The Soul of Lee, by Randolph H. McKim, Chapter 8

The Soul of Lee


“Like Napoleon, Lee’s troops soon learned to believe equal to every emergency that war could bring. . . . Like Cæsar he mixed with the crowd, of soldiers freely, and never feared that his position would be forgotten,”—Col. Charles Charles Cornwallis Chesney.

“He was the head and front, the very life and soul of the Army.”—Gen Jubal A. Early.

“Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia never sustained
defeat.”—Charles Francis Adams.

It has been well said of Lee by a distinguished member of the United States General Staff: “All great soldiers before him inherited a ready-made army, but Lee made his own army.”[1] Not only did he organize it, and consolidate it, and fashion it into a well-tempered instrument of extraordinary efficiency, but he inspired it, in the two years nine months and ten days during which he commanded it, with his own heroic spirit. The fortitude, the patient endurance, the Intrepidity, the daring, the steadiness, the poise, which he possessed, he imparted to his army, by that subtle power which a great personality is sometimes able to exert over masses of men.

Perhaps the highest encomiums ever pronounced upon the Army of Northern Virginia have come from its antagonists,—from those who grappled with it in deadly conflict and felt its prowess. Thus Gen. Hooker, who commanded the Federal Army at Chancellorsville, declared in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, that Lee’s army showed “a steadiness and efficiency unsurpassed in my judgment in ancient or modern times,” and he added. “We have not been able to rival it.” And Gen. Chas. A. Whittier of Massachusetts has said, “The Army of Northern Virginia will deservedly rank as the best army which has existed on this continent, suffering privations unknown to its opponent, The North sent no such army to the field.”

Swinton, the historian of the Army of the Potomac, exclaims:

Who can ever forget, that once looked upon it, that army of tattered uniforms and bright muskets, that body of incomparable infantry, the Army of Northern Virginia, which for four years carried the revolt on their bayonets, opposing a constant front to the mighty concentration of power brought against it; which, receiving terrible blows, did not fail to give the like, and which, vital in all its parts, died only with its annihilation.

Theodore Roosevelt gives his opinion in these words, “The world has never seen better soldiers than those who followed Lee.” And Charles Francis Adams in his centennial oration deliberately declares:

Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia never sustained defeat. Finally, it is true, succumbing to exhaustion, to the end they were not overthrown in fight.

Lee’s own opinion of his army has peculiar interest. Its material in his eyes was “the best in the world. . . . Nothing can surpass the gallantry and intelligence of the main body.” Again he writes to Hood, “There never were such men in an army before.” This confidence and admiration he did not fail to express to them publicly; and by doing so bound them ever more closely to him: “You have fought a fierce and sanguinary battle, which, if not attended with the success that has hitherto crowned your efforts, was marked by the same heroic spirit which has commanded the respect of your enemies, the gratitude of your country and the admiration of mankind.”

At this point we cannot forbear dwelling on the contrast between the Army of Northern Virginia and the army that is fighting in Europe today under the Prussian Eagles. As we follow the track of the latter we see realized the description of the Hebrew prophet, “The land is as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness.” What an appalling spectacle it is! Towns and villages reduced to ashes“libraries ruthlessly fired—glorious cathedrals daily shelled—unarmed citizens by thousands deliberately shot to death—large cities systematically pillaged and the plunder packed in trains and sent back to Germany—tens of thousands of women and girls and youths seized and deported into slavery—everywhere rapine and pillage and plunder and cruelty—millions of people deliberately reduced to starvation, and then huge indemnities demanded of the people thus spoiled and plundered.

We turn to the Army of Northern Virginia and what do we see? In four years of tremendous and increasing conflict no act of plunder, or pillage, or outrage save one (and that had no sanction from Lee) set down against it. Here we see an army instinct with the spirit of chivalry, from its great commander to the humblest private! It invades Pennsylvania, and occupies it twenty-one days; fights a great battle, or rather a series of great battles besides many minor actions, and returns to Virginia leaving no trace of violence or rapine behind it. None of the citizens are harmed. Their houses, their farms, their villages, are immune from injury. We look in vain for the print of the iron hoof of war in the country trodden by the Army of Northern Virginia. It may be said without fear of contradiction, there is no stain on the banner under which that army fought. It went down in defeat at last, but unsullied, without a stain on its fiery folds, with no deed of shame to dim the brightness of its brilliant stars. It is doubtful if any army that ever marched has left a record that surpasses it for pure disinterested and chivalrous valor. They were not—those men who followed Lee—soldiers of fortune, but soldiers of duty, who endured for four long years all that men can endure and dared all that men can dare, in simple loyalty to the call of duty as they understood it. It is our belief that the impartial pen of history will record that its endurance has perhaps rarely been equaled, its achievements rarely surpassed in the annals of war; not by the British Squares at Fontenoy, not by Napoleon’s Guard at Austerlitz, nor by Wellington’s infantry at Albuera, or Talavera, or Waterloo.

As to the achievements of the Army of Northern Virginia, while under Lee’s command, the words of Gen. Alexander may here be quoted. He says:

In the brief period of a thousand days (from June 1, 1862, to April 9, 1865): with inferior numbers, poorly equipped and but badly supplied with food and clothing, it fought seven great campaigns, against six picked generals of the enemy, as follows: First, against McClellan before Richmond; second, against Pope before Washington; third, against McClellan in Maryland; fourth, against Burnside before Fredericksburg; fifth against Hooper on the Rappahannock; sixth, against Meade in Pennsylvania; seventh, against Grant before Richmond.

The last campaign endured eleven months, during which the guns were scarcely silent a single day. Lee’s army at its greatest numbered less than 85,000 men. It put hors de combat more than 262,000 Federals within the period mentioned.[2]

Reflecting upon its history it must be said, that while the material of which that army was composed had much to do with its prowess and its superb morale, yet it is no exaggeration to say that it was what it was by the force of Lee’s incomparable personality.

Gen. Grant is reported to have said, “Lee was a good deal of a headquarters general. . . . He was almost too old for active service—the best service in the field.” Nothing could be farther from the picture which stands out clearly before us in the record of his relations with his army. He was constantly among his soldiers, inspecting the camps or examining the lines. He shared their hardships and their perils. He was not only their commander, but their Father, always caring for their welfare, always laboring to supply their wants. He lived in tents as they did: in spite of his six and fifty years,—sleeping on the ground as they did,—scarcely ever during those arduous campaigns allowing his staff officers to fix his headquarters in a house.

If his men often suffered from scanty rations, his table was also meagerly supplied—a dinner of cabbage and salt, or cold sweet potatoes, was not unusual at his headquarters.

He would often be in the saddle all day and then long hours at his desk, rising to inspect his lines at 4 A.M. And as he was with his soldiers on the march and in the bivouac he was also with them on the fiery front of battle, exposing himself almost recklessly in spite of the remonstrances of his generals and his Staff. At Gettysburg he rode alone into the very midst of Pickett’s men when they came streaming back after their bloody repulse.

In the Wilderness, as already stated, three times at critical moments he sprang forward and put himself at the head of his brave troops to recover a lost position and avert threatening disaster—only to be compelled by the privates in the ranks to retire, while they threw themselves at immense sacrifice upon the foe and saved the day. “Lee to the rear!” shouted the men of Gregg’s Texas Brigade, as one of their number seized the general’s bridle rein. Even on the retreat from Petersburg he exposed himself unsparingly to fire in his eagerness to overlook the work of his artillery.

At Antietam also he was in the midst of the falling shells of McClellan’s guns. Again, near Richmond, in 1864, he and a group of his soldiers attracted the fire of the enemy; whereupon Lee ordered the men back, but remained himself on the spot and then retired leisurely, but was observed to stop to pick up something. “As if unconscious of danger to himself, Gen. Lee walked across the yard, picked up some small object from the ground, and placed it upon the limb of a tree above his head.” He had risked his life for an unfledged sparrow that had fallen from its nest.[3]

In recalling these examples of Lee’s habits in camp and on the march, of his bearing on the battlefield, and of his laborious attention to his lines of battle before an engagement, one cannot but wonder what was Gen. Grant’s conception of “a Headquarters General!” Nor can we easily picture a commander capable of greater activity in his army or able to sustain more severe fatigue than Lee. What more “active service” could he have rendered if he had been twenty years younger? Gen. Long testifies that Lee was able to bear any amount of fatigue, being capable of remaining in his saddle all day and at his desk half the night.

In studying Lee’s relation to his army we are impressed with the fact that the bond between him and his soldiers was very human. They did not only admire him as a great commander, and repose confidence in his military genius to lead them to victory—they trusted and loved him—loved him so that they were willing to die for him. And Lee, on his part, had a personal affection for his men. He knew thousands of them by name. He was their Father as well as their Commander. Their hardships, their sufferings he bore in his heart. When they fell in battle his soul was wrung with anguish. “The love of our gallant officers and men throughout the army causes me to weep tears of blood, and to wish that I could never hear the sound of a gun again.”

How different this feeling of the great Confederate Chieftain to that of some of the famous generals of the world’s history who cared for their soldiers only as the instruments of winning battles, but personally held them in contempt—as mere canaille!

Lee’s soldiers were not to him mere pawns in the great game of war but comrades in a great and holy cause.

The outstanding fact in the study of Lee and his soldiers is that they not only admired him as a military genius, but had for him a reverential affection, which never failed—which he held in defeat as well as in victory,—which, in fact, waxed deeper and stronger as the dark clouds of adversity gathered about him. Truly the paroled prisoner Robert E. Lee, President of a little Virginia college, held the devotion and enthusiastic admiration of the ex-soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, and of the whole Southern people to a degree that the victor of Chancellorsville did not possess! His most recent biographer, a New Englander, relates the following incident taken from the Memoirs of Capt. R. E. Lee. “Lee was riding alone through the woods on his beloved Traveller, when he met an old Confederate. ‘Oh, General,’ said the fellow, ‘it does me so much good to see you that I’m going to cheer.’ The general protested the utter inappropriateness. But the man cheered just the same. And as the great soldier passed slowly out of hearing through the Virginia forest, it seems to me that his heart and his eyes must have overflowed at the thought of a great cause lost, of fidelity in ruin, and of the thousands and thousands and thousands who had cheered him once and in spirit would go on cheering him forever.”[4]

This paternal affection of Lee for his soldiers was not inconsistent with the exercise of that discipline which is an essential element in an effective army. He could, upon occasion, be stern and immovable in enforcing it. Desertion he would sometimes punish with death.

That he was sometimes too lenient with the failures of his generals, even when their delinquencies bore disastrous consequences, is the opinion of some of his warmest admirers. His patience was infinite; his sympathy quick and deep; his exertions for the wellbeing of his men boundless. He was always just. Never could he be accused of favoritism. Nepotism was abhorrent to his high sense of public responsibility. His own son served as a private in an artillery company.

It was no inconsiderable element in his great influence with his soldiers that they knew he was a man of simple, unaffected piety,—without puritanic severity, without pretence, without cant. He would dismount from his horse even when battle had been joined, as in the Wilderness, and humbly participate in their prayer meetings.

Of his magnanimity much might be said. Two instances may be given out of abundant material. When the battle of Gettysburg had resulted not in victory, as might have been the case had his orders been carried out by his corps commanders, but in a failure that compelled retreat, Gen. Lee wrote to President Davis, “I have no fault to find with any one but myself.” Not a word of criticism for those who had defeated his plans,—but a noble assumption of the whole responsibility!

The other instance is found in a story told by an old Grand Army man who had been viewing the panorama of the battle of Gettysburg. He said:

I was at the battle of Gettysburg myself, and an incident occurred there which largely changed my views of the Southern people. .Ą. . The last day of the fight I was badly wounded. A ball shattered my left leg. I lay on the ground not far from Cemetery Ridge, and as Gen. Lee ordered his retreat, he and his officers rode near me. As they came along I recognized him and though faint from exposure and loss of blood, I raised up on my hands, looked Lee in the face and shouted as loud as I could, “Hurrah for the Union!” The general heard me, looked, stopped his horse, dismounted, and came toward me. I confess that at first I thought he meant to kill me. But as he came up he looked down at me with such a sad expression upon his face that all fear left me, and I wondered what he was about. He extended his hand to me, and grasping mine firmly and looking right into my eyes said, “My son, I hope you will soon be well.”

If I live a thousand years I shall never forget the expression on Gen. Lee’s face. There he was defeated, . , . and yet he stopped to say words like those to a wounded soldier of the opposition who had taunted him as he passed by![5]

Lee’s attitude toward prisoners of war is illustrated by a quotation given by his son Capt. R. E. Lee from an interview with an English gentleman in 1866, in which he said that when there were not rations enough both for the prisoners and the army, he gave orders that the wants of the prisoners should first be attended to, and further stated that he had nothing whatever to do with the management of the prisons where the Union prisoners were confined.

He showed the humane spirit in which he conducted war by his famous order at Chambersburg in the Gettysburg campaign, in which he said, “The duties exacted of us by civilization and Christianity are not less obligatory upon us in the country of the enemy than in our own.” Gen. Sherman’s famous dictum, ”War is Hell!” is undoubtedly true of war as conducted by that commander in Georgia and the Carolinas, and as conducted by Sheridan in Virginia. It has no application to war as conducted by Lee in Pennsylvania—always excepting the horrors of the battlefield. Of both these statements let Charles Francis Adams be witness.

That Lee could administer a stinging rebuke in a single word is shown by his reported greeting to Gen, J. E. B. Stuart, when he rode up to his commander on the afternoon of the second day at Gettysburg. Looking him gravely in the face Gen. Lee said with marked emphasis, “At last, Gen. Stuart!” And on the retreat from Petersburg when he saw a certain Major General who, having lost a critical battle by culpable negligence, and having been relieved of his command, he turned to the staff officer riding by his side and said with feeling, “Is that man still with this Army!”

So much has been written by many authors of Lee’s imperturbability and of his perfect poise, that some have asked, was there nothing of human frailty about the man? Did he never even give way to any display of irritation?

Whoever will study the narratives of his adjutant, Col. Taylor, and others close to him will find that there were rare occasions when he was irritated, and when he did allow some evidence of it to escape him. He was a man of fiery spirit. No doubt “the tide of blood” ran hot in his veins, but except on the rarest occasions and then in but small degree, he mastered it as a rider a restive steed.

On one occasion he said to Col, Taylor, his adjutant, “Col. Taylor, when I lose my temper, don’t let it make you angry.”

Col. Tenable, one of Lee’s staff officers, writes: “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.” The brutal abuse of a horse would rouse a strong expression of indignation. This once broke forth in a letter to a member of his family in speaking of the desecration of Arlington,—only to be followed by an expression of contrition,—“You see what a poor sinner I am, and how unworthy to possess what was given me.” Beneath his calm exterior there was often concealed a tempest of wrath.

“Tell me,” said a Northern writer to a group of Southern men in the Cosmos Club at Washington, of whom the writer was one, “is there nothing in Lee’s whole life that partakes of the weaknesses of other men? . . . I realIy think his character would be more interesting, because more human, if there were some moral lapses that could be discovered. Perhaps yon Southern men . . . can tell me at least of some peccadilloes.” But none of us could enlighten our visitor on that point. At last, however, Mr. Cazenove Lee said. “The nearest I can come to an answer to your question is to relate an incident that occurred at my father’s house in Virginia after the war. He and Gen. Lee were discussing the war, and my father said, ‘Ah, Robert, I gave up hope after Stonewall Jackson fell!’ At this Gen. Lee sprang up in his chair and exclaimed, ‘Cassius, do you suppose Gen. Jackson went about the country fighting battles without orders!’”

Marvellous indeed was his self-control, but underneath that calm exterior profound and stormy emotions sometimes stirred, as at Gettysburg after the repulse of Pickett’s men. How serenely he met them on the field of battle, as they came streaming back, broken and in disorder! But when night came, and physical exhaustion had shaken even his heroic nerve, Gen. Imboden gives a truly pathetic picture of the great soldier in defeat. It was near midnight when he rode up exhausted and dismounted. ”He threw his arm across his saddle to rest himself and fixing his eyes upon the ground, leaned in silence upon his equally weary horse; the two formed a striking group as motionless as a statue. After some expressions as to Pickett’s charge, etc., he added in a tone almost of agony, ‘Too bad! Too bad! Oh, too bad!’”[6]

His calm dignity when he met Grant at Appomattox to surrender the remnant of his army has often been described. But who can tell what wild storm of feeling was beating within his soul! “I would rather die a thousand deaths,” he had said beforehand to Col. Venable. And again, as Dr. Jones reports, “How easily I could get rid of this and be at rest! I have only to ride along the lines and all will be over! But,” he quickly added, “if is our duty to live, for what will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to support and protect them?”[7]

Another eyewitness thus describes his appearance, “No one who looked upon him then, as he stood there in full view of the disastrous end, can ever forget the intense agony written upon his features.”[8]

Such was the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, glorious in victory, even more glorious in defeat, as human as he was heroic, giving glory to God in the hour of triumph, bowing submissively, though with a breaking heart to the will of God in the hour of overwhelming disaster, Or, to quote the words of an accomplished military critic of the British Army, “In strategy mighty, in battle terrible, in adversity as in prosperity a hero indeed, with the simple devotion to duty and the rare purity of the ideal Christian knight, he joined all the kingly qualities of a leader of men.”


[1] Quoted by Mr. Gamaliel Bradford in Lee the American, p. 189.

[2] Gen. Alexander, Military Memoirs, p. 618. His figures are taken from the official archives, War Record Office, Washington.

[3] Related by Gen, Long, Memoirs of Lee, p. 387.

[4] Bradford, Lee the American, p. 126.

[5] See Long’s Memoirs, p. 302.

[6] Galaxy, vol. XI, p. 509.

[7] Jones, Life, p. 380.

[8] Eggleston, A Rebel’s Recollections, p. 147.

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