The Soul of Lee, by Randolph H. McKim, Chapter 7

The Soul of Lee


“Human virtue should be equal to human calamity.”—Robert E. Lee.

“The good Father has laid if on men to offer their life for an ideal. If we fought from blood lust, or hate, war would be sordid; but if we fight as only a Christian may, that friendship and peace with our foes may become possible, then fighting is our duty, and our fasting and dirt, our wounds and our death, are our beauty and God’s glory.”—A Student in Arms.

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.”—Col. Chas. Cornwallis Chesney.

The third day of battle at Gettysburg gives the first opportunity for studying the soul of Lee in disaster. The great charge had been made with magnificent valor, but it had failed, and the shattered remnants of that heroic column of 12,000 men were streaming back in disorder. Col. Freemantle of the British Army, an eyewitness, has described Lee’s demeanor on the occasion—how serenely he faced the crushing defeat—how he met the retreating men, one by one, with words of sympathy and encouragement,—bidding them rally to the colors,—“all this will come right in the end; we’ll talk of it afterwards; but in the meantime all good men must rally.” No word of reproach for the officer responsible for the disaster; no self-exculpation, but a magnanimous acceptance of the whole responsibility. “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.”

No one knew better than Lee at that moment that his failure to win a decisive victory that day meant the failure of the campaign and the loss of a decisive opportunity; but, with superb magnanimity, he refrained from putting the blame of defeat where it belonged, and took it all on his own shoulders.

For the supreme example of how the soul of Lee met disaster, we must study certain crises in that last campaign against Grant, beginning the 4th of May, 1864, and ending at Appomattox April 9, 1865,—a continuous battle of eleven months’ duration against General Grant’s immense army, and against cold and hunger and every conceivable discouragement.

The long, desperate struggle of the army of Lee against inevitable defeat was drawing to a close. Its matchless valor could not much longer delay the end. Forces beyond Lee’s control were working inexorably to destroy the strength of his army and paralyze his unexcelled military genius. The blockade of the Southern ports had been slowly but steadily strangling the South. “As a student of war,” wrote Viscount Lord Wolseley to the present writer November 12, 1904, “I am of the opinion that it was the blockade of your ports that killed the Southern Confederacy; not the action of the Northern Armies.”

Supremacy on the sea was the decisive factor in the conflict. While Lee was winning victories in the field, or successfully holding back the flood of invasion, the Navy of the Union was steadily cutting off the supplies necessary for the life of the Confederacy and its armies. New Orleans was taken; Vicksburg fell; the Mississippi was opened through its whole length; Grant’s base on the James River was made secure by the gunboats. Sherman could march safely to the sea, because secure there of a new base of operations. Tighter and tighter the strangling cord was drawn at all the ports by which supplies could be expected from abroad.

Before the year 1863 closed Lee warned the Richmond Government that supplies by vessels running the blockade had become so precarious that they could not longer be relied upon for the support of the Army. Already he writes, “Thousands (of the men) are barefooted, a greater number partially shod, and nearly all without overcoats, blankets or warm clothing.” But matters grew worse as the months of 1864 rolled round. The winter came. Then in January, 1865, Fort Fisher fell. This closed the last channel of supply from Europe, and all knew that the hope of foreign intervention had faded away. Meanwhile the railways were breaking down. Engines and rolling stock were failing. The rails were almost worn out. Grimly and resolutely Lee’s little army held its ground in the trenches before Petersburg and Richmond—33,000 muskets on a line of about thirty-three miles!—but exhaustion and starvation stared them in the face. Lee describes the situation in words that have been often quoted: “Yesterday (February 7, 1865) the most inclement day of the winter” the right wing of the army “had to be retained in line of battle” under fire of the enemy; “some of them had been without meat for three days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail and sleet.” No wonder that he adds, “The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under this treatment.”

No one who studies the documents, or attentively considers the situation can doubt that Lee, at this time, saw the inevitable end. His army was melting away. Desertions were taking place at the rate of 100 per day—and no wonder—for hundreds of letters were coming to the soldiers from the people at home, “in which mothers, wives and sisters told of their inability to respond to the appeals of hungry children for bread, or to provide proper care and medicine for the sick; and, in the name of all that was dear, appealed to the men to come home and rescue them from the ills which they suffered and the starvation which threatened them.”

Thus clouds big with disaster were gathering round Lee and his heroic little army. Through all he remained calm and serene, meeting adversity with courage unshaken, never losing his poise, never allowing even those closest to him to see in his bearing any sign that he had given up hope, never complaining, as he might well have done, that the military necessities of the situation had been subordinated to political considerations.

Months before Lee had seen that Richmond and Petersburg should be abandoned. As early as February 22d he had suggested it to the Secretary of War.[1] Their retention was not essential to success—on the contrary the determination to hold them could not but be fatal in the end. So small an army as his could not successfully withstand a siege by an adversary so overwhelmingly his superior in numbers, equipment, supplies and all the materials of war. As a strategist, he saw already that the only hope for the Confederacy lay in a rapid movement to the South with the greater part of the army, before it wasted away in the unequal conflict with Gen. Grant and “General Desertion,”—to form a junction with the army of Joseph E. Johnston, and then to turn and destroy the army of Sherman. This done he could move back northward and meet Grant with some hope of success.

But this plan did not commend itself to the authorities at Richmond; and Lee, though now at last, since February 5th, Commander-in-Chief of the armies in the field, and supreme in the confidence and affection of the whole South, so that he could have compelled the acceptance of his views, held himself subordinate to the civil authorities; and hence against his better judgment he kept up the defense of Richmond and Petersburg until, when at last obliged to abandon it, it was too late to attempt the plan of uniting his army with that of Gen. Johnston. His transportation had so completely broken down that the rapid movement of his army southward was impossible.

Yet no word of complaint fell from his lips. Neither then nor afterward did he attempt to relieve himself of responsibility, and place i t where it really belonged, on other shoulders than his.

By April 1st, the Confederate line had become so attenuated that “at some places it consisted of but one man to every seven yards,” But Lee dared to weaken it still further, in order to meet Sheridan at Five Forks with all the strength he could muster. And so skilful was his strategy that we can see now that a decisive victory should have been Lee’s at Five Forks, but for inexcusable failure to obey his orders.

But again the culpable carelessness of his subordinates deprived Lee of the fruits of his strategy.

We may here transcribe the words of a gallant commander who took a prominent part in that battle, Gen. Thos. T. Munford: “Historians who have not made a full study of the records and who have failed to secure authentic information from participants in the Civil War possessing first-hand knowledge, have been inclined to credit Grant with superior strategy at the battle of Five Forks, and have failed to realize that this battle was the Waterloo of the Confederacy. It was my privilege to have an intimate part in this crucial battle, and I desire to place on record my personal observation of the engagement and my professional study of the strategy of the battle, with the conclusion that Gen. Lee planned this battle with a master mind, and that his superiority was never more clearly demonstrated than in his plans for the battle of Five Forks. If the plans of Gen. Lee had been properly and promptly executed, the battle would have resulted in a signal success for the Army of Northern Virginia and would have affected profoundly the duration of the war. This conclusion is borne out by the opinion of Federal officers.” Gen. Munford then referred to letters in support of his conclusion from Jefferson Davis, Gen. Wade Hampton, Gen. G. W. Custis Lee, Longstreet and others. He refers also to the report of the trial of Gen. Warren, Commander of the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

There seems no doubt that the officer in command of the Confederate forces at Five Forks was not present till the day was lost, and no doubt that he was relieved of his command after the battle. Nor is there any doubt that Gen. R. H. Anderson, placed by Gen, Lee on that officer’s extreme right, to cooperate at the proper time, was never summoned till the battle was lost, and that Sheridan testified that had Anderson with his four brigades moved down on his rear, instead of his taking Pickett’s men he (Sheridan) would have been taken prisoner.

Thus it came about that the battle there resulted in a very serious defeat.

The account of Gen. Munford is confirmed and the crucial fact of the battle is explained by the testimony of a Federal officer, Gen, Morris Schaff; “Pickett’s and Fitz Lee’s failure to hold that position was fatal, and offered a singular instance of Fortune’s bad turn of her wheel for Lee; inasmuch as, when Sheridan made his attack, the famous long-haired Pickett, Gettysburg’s hero, and the cavalry commanders, blue and gay-eyed Fitz Lee, and gigantic, high-shouldered and black-eyed Rosser, were engaged in planking shad on the north bank of Hatcher’s Run, two miles or more in the rear of their resolute but greatly outnumbered troops. Although the fire was quick and heavy, it was completely smothered by the intervening timber, and notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the gallant Munford and the infantry brigade commanders, before Fitz Lee, Pickett and Rosser got to the front, the day was lost; so at least the story was told to me by my friend Rosser.”[2]

This author states that Lee started several brigades under Anderson to Pickett’s help, “but before Anderson could reach Pickett, Sheridan, reinforced by Warren, assailed him and drove him with great confusion from the field.” This statement conflicts with the testimony of Gen, Munford just quoted, who states that Anderson was on the field but received no orders from Gen. Pickett—naturally, as the latter was two miles away.

Two other Federal officers have written accounts of the battle of Five Forks, Major Caswell McClellan and Major General Joshua. L. Chamberlin. Their statements give additional confirmation of the accuracy of Gen. Munford’s view of the battle.

Thus Gen. Chamberlin writes: “Wise’s, Gracie’s and Hunton’s brigades had been ordered out of the Claiborne entrenchments that afternoon to attack the right flank of the Fifth Corps; but being obliged to take a roundabout way, and getting entangled among the streams and marshes north of the White Oak Road they were too late to reach the scene of action until all was over.” And again, “What if those three Confederate brigades ordered out of the Claiborne entrenchments that afternoon to fall on the flank of the Fifth Corps attacking at Five Forks, had come straight down, and not gone a long roundabout way as they did, striking too late and too far off for any good or harm,—what would have been the effect in such case.”[3]

Again he writes: “Would it not have been awkward to have these 5000 fresh men come down on the backs of our infantry, while having its hands full in front? What could MacKenzie have done with these men and Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry together? Lucky was it for us in either case that these 5000 infantrymen did not get down there.”[4]

“It is a very remarkable circumstance that neither of the three chief Confederate commanders was actually present on the field during the progress of the battle. They had been on the ground earlier, it seems, on retiring from Dinwiddie; but for one reason or another they had one by one retired across Hatcher’s Run—looking after their ‘communications’ very likely.[5] Pickett returned to the field only after we had all gained the Ford Road at about 6 P.M. but Fitzhugh Lee and Rosser not at all. Pickett narrowly escaped the shots of our men as he attempted to pass them to reach his broken lines toward the White Oak Road.

“It is also remarkable that Gen. Robert E. Lee, although himself alert, was not kept informed by Fitzhugh Lee or Pickett of the movements of the Fifth Corps in relation to Five Forks, and that Lee was led by a word from Pickett to suppose that Fitzhugh Lee’s and Rosser’s cavalry were both dose in support of Pickett’s left flank at Five Forks. This was not the truth. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry under Munford was over a thousand yards east of Pickett’s left at the beginning and during the day was pressed around to the rear so as to reach his troops after their lines had all been broken; and as for Rosser’s cavalry, they were at no time in the field. We know now that Gen, Robert E. Lee afterwards wrote Gen. Wade Hampton in these words: ‘Had you been at Five Forks with your cavalry the disaster would not have befallen my army.’ Nor does it appear that Gen. Anderson, commanding Gen. Lee’s reserves in this quarter, knew anything of the pressing need of them at Five Forks until it was all over.”[6]

Once more he writes: “Our isolated position there invited fresh attack; and we only escaped it by the blundering or over-cautious course of the forces sent out by Lee from the Claiborne front that afternoon.”[7]

Major Caswell McClellan in his book Grant versus the Record gives a sid1a.r account of the facts above referred to.[8]

This blow at Five Forks was fatal. It became imperative that Petersburg should be evacuated without delay, and on the ad of April the retreat of Lee’s army began. Several days more and the end came at Appomattox. We may here transcribe the words of that gallant and generous Union soldier, Gen. Charles Francis Adams:

Finally, when in April the summons to conflict came, the Army of Northern Virginia, the single remaining considerable organized force of the Confederacy, seemed to stagger to its feet, and, gaunt and grim, shivering with cold, and emaciated with hunger, worn down by hard, unceasing attrition, it faced its enemy, formidable still.

What a tragedy was that retreat from Petersburg! The army of Lee, outnumbered more than three to one by the army of Gen. Grant: the latter “armed, clothed, equipped, fed and sheltered as no similar force in the world’s history had ever been before,” the former almost starved, having been long on greatly reduced rations, scantily clothed, in large part without shoes, its vitality lowered by exposure to cold and hail and sleet, and by overwork in the trenches; the horses, too, like the men, half starved.

Nor is all this the uttermost of the disparity between the two armies. It is a fact established upon the verbal and written testimony of Major-Gen. G. W. Custis Lee, that Gen. Lee had sent to the authorities in Richmond a confidential statement indicating the lines by which he would withdraw his army and the points where he wished supplies to be accumulated; and that this document, found by Gen. Weitzel in the office of Mr. Jefferson Davis, shortly after the fall of Richmond, was sent post-haste to Gen. Grant. Thus the Union commander, within twenty-four hours after Lee began his retreat, was put in possession of that officer’s whole plan of operations. No wonder the Union General Benham exclaimed to a Confederate officer, captured at Sailors Creek, “Oh, you could not get away. We knew beforehand every move you were going to make.”

This fact disposes of the claim of Mr. Rodes that Grant outgeneraled Lee in the retreat to Appomattox. When the lion is caught in the net, it does not require the skill of a mighty hunter to slay him!

It is strange that Mr. Gamaliel Bradford hesitates to accept the fact above narrated. He refers to it as a “very remarkable anecdote” and admits that “the story seems well authenticated,” yet concludes that it is “rather difficult to accept.” (See his Notes, p. 302.) To our mind it seems difficult not to accept. It is told orally, and again in writing, by Major-Gen. Custis Lee, a very clear-headed man, as an incident in his own experience. At Sailors Creek where Gen. Custis Lee was captured with Gen. Ewell April 6th, Gen. Benham “began talking to Gen. Ewell in a loud tone of voice. . . . ‘I heard Gen. Benham say . . . that Gen. Weitzel had found, soon after his entrance into Richmond. a letter from Gen. Lee (etc., quoted above), stating what he proposed to do should it become necessary to withdraw from the lines before Richmond and Petersburg, and that the letter was immediately sent to Gen. Grant.[’] In answer to some doubt expressed by Gen, Ewell, or someone else, Gen. Benham replied, ‘Oh, there is no doubt about the letter, for I saw it myself’.”

This statement from Gen. Custis Lee is to be found in the Memoirs of Jefferson Davis by his wife (1890), vol. II. p. 595, and also in a fuller oral form in A Soldier’s Recollections (McKim, 1911). pp. 265–268. Gen. Robert Lee’s comments to his son when told of this incident confirm the fact that he had written such a letter as was alleged to have been found.

What makes the fact of its being left in the scrap basket easy to believe is the fact that Jefferson Davis was notoriously careless in the handling of important documents. The writer has heard Col. Charles Marshall, Lee’s military secretary, descant upon this, and give instance after instance of the fact.[9]

How did Lee bear himself under these disastrous conditions? Let one of his staff, Gen, Long, answer:

During these trying scenes his countenance wore its habitual calm, grave expression. Those who watched his face to catch a glimpse of what was passing in his mind could gather thence no trace of his inner sentiments. Only once during the retreat was he perceived to lose the most complete self-control. On enquiring at Farmville why a certain bridge had not been burned, he spoke of the blunder with a warmth and impatience which served to show how great a repression he ordinarily exercised over his feelings.”[10]

The same officer relates that on April 7th, some of Lee’s principal officers deputed Gen. Pendleton to say that in their opinion further resistance was hopeless and that negotiations should be opened for a surrender of the army. But even then Lee’s heroic soul would not yield to the decree of Fate. It is of moment here to note that he said to Gen. Pendleton:

I have never believed we could, against the gigantic combination for our subjugation, make good in the long run our independence unless foreign powers should assist us. . . . But such considerations really made with me no difference. We had, I was satisfied, sacred principles to maintain and rights to defend, for which we were in duty bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor.

And now we see another display of that dauntless and unconquerable courage which still flamed up in the Soul of Lee: On the 8th of April he resolved to cut his way through the host that encircled him. His heroic little army, reduced now to 10,000 effectives, marched forth at 3 A.M. on the 9th to assail an enemy 75,000 strong. “But,” says Long, “notwithstanding the stupendous odds there was not in that little band a heart that quailed or a hand that trembled; there was not one of them who would not willingly have laid down his life in the cause they had so long maintained, and for the noble chief who had so often led them to victory.”

But when on the early morning of April 9th the little army advanced to make the forlorn attempt, it found Grant’s multitudes right across its path; the enterprise was abandoned; and Lee resolved to surrender the remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia. The capture of his letter to Jefferson Davis, detailing his plans, had done its fatal work!

Gen. Alexander has told us how he earnestly remonstrated with Gen. Lee against the surrender of the army and counselled a dispersion of the soldiers individually to rally subsequently as best they might for further resistance; and he has recorded Gen, Lee’s reply:

General, you and I as Christian men have no right to consider only how this would affect us. We must consider its effect on the country as a whole. Already it is demoralized by the four years of war. If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many wide sections. . . . We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.[11]

These words revealed the greatness of the soul of Lee, and they settled the question definitely and finally. Alexander says: “I had not a single word to say in reply. He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it, that I was ashamed of having made it.”

It was a great crisis, not for Lee only, as at Arlington four years before, but for the whole South, yes, and for the North too ; and he rose to its full height. As then he faced the issue alone, so now. He sought no counsel. He looked for none to divide the responsibility with him. He asked no support from his generals in deciding the question. And thus Lee saved the country, North and South, from the horrors of a guerrilla warfare. To have waged such warfare would have been the counsel of many of his officers. But Lee summoned no Council of War. “Sitting before the bivouac fire,” says Charles Francis Adams, “at Appomattox he reviewed the situation. Doing so, as before at Arlington, he reached his own conclusion. That conclusion he himself at the time expressed in words, brief indeed, but vibratory with moral triumph: ‘The question is, is it right to surrender the army? If it is right, then I will take all the responsibility’.”

And so Lee asked for a conference with Grant; the surrender was speedily effected; and the Confederate commander returned to his lines. “It is impossible,” writes Gen. Long, to describe the anguish of the troops when it was known that the surrender of the army was inevitable. . . . The bronzed faces of thousands of grim warriors were bathed in tears. As he rode slowly along the line, hundreds of his devoted veterans pressed around the noble chief, trying to take his hand, touch his person, or even lay their hands upon his horse. . . . The General then with head bare and tears flowing down his manly cheeks, bade adieu to the army.” With a voice quivering with emotion he said:

Men, we have fought through the war together; I have done my best for you; my heart is too full to say more.

To the last those heroes of the Army of Northern Virginia were unconquered. That very morning they had fought with all their old intrepidity and resolution. And they would have fought on until the last man had fallen, face to foe; but when Lee told them to sheathe their swords and stack their muskets they obeyed him, though with breaking hearts.

This his last act as Commander of the Confederate Armies was every way worthy of his heroic character. How much easier, as he himself said, to have put himself at the head of that indomitable remnant of his army and died with them in one last desperate charge! “I would rather die a thousand deaths,” he had exclaimed, when he saw that he must surrender his army. But, true to the principles which governed his whole career, he thought not of himself, but of his people, of his Country—of what it behooved him to do for generations yet unborn. And he made the supreme and glorious resolve to surrender his army. His life to that very hour had been a commentary upon his own noble utterance, “There is a, true glory and a true honor, the glory of duty done.” And now on this day, and till his life ended, he gave supreme proof of another of his sayings, “Human virtue should be equal to human calamity.”

To his soldiers, those 8000 men with muskets in line of battle that 9th of April, 1865, whom he surrendered to Grant’s great host, he said in his last General Order, dated April 10th,—“You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed.”

That consciousness the soul of Lee bore deeply graven within till he yielded it up to God five years later.[12]


[1] Capt. R. E. Lee’s Recollections, pp. 145–6.

[2] The Sunset if the Confederacy, pp. 19–20.

[3] The Passing of the Armies, pp. 127, 172.

[4] Id., p. 173.

[5] Private correspondence of Confederate officers present gives some curious details as to a shad dinner on the north side of Hatcher’s Run.

[6] The Passing of the Armies, p. 173.

[7] Id., p. 175.

[8] In a letter which appeared in the Philadelphia Weekly Times, April 5, 1885, published during the lifetime of General Pickett, who never challenged its accuracy, General Rosser, after describing the battle of Five Forks, says: “It seems to have been a surprise to General Pickett. One would have supposed he would have been on the alert in the presence of the enemy he had so recently been fighting.”

In another letter, which is also public property, addressed to Capt. A. S. Parham, 905 Westminster Street, Washington, and dated Charlottesville, April 29, 1902, General Rosser describes the shad-bake alluded to above and tells of the arrival of pickets who reported the advance of the enemy “on all the roads I was picketing.” He adds that “little attention, however, was given to the enemy’s advance.”

He, however, says: “Pickett’s conduct at Five Forks was the cause of Lee’s losing all confidence in him and had the opportunity been given he would have been court-martialed. He failed to guard his left flank and failed to join his command when Col. T. T. Munford reported the enemy’s advance.”

General Fitz Lee says in his report of the Appomattox campaign that “had General Anderson with Wise’s, Gracie’s and Hunton’s brigades who, leaving their position at Burgess Mill, marched by a circuitous route to our relief, advanced up the direct road, White Oak, he would have been on the flank and rear of the enemy forming the enemy’s right which attacked our right at Five Forks and would probably have changed the result of the unequal conquest.

Whilst Anderson was marching the 5th Corps was marching back and was able to participate in the attack upon our lines the next day whilst the services of these three brigades by which Anderson was to reinforce us came up too late for use and the five with Pickett, by their absence, increased the disparity between the contending forces on the next day for the lines circumvallating Petersburg.

This statement throws light upon the serious apprehension expressed by Gen. Chamberlin as to what might have been a disastrous result to the Federal forces had these brigades come in upon their rear. General Lee himself, in his report to Mr. Jefferson Davis, tells us that he had sent Anderson to reinforce Pickett; but it appears that General Anderson was not notified by General Pickett or by General Fitzhugh Lee of the approach of the enemy. General Munford says that General Anderson was not informed of the situation or summoned to take part in the battle.

[9] Gen. Custis Lee states that when he told his father what Gen. Benham said, he was greatly moved and exclaimed, “Well, Custis, that explains it! I could never till now understand why I failed to extricate my army. I never worked harder than I did then to accomplish it, yet every move I made was at once checkmated.”

[10] Memoirs, p. 413.

[11] Alexander, Military Memoirs, p. 600.

[12] The returns from the various commands made that morning showed an aggregate of 8000 muskets in line of battle.—Col. Walter H. Taylor, p. 151.

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