Washington and Lee University

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 abiltactical 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.