General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, Chapter 16

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier


THE appointment of General Lee renewed the hope of the people and the army, and, notwithstanding the sufferings of the soldiers, they were bright and cheerful; and it is difficult to conceive how they maintained their lightness of spirits. Our forefathers in the old Revolution had their hardships. The winter at Valley Forge could hardly be surpassed; but their sorrows were personal. There was no poignant anxiety for the loved ones at home, many of them surrounded by the enemy. They knew that, and knew nothing more, for there could be no communication; others knew that their families were subjected to the most galling poverty, in a devastated country; still these ragged, half-starved patriots suffered, and did what they could for their country.

John E. Cooke gives a graphic account of the army to which he belonged, and, as an eye-witness, he could not be mistaken, nor is the picture overdrawn.

“The condition of the army,” he says, “in which ‘companies’ scarce existed, ‘regiments’ were counted by tens, and ‘divisions’ by hundreds only, need not here be elaborately dwelt upon. It was indeed the phantom of an army, and the gaunt faces were almost ghostly. Shoeless, in rags, with just sufficient coarse food to sustain life, but never enough to keep at arm’s length the gnawing fiend Hunger, Lee’s old veterans remained firm, scattered like a thin skirmish-line along forty miles of works; while opposite to them lay an enemy in the highest state of efficiency, and numbering nearly five men to their one. That the soldiers of the army retained their nerve under circumstances so discouraging is surely an honorable fact, and will make their names glorious in history. They remained unshaken and fought undismayed to the last, although their courage was subjected to trials of the most exhausting character. Day and night, from month to month, the incessant fire of the Federal forces had continued, and every engine of human destruction had been put in play to wear away their strength. They fought all through the cheerless days of winter, and when they lay down in the cold trenches at eight, the shell of the Federal mortars rained down upon them, bursting and mortally wounding them. All day long the fire of muskets and cannon, and then from sunset to dawn the curving fire of the roaring mortars, and the steady, never-ceasing crack of the sharp-shooters along the front. Snow, or blinding sleet, or freezing rains might be falling, but the fire went on,—it seemed destined to go on to all eternity.”*

Still they kept up their spirits, and the younger portion of them amused themselves at their own sufferings, and with the proverbial recklessness of the camp seemed joyous amid starvation. They called themselves “Lee’s Miserables.”

The sprightly authoress of the “Popular Life of Lee” gives the following account of the origin of the name. “Victor Hugo’s work, Les Misérables, had been translated and published by a house in Richmond; the soldiers, in the great dearth of reading-matter, had seized upon it; and thus, by a strange chance, the tragic story of the great French writer had become known to the soldiers in the trenches. Everywhere you might see the gaunt figures in their tattered jackets, bending over the dingy pamphlets—‘Fantine,’ ‘Cosette,’ ‘Marius,’ or ‘St. Denis,’ and the woes of ‘Jean Valjean,’ the old galley-slave, found an echo in the hearts of these brave soldiers, immured in the trenches and fettered by duty to their muskets or their cannon.”

A story went the rounds of the newspapers at this time, of an old woman, who, seeing the notice of one of this series in a bookseller’s shop, “Les Misérables,” “Fantine,” mistook it for a bulletin from the seat of war. “Lee’s Miserables, fainting!” exclaimed the excited old lady, and she went in to ask for further details, as her son was one of them.

There was no bound to the love of the soldiers for their commander. They knew that he did all he could to ameliorate their condition; that he suffered with them, and enjoyed no luxuries. Richmond continued to send out her supplies, and the surrounding country—depleted, overrun, and hemmed in as it was—did its best for them. But little could be drawn from the lands. The flourishing wheat-field of to-day would probably be grazed by the cavalry of the enemy to-morrow, and the laden wagon for the commissariat might be, nay, probably would be, the prey of the raiding party.

The scarcity of provisions in Richmond during this winter may be better understood by a little circumstance which came under the writer’s eye, and which formed a striking exemplification of the efficacy of prayer offered in faith, nothing doubting.

A chaplain in the Confederate service—a refugee from his home—received a letter from the noble-hearted Mr. J. R. Bryan, of Fluvanna County, telling him that he had deposited with a commission merchant nineteen hams of bacon, subject to his order, to be given to the same number of refugees to whom he thought a ham would be acceptable.

The chaplain’s wife had that evening called to see a lady belonging to one of the most influential families in Virginia. She had not lived in her native State for many years before the war; and her five sons were engaged in their several avocations, north of her borders: but, when they knew that their beloved South was in danger, they, with one accord, followed the example of their great chief, left all and came to her assistance. The widowed mother gave up her comfortable home, followed her sons, and sought a support by writing in one of the Government offices. She was now suffering from the absence of those sons, exposed to danger and death, as they were ill the several branches of the army. One only was not now fighting for his country, and he had been for many months a prisoner at Fort Delaware. She poured into her friend’s sympathetic ear the causes of her anxiety, but not a complaint escaped her; though it was evident that her share of the depreciated currency paid for her services was scarcely adequate to her support.

The lady returned to her lodgings, and her husband immediately handed her Mr. B.’s letter, with the request that she would assist him in finding out the roost needy among their refugee acquaintances. Their name was legion; and the list was easily and joyfully made out, at the head of it was the friend of the evening. The necessary order for the ham was written and carefully laid aside, to be taken to her early in the morning.

On kindly thoughts intent, the lady arose with the early dawn to take the order to her friend, and was shocked to find that the streets were covered with sleet, and the snow was falling rapidly. After the first feeling of disappointment, she determined, reluctantly, to wait until the weather was more propitious. The doubt then arose in her mind about the propriety of doing so. The inclement day might have found her friend totally unprepared for it, and alone. Was it right to prevent her having meat to-day—to withhold from her any comfort which it was in her power to bestow? The argument went on in her own mind, and after an animated discussion between sympathy and prudence, her husband, who was too sick to take her place, was called into the council. He agreed with sympathy, that the friend should have the ham at once, but with prudence, that his wife should not expose herself to such weather. Finally sympathy triumphed, and the lady, with overshoes, cloak, and umbrella, set off on her slippery and somewhat dangerous walk of love. The middle of the street, where the way was rough, could only be trodden with safety. The house was reached, the icy door-steps were passed in safety; then up two flights of stairs, and the tap at the door was answered by a fine-looking young officer in colonel’s uniform. He was at once recognized as the son, from his long incarceration at Fort Delaware. The breakfast-table was arranged for two—with snowy napkins, bright silver, and pretty china, the remnants of former days.

The recognition and congratulations being over, the mother was summoned to the passage, and the “order” given to her. For a moment she uttered not a word; tears streamed, and her eyes were lifted to heaven. “The gift of God,” she at last exclaimed.

Mr. Bryan is good; your husband is good; you are good to come out in such weather; but you are all sent by God. My son came unexpectedly last night, at a late hour, worn and weary. My heart overflowed with gratitude and joy. I had tea, bread and butter for him; nothing more. After his long imprisonment and hardship, I had no meat for him, and no hope of getting it. I did not tell him so, but I told God, and asked him to help me. After my fervent prayer I went to sleep peacefully, thankful that my child was with me again safe and well; but in the dark hours of the night I awoke, and the troubled thought came over me, “How can I make him comfortable for the few days he will be with me, before he returns to the army.” I arose and knelt at my bedside, and besought God to give me food for my son. I saw no probability of it, and yet I hoped that He would see fit to grant my prayer; and He has done it, blessed be His name.

At this time, it must be remembered, many of the inhabitants of Richmond, even those who had been most accustomed to lives of ease and elegance, had no luxuries; then how much more was it the case with those persons, particularly ladies, who had necessarily left their homes and sought the Capital as the place where they might gain the means of living by working for the Government. They worked cheerfully and hopefully, and privations were not regarded as such.


* Cooke’s Life of General Lee.

Return to Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier