Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 4

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


AND now, dealing with the fruits of character, we come to the proposition, whether Lee was, as some have claimed, a great captain only for defensive operations, or was a great captain without reservation or limitation—one of the great captains of history whose genius was equal to every exigency of war to which human genius may rise.

The question involved is of his greatness both as a soldier and as a man. And to some extent it reaches far beyond the confines of the South and involves the basic traits of race and of civilization. It was nobly said by Mr. Charles Francis Adams, Sr., to whom almost as much as to Lincoln or Grant the final result of the war was due, when, as the representative of the United States in England, he was challenged on an occasion with the argument that the armies of the South had defeated the armies of the North, and was asked what he had to say about it, “That they also are my countrymen.” Thus, Lee’s genius and Lee’s fame are the possession of the whole country and the whole race which his virtue honored.

We may ask ourselves first, what constitutes a great captain? The question takes us far into the records of both War and Peace. To most men the answer will come by the process of recalling the few—the very few—whom history has by universal consent placed in the first rank. They are Alexander, Hannibal, Cæsar, Frederick, and Napoleon, with Cromwell, Turenne, Eugene, Gustavus, Marlborough, Washington, Wellington, in a class so close to them in fame as to leave in doubt the rank to which at least one or two of them should be assigned. And on their heels crowd a concourse of captains great and victorious, yet easily distinguishable from the first, if confusingly close on the others.

Napoleon reckoned, as his masters for constant study, the first four and Gustavus, Turenne and Eugene.

Among the modern captains stand two conspicuous Americans: Washington, whose greatness proved equal to every exaction and who gave promise that he would have commanded successfully under all conditions that might have arisen; and the persistent, indomitable Grant, victor of Vicksburg, Missionary Ridge and Appomattox, not so brilliant as Marlborough or Frederick, for no flashing stroke of genius like Blenheim or Leuthen adorned his record, but able, resourceful, constant, indomitable, like Scipio or Cromwell.

What placed those few men in the first rank before all others ? Not final success. For though success final and absolute crowned most of them, final and irrevocable defeat was the last reward of others and these the greatest: Hannibal and Napoleon. Such rank then was won notwithstanding final defeat; and in reckoning its elements, final success bears no definite part.

Studying these captains closely, what gifts do we discern in all, divided as they were by centuries and by the equally vast gulf of racial differences? First, Imagination—the divine imagination to conceive a great cause and the means to support it. It may be to conquer the world; or Rome; or Europe. I conceive that it was this supreme gift that led Alexander to sleep with the casket-set of the Illiads under his pillow with his dagger and to declare them the best compendium of the soldier’s art.

Next there must be the comprehensive grasp that seizes and holds firmly great campaigns in their completeness together with the mastery of every detail in their execution, both great and small. There must be a tireless mind in a tireless body, informed with zeal; incarnate energy; the mental, moral and physical courage in complete and overpowering combination to compel men to obedience, instant and loyal under all conditions whatsoever; to inspire them with new forces and the power to carry out orders through every possible chance and change. These give the grand strategy. Its foundation is the combination in a brave soldier of a rare imagination and of a rarer intellect. No amount of fighting power or of capacity for calling it forth in others proves this endowment. In the Napoleonic wars, “Ney and Blücher,” says Henderson, “were probably the best fighting generals of France and Prussia. But neither could be trusted to conduct a campaign.”*

Then there must be the supreme constancy to withstand every shock of surprise or defeat without a tremor or a doubt, before which mere courage becomes paltry, and constant, imminent danger dwindles to a bare incident, serving only to quicken the spirit and fan its last ember to a consuming flame.

With these must exist an intuitive and profound knowledge of human nature and of men, singly and in combination; power to divine the adversary’s every design and to fathom his deepest intention; equal to every exigency, amounting to inspiration; all culminating in the power to foresee, to prepare for, divine and seize the critical moment and win where others would lose, or, having lost, save where others would be destroyed; and equally profound and exact knowledge of the art of war as practised by the great masters of all ages. And finally, fusing all in one complete and harmonious whole, crowning this whole with the one final and absolute essential must be the God—given personal endowment of genius; undefined, undefinable; sometimes flaming at the very first, sometimes slumbering through years to burst forth at some moment of supreme crisis; sometimes hardly recognized until its light is caught down the long perspective of the years, but when caught recognized as genius.

Without this a man may be a great captain, a victorious captain; but not the greatest or among the greatest.

Thus, we come to the measure of Lee’s greatness as a captain.

The measure of a captain’s abilities must rest, at last, on his achievement as gauged by his resources.

Let us see what Lee accomplished with his means; then we shall be the better able to reckon the measure of his success. Let us turn aside for a moment for the consideration of a few figures. They are a dry and unpalatable diet, but, after all, it was to the science of arithmetic that the South yielded at the end.

The South began the war with a white population of about 5,500,000. Of these her military population numbered about 1,065,000.*

The North began the war with a white population of about 22,000,000. Of these her fighting men, whom she could call into the field, numbered about 3,900,000.

The South enlisted about 900,000. The North enrolled of her fighting men about 1,700,000; besides which she enlisted of foreigners about 700,000, and of negroes about 186,000.

The North had an organized National Government with all departments—State, War, Navy, Treasury and Justice, perfectly organized and equipped, while the South had to organize her Confederated Government. The North had about $11,000,000,000 of taxable values as against about $5,000,000,000 in the South, of which $2,000,000,000 was represented by the slaves. The North had by far the best means of transportation, a large percentage of the efficient railways and the means of railway equipment.

In addition to this the North had nearly all the manufactures, and possessed a superiority in equipment that is incalculable. When the war broke out, the South could scarcely manufacture a tin-cup or a frying-pan, a railway-iron, a wool-card, or a carpenter’s tool. The North possessed nearly the whole old Navy, the naval forces, and the population from which the seamen were drawn. And finally and above all, the North had the ear of the world.

With his superiority she was enabled to blockade the South and lock her within her own confines, while the world was open to her and she could await with what patience she could command, the fatal result of “the policy of attrition.”

No adequate account of the value of the Navy to the Union side has ever been given, or, at least, has ever reached the public ear. Had the Navy been on the side of the Confederacy instead of on the Union side, it is as certain that the South would have made good her position as is any other fact established by reason. The Navy with its 200,000 men enabled the Union not only to seal up the South against all aid from without, but to penetrate into the heart of the Confederacy, command her interior waters and form at once the base of supplies for the Union Armies when advancing and their protection when defeated.*

It is not meant to imply that figures give an exact statement of the problem that was worked out during the war; but they cast a light upon it which contributes greatly to its just comprehension.

In round numbers the South had on her muster-rolls, from first to last, less than 900,000 men. And in this list the South had all she could muster; for, at the last, she had enlisted in her reserves all men between sixteen and sixty years. In round numbers the North had 2,700,000, and besides, had all Europe as her recruiting field.

When the war closed, the South had in the field, throughout her territory, but 175,000 men opposed to the armies of the North, numbering 980,000 men.*

Towards the close of the war the South was well nigh stripped naked, and for what was left she had no means of transportation. She had no nitre for her powder; no brass for her percussion caps; the very kettles and stills from the plantations had been used; and when it was necessary to repair one railroad as a line for transportation, to meet the emergency the best rails were taken up from another road less important.

The commissariat and the quartermaster’s department were bad enough. Study of the matter will, however, convince any one that at the very last it was rather owing to the desperate condition of the lines of transportation than to mere inefficiency of the commissariat and the quartermaster’s department, to which it has been so often charged, that Lee failed to carry out his final plan of effecting a junction with Johnston.*

In fact, from the first, a considerable proportion of the equipment of the Southern armies and all of their best equipment had been captured by them on the field of battle. So regular had been their application to this source of supply that, says Henderson in his “Life of Jackson,” “the dishonesty of the Northern contractors was a constant source of complaint among the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia.”

An English soldier and critic, Colonel Lawler, in Blackwood’s Magazine, has declared his doubt whether any general of modern history could have sustained for four years—a longer time nowadays than Hannibal’s fifteen years in Italy in times past—a war in which, possessed of scanty resources himself, he had against him so enormous an aggregate of men, horses, ships and supplies; it is an under, rather than an over estimate to state that during the first two years, the odds all told were ten to one, during the last two years, twenty to one, against the Confederates.*

Truly, then, said General Lee to General Early, in the winter of 1865–6, “It will be difficult to get the world to understand the odds against which we fought.”

It is known by some in the South, the survivors of those armies who tracked the frozen roads of Virginia with bleeding feet; whose breakfast was often nothing but water from a road-side well and whose dinner nothing but a tightened belt. Some knew it who knew the war-swept South in their boyhood, where the threat was that a crow flying over it should have to carry his rations, and the fact was more terrible than the prophecy.

But it is well for the race to make the world know it.

In the foregoing computation it is true enough to say that we have not reckoned all the resources of the South. She had Lee and she had Jackson; she had the men who followed them and the women who sustained those men. “Lee and Jackson,” says Henderson, in his “Life of Stonewall Jackson,” “were worth 200,000 men to any armies they commanded.” Quoting Moltke’s saying that the junction of two armies on the field of battle is the highest achievement of military genius, he says in comment: “Tried by this test alone, Lee stands out as one of the greatest soldiers of all time. Not only against Pope, but against McClellan at Gaines’s Mill, against Burnside at Fredericksburg and against Hooker at Chancellorsville, he succeeded in carrying out the operations of which Moltke speaks.” But this is not all. No reckoning of the opposing forces can be made without taking into account the men who followed Lee and Jackson, and the women who stayed at home and sustained them. No people ever gave more promptly to their country’s cause than did the old American element of the North, or would have been readier had occasion arisen to suffer on their country’s behalf. But it is no disparagement of them to state the simple fact that the war did not reach them as a people as it reached the people of the South. Where a class gave at the North, the whole population of the South gave; whereas a fraction suffered at the North, the entire population of the South suffered. The rich grew to be as the poor, and, together with the poor, learned to know actual hunger. The delicately nurtured came to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. War in its most brutal and terrible form came to be known all over the land; known in disease without medicines; in life without the common necessaries of life; in ravaged districts; bombarded and blackened towns; burnt homesteads, terrorized and starving women and children. Thus the South came to know throughout a large extent of her territory. Yet, through it all, her people bore themselves with a constancy that must ever be a monument to them, and that even in the breast of those who were in children in that stirring period must ever keep alive the hallowed memory of her undying resolution.

“All honor and praise to the fair Southern women!” declared a Richmond paper in the closing days of 1862. “May the future historian when he comes to write of this war fail not to award them their due share of praise.” No history of this war could be written without such due award. It is not too much to say that as brave and constant as were the intrepid soldiery that, with steadily wasting ranks, followed Lee from Seven Pines to Appomattox, even more brave and constant were the women who stayed at home. Gentle and simple, they gave their husbands, their brothers and their sons to the cause of the South, sorrowing chiefly that they themselves were too feeble to stand at their side. Hungering in body and heart they bore with more than a soldier’s courage, more than a soldier’s hardship, and to the last, undaunted and dauntless, gave them a new courage as with tear-dimmed eyes they sustained them in the darkest hours of their despondency and defeat.

Such were among the elements which even in the South’s darkest hour Lee had at his back. From such elements Lee himself had sprung and in his character he was their supreme expression.


* Henderson’s “Stonewall Jackson,” I., p. 93.

* Besides these she had a servile population of about 3,500,000, of which a certain proportion were available for raising subsistence for the army.

† Besides, of the negroes the North drew into her armies about 186,000, they being the most able-bodied of this class.

Cf. “Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America,” pp. 40 and 50. Colonel Thomas L. Livermore. Houghton, Mifflin Co.

* Cf. Henderson’s “Stonewall Jackson,” I., Chap. V., p. 113. “Judicious indeed,” he says, “was the policy which at the very outset of the war brought the tremendous pressure of the seapower to bear against the South.”

† Col. Thomas S. Livermore of Boston, author of the notable work, “Numbers and Losses,” in a letter to the writer, says, “I suppose that it would be safe to assume that eighty per cent. (of the enlistments) would hold in all the Northern States. This would give about 2,234,000 individuals in the army. The Record and Business Bureau, in its memorandum of 1896, computed the average estimates of reenlistments by different authorities at 543,393.”

The Confederate forces he estimates at “1,239,000, the number shown by the census to have been within the conscript age, less the number of exempts (partly estimated and partly recorded), and an estimate of the natural deaths; or at about 1,000,000 estimated proportionally to the killed and wounded in the two armies.” It will be seen that his first estimate above takes no account of the numbers of Southerners in the mountain regions who sided with the Union.

Gen. Marcus J. Wright places the total number of the Southern troops at less than 700,000. The total number within the conscript age he places at 1,000,065.

Henderson, in his “Life of Stonewall Jackson,” estimates them at about 900,000.

I have felt that possibly this trained and impartial soldier of another nation might have arrived at a fairer estimate than any one on this side the Atlantic.

For calculations of Col. Livermore and General Wright, see Appendix A.

* Of 346,744 Federal soldiers examined for military service after March 6, 1863, sixty-nine per cent were Americans, the rest were foreigners. In the 35th Massachusetts Regiment, which, says Henderson, may be taken as a typical Northern regiment, of 495 recruits received during 1864, 400 were German immigrants.—Henderson’s “Life of Stonewall Jackson,” 1st Ed., I., p. 466.

The South, or rather those orators who stood as the economists of the South, had supposed that her cotton and tobacco were so necessary to the rest of the world that the European nations would take her part, out of plain consideration for their own welfare. It was a great error. The value of the cotton crop exported in 1860 was $202,741,351. In 1861, it was $42,000,000. In 1862, it was $4,000,000. After that it was next to nothing.

* I can remember my surprise as a boy at seeing wagons hauling straw from my home to Petersburg, sixty-odd miles, through roads the like of which, I trust in Grace, do not now exist in the United States.

* Jones’s “Lee,” p. 75.

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