Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 5

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


AND now, bearing clearly in mind what his resources were, we may approach the question intelligently: whether Lee was, as charged by some, great only in defence and when on interior lines and behind breast-works, or was really the soldier of his time, and, perhaps, of the greatest solder of his time, and, perhaps, of the English-speaking race.

Immediately on his resignation from the Army of the United States, Lee was tendered by the Governor of Virginia the command of the forces of the State which was in the throes of preparation to repel the invasion of her territory, and of the 23d of April he received at the hands of the President of the State Convention the commission of Major-General of the Virginia forces. The President of the Convention, the Hon. John Janney, in a brief speech, recalling the example of Washington, announced to him the fact that the Convention had by a unanimous vote, expressed their conviction that among living Virginians he was “first in war”; that they prayed he might so conduct the operations committed to his charge that it should soon be said of him that he was “first in peace,” and that when that time came, he should have earned the still prouder distinction of being “first in the hearts of his countrymen.” He further recalled to him that Washington in his will had given his swords to his favorite nephews with an injunction that they should never be drawn from their scabbards except in self-defence or in defence of the rights and liberties of their country.

He said in closing, “Yesterday your mother Virginia placed her sword in your hand, upon the implied condition that we know you will keep to the letter and in spirit, that you will draw it only in defense and that you will fall with it in your hand rather than the object for which it was placed there should fail.”

To this Lee replied in the following simple words: “Mr. President and gentlemen of the Convention: Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred that your choice had fallen upon an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword.”

Thus, passing into the service of his native State in the dire hour of her need, Lee was appointed a Major-General of Virginia’s forces to resist the invasion of Virginia’s soil, and it was not until war was flagrant throughout the land, and Virginia had been actually invaded that he became an officer of the Confederate States.

His first service was to put Virginia in a posture of defence. That he promptly effected this was shown on the plain of Manassas on July 21st. He was the third in rank of the Major-Generals appointed by Mr. Davis, and to this fact was due his assignment to Western Virginia.

Indeed, it is stated that so far was General Lee from being influenced by any considerations of a selfish nature that when Virginia joined the Southern Confederacy and left him without rank, he seriously contemplated enlisting in the company of cavalry commanded by his son.*

The game, as it appears now to all and as it appeared then to those who had to shoulder the responsibility of playing it, was, on the one side, the sealing up of the South within its own borders; the suppression of the power of the Border States, such as Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, to join the South, and the cutting in two of the section already seceded; on the other, it was the simple maintenance of the status quo of the seceded section; the power to exercise the right of secession in the Border States; and the resistance of invasion. There was no claim on the part of the South to the right of invasion and no thought of invasion of the North until the exactions of war made it necessary as a counterstroke. Even after the victory of Manassas the Confederate Government held back the eager Jackson and sustained the prudent Johnston. Such being the game it was played on both side with clear vision and impressive determination. And no one saw more clearly than Lee the magnitude of the impending struggle.

Of Lee’s far-sightedness we have signal proof in his letters. While others discussed the war as a matter of days and occasion for a summer holiday, he, with wider knowledge and clearer prevision, reckoned its duration at full four years, and possibly at even ten. It is said that one of the few speeches he ever made was that in which, responding to urgent calls from a crowd assembled at a railway station to see him, he, in a few grave sentences, bade them go home and prepare for a long and terrible war.

“We must make up our minds,” he wrote in of 1862, “to meet with reverses and to overcome them. But the contest must be long and the whole country has to go through much suffering.”*

His views on the matter of the Trent were as sound as though he had been trained in diplomacy all his life. “I think,” he writes, “the United States Government, notwithstanding this moral and political commitment at Wilkes’ act, if it finds that England is earnest, and that it will have to fight or retract, will retract. We must make up our minds to fight our battles ourselves, expect to receive aid from no one, and make every necessary sacrifice of money, comfort and labor to bring the war to a successful close. The cry is too much for help. I am mortified to hear it. We want no aid. We want to be true to ourselves, to be prudent, just and bold.”

The first steps taken at the North were to blockade the Southern ports from the Chesapeake to the Rio Grande with the efficient navy of the Union; to seize the Mississippi and to overawe the Border States.

The western portion of Virginia, traversed by the great Appalachian Range stretching in a vast barrier across the State, and penetrated only by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, had, partly by reason of the origin and character of the population, partly by reason of their direct association with the North and West, but mainly owing to the absence of slaves among them, been unaffected by the causes which created the friction between the North and South. Here in this mountainous and substantially non-slaveholding region, bordering on the States of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and mainly trading by way of the Ohio River and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with the North and West, the population was almost as strongly Union in sentiment as that of the States with which they marched, and, finally, when the conflict came, the major portion of the population sided with the North and stood for the Union. And here McClellan, outmatching the commands and the commanders opposed to him, soon showed substantial success for the Union side.

The importance of securing this great section of the leading Southern State was manifest to both sides, and from the first troops were thrown into the State by both sides to control and hold it. General Garnett had been early dispatched with a command to protect the western border, and awe into submission the wavering and the disaffected. The course of events, however, had made the eastern rather than the western border of this section the seat of operations, with Harper’s Ferry and Winchester as the key to the situation, and when Harper’s Ferry, soon after the first outbreak of war, fell into the hands of the Federal troops, McClellan had seized the passes that commanded the western region and fortified them strongly. The gallant Garnett had fallen soon after the evacuation of Harper’s Ferry, and Rosecrans, who had succeeded to the command of the troops dispatched to hold Western Virginia on McClellan’s being transferred to Washington, was now leading an invading force up the Kanawha, while Reynolds was posted on the Cheat River to guard the chief avenue of communication between the East and the West.

Confederate forces in this mountainous region were divided into several detachments, two of them on the Kanawha under command, respectively, of Generals Floyd and Wise, and two others farther eastward under Generals Loring and H. R. Jackson, among whom the spirit of cooperation left much to be desired. Owing partly to the hostility of the population and partly to the lack of harmony among the commanding officers, the cause of the South steadily waned in this trans-Alleghany region, and in July, after Johnston had been offered the command in this territory and had declined the billet, General Lee was sent out to Western Virginia to take command of the somewhat disorganized forces in that hostile region. His reputation, gained among the mountains of Mexico, was doubtless one of the motives which ruled when he was assigned to duty among the mountains of Western Virginia; but even his abilities were not equal to conquering the conditions which he found prevailing there. Old soldiers with whom I have discussed the causes of the result of this campaign have never given wholly satisfactory reasons for it, but have felt assured that all that could have been accomplished Lee accomplished. They have felt that in the first place the dissensions of the officers previously in command had tended to demoralize the troops; then, that the sickness among the troops unaccustomed to the exposure or prostrated by an epidemic of typhoid fever, measles, and other diseases, impaired their efficiency, and finally, that the unlooked-for hostility of the population at large, in a region where it was difficult, at best, to maintain lines of communication, now in a season unprecedently wet, which rendered the roads impassable, combined with lack of means of transportation to frustrate the plans of even as capable a commander as Lee.

Lee’s report makes mention of the difficulty of maintaining his lines of communication owing to the exhausted condition of his horses and the impossibility of obtaining supplies; so it may be assumed that this was in his view the chief reason for the failure of the campaign.

The first object of Lee’s offensive operations was the destruction of Reynolds, posted on Cheat Mountain. The movement, however, proved a failure because the frontal attack, which was to be the signal for the assault intended to be made by the body of troops sent by night across the mountains to attack Reynolds’ position in the rear, was not made as ordered by Lee, and the flanking force, having had their ammunition damaged and their provisions destroyed by a furious storm which raged all night, missing the concerted signal, returned across the mountains without making the expected assault. If any one else was to blame for this failure to carry out Lee’s well-conceived plan, the commander, with the magnanimity characteristic of him, simply passed it by as he later did similar failures on the part of his subordinates, assuming himself whatever blame attached to the failure.

The second opportunity which apparently offered itself and was allowed by Lee to pass fruitlessly by, was when Rosecrans’ army, which lay before him at Sewell’s Mountain was allowed to slip away unmolested. Lee gave as his reason for his apparent non-action, that he was confident of defeating Rosecrans by a flanking movement which he had planned for the following night and that he “could not afford to sacrifice five or six hundred of his people to silence public clamor.”

The “public clamor” over Lee’s failure was bitter and persistent, but he remained unruffled by it. With characteristic calm he simply stated that it was “only natural that such hasty conclusions should be reached,” and gave his opinion that it was “better not to attempt a justification or defence but to go steadily on in the discharge of our duty to the best of our ability, leaving all else to the calmer judgment of the future and to a kind Providence.”

Happily for the South, Mr. Davis knew Lee better than those who were so clamorous against him, and the autumn having closed the campaign in Western Virginia, Lee was dispatched the South to design and construct a general system of coast-defences along the Atlantic seaboard, a duty in which he displayed such genius that he rendered the coast cities of Georgia and South Carolina impregnable against all assaults by sea, and, protected by his chain of forts, they stood as memorials of his genius until Sherman with his victorious army attacked them by land. His letters give a clear picture of the difficulties of protecting these seaport towns against a navy without some sort of navy to oppose it.

This duty performed. Lee, in the shadow of the vast preparations making at Washington, for a great invasion of Virginia, was called back to Richmond to advise the President of the Confederacy, and the need was urgent, for McClellan, with Johnston falling back slowly before him, was marching steadily up the Peninsula, with an army the like of which had never been commanded by one man.

The first campaign in which Lee engaged, like Washington’s first campaign, was thus conducted with adverse fortune. Had Washington’s military career closed after the retreat from Long Island, he would have been reckoned simply a brave man and a stark fighter, but one unequal to general command. Had Lee’s career ended the campaign in Western Virginia, when he was derisively characterized in the anti-administration press of Richmond, as “Evacuating Lee,” he would have been known in history only as a fine organizer, a capital scout, and a brilliant engineer of unusual gallantry, whose abilities as a commander were not superior to those of the mediocre officer who opposed him in that experimental campaign, and were possibly equal only to the command of a brigade, or at best, of a division. But the South and Fame awaited his opportunity.

As soon as Lee was brought back from the South, and was again appointed military adviser to the President, he revolutionized the plan of campaign hitherto followed. His clear vision saw the imperative necessity of substituting an aggressive for a defensive policy, and he unleashed the eager Jackson on the armies in the Valley of Virginia, keeping them fully occupied and so alarming Washington as to hold McDowell on the north side of the Rappahannock. Within a month after he was placed in command he perfected his plans and fell upon McClellan and defeated the greatest army that had ever stood on American soil. The next three years proved beyond cavil that in the first campaign, as always, all that could have been done with his forces by any one, was done by Lee. Within one year, indeed, he had laid the foundation of a fame, as a great captain, as enduring as Marlborough’s or Wellington’s.

Three years from this time “this colonel of cavalry” surrendered a muster-roll of 26,000 men; of which barely 8,000 muskets showed up, to an army of over 130,000 men, commanded by the most determined and able general that the North had found, and, defeated, sheathed his sword with what will undoubtedly become the reputation of the greatest captain and the noblest character of his time.

In this period he had fought three of the greatest campaigns in all the history of war and destroyed the reputation of more generals than any captain had ever done in the same space of time. His last campaign alone, even ending as it did in defeat, would have sufficed to fix him forever as a star of the first magnitude in the constellation of great captains. Though he succumbed at last to the “policy of attrition” pursued by his patient and able antagonist, it was not until Grant had lost in the campaign over 124,000 men, two men for every one that Lee had in his army from the beginning of the campaign.


* Jones’s “Life and Letters of Robert E. Lee.”

* Letters to Mrs. Lee, dated April 30, 1861, and February 8, 1862. Jones’s “Lee,” p. 150.

† Letter to his son, Gen. G. W. C. Lee, December 29, 1861.

Return to Robert E. Lee, The Southerner