Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 10

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


POSSIBLY, Lee’s one fault as a soldier was that he was not always rigorous enough with his subordinates; that, if such a thing be possible, he was too magnanimous. He took blame on himself where it should rightly have been adjudged to others. Yet, this weakness as a soldier but added to his nobility as a man, and it is as a man—a type of the man bred of Southern blood and under the Southern civilization that we are now considering him.

While many competent critics in his army were charging Longstreet with having been the cause of the disaster at Gettysburg, Lee wrote him a letter such as only a man of noble nature could have written to an old comrade who had failed him. He showed him a magnanimity which was ill requited when Longstreet wrote his own story of the war.

As the years pass by, the military genius of Lee must be more and more restricted to the study of a class. His character will ever remain the precious possession of his kindred and his people. In all the annals of his race none has excelled it.

Among his characteristics his humanity stands forth to distinguish him forever from possibly nearly all his contemporaries. Colonel Charles Marshall, of his staff, who knew him best among men, declares that he never put a spy to death, and the story is well known of his clemency in the case of a deserter who had been found guilty by a court-martial, and condemned to death. It was during the terrible campaign of 1864, when the women at home wrote such heart-rending accounts of their want to their husbands in the field, that Lee was compelled to forbid the mails to be delivered. A soldier who had disappeared from his regiment and gone home was arrested and tried as a deserter. His defence was a letter which he had received from his wife, which showed that she and her children were starving. It was held insufficient, and he was sentenced to be shot. The case, however, was so pitiful that it was finally presented to General Lee. he wrote beneath the finding his approval, and then below that, an order that the man should immediately rejoin his regiment. There were, of course, unhappily, other instances enough in which discipline had to be enforced, and when the exigency arose he was rock. But, as has been well said by Mr. Charles Francis Adams, possibly his surest and loftiest title to enduring fame was, “his humanity in arms and his scrupulous regard for the most advanced rules of modern warfare.”*

An incident, small in itself, but illustrative of the compassionate character of Lee occurred during one of his fiercest battles. He was standing with officers of his staff in the yard of a dwelling on an eminence, when the group attracted the attention of the enemy and a hot fire was directed on them: General Lee suggested to his companions to go to a less exposed spot, but he himself remained where he was. A little later as he moved about he stooped and picked up a young bird, and, walking across the yard, placed the fledgling on a limb in a place of security.

It was characteristic of him that ordinarily, wherever he might be, he slept in a tent, for fear of incommoding the occupants of the houses he might have taken for his headquarters, and at times when he was inspecting the long lines from Richmond to Petersburg, he even hesitated to seek shelter at night in the camp of an acquaintance lest he might inconvenience him.

He writes later, during the stress of war, to his eldest son, “. . . I hope we will be able to do something for the servants. I executed a deed of manumission embracing all the names sent me by your mother, and some that I recollected, but as I had nothing to refer to but my memory, I fear many were omitted. It was my desire to manumit all the people of your grandfather, whether present on the several estates or not. I believe your mother only sent me the names of those present at W.[hite] H.[ouse], and Romancoke. Those that have left with the enemy may not require their manumission. Still, some may be found hereafter in the State, and, at any rate, I wished to give a complete list, and to liberate all to show that your grandfather’s wishes, so far as I was concerned, had been fulfilled. . . . I shall pay wages to Perry [his body-servant], and retain him until he or I can do better. You can do the same with Billy. The rest that are hired out had better be furnished with their papers and be let go. But what can be done with those at the W. H. and Romancoke? Those at and about Arlington can take care of themselves, I hope, and I have no doubt but all are gone who desire to do so. At any rate, I can do nothing for them now.”*

In another letter, dated March 31, 1863, he writes further showing his solicitude about his freed servants. One he wishes a place gotten for on a Railway; two others who had been hired out he advises to remain where they are till the end of the year, when they are to have their earnings devoted to their own benefit. “But what can be done,” he asks, “with poor little Jim? It would be cruel to turn him out on the world. He could not take care of himself.”*

This is an epitome of the old Virginian’s relation to his servants, and it will be observed that this representative of his class never speaks of them as his slaves, even in discussing intimately with his son their legal status.

His love of children and his companionship with them shine forth in his letters, and mark the simplicity that is so often allied to true greatness. In one of his letters to his wife long before the war, when he was on duty in the West, he gives a glimpse of this tenderness toward children which ever distinguished him. He says of a ride he took: “. . . I saw a number of little girls, all dressed up in their white frocks and pantalets, their hair plaited and tied up with ribbons, running and chasing each other in all directions. I counted twenty-three nearly the same size. As I drew up my horse to admire the spectacle, a man appeared at the door with the twenty-fourth in his arms. ‘My friend,’ said I, ‘are all these your children?’

“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and there are nine more in the house and this is my youngest.’

“Upon further inquiry, however, I found that they were only temporarily his. He said, however, that he had been admiring them before I came up, and just wished that he had a million of dollars, and that they were all his in reality. I do not think the eldest exceeded seven or eight years old. It was the prettiest sight I have seen in the West, and, perhaps, in my life. . . .”

Such was the heart of this great Captain who, to some, seemed cold and aloof when, as Emerson says, his genius only protected itself by solitude.

Writing, years after, to his wife, of three little girls, the children of an old neighbor who had lived near them in happier days at Arlington, who had paid him a visit in his camp near Petersburg, each with a basket in which they had brought him fresh eggs, pickles and a pair of socks, “I begged them,” he said, ”to bring me nothing but their kisses and to keep the eggs, corn, etc., for themselves.”

Of Lee’s tranquil mind even amid the most difficult conditions, we have constant proof. No apparent disadvantage of position no threats or impending dangers appear to have disturbed that equanimity which so marks him as among the great.

While McClellan, accepting the wildest statements of “intelligent contrabands” was rating the force in his front at two and a half times its actual numbers and was throwing away precious time while he clamored for reinforcements, and while his successors often saw a vast army in their front whose shadows caused them much delay, Lee, from the first, even amid the deepest darkness of the situation saw with a clearness which no gloom could obscure. Writing from his camp, during the Western Virginia campaign he says: “The force of the enemy estimated by prisoners captured is put down at from 17,000 to 20,000. General Floyd thinks 18,000. I do not think it exceeds 9,000 or 10,000, but it exceeds ours.”*

From camp near Orange Court House he writes on the eve of the battle of Second Manassas, under date of August 17, 1862: “General Pope says he is very strong and seems to feel so; for he is moving apparently up the Rapidan. I hope he will not prove stronger than we are. I learn since I have left that General McClellan has moved down the James River, with his whole army, so we shall have busy times. Burnside and King from Fredericksburg have joined Pope, which from their own report has swelled Pope to 92,000. I do not believe it, though I believe he is very big.”

“General Hooker,” he wrote, “is agitating something on the other side, or at all events he is agitating his troops. . . . Yesterday he was marching his men up and down the river. . . .”

And again, “General Hooker is airing himself north of the Rappahannock and again threatening us with a crossing. . . . I think he will consider it a few days.” And this of an enemy who had, by his own field-reports a little later, 137,378 men, whom he had pronounced “the finest army on the planet,” while Lee had only 53,303. But if Hooker prided himself on his fine army, Lee had no less confidence in his own, however outnumbered. “I agree with you,” he wrote Hood, “in believing that our army would be invincible if properly organized and officered. There never were such men in an army before. They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led. But there is the difficulty—proper commanders; where can they be obtained?”*

Once he wrote, “General Hooker is obliged to do something: I do not know what it will be. He is playing the Chinese game, trying what frightening will do. He runs out his guns, starts his wagons and troops up and down the river and creates an excitement generally. Our men look on in wonder, give a cheer, and all again subsides in statu quo ante bellum.

It has been customary to think of piety as the peculiar attribute of Jackson, the Puritan in type, rather than of Lee, the Cavalier. But, if possible, Lee was even more pious than his great Lieutenant. In fact, both were men who, in the early prime of their manhood, consecrated themselves to God, and thenceforth served him with a single heart. It shines forth in every page they ever penned. It was the basis of their character; it formed the foundation of that wonderful poise which, amid the most difficult and arduous situations left them the supreme tranquillity which was the field in which their powers found exercise. No one can familiarize himself with Lee’s life without seeing that he was a man consecrated to the work of his Divine Master and amid all conditions possessed a mind stayed on Him.

Not Cromwell’s army was more religious than that which followed Lee, and the great Protector was not so pious as the great Captain who led the army of Northern Virginia.

The principle on which he acted was stated in one of his letters; “We are all in the hands of a kind God,” he wrote, “who will do for us what is best, and more than we deserve, and we have only to endeavor to deserve more and to do our duty to Him and to ourselves. May we all deserve His mercy, His care and His protection.”*

Such was the man to whom Virginia confided the leadership of her soldiery.

His advice to his youngest son, whom he had advised on leaving college to enlist in a good company, was characteristic of him: “To be obedient to all authority, and to do his duty in everything, great or small.”

It was also characteristic alike of him and of the soldiery of the South that he should have refused to procure for this son a commission, as long afterward he promptly discountenanced the idea of promoting his eldest son (though a soldier so accomplished that he wished for him as his chief of staff) over the heads of officers who had served under him and proved their capacity under his eye.

“I do not think,” says the former, in his interesting “Recollections” of his father, “that it ever occurred to my father to have me, or rather get me, a position in the army. I know it never occurred to me, nor did I ever hear at that time or afterward from any one that I might have been entitled to better rank because of my father’s prominence in Virginia and in the Confederacy.”*

It was not until that son had fought as a private through the Valley campaigns of Jackson, the battles around Richmond, the Maryland campaign, and had distinguished himself, that he received the promotion to the staff of his brother, General Wm. H. F. Lee.

Indeed, one of the troubles with which Lee had to contend was the efforts made by politicians in the civil government to procure commissions and promotions for their constituents, and the delay experienced in getting his recommendations for promotion for merit acted on.

The fact constitutes one of the few complaints in his letters, and he set the example by steadfastly setting his fact against any favoritism toward his own family. His two sons who became generals, were both officers in the old army and were both in the retreat to Appomattox until one of them was captured with five other general officers and some 6,000 men at Taylor’s Creek in one of the last fights of the war. Of their character some idea may be formed from the fact that when one of them, General Wm. H. F. Lee was held as a hostage under sentence of death, the other, General G. W. C. Lee, wrote, asking to be accepted as a hostage in his stead, placing the offer on the ground that his brother had a wife and child, while he, his equal in rank, and the eldest son, was unmarried.

Of his son’s confinement under sentence as a hostage which, the father says, was “grievous” to him, Lee writes to his other son. “I had seen in the papers the intention announced by the Federal government of holding him as a hostage for the two captains selected to be shot. If it is right to shoot those men this should make no difference in their execution; but I have not thought it right to shoot them, and differ in my ideas from most of our people on the subject of reprisal. Sometimes I know it to be necessary, but it should not be resorted to at all times, and in our case policy dictates that it should be avoided whenever possible.”*

Happy the people that can produce such a father and such sons!

It is told of Sidney that, when wounded and perishing of thirst, some one brought him water, and he ordered it given to a dying soldier whose need was greater than his. Hardly a soldier in Lee’s army would not have done that which gave Sidney fame. Such was the temper and character of the men who followed Lee, and such was the temper and character of their beloved commander, whom they loved to call in affectionate phrase, “Marse Robert.”. He was their idol and their ideal, and his impress was stamped on his army.

The Master whom he so faithfully and humbly tried to serve, whose precepts were ever in his heart and whose spirit shone ever in his life, had laid down for him the law: “And to the soldiers he said, Do violence to no man.”

This high rule, like all others of his Divine Master, Lee ever followed and so far as possible, inculcated on his army, by whom, to their eternal honor be it said, the noble example was nobly followed. Unhappily for the world and for the future reputation of some who otherwise might as able soldiers have won the admiration of a whole people, rather than of a mere section of that people, though gentlemen like McClellan, McDowell, Burnside and the gentlemen who followed them conducted war on high principles, it was not the invariable rule among all commanders.

Butler had damned himself to everlasting fame by orders and acts in Louisiana which no soldier can think of without a blush.* Hunter, in despite of expostulations, had burnt his way through the beautiful valley where Lee was to find his last resting place; and had left in his track the scarred and blackened ruins of countless dwellings. To the honor of the brave men he commanded it is said that he “had to deprive forty of his commissioned officers of their commands before he could carry into execution his infamous orders.” Even Halleck declared his action “barbarous” It was reserved for Sherman, possibly the second greatest general on the Northern side, to reverse most completely the advances of civilization and hark back almost to the ferocious methods of mediævalism. To find the proof of this, one has no need to go outside of this officer’s own recorded words.

“War is hell,” he was quoted long after as saying. He did more than all others to make it so. He ruthlessly devastated not only for the needs of his army and to deprive his enemy of subsistence, but to horrify and appall. He made war not only on men, but on women and children. He deliberately strove to carry terror into the hearts of the defenceless.

“In nearly all his dispatches after he had reached the sea,” says Rhodes, an historian from his State, who is his apologist and his admirer, “he gloated over the destruction of property.”*

He gloated over the havoc he wrought, first in anticipation, as he wrote how he could “make a wreck of the country from Chattanooga to Atlanta, including the latter city,” and again, how he could “make Georgia howl” next, in the act of its perpetration, as he issued his orders for his army to “forage liberally on the country,” and expressly forbade his officers to give receipts for property taken; authorized the wanton destruction of mills and houses; and while subordinate officers like Howard and Cox and Schofield were writhing under the robberies of defenceless women, extending even to the tearing of rings from their fingers, chuckled over the robberies committed by his men—who quoted his orders to his face—and reviewed his “bummers,” an organized corps of robbers, who have never had their counterpart since the Free Companies passed from the stage under the awakening conscience of modern Europe.

If these are strong words they are largely taken from his own writings.

He sent an express message to the corps commander at General Howell Cobb’s plantation, General Davis, “to explain whose plantation it was and instruct him to spare nothing.”* This was but warring on women, for Cobb was in his honored grave two years ere this, having fallen at the foot of Marye’s heights, as a brave man falls, holding back brave men. “I would not restrain the army,” he wrote coolly, “lest its vigor and energy should be impaired.”

Speaking of the burning of Columbia, which Sherman wrote his brother he had in his report “distinctly charged to General Wade Hamilton,” he adds, “I confess I did so pointedly to shake the faith of his people in him.”* A distinguished historian from his own State has declared of this destruction of Columbia, a defenceless city which had surrendered, that, “It was the most monstrous barbarity of this barbarous march. Before his movements began, General Sherman had begged permission to turn his army loose in South Carolina and devastate it. He used this permission to the full. He protested that he did not wage war upon women and children. But under the operations of his orders the last morsel of food was taken from hundreds of destitute families that his soldiers might feast in needless and riotous abundance. Before his eyes, rose day after day, the mournful clouds of smoke on every side that told of old people and their grandchildren driven in mid-winter from the only roofs that were to shelter them, by the flames which the wantonness of his soldiers had kindled. Yet, if a single soldier was punished for a single outrage or theft during that entire movement we have found no mention of it in all the voluminous records of the march.”

Place Lee’s general order from Chambersburg on invading Pennsylvania, beside Sherman’s correspondence with Halleck, and let posterity judge thereby the character of the commanders. Halleck, Chief of Staff and military adviser to President Lincoln, writes to Sherman, “Should you capture Charleston, I hope that by some accident the place might be destroyed, and if a little salt should be sown upon its site it might prevent the growth of future crops of nullification and secession,” and Sherman replies,* “I will bear in mind your hint as to Charleston, and do not think salt will be necessary. When I move on, the fifteenth corps will be on the right wing, and their position will bring them naturally into Charleston first, and if you have watched the history of that corps you have remarked that they generally do up their work pretty well.”

While this general was giving orders to burn mills and destroy all food sources on which non-combatants depended for life, and to convey prisoners first, or if prisoners were wanting, then non-combatant inhabitants, over all bridges and other places suspected of being mined, and “could hardly help laughing at their stepping so gingerly along the road where it was supposed sunken torpedoes might explode at each step”;* and while even Grant, not yet risen to his last splendid act of magnanimity, as he came to rise in the long vigils before Petersburg, was expressing his hope to Hunter that his troops would “eat out Virginia clear and clean, as far as they could go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season would have to carry their provender with them”;—Lee, as he marched into Pennsylvania, issued orders to his troops to remember that they made war on armed men, and that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it the whole South, than the perpetration of barbarous outrages on the innocent and defenceless. The whole order can never be too frequently repeated. It gives the man as he was.



The Commanding General has observed with marked satisfaction the conduct of the troops on the march, and confidently anticipates results commensurate with the high spirit they have manifested. No troops could have displayed greater fortitude or better performed the arduous marches of the past ten days. Their conduct in other respects has, with exceptions, been in keeping with their character as soldiers and entitles them to approbation and praise.

There have, however, been instances of forgetfulness on the part of some that they have in keeping the yet unsullied reputation of the army, and that the duties exacted of us by civilization and Christianity are not less obligatory in the country of the enemy than in our own. The Commanding General considers that no greater disgrace would befall the Army, and through it our whole people, than the perpetration of the barbarous outrages upon the innocent and defenceless and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country. Such proceedings not only disgrace the perpetrators and all connected with them, but are subversive of the discipline and efficiency of the army and obstructive to the ends of our present movements. It must be remembered that we make war only on armed men and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrong our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemy, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain.

The Commanding General, therefore, earnestly exhorts the troops to abstain with most scrupulous care from unnecessary or wanton injury to private property, and he enjoins upon all officers to arrest and bring to summary punishment all who shall in any way offend against the orders on this subject.

R. E. Lee,

Colonel Freemantle of the British Army, who was along with the army, says: “I saw no straggling into the houses; nor were any of the inhabitants disturbed or annoyed by the soldiers. I went into Chambersburg and witnessed the singular good behavior of the troops toward the citizens. To one who has seen the ravages of the Northern troops in Southern towns this forbearance seems most commendable and surprising.”

It is a record of general and of men of which the South may well be proud.


* Address delivered at Lexington, Virginia, January 19, 1907.

† Long’s “Lee,” quoting Col. Thomas H. Carter.

* Letter to General G. W. C. Lee, January 11th. 1863.

* Jones’s “Life and Letters of Robert E. Lee,” pp. 286–287.

* Letter to Mrs. Lee, October 7, 1861; letter to his son, Major W. H. F. Lee, October 12, 1861.

* Letter to General J. B. Hood, May 21, 1863.

† Letter to his daughter Agnes, February 26, 1863.

* Letter of September 1, 1856; cited in Jones’s “Lee,” p. 81

† “Recollections of General Lee,” by Captain R. E. Lee.

* “Recollections of General Lee,” by R. E. Lee.

† Moore’s “Recollections of a Cannoneer under Jackson.” Neale Co.

* Letter to General G. W. C. Lee, August 7, 1863.

* In his infamous “Order 28” he had ordered that any woman in New Orleans who should “by word, or gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, should be regarded as treated as a woman of the town, plying her abocation.”

†“Official Report of History Com., Grand Camp C. V., in ‘The Confederate Cause’,” p. 103.

‡ Sherman’s “Memoirs,” II, p. 129.

* Rhodes’s “History of the United States,” Vol. V, p. 22.

† Official Records, Vol. XXXIX, Pt. 2, p. 202.

‡ Official Records, Vol. XXXIX, Pt. 3, p. 162.

* Sherman’s “Memoirs,” Vol. II, p. 185

† Sherman’s “Memoirs,” II p. 255.

* Sherman’s “Memoirs,” II, p. 287.

† “Ohio in the War,” by Hon. Whitelaw Reid.

* Dispatch of December 24, 1864. Sherman’s “Memoirs,” II, pp. 223, 227–228.

* Sherman’s “memoirs,” II, p. 194.

† Official Records, Vol. XXXVII, Pt. 2, pp. 300, 301.

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