“I felt like anything other than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought…” — General Ulysses S. Grant, on Robert E. Lee’s surrender
I am a Grant man. I have always been suspicious of the aloof, aristocratic Robert E. Lee. Not only because he fought on the side that was attempting to preserve one of the most odious institutions devised by mankind, but because Grant was decidedly non-aristocratic. Down-to-earth. “Blue collar,” though that term did not exist in the 1860s. He was a store clerk in Galena, Illinois when the Civil War started, having dropped out of the army as a captain a few years before. He had been a lowly quartermaster during the Mexican War, the brief conflict of the 1840s which introduced many of the young junior officers who would go on to be generals in the Civil War. He left the army in disgrace when loneliness for his family drove him to the whiskey bottle. He was reduced to selling firewood in the streets before his father took pity on him, and gave him a job in his store.
Four years later, he was a three-star general that had beaten the Confederacy’s best troops into bloody tatters, and accepted the surrender of the marble god of the Southern battlefield, the great Robert E. Lee, the man believed by many in the North and South to be invincible.
Grant’s story, to me, is the interesting one. Yet I have heard again and again about Lee’s divine prowess as a general, and I was always a little skeptical. He seemed more lucky than good. He took his much-renowned audacious risks out of necessity (the South was always outnumbered and outsupplied), and they paid off because the Union generals he was up against prior to Grant were timid and irresolute.
Michael Korda’s new biography, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, reveals that Lee was just as interesting as Grant, and certainly makes the case for Lee as a great commanding general: A man equally adept at offense and defense, which was a very rare thing indeed. Lee had a bold and courageous personality which led to decisive offense, stunning flanking attacks, and perfectly timed withdrawals. He also had an engineer’s training, which led to impenetrable defenses when the need arose.
Lee was a loyal officer in the U.S. Army for thirty years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. And most of that thirty years was drudgery — he was an engineer, specializing in fortification and drainage. His career highlight had been the two-year Mexican War. When Lt. Grant was “in the rear with the gear,” the dashing Colonel Lee was making a name for himself as a bold reconnoiter and mapmaker, and a valuable right hand to the commanding generals. Once the Mexican War was over, he served a term as Superintendent of West Point (where had graduated second in his class, already with a reputation for pristine perfection) before going back to engineering duties, which is where he was when the first shots of the Civil War were fired in April 1861.
Lee was fifty-four years old in 1861. He was a man whose sensibilities were far more rooted in the 18th century than the 19th. His father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, was one of George Washington’s most trusted commanders in the Revolution. Washington himself was no distant historical figure to Lee — he married Washington’s (step) great-granddaughter, Mary Custis, and was surrounded by the Washington legacy on a daily basis.
He also clung tightly to the 18th century notion that your state was your true homeland. A dedicated U.S. Army officer he may have been, but to him, his country was first and foremost Virginia. It was not a notion unique to him, but it was old-fashioned and rapidly becoming outdated in the second half of the 19th century, with the U.S. increasing in size, global influence, industrial capacity, and national character. So when Fort Sumter in South Carolina was fired upon, and southern states were falling away from the Union like autumn leaves, Lee hoped against hope that Virginia wouldn’t follow, and force him to protect his homeland from what had once been his own army.
“I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union,” he said in a letter to his son at the start of the war. He went on to call it “foolish” and “revolution” in the most negative sense.
But Virginia eventually did secede, and Colonel Lee agonizingly resigned from the Army that had been his whole life, and prepared to defend his “country,” Virginia. He was granted a commission as general of the state’s militia volunteers, and began his dizzying climb up the command ladder of the Confederacy.
Lee wasn’t born a battlefield god. He didn’t even start growing his famous gray beard until well into the fall of 1861. (Just as it is difficult to picture him still in a Union uniform after the start of the Civil War, it is difficult to picture him with a neatly-trimmed black moustache and salt-and-pepper hair.) He had a learning curve. His first major campaign was as a supervising (not really commanding) general in the Shenandoah Valley in late 1861, and ended in defeat partly because of his unwillingness to push his subordinates too hard. He had a habit of ending his orders with the term “if practicable,” giving them an automatic escape hatch.
He was courteous in the manner of a true Southern gentleman, genteel…and totally non-confrontational in most situations.. He could not even bring himself to call the Union army “the enemy.” He simply referred to them, almost sadly, as “those people.” But once a battle had commenced, he got his blood up, became energized and super-aggressive.
Lee was soon commander of the Army of Northern Virginia (both the Union and the Confederacy’s armed forces consisted of several “armies,” each of which usually consisted of 3-4 corps, each corps consisting of 3-4 divisions of 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers each), meaning he was not the sole commanding general of the entire Confederacy as is commonly thought. But due to the admirable figure he cut, the fact that his army was in charge of the defending the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and was constantly tangling with the Union’s biggest army, the Army of the Potomac, meant that for all intents and purposes, Lee was the embodiment of the Confederate armed forces. By the time of the Battle of the Seven Days in the summer of 1862, he was an icon – silver hair and beard, in an immaculate gray uniform on his gray horse, Traveller, that was almost as well-known as its rider.
His two favorite corps commanders were Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and James Longstreet, and Korda’s work is also a capsule biography of those two fascinating military leaders. Although he had his moments of glory, Korda brings to light the somewhat inflated reputation of Stonewall Jackson. Like Patton in World War II, he was a “personality,” beloved by the press and the civilians, but not particularly well-liked by his own troops. He handled the Shenandoah Valley campaign adeptly, and made his legendary flanking maneuver at Chancellorsville in 1863, but everything in between casts doubt on his reliability.
He was frequently disengaged, insubordinate, misguided, secretive, insufferably pious (he would’ve made faster progress if they didn’t “pray over every fork in the road” as one of his staff officers put it) and the maker of some absolutely inscrutable tactical decisions that often forced Lee to re-think and re-adjust his own overall strategy. Yet he commanded Lee’s absolute trust and loyalty, because he never argued and was able to interpret Lee’s sometimes vague orders instinctively. When he was mortally wounded in a friendly fire incident during the Battle of Chancellorsville, he became an instant martyr and revered figure throughout the South.
Contrarily, James Longstreet, a much better general by any measure, was pilloried in the South for daring to criticize the sainted Lee in his postwar writings, and re-establishing total loyalty to the Union, which was exactly in keeping with Lee’s own desires. Longstreet was Lee’s voice of caution — always doubting, complaining, nitpicking. Despite this, Lee seemed just as fond of him as he was of Jackson. (“My old war horse,” Lee called the much-younger Longstreet.)
Lee’s reputation was built on the fact that we was not defeated on the field of battle from July 1862 to July 1863, during repeated engagements with an army that far outstripped him in terms of manpower and material. By the time of Second Manassas, Lee had organized the Army of Northern Virginia into two “super corps.” On the battlefield, Stonewall Jackson — fast, impetuous, unpredictable — usually occupied the left, feinting, jabbing, and confusing the enemy. On the right, Longstreet — reliable, careful, slow-but-powerful — would draw back and deliver the mighty knock-out blow.
“Lee was from the start committed to an ‘offensive defense,’ in which he maneuvered constantly to survive and fought each battle in the hope that it would be the last,” says Korda. Lee (and the savvier Confederate political leaders) knew a long, drawn-out war could not be won. The numbers were against them, and the survival of the Confederacy was always a race against time. The only way they could succeed was to establish foreign military alliances, and deliver some devastating blow to the Union that would demoralize them into negotiating a peace and separation. Neither occurred.
Lee, son of Light Horse Harry and worshipper of George Washington, was determined to fight an 18th-century war more than halfway to the 20th. He hoped that the “dash” and “elan” of his soldiers and the righteousness of their cause would win out — and it almost did, thanks to going up against grossly incompetent Union generals.
He, and many others, felt that a single, massive battlefield victory would do the trick (another very 18th-century notion). But massive Confederate victories at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and others, rolled by, and the North kept determinedly at them, despite the greatest military leadership crisis in modern history.
The Union simply could not find a decent general for its most important army. The Army of the Potomac was first commanded by George McClellan, an unparalleled expert in training, organizing, and supplying an army, but was terrified of actually using them in combat. McClellan’s bizarre, fearful actions through 1862 were enough that if any hint of maliciousness were assigned to them, he would have been hung as a traitor. Lee respected McClellan’s abilities (he was a fellow engineer and was not afraid of bold action back in the Mexican War) — but could predict his every movement (or lack of movement). McClellan was replaced by Ambrose Burnside (a good division commander, but way out his depth at the head of an army), Joseph Hooker (talked a good game but totally went to pieces at Chancellorsville), and George Meade (more on him later). Lee could read all of them like a book, and his reputation shone all the more when compared to these mediocrities.
The other part of his reputation is based on many people uncritically romanticizing the old antebellum Southern way of life through most of the 20th century (think Gone With The Wind), and the belief that Lee (and his Confederate battle flag) supposedly symbolized a certain irrepressible rebellious spirit that is part of the American character.
Were the Confederate states not replicating the very actions taken by the old American colonies in separating from a government that was oppressive and no longer serving their needs back in 1776? The parallels are inescapable, are they not?
No, because the focal point of the Confederate cause was always slavery, and don’t let anyone try to tell you differently.
In 1776, the colonies were fighting a war based on political philosophy, to separate themselves from an outdated monarchial system that was feeling more and more foreign to the sensibilities of colonists who had practiced self-government since the days of Jamestown (see Thomas Paine’s Common Sense).
The Confederacy was fighting to continue their practice of owning human beings as property.
Southern apologists will say the Civil War was a war of political philosophy, too — that it pitted the proud belief in “states’ rights” (of which Lee was a dedicated supporter) against overwhelming Federal authority.
“States’ rights”? Sure. Absolutely correct. And the secessionists’ primary goal was to ensure that the southern states had the right to own slaves.
Read any political speech or newspaper editorial from 1859 to 1861 from a pro-secession Southerner, and you will soon see that slavery was the sole issue. It’s right there in the primary sources and inescapable. By making these public pronouncements in writing — over and over and over — those 19th century pundits and politicians were making the future very uncomfortable for their descendants who squirm to defend their cause, and can’t admit that they were wrong — morally, politically, and militarily. (Those types also believe calling it “War Between The States” is somehow more sympathetic to their viewpoint than calling it a civil war, which is what it was. There are even some idiots who still have the gall to refer to it as “The War of Northern Aggression.” I hope a burning cross falls on them. That oughta put a nice crease in their camouflage baseball caps.)
“So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South.” — Robert E. Lee, five years after the war.
Though slavery was undoubtedly the motivation that caused secession and the subsequent war, it wasn’t necessarily the motivation for all those who fought it. Lee, like his hero Washington, was deeply ambivalent about slavery. He acknowledged it was a great moral wrong, but he took the viewpoint a lot of deeply religious people take that infuriates us non-religious types: “It was all in God’s hands. Slavery will end when God wants it to end” (paraphrased from many statements Lee made on the subject). Lee and other moderate Southerners of an anti-slavery bent simply could not figure out a way to end the practice without tearing the country apart. Tearing the country apart was, of course, exactly what it took. (That was evidently what God wanted. As Lincoln put it in his second inauguration speech: “If God wills [the war] to continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3000 years ago, so still it must be said: ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”)
As the year of 1862-63 wore on, Lee developed a “mystic bond” with his soldiers. If he believed they could do something, then they believed it too. Lee’s series of victories that year made his army look like the whole show, and his success had an effect on the entire southern military strategy. The Confederate high command seemed willing to put all their eggs Lee’s basket, when they should have paid more attention to the rapidly unraveling western half of the Confederacy — Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi — where a couple of Union generals, Grant and Sherman, were proving themselves just as dogged and determined (if not as dashing and romantic) as Robert E. Lee. But the Confederate government was so fixated on Lee and defending their capital (another outdated military notion), they allowed Grant and Sherman to run rampant in the west, and develop into a team that would doom the Confederacy.
When losses finally started to come, one of Lee’s strengths was in not treating a defeat like it was the end of the world — retreating and re-organizing for months at a time (see George McClellan, who frequently did just that, all the while complaining loudly he was outnumbered.) He stoically accepted a lost battle, and immediately made plans for the next. As soon as came up against a Union commander with the same philosophy (Grant), the Confederacy’s days were numbered.
He followed victories equally stoically, with no self-congratulation or grand gestures.
But he was, in the end, human. What were his weaknesses as a commander? Honestly, there weren’t many.
“Lee possessed every quality of a great general except the ability to give a direct order to his subordinates and ensure that it was obeyed. He inspired love, admiration, and respect, but not fear,” says Korda. He deferred too much to others, and refused to impose his will the way a commanding officer in a desperate fight should. And early on, his orders were often muddled and contradictory.
As an overall military strategy, Lee believed it was his job to figure out what the enemy (“those people”) were up to, maneuver his army into place in a timely manner, then allow his corps commanders to conduct the tactics as they saw fit once the battle was underway. This was not always the case — Korda gives several examples of his attention to detail and “hands-on” generalship — but it was his underlying philosophy.
As far as deference to politicians? He did not believe in military leaders making public policy (MacArthur could have picked up a few lessons from him), so he had as little to do with the Confederate government as possible. As a result, his polite “requests” for more food and supplies (always running dangerously low in the Confederate army) were disregarded by hard-headed, short-sighted politicians. (There is a school of thought that was prevalent among Southern — and some Northern — historians, especially in the early 1900s, that referred to the Confederacy as the “Lost Cause.” Their primary thesis was that if only one of any number of myriad details on the battlefield had gone differently, the South could have won the entire war. A quick study of the South’s disastrous economic footing should be enough to debunk that fantasy.)
Militarily, the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg was due to failed leadership, much as it has pained the Lee-worshippers past and present to admit it. (Most of them still can’t — they shift the blame anywhere else, but especially onto the grumbling Longstreet, who argued before, during, and after that fighting at Gettysburg was a mistake.) Lee failed to issue clear, concise (or even written) orders, and once more did not exercise sufficient supervision and control over his corps commanders. He did not adequately assess the results of the second day’s battle before plunging into the third, ordering a headlong charge into the center of the Union line.
This was a result of relying too much on the fighting spirit and personal bravery of his beloved troops, who hadn’t let him down yet, and was his crucial failing. They were not, in the end, superhuman. When faced head-on with superior numbers in a superior position and a steady Union commander (in this case, George Meade, no military genius, but better than all who had come before), the Army of Northern Virginia got their asses kicked.
Once Grant was promoted to General-in-Chief and attached to the Army of the Potomac in 1864, there was finally a general whose actions Lee could not predict, and time had run out. Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, effectively ending the Civil War he hoped would never start.
Korda’s book is not flawless. The maps are a disaster — they are simply recopied from other books, mostly from Douglas Freeman’s three-volume Lee bio from the 1940s. Korda sticks in maps where none are needed and leaves out maps where they would have been useful. The maps that are included often do not show features mentioned in Korda’s text. Get yourself a book with good Civil War battle maps to accompany your reading.
Also, he seems to rush to the conclusion. It takes 600 detailed pages to get us from the start all the way through the Battle of Gettysburg, but the rest of the book rattles off in about 90 more pages — the last year-and-a-half of the war, and Lee’s postwar life, get pretty short shrift. The Battle of Spotsylvania, which was as impressive as anything Lee had ever done, gets about a page. And I wish Korda had included the moving final speech Lee gave to his soldiers just after he signed the surrender papers (it’s in Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary.) He makes up for it by including a friendly post-surrender meeting between Lee and Meade, his Gettysburg opponent, who he had not seen face to face since the Mexican War. Lee teases Meade about the amount of gray in his beard, and Meade responds it was Lee that put it there.
As great as he was on the battlefield, he showed his true greatness in the five years he lived after the war. He dutifully applied for a pardon from the U.S. government, leading by example in his policy of reconciliation and submitting to lawful authority. (A single federal judge was intent on indicting Lee for treason, and held up the pardon until it was too late. Lee was pardoned posthumously.) He wanted nothing more than to be a loyal U.S. citizen again. He even visited newly-elected President Grant in the White House. (He did not go so far as taking a job in the Grant administration like Longstreet did, further torpedoing his reputation with the “Lost Cause” types.)
And what of Lee’s views on the thorny issue of race relations in the tumultuous years after the war? He never believed in true racial equality (almost no 19th-century white person did, including Lincoln), but his happiness that slavery was dead was genuine, and more than once he made a point of proclaiming his goodwill toward the newly-emancipated African-Americans. At a dinner party in late 1865, the hostess was embarrassed to admit her butler was leaving the next morning to try his luck as a free man in the North. Lee sprang up from his seat, offered him his hand, and wished him “all of Heaven’s blessings.” There was stunned silence from the other dinner guests, but Lee was unapologetic. Korda relates a similar, more public postwar incident: “[When a] black man…entered St. Paul’s Church in Richmond and walked to the chancel rail to receive communion before a shocked, indignant, silent, white congregation, Lee rose from his pew, joined the man, and knelt beside him.”
Such was Lee’s august reputation among his fellow Southerners in the last year of the war, Korda suggests he could have prolonged the Confederacy by stepping up and taking the political reins from the increasingly unpopular Confederate president Jefferson Davis. But “if the Confederacy could only have been saved by following the examples of Caesar, Cromwell, and Napoleon, (i.e., establishing a military dictatorship), Lee would have preferred defeat — he was too much an American for that.”
I don’t know if Korda managed to convince me that Lee was our greatest American general. But as a northerner, I can only echo what the Pennsylvania farm girl exclaimed as he rode past her homestead in his usual stately manner on his way to Gettysburg — “I wish he were ours!”
“I fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South its dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.” — R.E. Lee