From the 4 February 1912 issue of The New York Times.

LEE’S TRIUMPHS AND FAILURES


How His Generals Ruined His
Plans and Threw Away His
Chances at Gettysburg

ONE does not get tired of hearing Aristides called “The Just,” when Aristides is Robert E. Lee. Of all the figures in history it is he who most nearly approaches Washington; in fact, there is little or nothing to choose between them, except the fact that Lee failed. In character the two men were curiously alike. It is something to feel that this country of ours was the one which produced two such men. Lincoln, it may be said, was a greater man than either, but Lincoln was a man of a different type.

Such a man, of course, deserves the best biography that can be written. Thomas Nelson Page, in his life of Lee, has done as much as any man can who writes so shortly after his hero’s death to meet that requirement. Usually it takes a century or so to get the perspective that is necessary to a perfect biography. We should say, however, that Mr. Page has come as near to getting the perspective as anybody is likely to do in this generation. His fluency, his graceful diction, his skill in style, make a combination that is grateful to the eye in this era of so-called scientific history, of history drawn from “sources.” The delusion that it is necessary to be dry in order to be accurate has, we trust, nearly spent itself. There is a return to the old idea that one can be truthful and yet be interesting, that history is no exception, and such a book as this eloquently written biography is an evidence of it.

We use the word “eloquent” in its best sense, for it is unnecessary to say to any one who has ever read a book of Mr. Page’s that he is incapable of descending to “fine writing.” His eloquence is pure and genuine, and fits admirably with the subjects that provoke it. Nor are his judgments to be criticised, except in rare instances.

On such a debatable question as Longstreet’s responsibility for the disaster at Gettysburg it is not yet easy to take a decided stand. Mr. Page takes Lee’s side of the controversy without the slightest reservation. He takes his hero’s side in the same way when the question comes up whether Lee or Jackson is to be credited with the success at Chancellorsville. But it in no way detracts from the merit of the biography, since we expect of a biographer that he shall have the courage to form convictions and state them. One of the vices of the lately prevalent style of historical writing is its utter colorlessness, which made it not truer but falser to the facts of history. One is entitled to know, when he reads a history, whether this or that General made a mistake or not, and has a right to quarrel with any historian who shirks the responsibility of deciding and dumps it on the shoulders of the reader.

We could even wish that Mr. Page had been a little more pronounced on the subjct of Burnside. He does, indeed, say what everybody else has said, that the appointment of such a man to the command of the Army of the Potomac was a mistake, and that his failure was terrible, but this is always said in a mechanical sort of way by the very men who cannot find adjectives enough to describe the failures of McClellan. Burnside’s incapacity caused a massacre without parallel in the history of the war. The worst of McClellan’s errors led to no such result. Yet there is a curious leniency in the way in which historians treat the author of the Fredericksburg catastrophe, while every fault of McClellan’s is pitilessly arraigned. Perhaps the political partisanship of the early civil war historians unconsciously influenced later writers who were not partisan.

In treating of Chancellorsville Mr. Page is much more lenient with Hooker, but he does assign the blame to the Union commander. Hooker’s plan, he says, was well conceived and promised victory, but fortunately for Lee Hooker’s self-assurance deserted him when he came face to face with the situation he himself had developed. “Whether the Federal commander was momentarily overcome by the magnitude of Lee’s fame, or whether by the terrifying mystery of the shadowy silences stretching before him, from which no word had come since he crossed the Rappahannock and turned southward, or whether there was a personal reason, of which have been asserted, he halted and began to boast of his achievement.” He was completely deceived by Lee’s feint, and was issuing orders to pursue the fleeing enemy at the very moment Jackson was about to strike him and pulverize him. Only Jackson’s death at the hands of his own men saved the Army of the Potomac from utter destruction.

Hooker’s paralysis from the time he learned what was befalling him has been attributed to his being under the influence of liquor or to his having been knocked down and stunned during the battle. “The true reason,” says Mr. Page, “is that he had been so hopelessly outgeneraled and outfought by his opponent that he had been thrown into a maze, in which his brain had almost ceased to act.”

Mr. Page finds in Lee one military error—that of undervaluing the powers of his enemy; and this was manifested in the Gettysburg campaign. But this error he considers not unnatural, in view of what Lee knew about the abilities of his own men. But Mr. Page has nothing but condemnation for other Confederate Generals in that campaign, and Longstreet in particular. Lee had good reason to believe that he would win the battle, and ought to have won it on the first day and on the second, “even against Mead’s masterly generalship.” But, Mr. Page believes, “on the part of Lee’s corps commanders it was the worst-fought battle of the war. With a plan that gave every promise of success, and that ought to have succeeded—with valor never surpassed on any field, valor on both sides so heroic and splendid as to be almost incredible—the corps commanders, not once, but again and again, by their failure to carry out the plan of their chief in the spirit in which it was conceived, threw away every chance of victory and left the honors of all but valor to the Union General.” Yet Lee, as he did in every case, nobly took the blame to himself.

Mr. Page has drawn a fine portrait of a splendid American. In the main his work is non-partisan; in fact, it is so everywhere, except where he reviews elaborately the inhumanities of Sherman, Hunter, and some other Union Generals. Such a subject has not much to do with the life of Lee, and the author drags it in by the ears. The excuse for such a discussion is the drawing of a contrast between Lee’s scrupulous care to protect the Pennsylvania non-combatants when he invaded the North with the brutality of such Generals as Sherman. But the excuse seems hardly sufficient.

He has, however, drawn a fine and thrilling picture of a splendid American. It is a notable contribution to biography.

ROBERT E. LEE. MAN AND SOLDIER. By Thomas Nelson Page. New York: Scribner’s. $2.50.