As soon as he felt that he had reached the right decision in that upper room alone with God, Robert E. Lee's heart was fixed. He seems never again to have entertained any question as to the rightness of his course. Even after the Cause seemed lost he never wavered, but firmly said that if he had to decide again he would do exactly as he did before. But he had not decided for any one else. Every other man's duty was to be decided in the same way, between himself and God. Yet Robert E. Lee recognized that God could speak through others. That is why he was criticized for listening to the views of subordinates in his conduct of the war. Many of them were men of God; might He not speak through them in matters not revealed to himself? Lee was different from any other general in this kind of open-mindedness. But when he was conscious of wisdom from on high he was as confident in disregarding the advice of his best generals as Napoleon Bonaparte.
He wrote that very day, April 20th, '61, to his brother in the Navy, who followed him and fought on the Confederate side:
The question . . . has in my mind been decided. . . . I wished to wait until the ordinance of secession should be acted upon by the people of Virginia; but war seems to have commenced, and I am liable at any time to be ordered on duty which I could not conscientiously perform. To save me from such a position, and to prevent the necessity of resigning under orders, I had to act at once and before I could see you again on the subject as I had wished.
The same day he wrote to General Scott: “Since my interview with you . . . I have felt that I ought not to retain my commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life, and all the ability I possessed.”
To his sister, Mrs. Marshall of Baltimore, who shared her husband's loyalty to the Union, he also wrote: “I am grieved at my inability to see you. I have been waiting for a ‘more convenient season.’ We are now in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native State.
“With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. . . .
“I know you will blame me; but you must think of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right. To show you the feeling and the struggle it has cost me, I send you a copy of my letter of resignation. I have no time for more.”
It has been argued that Lee was a double-dyed traitor because he used the education he had received at West Point in his defensive struggle against the armies of the United States government. Such an idea seems not to have entered his head when he was confronted with the sublime heart-question of the Duty to God, family, State and the country, as he saw it with the eye of his sublime faith.
If he had thought merely of the pecuniary cost of his education, he would have known that Virginia had paid her full quota for that. But it would never have struck Robert E. Lee that but few who have been educated at West Point have rendered so large and valuable return to the country as he had, in his twenty-five years of loyal service.
Besides, West Point could make theoretic generals, like McClellan, “and others” turned out in job lots by that Academy, but only God could build a general like Lee. Did Brienne, the French military school, produce Napoleon Bonaparte? Yet that was more likely than that West Point could have been the making of Robert E. Lee. A great general, like a great poet, “is born, not made.” Lee's genius was manifest in his inspired deviations from the academic in field tactics. He was far above the military martinet, he was the man of God.
Two days later Lee left Arlington for Richmond where his presence was greatly desired. It was after a sad parting from the loved ones where he had “no other ambition” than to stay. Much as he feared the horrors of the war, he did not realize that his eyes were beholding his beautiful home for the last time. Governor Letcher of Virginia had summoned him to the State capital where he was immediately appointed Major-General and Commander-in-Chief of the forces of Virginia.
He was received by the convention still in session. The president of that body closed an address to him with these words:
Yesterday your mother, Virginia, placed her sword in your hand, upon the implied condition, which we know you will keep to the letter and in spirit, that you will draw it only in defense, and that you will fall with it in your hand rather than that the object for which it was placed there shall fail.
This nomination, the unanimity of it, the modesty of the recipient were almost a repetition of the honor paid to Colonel George Washington in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, on a similar occasion.
General Lee replied clearly and very briefly:
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention: Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred that your choice had fallen upon an abler man.
Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President of the newly formed Confederacy, described him as he appeared on this occasion:
As he stood there, fresh and ruddy as a David from the sheepfold, in the prime of his manly beauty, and the embodiment of a line of heroic and patriotic fathers, and worthy mothers, it was thus I first saw Robert E. Lee.
Instead of feeling any elation over the honors conferred upon him by the State, or recognizing any approval but that of Heaven, Lee sent this message to his eldest son:
Tell Custis he must consult his own judgment, reason and conscience as to the course he may take. I do not wish him to be guided by my wishes or example. If I have done wrong, let him do better. The present is a momentous question which every man must settle for himself and upon principle.
At other times he had told his boy: “There is a true glory and a true honor, the glory of duty done; and the honor of the integrity of principle.” . . . “I know that wherever you are placed you will do your duty. That is all the pleasure, all the comfort, all the glory we can enjoy in this world.”
The letters of the anxious husband reveal that he knew, in his heart of hearts, that the struggle would be fearful and long. During the first week after leaving Arlington he wrote to Mrs. Lee that he was “glad to hear all is well and as yet peaceful. I fear the latter state will not continue long. I think, therefore, you had better prepare all things for removal from. Arlington—that is, plate, pictures, etc., and be prepared at any moment. Where to go is the difficulty.
“When the war commences no place will be exempt, in my opinion; indeed, all the avenues into the State will be the scenes of military operations. I wrote to Robert that I could not consent to take boys from their schools and young men from their colleges, and put them in the ranks at the beginning of the war, when they are not needed. The war may last ten years. Where are our ranks to be filled from then?”
A few days later he repeated the warning to his wife:
I am very anxious about you. You have to move, and make arrangements to go to some point of safety which you must select. . . . War is inevitable and there is no telling when it will burst around you. Virginia yesterday, I understand, joined the Confederate States. What policy they may adopt I cannot conjecture.
Still the distracted wife could not bear to leave. Her husband wrote again on the 8th of May from Richmond: “I received yesterday your letter of the 5th. I grieve at the anxiety that drives you from your home. I can appreciate your feelings on the occasion, and pray that you may receive comfort and strength in the difficulties that surround you. When I reflect upon the calamity pending over the country, my own sorrows sink into insignificance.”
Five days later he wrote her again: “Do not put faith in rumors of adjustment. I see no prospect for it. It cannot be while passions on both sides are so infuriated. Make your plans for several years of war. . . . I agree with you in thinking that the inflammatory articles in the papers do us much harm. I object particularly to those in Southern papers, as I wish them to take a firm, dignified course, free from bravado and boasting. The times are indeed calamitous. The brightness of God's countenance seems turned from us. . . . It may not always be so dark, and He may in time pardon our sins and take us under His protection.”
June 9th he wrote to her again informing her of the removal of the Confederate capital from Montgomery to Richmond: “You may be aware that the Confederate government is established here. Yesterday I turned over to it the military and naval forces of the State, in accordance with the proclamation of the governor, under an agreement between the State and the Confederate States. I do not know what my position will be. I should like to retire to private life, so that I could be with you and the children, but if I can be of service to the State or her cause, I must continue. Mr. Davis and all his Cabinet are here.”
On the 24th of May, about a month after Lee left home, detachments of the Northern army occupied the heights about Washington.
General McDowell, in command, wrote to Mrs. Lee, and treated the family with the highest courtesy, only regretting the military measures which required the temporary appropriation of Arlington as headquarters. Later, in the war, after General Lee came to be considered an arch-rebel, Arlington was looted and Washington relics and other articles were carried off and kept in one of the government departments in the capital, and the beautiful estate, built by Washington's adopted son, was turned into a soldiers' cemetery.
Mrs. Lee clung to her home, soon to belong to her eldest son who bore her father's name, with the heroic devotion of a true wife and mother, but she soon had the deep sorrow of parting with it forever. She visited relatives at “Ravensworth” before retiring to “White House,” her estate on the Pamunkey, where Washington had wooed and wed her grandmother.
Virginia soon became the stamping-ground of the awful game of “red-and-black,” and Mrs. Lee was forced even to leave the home of the Washingtons at the mercy of the enemy. She had fastened on the front door of “White House” this placard:
Northern Soldiers Who Profess to Reverence Washington: Forbear to desecrate the home of his first married life—the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants.General McClellan appropriated “White House” for his headquarters, and one of his staff wrote under that war-hunted woman's appeal:
“A Northern officer has protected your property in sight of the enemy.” But Mary Custis Lee had bitter occasion to reflect that—
An habitation giddy and unsure
After McClellan changed his base of operations, some one burned that historic house!
General Lee may have comforted himself with the Scripture that “the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel,” and mingled with his sorrow for his wife the sincere compassion of his heart for those wicked enough to wish to do a deed like that. He was too magnanimous to blame such an act upon the North, or hold it against General McClellan.
After turning over his command to the Confederacy, Lee remained in Richmond, with the courtesy title of Brigadier-General, then the highest rank in the new Confederate service. He continued his labors, through his devotion to President Davis, as personal adviser, while preparing Southern men for the defense of their homes and States. A friend reported of his work up to the last of May—five weeks after taking command of the Virginia forces:
Lee had organized, equipped, and sent to the field more than thirty thousand men, and various regiments were in a forward state of preparation.
On the 28th of Mav his duties took him up to Manassas, where the battles of Bull Run were fought later. Being within a few miles of “Ravensworth,” where his mother died, and where his wife was then staying, he wrote a note to her in which he showed his delicate consideration for those under whose roof his family had found a brief shelter:
I reached here, dearest Mary, this afternoon. I am very much occupied in examining matters, and have to go out to look over the ground. Cousin John tempts me strongly to go down, but I never visit, for many reasons. If for no other, to prevent compromising the house, for my visit would certainly be known. . . .
How well this military “power behind the throne,” and Mentor of generals in command, did his work was soon demonstrated at Manassas, where, in what is known at the North as “the First Battle of Bull Run,” Beauregard—on a very hot day, July 21st, 1861—drove the Federals under McDowell back to Washington.
It is stated that the reason the Confederates failed to follow up their victory and capture Washington when they might have done so, was because, at this time, the Southern leaders were fighting only in defense of their rights and homes.
Soon after the battle of Manassas, General Lee wrote:
It was indeed a glorious victory and has lightened the pressure on us amazingly. Do not grieve for the brave dead, but sorrow for those left behind—friends, relatives and families. The former are at rest; the latter must suffer. The battle will be repeated there in greater force. I hope God will again smile on us and strengthen our hearts and arms. I wished to participate in the former struggle, and am mortified at my absence. But the President thought it more important that I should be here.
In that part of the Old Dominion many of the inhabitants were in sympathy with the North and therefore aided the invaders, commanded by “Little Mac,” as General George B. McClellan was called.
Soon after his arrival General Lee wrote from Valley Mountain, September 1st, 1861, to his wife:
We have had a great deal of sickness among the soldiers, and those now on the sick list would form an army. The measles is still among them, but I hope is dying out. The constant cold rains, mud, etc., with no shelter or tents, have aggravated it. All these draw-backs, with impassable roads, have paralyzed our efforts.
Two weeks later, he wrote again: “I had hoped to surprise the enemy's works on the morning of the 12th, both at Cheat Mountain and on Valley River. I had taken every precaution to insure success, and counted on it; but the Ruler of the Universe willed otherwise, and sent a storm to disconcert the well-laid plan. We are no worse off now than before, except for the disclosure of our plan. . . .
“We met with one heavy loss which grieves me deeply: Colonel Washington accompanied Fitzhugh [their son] on a reconnoitering expedition. . . . The first they knew there was a volley from a concealed party within a few yards of them. Three balls passed through the Colonel's body, three struck his horse, and the horse of one of the men was killed. Fitz mounted the Colonel's horse and brought him off. I am much grieved.”
A quarrel between two commanders in this campaign must have discouraged Lee more than the stormy elements and bottomless mud. Winter came on and put an end to the work, and the Confederate government decided to abandon that region. The Union people there soon withdrew and formed the State of West Virginia.
The newspapers attacked Lee as an unsuccessful general, greatly overrated because of his “historical name,” “family connections” and “showy presence.” They sneered at his “West Point tactics,” nicknamed him “Evacuating Lee,” and said all he knew was to “dig entrenchments.”
Lee bore all these unjust taunts in silence. He could never defend himself, especially at another's expense. The only selfishness he ever betrayed was in taking blame belonging to others! President Davis afterward described the baffled, abused officer's return: “Lee came back, carrying the weight of defeat, and unappreciated by the people whom he served, for they could not know, as I knew, that, if his orders and plans had been carried out, the result would have been victory rather than defeat. . . .
“Yet through all this, with a magnanimity rarely equaled, he stood in silence without defending himself or allowing others to defend him.”
General Lee spent that Winter in the South, strengthening the defenses and fortifying the coast so that the enemy could do but little damage before the close of the war. On his return, in March, 1862, he saw his wife and daughters for the first time since he parted from them at Arlington nearly a year before. He arranged for them to follow him to Richmond as soon as McClellan's advance rendered it necessary for them to leave their country home. He became, at once, President Davis's military adviser. He was restive and anxious for active service in the field, and it is said that he seriously considered enlisting in his son Custis's new command as a “high private.”
No sooner had General Lee returned to Richmond, than his youngest son, Robert Junior, determined to leave the University and enter the service as a private soldier. The father consented to the inevitable, and wrote to the boy's mother:
“I went with him to get his overcoat, blankets, etc. . . . God grant that it may be for his good. I told him of the exemption granted by the Secretary of War to the professors and students of the University, but he expressed no desire to take advantage of it. . . . I hope our son will make a good soldier.”
After the disastrous Northern defeat at the first battle of Manassas, (Bull Run) President Lincoln, finding 75,000 soldiers wholly inadequate, issued a call for 500,000 men to carry on the war in the South. These responded promptly. General McClellan was now in command of the (Federal) Army of the Potomac, and “On to Richmond” became the Northern war-cry. McClellan and an army of 150,000 men, counting available reinforcements, had come up the “Peninsula,” between the York and the James rivers, to Fair Oaks and Seven Pines within a few miles of the Confederate capital on the East, so that, “oft in the stilly night,” the Federal pickets could hear the bells of Richmond.General “Joe” Johnston, who had been Lee's friend at West Point and in Mexico, was in command of the defense of Richmond in which he had been ably seconded by General Thomas J.—popularly known as “Stonewall”—Jackson, because at Manassas, General Bee, seeing him at his post, pointed to him saying: “There stands Jackson like a stone wall!” These daring generals, with their brave soldiers, had alarmed the North to such an extent that many governors made stirring appeals for volunteers to save the country. The battle of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks lasted several days. President Davis and his military adviser, General Lee, rode out on June 1st, 1862, to watch the fighting. About sunset that evening, General Johnston was shot out of his saddle and badly wounded. The command was assumed by General G. W. Smith, next in rank. On the way back to Richmond, Jefferson Davis, as commander-in-chief of the Confederate Army and Navy, appointed Lee commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee did not assume control next day but left General Smith in actual charge, the new commander merely endorsing and carrying out his subordinate's instructions.
An officer in Longstreet's Corps asked Colonel Ives of President Davis's staff whether Lee was possessed with audacity enough to command in such a crisis. According to Alexander, Ives “reined up his horse, stopped in the road and said, ‘Alexander, if there is one man in either army, Confederate or Federal, head and shoulders above every other in audacity, it is General Lee. His name might be Audacity.’ ”
The new commander called his generals together, and his meeting with them is said to have had somewhat the same effect as that of Napoleon with his officers at the opening of the Italian campaign. But there must have been a wide difference in one respect, for grizzled old General Auguereau came out from the presence of young Bonaparte, hissing between his teeth: “That little devil makes me tremble all over!” Napoleon's power over men was largely hypnotic—and his manner often insulting. He had a wonderful brain; he was a genius in strategy—but a monstrosity, rather than a man. His influence was strange and uncanny; while Lee won the hearts of his generals as a man of character and a warm-hearted Christian gentleman. Yet in military genius, in bold, creative, opportune strokes, the best military authorities declare that Robert E. Lee, more than any other English speaking general, resembled Napoleon Bonaparte. Lee was a gentleman like Washington, with a heart like Lincoln's, and a strategic brain like Napoleon's. The Southern generals soon felt that the mild-mannered gentleman before them was their master. General “Stonewall” Jackson, Lee's second in command, soon learned to know Lee so well that when he heard his chief criticized for being too deliberate, he said: “He is cautious. He ought to be, but he is not slow. Lee is a phenomenon. He is the only man I would follow blindfold.”
General Lee's youngest son, Robert E., Junior, has related an incident which occurred at this time:
The day after the battle of Cold Harbor, during the “Seven Days” fighting around Richmond, was the first time I met my father after I had joined General Jackson. The tremendous work “Stonewall's” men had performed, including the rapid march from the Valley of Virginia, the short rations, the bad water, and the great heat, had begun to tell upon us, and I was pretty well worn out. On this particular morning my battery had not moved from its bivouac ground of the previous night, but was parked in an open field all ready, waiting orders. Most of the men were lying down, many sleeping, myself among the latter number. To get some shade and be out of the way, I had crawled under a caisson, and was busy making up many lost hours of rest.
It must have seemed very strange, also, that the commanding general did not provide an officer's rank for his son, but Robert E. Lee knew it was kinder to the son to let him win his spurs and earn his own rank than to have premature “greatness thrust upon” him.
In the strenuous time to which Private Robert E. Lee referred, General Jackson, with only 15,000 men, had been moving with such celerity through the Shenandoah Valley that they were called “Jackson's Foot Cavalry.” They had been sent to meet three generals on their way to aid McClellan, who already had over 100,000 men ready to take Richmond. Jackson had prevented the three approaching detachments from getting together and had fought them separately, nearly destroying those contingents numbering nearly three times his own company.
Knowing McClellan's habit of over-estimating the strength of the force he was to meet, Lee's first move was to send a large detachment as if to reinforce Jackson, possibly in attacking Washington, though this audacious move left him with only 25,000 men between the Federal army and Richmond.
McClellan, as Lee believed he would, telegraphed President Lincoln that Lee was confronting him with 200,000 men—about twice the number of his own forces. A general, to be successful, must understand his antagonist and anticipate the moves he will make. So Lee's next move was to find out just the strength of McClellan's right wing and how it was disposed.
There was another well-known “Bible Christian” soldier among the men of Lee's army—General J. E. B. (nicknamed “Jeb”) Stuart. He started out from Richmond, on the 11th of June, with 1,200 cavalry, and made a détour, breaking down the feeble opposition they encountered, destroying Federal supplies and railroad communications, besides noting the lay of the land as he hurried along. Finding that he was pursued and that he could not return by the way he had come, Stuart rode on, night and day, and made the circuit of McClellan's entire army, with the loss of only one man!
This was one of the most brilliant cavalry exploits in history, and it reflected as much discredit upon McClellan as credit upon “Jeb” Stuart and Lee.
The new commander, at a great loss of men, crushed McClellan's right, as he intended, in a series of engagements—from Gaines's Mill to Malvern Hill, called the “Seven Days Battles”—by which McClellan was driven down the James and found refuge within range of the Federal gunboats at Harrison's Landing.
Thus, in less than one month, General Lee had driven McClellan's great army out of his intrenchments, and, for a time at least, had raised the siege of Richmond.
Nothing but defensive warfare was expected of General Lee, but he saw that the offensive was the best defensive—and it proved “offensive” enough to the Northern people.
McClellan and his army were recalled to Washington, for Lee's surprising evolutions had thoroughly alarmed the authorities there. Old General Halleck, now Commander-in-Chief of the Federal armies, decided to send out General Pope, who had been successful in the West, with the remnant commands of three Generals, Frémont, Banks and McDowell.
Being assigned to complete a difficult task in which so accomplished a general as McClellan had failed, seems to have turned poor Pope's head. He issued boastful orders from his “headquarters in the saddle,” announcing that such obsolete terms as “base of supplies” and “lines of retreat” were to be dropped forthwith from “the bright lexicon” of his heroic deeds!
The Southern commander, amused and disgusted, wrote to Mrs. Lee: “Tell Rob to catch Pope, and also to bring his cousin, Louis Marshall, who, I am told, is on his staff. I could forgive the latter fighting against us, but not his joining Pope!”
Young Marshall was Lee's Baltimore sister's son, whose father was a Union man. Another time, on hearing that his Federal nephew was looking wretched, he wrote: “I am sorry he is in such bad company, but I suppose he could not help it.”
More than a year before, General Lee had predicted that another engagement, in greater numbers, would have to be fought at Manassas. The fulfilment of his prophecy was at hand, but instead of being detained in Richmond as before, Lee was now chief in command.
To meet Pope and his three contingents made it necessary to bring together with himself, both Jackson and Longstreet. There was much sparring and fencing, before the great engagement, during which the commander on each side learned, by accident, the other's plan of campaign. Lee here resorted to Washington's strategic specialty of changing his scheme so that Pope's discovery, instead of being a revelation, proved only a delusion.
General Pope showed real ability along some lines, but seemed quite lacking in others. Instead of preventing the junction of Jackson with Longstreet by fighting them separately, he sent a dispatch to Halleck in Washington that he was going to “bag the whole crowd.” Instead of keeping Lee from getting through Thoroughfare Gap, as he should have done at all hazards, he allowed him to come, cut off his “base of supplies” and the three coalesced to “bag” the bragging “bagger.”
“They fought like brave men, long and well,” but it was too late. Pope battled valiantly, but he had blundered in the planning. Even while his men were following their obsolete “lines of retreat” toward Washington, Pope was telegraphing Halleck that they were winning the victory, and promising that he would do great things on the morrow. When he found no chance to fight next day, Pope retired to Washington, and resigned his command.
As after the first defeat at Bull Run President Lincoln now issued another call for volunteers, and men came marching southward from all directions to the refrain:
We are coming, Father Abraham,
Lee now decided to carry his offensive-defensive into the North. Virginia had been forced by position and circumstances to bear the terrible burden of the war. So he issued a proclamation to the lovers of right and liberty in Maryland, hoping thus to gain possession of Baltimore and attack Philadelphia.
Singing “Dixie” and “Maryland, My Maryland,” the Confederate army crossed into Maryland at Harper's Ferry. In that part of the State, as in Western Virginia, the Union sentiment prevailed, and the people were not inclined to rally round the banner of the “Southern Cross.”
Lee's men were half-starved, barefooted and ragged. The Marylanders refused to give or even to sell them the fruits wasting on the ground, or any other provisions. To enforce his strict rule against foraging, Lee ordered a soldier shot for stealing a pig.
To feed and clothe his army, Lee detached “Stonewall” Jackson to capture Harper's Ferry, which he did after a sharp encounter, on the 15th of September, thus procuring food, clothing and arms. What the Army of Northern Virginia most needed now was horses.
After Pope's defeat at Bull Run General McClellan was again placed in command of the Army of the Potomac, for President Lincoln hoped he might strive with “a fervor now acute” and “haply compensate for old delay.”
McClellan might have intercepted Lee before he could enter Maryland. Though his progress was more rapid than ever before, he did not reach Harper's Ferry in time to save it from the Confederates. They were now well fed, clothed and equipped to meet him near Sharpsburg, at Antietam Creek, by the name of which the North called the battle that ensued.
It was a terrible conflict—the bloodiest for the time it lasted, according to most authorities, in the war between the States. The slain lay in long heaps of blue and gray, like windrows in a new-mown hay-field.
Young Robert Lee writes of meeting his father in this battle:
As one of the Army of Northern Virginia, I occasionally saw the Commander-in-Chief . . . but . . . at the battle of Sharpsburg . . . our battery had been severely handled, losing many men and horses. . . .
It was many weeks before General Lee could use his hands, or sign his name, but he never blamed the horse, for “Traveler” and he were friends. The master would whisper affectionately in the horse's ear, and the intelligent animal would nod his head as if he understood every word.
The battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, was counted a triumph by the North, because Lee's invasion of Maryland was stopped, so President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which he had held back for a Northern victory. Lee was not driven back from Maryland, however, for he waited five weeks before crossing the Potomac into Virginia, hoping that McClellan would give him another chance to fight him. But that general was either too timid or too tired. During this time “Jeb” Stuart repeated his former feat of riding around the entire Federal army, this time capturing 1,000 horses greatly needed for the Southern cavalry and artillerv service. It was this raid, after getting full supplies at Harper's Ferry, that enabled Lee to win the great battles which followed.
McClellan's failure to follow up the drawn battle at Sharpsburg (Antietam) and his allowing Stuart to ride around his army again, raised popular clamor at the North to such a pitch that he was permanently removed from the command.
General Burnside was now appointed to command the Army of the Potomac in place of McClellan. He recommended making a dash for Richmond by way of Fredericksburg.
Lee and Jackson had separated again, “Stonewall” having been sent back to the Valley of Virginia. While in camp near Winchester, an officer received his orders, in regular form, from the commander-in-chief and left to attend to their execution. Returning unexpectedly, he was surprised and pained to find General Lee kneeling beside his little bed, sobbing as if his heart were breaking, holding in his hand a letter which told of the death of his daughter Annie in North Carolina. He had received the letter earlier but controlled himself for the routine work of the morning, and now at last, he was alone to talk it over with his most intimate Friend.
Lee, having learned of the Federal design, intrenched himself on the hills around Fredericksburg, which he defended with 78,000 men against Burnside with 116,000. The Federals began the attack on the 11th of December, 1862, and after a terrific conflict, were defeated with great loss, on the 13th. The Southern commander wrote on the 16th:
This morning they were all safe on the north side of the Rappahannock. They went as they came—in the night. They suffered heavily as far as the battle went, but it did not go far enough to satisfy me. Our loss was comparatively slight, and I think will not exceed two thousand.
On the 25th—another Christmas away from home—Lee wrote to his daughter:
I cannot tell you how I long to see you when a little quiet occurs. My thoughts revert to you, your sisters and your mother, my heart aches for our reunion. Your brothers I see occasionally. . . . I have no news, confined constantly to camp, and my thoughts occupied with its necessities and duties. I am, however, happy in the knowledge that General Bumside and army will not eat their promised Christmas dinner in Richmond today. . . .
It was while at Fredericksburg that General Lee freed all the slaves left to him as executor of the estate of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, as provided in the will, five years before.
General Burnside also was removed after his defeat at Fredericksburg, and General Joseph—popularly known as “Fighting Joe”—Hooker was appointed to lead the Army of the Potomac. The two armies remained facing each other all that “long and dreary Winter.” On the day after Washington's Birthday, General Lee wrote home from “Camp Fredericksburg”:
The weather is now very hard upon our poor bushmen. This morning the whole country was covered with a mantle of snow fully a foot deep, . . . and our poor horses were enveloped. We have dug them out, . . . but it will be terrible, and the roads impassable. . . . I fear our short rations for man and horse will have to be curtailed.
The engagement at Chancellorsville, fought a few miles north of Fredericksburg, May 1st to 4th, 1863, was Lee's greatest battle. So great was the confidence of the David and Jonathan of the Southern Cause, by this time, that when “Stonewall” Jackson sent to Lee for orders the commanding general replied: “Say to General Jackson that he knows just as well what to do with the enemy as I do.”
Captain Robert E. Lee has written of the general grief over the loss of General Jackson, who had thoughtlessly gone in front of the firing line and was shot by his own men: “The joy of our victory at Chancellorsville was saddened by the death of “Stonewall” Jackson. His loss was the heaviest blow the Army of Northern Virginia ever sustained. To Jackson's note telling him he was wounded, my father replied:
“. . . Could I have directed events, I should have chosen, for the good of the country, to have been disabled in your stead. I congratulate you on the victory, which is due to your energy.”
Jackson said, when this was read to him: “Better that ten Jacksons should fall than one Lee!”
Afterward, when it was reported that Jackson was doing well, General Lee playfully sent him word:
“You are better off than I am, for while you have only lost your left, I have lost my right arm.”
Then, hearing that he was worse, he said:
“Tell him that I am praying for him as I believe I have never prayed for myself.”
The night after the Northern defeat at Chancellorsville was, according to President Lincoln's secretary-historians, the darkest of all in the terrible war. Abraham Lincoln spent his time walking the floor, turning his ashy-pale face toward Heaven and crying out: “O what will the country say!”
Lincoln, like Lee, was a firm believer in prayer. He was speaking a little later of an experience he had in connection with this awful defeat. After Lee started North again and was invading Pennsylvania, President Lincoln said:
Oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went to my room one day, locked the door, and, getting down on my knees before Almighty God, I prayed to Him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told Him this was His war, and our cause His cause, but we couldn't stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. I then and there made a solemn vow to Almighty God that if He would stand by our boys at Gettysburg I would stand by Him.
To the Army of Northern Virginia, which had now become a great praying band, the loss of “Stonewall” Jackson was more than a calamity; it was a “dispensation of Providence.” This made them more anxious about their beloved commander. When General Lee would ride along in front to inspire his men they pointed their guns down and shouted—their deep bass sounding like the voice of thunder:
“Go back, Lee!” “Lee to the rear!”
They refused to fire a shot until their general had retired to a place of safety, which, to their minds, was the only “point of vantage” for him. The Commander-in-Chief exclaimed, after one of these remonstrances: “I wish some one would tell me my proper place in battle. I am always told I should not be where I am!”
On the 9th of June, General Lee's son Fitzhugh was wounded in a skirmish; he was sent to “Hickory Hill,” an estate about twenty miles from Richmond, to recover. His wound was healing when a group of Northern cavalrymen came and carried him away before the eyes of his astonished wife and relatives. He was removed, at mortal risk, to “Fortress” Monroe. General Lee wrote to his indignant and distressed daughter-in-law:
You must not be sick while Fitzhugh is away, or he will be more restless under his separation. Get strong and hearty by his return. . . .
But the daughter-in-law grew ill and worse, and when the word came to her husband that she was dying, he applied to General Butler, now in command there, to let him go to her for forty-eight hours, for his brother Custis, of equal rank, had offered to take Fitzhugh's place as a hostage. This request was curtly denied, and the wife died calling for her captive husband. General Lee wrote of this to his wife:
I grieve for our lost darling as a father only can grieve for a daughter, and my sorrow is heightened by the thought of the anguish her death will cause our dear son, and the poignancy it will give to the bars of his prison.
Even then there was no word of bitterness against Butler, the most hated Northern general in all the South, because of his infamous “Woman Order,” which was taken as an insult to the ladies of New Orleans, and other “high crimes and misdemeanors” in Southern eyes.
In June, 1863, Lee was again in the North, this time in Pennsvlvania. In his “General Orders” issued June 27th, 1863, he announced:
The commanding general considers that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it our whole people, than the perpetration of the barbarous outrages upon the innocent and defenseless, and the wanton destruction of private property, that have marked the course of the enemy in our country. . . . It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs 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, and without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain.
The story of Gettysburg, the greatest conflict that ever took place on the American continent, and counted among the “fifteen decisive battles” of history, is too well known to be repeated here. It was called “the high-water mark” of the Civil War and was fought on a field containing twenty-five square miles, around Gettysburg, a little town in southwestern Pennsylvania, near the Maryland line, July 1st, 2nd and 3d, 1863.
Hooker had given place to General Meade, the fifth commanding general the North had sent against Lee, who had beaten four. Everything seemed to favor the Southern arms, except that General James Longstreet was second in command, in “Stonewall” Jackson's place. The Army of Northern Virginia never fought with more signal bravery. Pickett's charge was one of the most heroic in all history—outvying in numbers and ratio of loss the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava.
The engagement was precipitated on the first day before Lee was ready, and there was much sparring and struggling for position. That night there was a conference as to how the battle was to be fought on the morrow. Longstreet took exception to Lee's plan, but the generals dispersed with a perfect understanding as to what should be done. Early next morning General Longstreet resumed his arguments. Lee listened and patiently discussed them. Longstreet not only did not like Lee's program of attack—he opposed making any attack at all. Lee replied:
The enemy is here, and if we don't whip him, he will whip us.
This should have been final, but Longstreet, instead of entering the engagement at eleven o'clock as directed, approached General Hood who was sitting on a log after Longstreet should have been in line of battle, saying:
The General is a little nervous this morning. He wishes me to attack. I do not want to do so without Pickett. I never like to go into battle with one boot off!
So, instead of giving Lee the support that was essential to the plan of battle, Longstreet “sulked in his tent” like Achilles before Troy. After waiting for Pickett, the second in command withheld the backing that hero and his company expected and so richly deserved, sacrificing them and making futile one of the most gallant charges in history!
Not content with that, Longstreet added insult to injury afterward, to excuse his own obstinate dereliction, by writing about “eleven mistakes Lee made at Gettysburg!”
General Lee reported to President Davis of the loss of the battle: “I find no fault with any one but myself.”
Robert E. Lee was “game” to the core. Even Napoleon bemoaned his defeats, complaining to those around him after Montereau—“It was not fifty little boats I needed—only twenty—only twenty!” The difference was in Napoleon's belief in his fate—Lee's, in his faith. The Confederate general, however, admitted, privately to a friend, years after the war:
If I had had “Stonewall” Jackson at Gettysburg, I would have won that battle, and a victory there would have given us Washington and Baltimore, and would have established the independence of the country.
Long after the war a Northern Grand Army man told of meeting Lee in the field of Gettysburg under circumstances which revealed to him the true heart of the Southern commander:
I had been a most bitter anti-South man, and fought and cursed the Confederates desperately. I could see nothing good in any of them. The last day of the fight I was badly wounded. A ball shattered my left leg. I lay on the ground not far from Cemetery Ridge, and as General Lee ordered his retreat, he and his officers rode near me.
That look of General Lee's produced the same result as that of his Lord who only “looked on Peter,” and he
Did quail and fall . . .
Lee's feeling toward the Boys in Blue was like that of Lincoln for Boys in Gray. He never expressed himself unkindly against the enemy. He referred to them as “those people,” and the worst thing he said against them was, “I wish they would stay at home and attend to their own affairs, and let us do the same!”
No one knew better than Lee, as he marched down from Gettysburg, that the Cause was now losing ground. Could Longstreet have been right after all? Sincerely feeling that a younger man might retrieve the great loss and yet win the Cause, he tendered his resignation as commander. But President Davis refused to receive it, saying it would be an impossibility to find a general “more fit to command or who would possess more of the confidence of the army.”
The brave fellows were barefooted once more, and ragged and hungry. It was a bitter experience for Lee to return to war-ridden, impoverished Virginia for another Winter. He had twice left that destitute State partly for the sake of its devoted people who suffered most of all in being unable to give necessary assistance to him and his gallant army.
Lee wrote to his wife and daughters to get them to double their already great exertions in knitting stockings for the men. In the winter of 1863–4 Lee and his heroes suffered similar privations to those of Washington's terrible Winter at Valley Forge. Captain Robert Lee wrote of this season of suffering: “There was at this time a great revival of religion in the army. My father became very much interested in it, and did all he could to promote in his camps all sacred exercises.”
His son Fitzhugh was released in April, 1864, through an exchange of prisoners. General Grant came that Spring from his triumphs in the West—the sixth general to take command of the Army of the Potomac. His policy was to wear out and starve the Confederates. He had a splendidly equipped army, sometimes several times the number of Lee's ragged followers, and even then he kept sending for reinforcements, which were always on the way from the North.
Others than General Lee had begun to see “the beginning of the end,” for the fact was, the South was not only bankrupt, but had no more men to fill up its sadly thinning ranks. Yet the Chief gave no sign of wavering.
It becomes no man to nurse despair
His faith in God and the righteous Cause was still strong. It led him, like Moses, through the Wilderness against Grant, but, at the battle of Spottsylvania General “Jeb” Stuart, his Chief of Cavalry, and strong brother and helper in the Christ-life, was slain.
Soon after this General Lee was seriously ill on the North Anna, and it was feared that he also might be taken from the leadership of the army. But he grew better soon and went on fighting with grim determination, his invincibles, only half as many men as Grant, making the dear-bought Federal victories cost double their own great losses. No commander ever loved his men more than Lee, and no general ever had a greater right to love them. He had said that he had the best army in the world, and it was doubly hard to lose his men now.
There was a terrible struggle around Petersburg, which Grant mined and blew up, but even in that sudden, ghastly conflict, known as the “Battle of the Crater,” Grant, after many months of preparation, lost more men than Lee. There was a long, hard siege, and the few starving Confederates were overwhelmed by a mighty army from the North.
Meanwhile Sheridan was sent into the Valley to drive out General Early, who had threatened and frightened Washington. Sheridan, carrying out Grant's policy, burned two thousand barns filled with grain, seventy mills of flour and wheat, and drove away almost all the cattle and other live stock that was left. To the poor Virginians Grant seemed a butcher, and Sheridan, a demon—especially when he reported to his chief: “A crow flying across the Valley will have to carry its own rations.”
Before Petersburg fell, Lee warned President Davis to make his escape from Richmond. Even then they planned to meet farther South. But Grant and Sheridan were able with unlimited resources to surround Lee, and the long, stern chase ended at Appomattox, about fifty miles west of Richmond.
Lee's army had been marching along Appomattox Creek like a company of military tramps, munching parched corn. Thanks to Grant and Sheridan, there was nothing to eat in the country, and now they had captured the train of supplies which had been sent, for Lee's desperate need, to Appomattox Court House.
A Southern corps commander approached his leader to intimate that it would be a physical impossibility for the men to march more than a day or two longer without rations, and suggested the terrible alternative—surrender or starve.
Robert E. Lee's deep hazel eyes flashed as he replied: “Surrender! I have too many good fighting men for that!”
The querulous general backed out of his commander's presence abashed. Then another proposed that they disband and escape to the mountains and by guerrilla warfare, badger the enemy for many years. Lee thought of the families of his faithful Christian soldiers longing for them to come home even as his own dear ones wished to see his face again. It was a terrible alternative.
As they marched along, Lee riding “Traveler,” he pondered earnestly. They saw his lips move and knew he was talking with his best Friend.
What should he do? “Is His mercy clean gone forever?” Had the “Friend that sticketh closer than a brother” failed, and forsaken him after all? Had He not promised Joshua in the wilderness—“As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee; I will not fail thee nor forsake thee?”
The white, sad face seemed unconscious of those near him.
. . . Worse than death? Worse than a thousand deaths! How blest and happy “Jeb” and “Stonewall” are now!
“How easily I could get rid of this and be at rest! I have only to ride along the line and all would be over. 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? . . .”
They laughed and jeered at Him, taunting Him with failure. “The servant is not greater than his Lord.” . . .
He looked around. The men seemed dispirited and out of sorts. Even “Traveler” stepped less proudly than usual. He thought of the humiliation—of the pride of family, of the State, and of the whole South. It had done all that it could—and lost—failed! . . .
“Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”
* * * * * * *
They found themselves headed off—Grant had intercepted a letter sent to Davis outlining their plan of escape. They were surrounded.
Grant had written to discuss a surrender—to “save further effusion of blood,” he suggested. As soon as Lee saw how completely they were hemmed in, he said:
There is nothing left but to go to General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.
A member of his staff, unconscious of all that had been passing in the mind of the chief, exclaimed: “O General, what will history say of the surrender of the army in the field?”
“Yes,” said the General, “I know they will say hard things of us; they will not understand how we were overwhelmed by numbers, but that is not the question, Colonel. The question is, ‘Is it right to surrender this army?’ If it is right, then I will take all the responsibility.”
Once more Robert E. Lee looked Duty squarely in the face and sent a note to General Grant asking an interview. The two commanders with their staffs, met at the McLean house at Appomattox. General Lee, the tall, handsome, courteous gentleman of the old school, wore a new gray uniform, with a handsome sword and sash. General Grant, short, thin and stooped, with a soldier's blouse and trousers spattered with mud, was without sword, sash or spurs. Noticing Lee's observance of the military proprieties, he was at once reminded of the occasion when the two met in the Mexican war, and Colonel Lee had said to him: “I feel it my duty, Captain Grant, to call your attention to General Scott's order that an officer reporting at headquarters should be in full uniform.”
General Grant told a friend afterward that he felt uncomfortable that day lest General Lee should recall that reproof and think he now intended to retaliate, so he explained that he had not seen his headquarters' baggage for several days.
But General Lee did not even remember having seen Grant in the Mexican War. As soon as the preliminary courtesies were exchanged, General Lee, perhaps reminded of Grant's stipulations of “Unconditional Surrender” to General Buckner, said:
General, I am here to ascertain the terms upon which you will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia; but it is due to proper candor and frankness that I should say at once that I am not willing to discuss, even, any terms incompatible with preserving the honor of my army, which I am determined to maintain at all hazards, and to the last extremity.
Grant hastened to reply, “I have no idea of proposing dishonorable terms, General, but I should like to know what terms you would consider satisfactory.”
The conditions were generous, as became two Christian generals—even more liberal, Lee said, than the noble terms of General Washington to Cornwallis. Nothing was said about General Lee tendering his sword. Twenty-five thousand rations were dealt out to the starving Confederates, who were told to keep their horses to use on their farms. When the good, gray general came out to his anxious soldiers, they received him with “the rebel yell.” He told them the terms were to men and friends who had met reverses like heroes. Then he added, with a slight tremor in his voice:
Men, we have fought through the war together. I have done my best for you. My heart is too full to say more.