, we know how firm and tree; to one intellect, we know how gifted with martial attributes; to one man, we know how capable to plan, to strike, to retrieve error, or to take advantage of it, the military fortunes of the South have been confided.” Such was the opinion of the Northern press of our great commander. The North evidently feared a plan, which General Lee had hoped to carry out, of uniting the armies, and carrying the war farther South; but it little knew how entirely gone were our resources.

Return to Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier