Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 9

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


LEE’S move against Pope was not merely the boldest, and possibly the most masterly piece of strategy in the whole war; it was, as has been well said, “one of the most brilliant and daring movements in the history of wars.” But he did not pause to enjoy his victory. His army was well-nigh shoeless, and the south was unable to help him. Need became the handmaid of strategy. He was nearer to Washington than to Richmond. Maryland lay the other side of Pope’s army. He would place that army and the other armies also between him and Richmond. He determined to march around Pope’s army and invade Maryland to subsist his army and relieve Virginia, and to give Maryland the power to join the Southern Confederacy, which it was believed she longed to do. Again circling around to the westward, he dispatched Jackson to capture Harper’s Ferry and pushed on into Maryland. It had been hoped that Maryland would rise and declare for the South. Maryland did not respond. This, however, was not the cause of his failure. That he did not reap the full fruits of this wonderful generalship was due to one of those strange events, which, so insignificant in itself, yet under Him who,

Views with equal eye as God of All,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,

is fateful to decide the issues of nations. As the capture of his letter and plans had given Pope warning and led him to retire his army behind the Rappahannock, so now an even stranger fate befell him. A copy of his dispatch giving his entire plan, was picked up on the site of a camp formerly occupied by D. H. Hill, wrapped about a handful of cigars, and promptly reached McClellan, thus betraying to him a plan which but for this strange accident, might have resulted in the complete overthrow of his army, and even in the capture of the National capital, and enabling him with his vast resources, to frustrate it. A man’s carelessness usually reacts mainly upon himself, but few incidents in the history of the world have ever been fraught with such fateful consequences as that act of the unknown staff-officer or courier, who chose Lee’s plan of battle as a wrapping for his tobacco.

“If we always had exact information of our enemy’s dispositions,” said Frederick, “we should beat him every time.” This exact information this strange mishap gave Lee’s adversary on the eve of Antietam. Even so, Lee, who fought the battle with only 35,000 men, came off with more glory than his antagonist, who had 87,000,* as gallant men, moreover, as ever braved death, and the latter was a little later removed by his Government as a failure, while Lee stood higher than ever in the affection and esteem of the South.

Lee’s order was discovered and delivered to McClellan on the 13th, and McClellan at once set himself to the task of meeting the situation by relieving Harper’s Ferry on the one hand and crushing Lee’s army in detail among the passes of the Maryland Spurs. Lee, however, had, through the good offices of a friendly citizen who had been present at or had learned of the delivery of his dispatch to McClellan, soon become aware of the misfortune that had befallen him, and while McClellan was preparing to destroy him, he was taking prompt measures to repair the damage as fully as possible. He instantly recalled Longstreet from Hagerstown, ordered Hill back to Turner’s Gap and Stuart to Crampton Gap, to defend it against McClellan’s expected advance, a disposition which delayed the enemy until the evening of the 14th, when, after fierce fighting, they carried both positions, forcing McLaws back from Crampton Gap to Pleasant Valley, across which, however, he established “a formidable line of defence.” Lee was thus forced either to retreat across the Potomac, or to fight where he had not contemplated fighting. He seems to have wavered momentarily which course to adopt, and well he might waver. It was a perilous situation. He had with him, when the gaps were stormed on the afternoon of the 14th, only about 19,000 men in all,* “while the main army of McClellan was close upon him.” He issued an order that night (8 P.M.) to McLaws to cross the Potomac below Shepherdstown, leaving the ford at Shepherdstown for the main army to take. “But in less than two hours Lee had changed his mind,—why we are not informed—”says Ropes, “and had determined to await battle north of the Potomac.” By midnight he had planned his battle; he had ordered the cavalry to pilot McLaws over the mountains and across country to Sharpsburg, where he had determined to make his stand on the east of Antietam creek. He had also taken measures to bring up his other troops as rapidly as possible. “This decision,” says Ropes, “to stand and fight at Sharpsburg, which General Lee took on the evening of the 14th of September—just after his troops had been driven from the South Mountain passes—is beyond controversy one of the boldest and most hazardous decisions in his whole military career. It is, in truth, so bold and hazardous that one is bewildered that he could even have thought seriously of making it.”*

Lee’s decision was, indeed, so bold and hazardous that the thoughtful Ropes suggests that he must have been influenced by fear of loss of his military prestige. “General Lee, however,” he admits, “thought there was a fair chance for him to win a victory over McClellan,” and he adds that “naturally he did not consider them (McClellan’s troops) as good as his own, and it is without doubt that they did not constitute so good an army as that which he commanded.”

We know, however, that while Longstreet (as usual) suggested the obstacles and dangers of the situation, Jackson approved the action of Lee both before and after the battle.*

On the night of the 14th, General Lee withdrew his army across Antietam creek and assumed a position which he thought stronger, along a range of hills on the east side of the Hagerstown turnpike with his right resting on Antietam creek and his left refused across the turnpike some three miles to the northward, this pike being a line of communication between the two wings by which he could support either when hard pressed. Thus, he waited for Jackson, who, on the same day, captured Harper’s Ferry with its garrison, munitions and stores, and leaving A. P. Hill in charge, set out in haste to reinforce Lee, who was confronting McClellan’s great army of 75,000 men with only 19,000 men and about 125 guns.

McClellan’s army with whom Lee’s cavalry had been effectively skirmishing, appeared in his front in the early afternoon, and Ropes declares, that it was an “unique opportunity” that was offered the Union general. McClellan, however, still believed that Lee had at least 100,000 men under his command, and he knew how ably that army, whatever its numbers, was commanded. Moreover, he believed that his own army was still not fully recovered from the demoralization it had suffered from under Pope. He was, therefore, inclined to be cautious. Accordingly, it was not until next day that he made any demonstrations against Lee. Meantime, on the morning of the 16th, Jackson arrived with all of his army who could march, between 8,000 and 9,000 men in all, the remainder of them, barefooted and lame, being left behind. But these, alike with those who could march, were flushed with victory. Lee’s troops were disposed with Longstreet commanding his right and Jackson his left, with Hood in support, while McClellan, in disposing his forces had placed Hooker on his extreme right with the first corps, Sumner next on his right, with two corps, the 2d and 12th, then Porter with the 5th corps, occupying his centre and Burnside on the left with the 9th corps, good troops and bravely led. That afternoon, in pursuance of McClellan’s plan, Hooker was ordered to cross the Antietam and assault Lee’s left, and crossing the stream his corps assaulted the portion of the line led by Hood, but was “gallantly repulsed.” The only effect of this ready with his bandages to furnish bands for the arms of the men, by which they would know each other, should such an attack be made.* Lee, however, decided against this plan, if it was ever formally proposed, and in his report he gives his reason. “The attack on the 13th,” he says, “had been so easily repulsed and by so small a part of our army that it was not supposed the enemy would limit his effort, which in view of the magnitude of his preparations and the extent of his force, seemed to be comparatively insignificant. Believing, therefore, that he would attack us, it was not deemed expedient to lose the advantage of our position and expose the troops to the fire of his inaccessible batteries, beyond the river by advancing against him.”

Lee was at this time at the zenith of his fame as a successful general, yet was never more modest. His letter of Christmas Day, 1862, to his wife is full of the spirit of the man in his most intimate moments. He writes: “I will commence this holy day by writing to you. My heart is filled with gratitude to God for the unspeakable mercies with which He has blessed us in this day; for those He has granted us from the beginning of Life, and particularly for those he has vouchsafed us during the past year. What should have become of us without His crowning help and protection? Oh! if our people would only recognize it and cease from vain self-boasting and adulation, how strong would be my belief in final success and happiness to our country. But what a cruel thing is war to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world, to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world! I pray that on this day when only peace and good will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace. Our army was never in such good health and condition since I have been attached to it. I believe they share with me my disappointment that the enemy did not renew the combat on the 13th. I was holding back all that day and husbanding our strength and ammunition for the great struggle for which I thought I was preparing. Had I divined that was to have been his only effort, he would have had more of it. My heart bleeds at the death of every one of our gallant men.”

Should the portrait of a victorious general be drawn, I know no better example than this simple outline of a Christian soldier drawn out of his heart that Christmas morning in his tent, while the world rang with his victory of two weeks before. It is a portrait of which the South may well be proud.

But again we have, following on his success in the defence of Fredericksburg, the proof of Lee’s boldness in offensive operations, which resulted in what is esteemed among foreign military critics as the most brilliant action, not only of the Civil War, but of the century.

With a vast expenditure of care and treasure, the armies of the Union were once more recruited and equipped, and the command of the Army of the Potomac was entrusted to General Hooker, “Fighting Joe Hooker,” as he was called—whose reputation was such that he was supposed to make good at once all the deficiencies of McClellan and Burnside. He had shown capacity to command a corps both in the West and the East, and was given to criticising his superiors with much self-confidence. His self-confidence was, indeed, so great that it called from Mr. Lincoln one of those remarkable letters which he was given to writing on occasion. The plan on which he proceeded was acknowledged to be well-conceived and gave promise of victory. While Burnside was ordered to cross the Rappahannock below Lee’s fortified position at Fredericksburg, threaten his right flank, and assail his lines of communication with Richmond, Hooker marched up the river, crossed it high up beyond Lee’s extreme left and prepared to assail his rear. In the full assurance that he had “the finest arm in the world holding the strongest position the planet,” he elaborated his plans and prepared to deliver the assault which should force Lee from his defensive position with the alternative of the capture of his entire army. Possibly, he ranked Lee as a captain good for defensive operations alone. If so, his error cost him dear. While he was congratulating himself on his tactics and issuing grandiloquent proclamations to his eager yet untried army in the tone of a conqueror, declaring that the enemy must come out from his breastworks and fight him on his own ground “where certain destruction awaited him,” or else “ingloriously fly,” Lee performed the same masterly feat which he had already performed before Richmond and in the Piedmont, and with yet more signal success. Detaching Stonewall Jackson from his force in front of Burnside, he sent him around Hooker’s right at Chancellorsville, and while the latter was congratulating himself that Lee was in full retreat on Gordonsville, he fell upon him and rolled him up like a scroll. Unhappily, his great lieutenant who performed this feat, fell in the moment of victory, shot by his own men in the dusk of the evening as he galloped past from a reconnaissance. Possibly, Hooker’s army was saved by this fatal accident from capture or annihilation that night. For when, a week later, Stonewall Jackson, still murmuring of his battle lines, passed over the river to rest under the shade of the trees, it was with a fame hardly second to that of his great captain.

The question has often been debated whether the chief credit for the victory at Chancellorsville should be assigned to Lee or to Jackson. Lee, himself, has settled it in a letter which he wrote to Mrs. Jackson, in which he states that the responsibility for the flank attack by Jackson, that is, for the tactics which made it possible, necessarily rested on him. He repeated the statement in a letter to his friend, Professor Bledsoe. And apart from his conclusive statement, this is the judgment of Jackson’s biographer, General Henderson. Commenting on the question as to whether to Lee or Jackson the credit was due for the daring plan of the campaign against Pope, Henderson says, “We have record of few enterprises of greater daring than that which was then decided on; and no matter from whose brain it emanated, on Lee fell the burden of the responsibility; on his shoulders and on his alone, rested the honor of the Confederate arms, the fate of Richmond, the independence of the South; and if we may suppose, so consonant was the design proposed with the strategy which Jackson had already practised, that it was to him its inception was due, it is still to Lee that we must assign the higher merit. It is easy to conceive. It is less easy to execute. But to risk cause and country, name and reputation, on a single throw, and to abide the issue with unflinching heart, is the supreme exhibition of the soldier’s fortitude.”*

It is, indeed, no disparagement from Jackson’s fame to declare that, if possible, even more brilliant than the afternoon attack on Hooker’s right which routed that wing and began the demoralization of his army, was the final attack, when Lee, who had left Early with only enough men at Fredericksburg to hold Burnside in check, learning that Sedgwick had forced a crossing and was marching on his rear, turned and, leaving only a fragment of his army to hold the shaken Hooker in his breastworks, fell on Sedgwick and hurled him back across the river, and then, turning again, fell on Hooker’s position, and so crushed him that he was glad to retreat by night, broken and discouraged, across the Rappahannock.

The victory of Chancellorsville, in which Lee with 62,000 men and 170 guns completely routed Hooker on his own ground with 120,000 men and 448 guns, was, declares Henderson, “the most brilliant feat of arms of the century.” Thus, Lee had destroyed the reputation of more generals than any captain had destroyed since Napoleon.

But the attrition was grinding away the forces of the blockaded and beleaguered Confederacy. It was a case of “One more such victory and we are lost.” It became necessary to remove the seat of war into a new region. For this reason Lee, boldly flanking Hooker, who, secure on the further side of the Rappahannock, was boasting still, marched his army into Maryland and Pennsylvania, not for conquest, but for subsistence, and to employ once more, at need, the strategy which he knew would compel the withdrawal of the forces still threatening Richmond.

With masterly foresight he had once written that a pitched battle would probably be fought at York, or at Gettysburg.

It was thus that the wheat-clad ridges about the little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, with the valley between them, became the field of the battle which possibly turned the fluctuating tide of the war. Lee’s meeting with Meade’s army at this spot was to some extent a surprise to him; for his able and gallant cavalry commander, Stuart, on whom he had relied to keep him informed touching the enemy, had been led by the ardor of a successful raid further afield than had been planned, and the presence of Meade’s army in force was unsuspected until too late to decline battle.* Heth’s division had sought the place for imperatively needed supplies and found the Union troops holding it, and a battle was precipitated. Lee’s plan of battle failed here, but the student of war knows how it failed and why. It failed because his lieutenants failed, and his orders were not carried out—possibly because he called on his intrepid army for more than human strength was able to achieve. “Had I had Jackson at Gettysburg,” he once said, “I should, so far as man can judge, have won that battle.”


* General Lee told Fitz Lee that he fought the battle of Sharpsburg with 35,000 troops. And McClellan reported that he himself had 87,164 troops.—(Fitzhugh Lee’s “Life of Lee,” p. 209.) Cf. also Ropes’s, “Story of the Civil War,” II, pp. 376–377.

* Ropes’s “Story of the Civil War,” II, p. 347.

* Ropes’s, “Story of the Civil War,” II, p. 349.

† Ropes’s, “Story of the Civil War,” p. 351—352.

* Lee’s Letter to Mrs. Jackson, January 15, 1866.

† Ropes’s, II, pp. 354–355.

*Address on Stonewall Jackson, by Dr. Hunter McGuire, “The Confederate Cause.” The Bell Co., Richmond, Virginia.

* Henderson’s “Life of Stonewall Jackson,” II., p. 582.

*That Stuart was in any way responsible for this is denied by Colonel John S. Mosby, in his “Stuart in the Gettysburg Campaign.”

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