Lee as Cavalier and Soldier
Albert A. Rogers

Note: The following is taken from the April 1935 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly (volume 15), pp. 123–25.

By Albert A. Rogers

The student of Southern history will give an especial welcome to Dr. Douglas Freeman’s biography of General R. E. Lee. This is the most important study and exhaustive analysis ever made of that great Virginian. Lee, in whom the ideals of the Old South are epitomized, has been the subject of many biographies; yet up to now there has been no comprehensive, day by day, account of the life of this sainted leader of the Southern Confederacy; in fact, the author found “that much the larger part of the source material had never been consulted.” The present work is the result of nineteen years among these sources. This labor of love is backed by a life-long interest and many studies in Virginia and Confederate military history. The Attitude of Political Parties in Virginia to Slavery and to Secession (1908) was the subject of the author’s doctoral dissertation at Johns Hopkins University. He edited A Calendar of Confederate Papers (1908), Lee’s Dispatches (1915), The True Story of General Order No. 9 (1928), and wrote the article of R. E. Lee in the Dictionary of American Biography (1933).

The vital factor in this complete life of Lee is that the author has combined with his wisdom and courage the strength of vision to see his subject clearly; that he subscribes with his whole heart to the view expressed by Gen. Lee that had “forbearance and wisdom been practiced on both sides,” the great national tragedy of 1861 might have been prevented. He is “not willing to have this study of a man who loved peace interpreted as glorification of war.” Throughout, he tells the whole truth, no matter who may be disappointed or irritated. Yet he avoids historical controversy and rightfully adheres to the fact “that the fame of no man is promoted by extravagant utterance.”

No one has hitherto brought to a study of Lee such a happy balance between the two prerequisite essentials—first, the knowledge that the Lee of fact and tradition, while he loved the Union, was always first a Virginian; and secondly, the ability of a military expert so necessary for an exacting interpretation and appraisal of the idol of the South. In such chapters as “A Background of Great Traditions,” and “The Education of a Cadet” the true picture of Lee, product of the old local culture of Virginia, is revealed. And throughout the biography one cannot forget that Lee’s words and actions are interpreted according to their terms and standards.

Heretofore General Lee has been pictured as an enigma. Different writers have variously explained why he was opposed to secession, yet fought against the Union, or why he was opposed to slavery, yet sided with the slave-holding South. They failed to see him as a Christian and a gentleman boirn into the upper class and truly representative of the best traditions of the Old South. They tried to see enigma and inconsistency when there was none, for as Lee seemed, so he was—a Christian gentleman whose essential elements were simplicity and spirituality.

Dr. Freeman has based this exhaustive biography on material including unpublished manuscripts, letters, letter-books, records of the Bureau of Engineers and of the United States Military Academy, which have yielded much material neglected by biographers in treating Lee’s career prior to the Civil War. His military education, especially the influence of the Mexican campaign, is properly stressed throughout. The author points out that General Scott referred to Lee as “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.” In the Mexican campaign he learned the seven great lessons in strategy and the handling of an army “that were the basis of virtually all he attempted to do in Virginia fifteen years later.” His correspondence shows that before he left Texas he had decided without thought of personal gain or loss “to stand with Virginia, though he hoped with all his heart that the Union would be preserved.” The path led straight to Appomattox. But there were no regrets, no admission of even a choice. He wrote afterwards (June, 1868) to Wade Hampton, “I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonor. And if it all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner.”

As the author avers, the portrayal of Lee before and after the Civil War was comparatively easy—the task was mainly one of presenting material from many scattered sources and presenting Lee as “a man of normal impulses and simple soul.” But the portrayal of Lee as a soldier was, from the very nature of war, more complex. Yet from beginning to end, there are “no secrets and no scandals to be exposed or explained.” The author has avoided an unscientific method by giving the reader only the information that Lee possessed at a particular moment, and with few exceptions one remains at Confederate G. H.Q. throughout the war. However, where Federal operations unknown to Lee at the time must be explained, this is done in footnotes.

Much that is new is related regarding Lee’s organization of Virginia’s defense. His problem as a subordinate to Jefferson Davis, who never gave up his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief, and the essential differences between Lee’s and Johnston’s strategical views are clearly shown. Interesting and explanatory sketch maps are provided, and the blending of personal incidents and anecdotes into the narrative gives one the feeling of companionship with the great gentleman, who seems to be telling his own story. Interest is heightened and clarified rather than suspended by this method.

The author gives praise when due and condemns when it is justified. For example, he states clearly the unpopularity of Lee after the disastrous campaign in 1861 which “might readily have ended his military career before his great opportunity came.” He analyzes the reasons for Lee’s failure to destroy McClellan in the Peninsula campaign as due chiefly to defective maps, bad staff work, lack of tactical genius on Lee’s part, and the failure of several of his subordinates. Here the greatest fault seems to be in Jackson, yet in the Appendices (Vol. II) it is shown that he cannot be held responsible. Evidence of positive weakness in Lee’s temperament “that was to be apparent more than once” was accounted for entirely in his consideration of others and his dislike of quarrels. The author concludes that it became necessary to ask “whether his judgment as a soldier or his consideration as gentleman dominated his acts.” New light is thrown on Lee’s effort to perfect the organization of the army of Northern Virginia, and the problems which beset him on every side. One may well ask who other than Lee could have held together with such tact this same group of self-styled “gentleman soldiers” under such conditions. But Lee had already sustained the bitterest disappointment at “Frayser’s Farm,” one of the great lost opportunities, for never again was his adversary to be in full retreat across his front. “He had only that one day for a Cannae, and the army was not ready for it.” The winter of 1862–63 discussed in the chapter, “The First Warnings of Coming Ruin” brought additional problems; “it was close to the high noon of the Confederacy.”

In the last chapters of the second volume “Fate Intervenes at Lee’s High Noon,” and “Lee Loses His Right Arm,” we leave the story with Jackson’s last words: “Let us pass over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” Chancellorsville was but a prelude, an empty victory to this great tragedy. Yet the author justly claims much progress for Lee in skill as a commander, evidenced at Sharpsburg, and gives Lee rather than Jackson credit for devising the flank march at Chancellorsville, explaining that it was Lee who initiated the proposal, Jackson who chose the route and advanced the suggestion that he take the whole corps.

In the two concluding volumes Dr. Freeman will complete the pattern of Lee as soldier and civilian. Before we “strike the tent,” we will follow Lee from the death of Jackson to the defeat at Gettysburg through the starvation winter of 1863–64 and to the failure of conscription in 1864—all definite stages on the road to Appomattox.


* R. E. Lee: A Biography. By Douglass Southall Freeman. Vols. I & II. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934. Fronts., illus., plates, ports., maps, facsims., append., and bibl. $3.75 each volume.