Lee as Soldier and Citizen
Albert A. Rogers

Note: The following is taken from the July 1935 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly (volume 15), pp. 267–70.

By Albert A. Rogers

[Editor’s Note: This article treats of the period covered in volumes III and IV of Dr. Freeman’s biography of Lee.* Volumes I and II were dealt with in our April issue.]

General R. E. Lee, the soldier and the man, is revivified in this monumental biography in such a manner as to please the inheritor of the Lee tradition and the critical historical scholar. The first two volumes treat the “Background of Great Traditions,” the importance of Lee’s appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, the training in the Mexican campaign which was used to advantage in the defense of Virginia, and up to 1863 when Lee was at the height of his military success. Then “Fate Intervenes at Lee’s High Noon,” and “Lee Loses His Right Arm”—“Stonewall” Jackson. The second volume closed with the great victory at Chancellorsville. Jackson was gone and Chancellorsville proved to be an empty victory, a prelude to the great tragedy.

From the first chapter in the third volume, “The ‘Might-Have-Beens’ of Chancellorsville,” to the last chapter of the fourth volume when death rounds out “The Pattern of a Life,” Lee is riding toward the setting sun. But he was always the soldier, and his life was an example of discipline and service. This was true also during five years of civilian life after the surrender at Appomattox. Before those at his bedside on the fatal day of October 12, 1870, were to hear his last words “Strike the tent,” when he was still reliving the days of the war, we follow him from the victory at Chancellorsville to defeat at Gettysburg through the starvation winter of 1863–64 and the failure of conscription–all definite stages on the road to Appomattox. But before and after Appomattox, as soldier and citizen, this noble figure is never cited for neglect of “duty as a Christian and a gentleman.”

There was deepening tragedy as the Confederacy was swept into the blackness of defeat. Yet the contemporary Southerner who believed in “the cause” was hopeful of another Yorktown until Appomattox was realized. Of course Jackson was gone never to be replaced. Yet the author justly claims much progress for Lee in skill as a commander. Sharpsburg was a notable example. And, as Dr. Freeman explains, it was Lee rather than Jackson who devised the flank march at Chancellorsville. Lee initiated the proposal, while Jackson chose the route and suggested he take the whole Corps. Chancellorsville was Lee’s most brilliant victory. Military experts have since asserted that this battle from the Confederate viewpoint was the best planned and executed of any ever directed by an American.

The author’s problem of making selections from the wide array of sources increases as the story progresses, but his analysis and presentation continues in keeping with the spirit of his great subject. Wisely, he has not attempted “an ‘interpretation’ of a man who was his own clear interpreter.” In this major biography the development of Lee’s strategy is treated definitively. “The Reorganization that Explains Gettysburg” is admirably explained and properly emphasized.

Lee was quick to confess that he could not replace Jackson. Thus, the army was reorganized into smaller units. Now he had three rather than two Corps commanders to keep from pique, yet confidence was mutual among the “voluntary association of gentlemen, organized to drive out the enemy.” But there was danger ahead with a new staff in command unfamiliar with their troops and with their duties.

A major mistake of Lee the soldier was his resumption of the offensive into enemy territory with a newly organized army. But the South was desperate and Lee hoped to strengthen the growing peace sentiment in the North by a show of southern strength, to force Lincoln to recall troops from the far South, and to get supplies for his own suffering army.

Throughout—even while recounting the march to Gettysburg—the author has interspersed the narrative with anecdotes. At Chamberburg, Pennsylvania, the people crowded to see the South’s hero. Here a civilian remarked, “What a large neck he has.” A nearby Confederate agreed and added that “it takes a damn big neck to hold his head.” He was lionized by Southern sympathizers, and admired by many Northerners. At Hagerstown, Maryland, a Northern girl who waved a Union flag was heard to say “Oh, I wish he was ours.” As always while on the march, Lee was concerned with the safety of private property. He said: “I cannot hope that Heaven will prosper our cause when we are violating its laws. I shall, therefore, carry on the war in Pennsylvania without offending the sanctions of a high civilization and of Christianity.”

Lee selected Gettysburg as the place where “we shall probably meet the enemy and fight a great battle, and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.” Not a militant independence, for “his only desire was that they would let him go home and eat his bread in peace,” but God’s will be done. The author treats the Gettysburg debacle most skillfully and thoroughly. Lack of coordination played the leading rôle. For Stuart, then Ewell, and finally Longstreet moved out of harmony with Lee’s tactics, but he assumed full responsibility for his great defeat. His noble nature and great consideration for others could not give way to military expediency. Lee wrote to Davis and asked to be relieved of his command. Davis answered that it was “an impossibility” to find one “more fit to command.” Lee carried on, and years later one of his soldiers declared that “the army would have arisen in revolt if it had been called upon to give up General Lee.”

After Gettysburg the Army of Northern Virginia due to its limited forces was destined to remain on the defensive. What a spirit it took to carry on under such adverse circumstances! The end of the Southern Confederacy was not far off, but the spirit of the army was the spirit of Lee. He wrote to his son: “If victorious, we have everything to hope for in the future. If defeated, nothing will be left for us to live for.”

The men on whom he depended most, Jackson and Stuart, were dead; and Longstreet was wounded. He was nearly alone, but with faith in God he faced the future “ready for whatever He may ordain.” Cold Harbor was a bright spot in the otherwise dark days of the late Confederacy. Here Lee’s strategical genius reached its height, as Grant was repulsed. But it was his last great victory in the field. Ruin was everywhere and Lee’s strategy with his thin gray line could only postpone Appomattox.

Grant continued his hammering tactics and marched on Richmond and Petersburg. The facts are interestingly interpreted in such chapters as “ ‘Rapidan to Petersburg’ in Review,” and “Lee’s Most Difficult Defensive.” And in one of the best sections of the fourth volume the author re-tells the tragedy of surrender brought slowly to realization by exhaustion of man power, munitions, and horse supply, with starvation thrown in for good measure. With the end at hand, Lee the soldier was sick at heart. He exclaimed: “How easily I could be rid of this, and be at rest! I have only to ride along the line and all will be over!” Lee the man answered this temptation to such an act: “But it is our duty to live. What will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to protect them?”

The life of Lee as a soldier is not complete in Freeman’s definitive study until one has read that remarkable chapter, “The Sword of Robert E. Lee.” Truly his sword was “the symbol of a four-year war, the symbol of an army and of a cause.”

After Appomattox, a homeless citizen and paroled prisoner of war, Lee accepted his “duty as a Christian and a gentleman” to set an example: in obedience to civil authority, in educational leadership and in aiding the restoration of the cultural and economic life of Virginia and the South. Slightly less than two-thirds of the fourth volume is devoted to this five year period of civilian life which this noble citizen, although an unpardoned prisoner of war, dutifully devoted to the upbuilding of his section.

“Two Decisions,” and “A Third Decision” are chapters which reveal
the feelings of the great soldier of the South in the transitional period between Appomattox and Lexington. But as a soldier, so as a civilian, his first thought was of his native state of Virginia. He cared to live because it was his duty and he was desirous of doing what he could to aid the defeated Southern people. He counselled: “Now, more than at any other time, Virginia and every other state in the South needs us. We must try and, with as little delay as possible, go to work to build up their prosperity.”

For his part, Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College, Lexington, Virginia, now Washington and Lee University. It offered him an opportunity of service in training the youth of the South, as well as a quiet home and a means of livelihood. In this time of stress and impending “reconstruction” in the South he followed the call of duty—Lee the soldier accepted the rôle as Lee the conciliator. As the author summarizes, “seldom had a famous man so completely reversed himself in so brief a time, and never more sincerely.” Lee himself had observed that “true patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them—the desire to do right—is precisely the same. The circumstances which govern their actions change; and their conduct must conform to the new order of things.”

At Arlington and as a soldier, George Washington had served as his model, and now as a civilian in Lexington in charge of Washington College (“General Lee’s College”), this great American was still his exemplar. Throughout his life Lee was genuine with a simplicity that is ever the mark of real worth and true greatness. The chapter on “Lee’s Theory of Education” is a valuable interpretation of the educational beliefs of Lee. He had lost as a soldier, but won as a citizen in following his duty to upbuild Virginia and the South.

Well-rounded chapters conclude the story of the last years of this man who walked with God, and the final chapters, “Strike the Tent!” and “The Pattern of a Life,” are truly the capstone of this outstanding biography of Lee.

This biography of a great gentleman will be a monument to his memory that we have felt the need of for years. How appropriate it is that this labor of love has been done by a Virginian, and one so gifted that he has combined with wisdom and courage the strength of vision to see clearly the complete Lee—as cavalier, as soldier and as citizen. And the author of this, the supreme biography of Lee, is also its best critic. “It may be that I shall irritate some readers by restraint and disappoint others by failing to answer some of Lee’s detractors. . . . Lee, like every other leader is to be judged by what he accomplished, where he was, with what he had at his command.”


* R. E. Lee: A Biography. By Douglass Southall Freeman. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935. Vol. III, 559 pp. Vol. IV, 594 pp. Illustrations, plates,
maps, bibliography, and appendices. $3.75 each.)