Life of Robert E. Lee as General in the Confederate Army
Henry E. Shepherd


It is said by Carlyle in his essay on Croker’s edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” A touch of exaggeration may be traced in this generalization, but its essential truth will abide the test of scrutiny. It is confirmed by the record of our race, from the era of myth and legend to the introspective and self-questioning life which marks modern civilization. If the ideal is not reached in the individual type, is not reflected in concrete experience, the shaping spirit of imagination creates its Achilles, its Arthur or its Galahad, and satisfies the increasing quest of our humanity for the contemplation of the perfect as incarnate in our own likeness. When we pass from the region of shadow into the light of historic day, the object lessons increase in power, in the grace of inspiration, as the dead but sceptred sovereigns of ages vanished into the abysm of time, emerge to our view, and Sidney Hampden, Falkland, Washington, Lee, move before us, realizations in actual experience of all those ideal qualities of mind and heart of which the chivalric imagination dreamed. They are living epistles to be known and read of all, masterful achievements of creative wisdom; nearer we seem “to hold of God” when we contemplate the life and character of Robert E. Lee.

I shall never forget the first occasion upon which I saw Lee. All the circumstances seem to gain in distinctness and impressiveness rather than to grow dim with the fading years. It was in June, 1861. I was a lad of seventeen, and a full-fledged Confederate soldier. I had enlisted in a regiment from my native State, and was passing through Richmond to join the command of General D. H. Hill at Yorktown. While drawn by the instinct of boyish curiosity to the fair grounds, then used as an encampment for our troops, General Lee, accompanied by President Davis, appeared upon the scene. In those days of dawn, Lee was scarcely more than a name to the Southern youth. I had acquired a general impression of his brilliant record in the regular service of the United States, and I was aware of his relation to Washington through his marriage to Miss Mary Custis, the step-great-granddaughter of our Revolutionary chief. As he approached our group of youthful Confederates, we seemed transformed from a state of mirth and soldier jollity into an attitude of spontaneous silence. It was an act of unconscious homage inspired by the presence of sovereign greatness suddenly arising before us. As I recall the incident after the long lapse of years, I seem to look upon the face and figure of some heroic ideal wrought into life by the genius of chivalric romance—a Galahad, a Percival, even an Arthur himself. Lee’s bearing was marked in minutest detail by a surpassing grace and courtliness. It was the perfection of art, for the consciousness of art was wanting.

In every phase of his strange, eventful history there appeared the same unfailing regard for the sensibilities and even the infirmities of others. In all its loftier aspects, his “soul was like a star and dwelt apart.” There was a magnetic personality running through his words as well as his actions, a spirit “finely touched to the finest issues.” In every relation, he proved “not less but more than all the gentleness he seemed to be.” It is from the high and pure plane of his life and character that Lee appeals most impressively in this contemporary period of our American civilization. His record from its dawn to its climax was an unceasing protest against the ignoble streams of tendency that dominate our modern world—the narrowing greed of gold, the prevailing materialism, the decadence of courtesy, and the fast vanishing into eclipse of the grace of reverence.

To the representative American, borne down by the quest of the sensuous and the visible, in whose theory of life spiritual yearnings and aspirations hold no place, he stands as an unfailing object lesson, a perpetual exemplar. Is it an extravagant and illusive hope, that with the incoming of purer national ideals, and the passing of brute force as the incarnate American god, Lee may attain a height unparalleled by Washington himself as a supreme standard or final appeal, a sovereign illustration and embodiment of the graces and excellences to which our western civilization shall aspire.

The preluding stages of the great conflict possess, for the youthful reader, an especial charm, as well as an historic attraction that excels fiction. I was a student at the University of Virginia during the memorable session of 1860–61. It was the school founded by Thomas Jefferson, the apostle and champion of pure democracy. With rare and isolated exceptions its faculty and student body represented in their intensest form all the ideals and aspirations that are associated with the life and genius of the Southern land, from its foundation at Jamestown in 1607 to its final overthrow at Appomattox, April, 1865. A son of General Lee was a student at the University, and bore the name of his father. As we moved nearer and nearer toward the initial phases of the impending conflict, the enthusiasm and fervor of the six hundred students exceeded all restraint. An enterprising youth during the shadow of night unfolded a Confederate banner upon the rotunda of the University at least a month in advance of the formal withdrawal of Virginia from the Union. Our revered professor of physics, still a member of the University staff, and held in honor among scientists, while experimenting upon explosives, warned his classes that they must accustom themselves to the smell of gunpowder, as it would at an early day become their prevailing atmosphere. An allusion in our historical lectures to the sovereignty of States provoked a demonstration which no power could control. The very flower of our youth was imbued with the teaching which is the key to the position of the South logically and historically during the constitutional struggle for the maintenance of her own independence. We were able at least to render unto every one that asked us a reason for the faith which was in us. Our belief in the righteousness, mental and moral, of our attitude was as firm and unfaltering as that of Stonewall Jackson in the certitude of those strategic results to which he leaped by intuitions and inspirations verging almost upon the miraculous. As in the sphere of perfect reason doubt has no place, so in the contemplation of the typical Southern student of 1861 it did not exist. It was not even dreamt of in our philosophy.

I was in Washington on the bodeful day of Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration—March 4, 1861. In company with a hundred students I stood in front of the great portico of the Capitol, listened to his address, and heard him utter the memorable words: “No State has a right to leave the Union.” The figure of Gen. Winfield Scott also rose before us in full uniform—one of the heroes of my childhood, destined to pass into irreclaimable eclipse, for a greater than Scott was soon to appear. Lee was on his way to Washington, having been summoned by the commanding general from his far-off post at Fort Worth, Texas.

Upon the evening of the inauguration I attended the theater, the same, if I mistake not, in which Mr. Lincoln met his tragical fate, April 14, 1865. The play scarcely deserved contempt, and the principal recreation of the student visitors consisted in applauding Dixie to the echo, and in desperate determination to suppress by yells and groans all efforts to render Yankee Doodle or The Star Spangled Banner. In these demonstrations I joined most heartily, and regarded myself as in great measure instrumental in crushing every endeavor of the orchestra to perform the national airs. For us, they were on the index and we proved our faith by our works.

Two days later saw me at the University once more. We passed Manassas Junction, and part of our train was detached for the road leading into the historic Valley of Virginia. In less than five months the first great grapple of the long-drawn strife occurred not far away, July 21, 1861.

The annals of war do not present a parallel in its highest and noblest attributes to the army commanded by Lee from June, 1862, to April 9, 1865. It was the goodliest fellowship whereof the world holds record. No army created and organized since war attained the dignity of a science, and its modern form superseded the era of feudalism and of chivalry, has approached it in the character of its elements, the range of culture embraced even in its rank and file, the social grace and winning personality that marked its history from the period of its creation in 1861 to the climax of 1865. So far as I am aware, there is no instance on record of abuse or insult inflicted upon a woman by a regularly enlisted soldier of the Army of Northern Virginia. Had such an indignity ever occurred it would have been bruited to the four winds as evidence of the “strong element of barbarity pervading the Southern character.” The very silence of their enemies forever shields the fame of the men who followed the standard of Lee. It speaks more impressively than “angels’ voices, trumpet tongued.”

General Lee’s own son, Robert, a student at the University of Virginia, in 1860–61, was a private in the Rockbridge Artillery, and all begrimed with battle smoke, was not recognized by his father when he encountered him upon the field of Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862. The last heir of Mt. Vernon who bore the name of Washington was brought in dead from the field during the campaign in West Virginia in the autumn of 1861. There were in the ranks of Lee’s army, without even a dream of preferment or advancement to nerve their energies or kindle their courage, men who had received the degrees of European centers of culture, renowned in all the world, who had studied at Bonn, Gottingen, Berlin, Edinburgh, and even in their days of dawn, had impressed their foreign masters with the accuracy and the versatility of their learning. Every American institution from Harvard to the very frontiers of the South was represented upon the rolls of this incomparable host. College professors mingled with college students at the mess and in camp: a week before the battle of Gettysburg I “dined” in the barracks at Carlisle, Pa., with a former instructor, then a private of artillery, under whose guidance I had threaded the dreary mazes of Xenophon’s Anabasis.

Many of the survivors of the strife have achieved a fame in scholarly or scientific spheres which overleaps local, and in brilliant instances even national, circumscription. In the sphere of legal, political, and material achievement, they are among the foremost forces that make for righteousness in all the complex and critical phases of our contemporary life. These, however, are merely isolated examples. Illustrations without number may be cited to attest to coming ages the incomparable character of the army that followed Lee from Richmond to the closing scene in April, 1865. The moral and intellectual strength of the Army of Northern Virginia has never been estimated at its real and surpassing value, even by the people of the South. Let us reinforce this broad and comprehensive statement by illustrations drawn from experience, for all of those to whom I refer I had seen face to face, and some of them were the teachers or the associates of my youthful days. The most eminent classical scholar in America, whose fame has gone out into all lands, professor of Greek in the University of Virginia, became a volunteer aid upon the staff of Gen. J. B. Gordon, and bears in his body the marks of his service during Early’s campaign in the Valley of Virginia. It was his colleague, in the chair of Latin in the same university, Col. William E. Peters, who inflexibly refused to carry out the order for the burning of Chambersburg, Pa., resolved not to place himself upon the long file of illustrious vandals—Sheridan, Sherman, and Hunter. Despite the intense provocation which might have excused the act upon the ground of simple retaliation our university professor disobeyed the command of his superior rather than tarnish the fair fame of the Confederate soldier. The destruction of Chambersburg cannot be laid to his account. My professor of Latin, predecessor of Colonel Peters, Lewis Minor Coleman, died of wounds received at Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862.


Robert Lee, son of the General, was in Mr. Coleman’s senior class, and I saw him enter the lecture room, with shining morning face, at least three times a week. The conditions which I have described were by no means peculiar to my own University. It was characteristic of every institution in the land, from Virginia to the far distant States along the Gulf of Mexico. Universities, colleges, the ancient classical academies, all poured out their hosts of aspiring and eager students—lads of sixteen and youths who had barely attained to legal age. The very flower of our chivalry lent its grace and charm to the rising Army of Northern Virginia. There were men in its newly formed ranks who have become the oracles of senates, the pillars of our judiciary, the champions of scholarship, the interpreters who have communed with nature and wrested her secrets, prodigies of rhythmic skill and critical divination, masters of trade and commerce in all their subtle intricacies, lords of the visible world. There was young Sidney Lanier, upon whom death had already set his seal, then a lad of nineteen, whose steadily expanding fame is the inspiration of the student in every sphere of esthetic culture. There, too, was McCrady of South Carolina, who passed into light almost simultaneously with the attainment of assured renown as the historian of his own State. There was Pettigrew of North Carolina, who, pursued by some malignant fate, fell in the mere dawn of his rare and versatile power, July, 1863. An eminent Federal judge who has recently died, while a prisoner at Fort Delaware organized a class, and instructed a number of intending lawyers in Blackstone and the other authorities prescribed for admission to the bar. He was, at the time referred to, colonel of a South Carolina regiment.[1] Among my own experiences in literary study, and as an illustration of my fixed intent to carry on my collegiate work despite the stress and strain of war, I recall that I read nearly all of Shakespeare in camp during the winter when active operations were suspended, much of Livy, the Federalist, and Macaulay’s Essays. I also attended a class in law conducted by a North Carolina captain who afterward became a justice of the Supreme Court in his native State.[2] A young officer of the Rockbridge Artillery read Livy with me. We were immensely aided by the acquisition of Andrews and Stoddard’s Latin grammar, and Arnold’s Latin Prose Composition. In the falling back of Lee’s army from Gettysburg I lost my personal effects, including my limited collection of books. The disappearance of my library left me inconsolable—it included all my earthly goods save a pair of worn blankets. I might easily compose a volume in the mere process of demonstrating that no army the world has seen represented so great and varied a range of intellect and attainment as that which followed the fortunes and glorified the name of Lee. The humblest “high private in the rear rank” displayed an individuality of character such as defies all precedent and transcends the records of the ages. Organization did not eliminate individual distinctiveness: solidarity only stimulated the sense of personality and conserved it in the lowliest. Every man felt that he in a measure carried the cause of the South on his bayonet. The amazing achievements of Lee’s army may be traced in no slight degree to the existence of these moral and intellectual influences. Animated by such a spirit and directed by such a man as Lee, no power save the ceaseless impact of physical force could have led to the final result. It was not genius but surpassing strength that rendered Appomattox an inevitable conclusion.

While I commit myself to this broad and unqualified statement I do not fail to recall that I have studied the military organization of those lands in which the training and expansion of the army is the paramount aim, and its effectiveness and power the preeminent glory of the state. I have seen the marshalled hosts of France and Germany, and explored with assiduous care their modes and tactical systems, their dispositions, the elements of their strength, the sources of their achievement. I saw the great centers of military pride and military power in European lands, Paris, Mayence, Strasburg, Cologne, the troops that guard England’s stronghold at Gibraltar, the brightsome and brilliant army that Italy has created since the day that she sprang into national life nearly two score years ago. When a wounded prisoner, a lad in my teens, I looked upon the Army of the Potomac at the palmiest stage of its eventful story, with an organization unsurpassed in the records of war—elaborated to minute perfection of detail, strength, and stimulated by all the appliances that art or skill could devise for the relief of human suffering and the advancement of material well-being. When I contemplate Lee’s army in the light of boyish retrospection or in ripening years as calm analysis prevails over uncritical enthusiasm, all the embattled hosts of European lands seem to hide their diminished heads.

There is not an army in the world to-day the peer of that which Lee inspired and guided from June, 1862, until April, 1865. Man for man, no host could grapple with them in conflict, for none that has arisen since war attained its modern form combined in so marvelous a degree all the characteristics and attributes that mark the ideal soldier. It is not impossible that as the methodology of war is revolutionized, it will afford slight scope for the exercise of moral qualities or the display of individual gifts. Strategy may fade away and the conduct of campaigns descend to a purely mechanical plane. Such is the dominant tendency of our age in all spheres of intellectual evolution—the individual withers, the mechanical agency is more and more. Lee and his men would find no place in war conducted in accordance with such a conception. From sovereign chief to humblest rank and file, from “Marse Robert” to the lowliest private, the sense of personal responsibility and individual manhood was all prevalent. The rustic trooper from some remote district, alike with the Master of Arts from the university, or the darling of some social circle, had a proud and manly consciousness of his relation to the fate of the army and the final issue of the long-drawn struggle. Yet the host which bore the Confederacy aloft on its standards for four years was touched by none of the prosaic and vulgar incentives that stimulate energy and inspire achievement in the ranges of the material world. The hope of promotion or advancement for the common soldier was remote and rare. No one of Lee’s men carried a marshal’s baton in his knapsack. Many of those who entered the service on the footing of private soldiers and survived the desolations of war came out as they enlisted—they had not advanced a single point. Prodigies of personal valor marked every field, performed by men whose very names have left no trace, many of whom rest in lowly graves, blended with the indiscriminate dust, and numbered with the unknown dead. Of them it may be said,

For the deed’s sake
Have they done the deed.

Army and commander alike are unique. I have seen feats of daring performed on the fields of the Army of Northern Virginia that in European armies would have assured instant and exalted promotion. The art and genius of Napoleon would have turned them to brilliant account—as a moral power the influence of such recognition of individual heroism can hardly be estimated too highly. Yet with the Confederate soldier the memory of the man and his deeds has fallen alike into shadow.

When I contemplate the strange eventful history of this foremost army of all the world, the somber and august vision of the prophet rises before me, and his words, doubly rich in the massive eloquence of the Shakespearean day, acquire a significance and a relevance that invest them with renewed sacredness to the lovers of our Southern story—

Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.

So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.

Whatever record leaps to light,
They never shall be shamed.

Return to Life of Robert E. Lee as General in the Confederate Army