Today is the 214th birthday of Robert E. Lee, General-in-Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States, and one of the greatest American military commanders ever to pull on boots. This photograph, taken in late February-early March 1864 by Julian Vannerson, is among my favorites. Lee is shown in the Confederate colonel’s coat he habitually wore and the photograph certainly supports the diarist Mary Chesnut’s description of the General as –cold, quiet and grand.
When this photo was taken, Gettysburg was eight months in the past. Lee knows that the gigantic US Army of the Potomac is coming south again. He is consumed with anxiety because a third of his army is detached, away in east Tennessee; his own greatly outnumbered army’s horses, and soldiers, are tired and ill-fed; and the Confederate States is reaching the end of its resources. Winter is ending, the enemy will be moving very soon. . .
In 1864, Lee would do his finest work, stymying Grant in the Overland Campaign –(The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor and other battles) — Lee keeping Grant out of Richmond despite frequently being outnumbered by almost two to one. The Southern war for independence was lost by that November. . .but not because of events in Virginia.
Volumes have been written on Lee the general, and as many on Lee the man. But I think the General speaks best for himself, and that his own writing shows the true measure of the man. Here is his letter to his sister Anne Marshall (a passionate Unionist and thus not on Lee’s side), written in April 1861, just after his resignation from the US Army:
April 20, 1861
My Dear Sister,
I am grieved at my inability to see you. I have been waiting for a more convenient season, which has brought to many before me deep and lasting regret. Now we are 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 have, therefore, resigned my commission in the Army, and save in the defense of my native State (with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed) I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword.
I know you will blame me, but you must think as kindly as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right. To show you the feeling and struggle it has cost me, I send you a copy of my letter of resignation. I have no time for more. May God guard and protect you and yours and shower upon you everlasting blessings, is the prayer of
Your devoted brother,
(From “The Wartime Papers of Robert E. Lee” (Clifford Dowdey, Louis H. Manarin, eds., Da Capo, 1987) pp. 9-10.
On Robert E. Lee:
“I cannot in justice omit to notice the valuable services of Captain Lee of the engineer corps, whose distinguished merit and gallantry deserves the highest praise.” Gen. Gideon Pillow, 1847.
“As distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring.” Gen. Winfield Scott, 1847.
“He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbour without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward.” Benjamin Harvey Hill (former Confederate Senator from Georgia), 1874.
“There is as much instruction both in strategy and in tactics to be gleaned from General Lee’s operations of 1862 as there is to be found in Napoleon’s campaigns of 1796.” Gen. Garnet Wolseley, date unknown.
“He had a calm and collected air about him, his voice was kind and tender, and his eye was as gentle as a dove’s. His whole make-up of form and person, looks and manner had a kind of gentle and soothing magnetism about it that drew every one to him and made them love, respect, and honor him.” Samuel R. Watkins, veteran of 1st Tennessee Regiment, 1881.
“He possessed my unqualified confidence, both as a soldier and a patriot.” Jefferson Davis, 1881.