(December 28, 2020) The following are edited excerpts from Chapter 11 in the fourth (final) volume of Douglas Southall Freeman’s Robert E. Lee biography.
Had Lee’s sense of duty held him to the Union, as it held Winfield Scott and George Thomas, how much easier his course would have been! Never, then, after the first mobilization, would he have lacked for troops or been compelled to count the cost of any move. He would not have agonized over men who shivered in their nakedness or dyed the road with shoeless, bleeding feet. Well clad they would have been, and well fed, too. They would not have been brought down to the uncertain ration of a pint of meal and a quarter of a pound of Nassau bacon. The superior artillery would have been his, not his adversary’s. On his order new locomotives and stout cars would have rolled to the front, swiftly to carry his army where the feeble engines and the groaning trains of the Confederacy could not deliver men. He would have enjoyed the command of the sea; so that he could have advanced his base a hundred miles, or two hundred, without the anguish of a single, choking march. If one jaded horse succumbed on a raid, the teeming prairies would have supplied two. He would, in all human probability, have won the war.
But, after the manner of the Lees, he had held unhesitatingly to the older allegiance, and had found it the way of difficulty. Always the odds had been against him, three to two in this campaign, two to one in that. Not once, in a major engagement, had he met the Federals on even terms; not once, after a victory, had his army been strong enough to follow it up. To extemporize when time was against him, to improvise when supplies failed him, to reorganize when death claimed his best lieutenants — that had been his constant lot. From the moment he undertook to mobilize Virginia until the last volley rolled across the red hills of Appomattox, there had been no single day when he had enjoyed an advantage he had not won with the blood of men he could not replace. His guns had been as much outranged as his men had been outnumbered. He had marched as often to find food as to confound his foe. His transportation had progressively declined as his dependence on it had increased. The revolutionary government that he espoused in 1861 had been created as a protest against an alleged violation of the rights of the states, and it made those rights its fetish. When it required an executive dictatorship to live, it chose to die by constitutionalism. Fighting in the apex of a triangle, one side of which was constantly exposed to naval attack by an enemy that had controlled the waterways, he had been forced from the first to accept a dispersion of forces that weakened his front without protecting his communications. Always, within this exposed territory, his prime mission had been that of defending a capital close to the frontier. With poverty he had faced abundance.
He believed that the general-in-chief should strive to bring his troops together at the right time and place and that he should leave combat to the generals of brigade and division. To this theory Lee steadfastly held from his opening campaign through the battle of the Wilderness. It was for this reason that he deferred to Longstreet at Second Manassas and did not himself direct the attacks of the Confederate right on July 2 and 3 at Gettysburg. Who may say whether, when his campaigns are viewed as a whole, adherence to this theory of function cost the army more than it won for the South? If this policy failed with Longstreet, it was gloriously successful with Jackson. If the failure at Gettysburg was partly chargeable to it, the victory at Chancellorsville was in large measure the result of its application.
In sum, the balance to the credit of his generalship is clear and absolute.
In three fast-moving months he mobilized Virginia and so secured her defense that the war had been in progress a year before the Unionists were within fifty miles of Richmond. Finding the Federals, when he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, almost under the shadow of the city’s steeples, he saved the capital from almost certain capture and the Confederate cause from probable collapse. He repulsed four major offensives against Richmond and by his invasion of Pennsylvania he delayed the fifth for ten months. Ere the Federals were back on the Richmond line again — two years to the day from the time he had succeeded Johnston — Lee had fought ten major battles: Gaines’s Mill, Frayser’s Farm, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. Six of these he had indisputably won. At Frayser’s Farm he had gained the field but had not enveloped the enemy as he had planned. Success had not been his at Malvern Hill and at Sharpsburg, but only at Gettysburg had he met with definite defeat, and even there he clouded the title of his adversary to a clear-cut victory. During the twenty-four months when he had been free to employ open manoeuvre, a period that had ended with Cold Harbor, he had sustained approximately 103,000 casualties and had inflicted 145,000. Holding, as he usually had, to the offensive, his combat losses had been greater in proportion to his numbers than those of the Federals, but he had demonstrated how strategy may increase an opponent’s casualties, for his losses included only 16,000 prisoners, whereas he had taken 38,000. Chained at length to the Richmond defenses, he had saved the capital from capture for ten months. All this he had done in the face of repeated defeats for the Southern troops in nearly every other part of the Confederacy. Lee is to be judged, in fact, not merely by what he accomplished with his own troops but by what he prevented the hosts of the Union from doing sooner elsewhere.
Lee was pre-eminently a strategist, and a strategist because he was a sound military logician. It is well enough to speak of his splendid presence on the field of battle, his poise, his cheer, and his manner with his men, but essentially he was an intellect, with a developed aptitude for the difficult synthesis of war. The incidental never obscured the fundamental. The trivial never distracted. He had the ability to visualize his fundamental problem as though it had been worked out in a model and set before his eyes.
Once his problem was thus made graphic, he projected himself mentally across the lines to the position of his adversary. What was the logical thing for his opponent to do? Assuming that the Federals had intelligent leadership, he said, “It is proper for us to expect [the enemy] to do what he ought to do.” After he had studied the probabilities, he would turn to his intelligence reports. Prisoners’ statements, captured correspondence, newspapers, information from his spies, dispatches from the cavalry outposts — all these he studied carefully, and often at first hand.
In assembling this information he was not more adept than many another capable general, and in studying it he was not more diligent, but in interpreting it he excelled. Always critical of the news that came from spies, few of whom he trusted, he was cautious in accepting newspaper reports until he learned which correspondents were close-mouthed or ill-informed and which were reckless or well-furnished with fact. When he discovered that the representative of The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, knew what he reported and reported what he knew, he attached high importance to his statements. A credulous outpost commander received scant attention when he forwarded countryside rumor; but Stuart’s “sixth sense” Lee soon learned to appreciate, and when the tireless officer affirmed that the enemy was marching toward an objective he named, Lee rarely questioned it. The infantry were apt to move quickly in the hoof-prints made by Stuart’s returning courier. If Lee’s strategy was built, in large part, on his interpretation of his intelligence reports, that interpretation was facilitated more by Stuart and Stuart’s scouts than by anything else.
Dealing with four Secretaries of War in order — Walker, Benjamin, Seddon, and Breckinridge — Lee encountered little or no friction. To each of the secretaries Lee reported and before each of them he laid his difficulties. Usually he was candid with them as to his plans, so much so, indeed, that often if a letter were not addressed to the “Hon. Secretary of War,” one would think it were intended for the confidence of the President. Only when important moves were afoot and secrecy was imperative was Lee ever restrained in addressing the war office.
No commander ever put a higher valuation on the innate qualities of leadership. “I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself,” he said. For personal cowardice he had a soldierly scorn, but he rarely encountered it. There was only one brigadier general in his army, and none above that grade, concerning whose personal courage in the presence of the enemy there ever was serious question. Except perhaps in the case of Longstreet, the more a soldier was capable of doing, the more Lee demanded of him. Although he realized that a trained and disciplined officers’ corps was the greatest need of the army, he was almost alone among the higher commanders of the Confederacy in realizing that the volunteer leaders of a revolutionary force could not be given the stern, impersonal treatment that can be meted out to the professional soldiers of an established government. How different might have been the fate of Bragg and perhaps of the Confederacy if that officer had learned this lesson from Lee!
All that can be said of Lee’s dealings with his officers as one of the reasons for his success can be said in even warmer tones of his relations with the men in the ranks. They were his chief pride, his first obligation. Their distress was his deepest concern, their well-being his constant aim. His manner with them was said by his lieutenants to be perfect. Never ostentatious or consciously dramatic, his bearing, his record of victories, his manifest interest in the individual, and his conversation with the humblest private he met in the road combined to create in the minds of his troops a reverence, a confidence, and an affection that built up the morale of the army. The men came to believe that whatever he did was right — that whatever he assigned them they could accomplish. Once that belief became fixed, the Army of Northern Virginia was well-nigh invincible. There is, perhaps, no more impressive example in modern war of the power of personality in creating morale.
The final major reason for Lee’s successes in the face of bewildering odds is akin to the two just considered. After many failures in the West, the South came to fix its faith on the Army of Northern Virginia and on its commander. Elsewhere there was bickering and division; in Virginia there was harmony and united resistance. The Southern people remembered that Washington had lost New York and New England, Georgia and South Carolina, and still had triumphed. Lee, they believed, would do no less. As long as he could keep the field, the South could keep its heart. Morale behind the line, not less than on the front of action, was sustained by Lee. The qualities that created this confidence were essentially those that assured Lee the unflagging aid of the President, the loyalty of his lieutenants, and the enthusiastic devotion of his men.
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