“It is well that battle is for this reason terrible, or we should grow too fond that it.”— Robert E. Lee, at Fredericksburg


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Lee"s father, Maj. Gen. "Light-Horse Harry" Lee combated in the Revolutionary War. Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, Stratford

Few numbers in American background are more divisive, contradictory or elusive 보다 Robert E. Lee, the reluctant, disastrous leader that the Confederate Army, who passed away in his beloved Virginia at age 63 in 1870, five years ~ the finish of the civil War. In a new biography, Robert E. Lee, Roy Blount, Jr., treats Lee together a male of competing impulses, a “paragon the manliness” and also “one the the biggest military leaders in history,” that was nevertheless “not an excellent at telling males what come do.”

Blount, a noted humorist, journalist, playwright and raconteur, is the author or coauthor the 15 previous books and also the editor of Roy Blount’s book of southern Humor. A resident of brand-new York City and also western Massachusetts, he traces his attention in Lee come his boyhood in Georgia. Though Blount was never a Civil war buff, he states “every Southerner has to make his tranquility with the War. Ns plunged earlier into it for this book, and also am relieved come have emerged alive.”

“Also,” that says, “Lee reminds me in some ways of my father.”

At the love of Lee’s story is among the monumental options in American history: revered for his honor, Lee resigned his U.S. Army commission to protect Virginia and also fight because that the Confederacy, ~ above the next of slavery. “The decision to be honorable by his criter of honor—which, everything we may think that them, were neither self-serving nor complicated,” Blount says. Lee “thought it was a negative idea because that Virginia to secede, and God to know he was right, yet secession had actually been much more or less democratically decided upon.” Lee’s family held slaves, and also he self was at ideal ambiguous top top the subject, leading some of his defenders over the years to discount slavery’s significance in assessments that his character. Blount suggests that the problem does matter: “To me that slavery, much an ext than secession together such, that casts a shadow end Lee’s honorableness.”

In the excerpt that follows, the general masses his troops because that a battle over three humid July job in a Pennsylvania town. Its name would after that resound with courage, casualties and also miscalculation: Gettysburg.

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In his dashing (if sometimes depressive) antebellum prime, he may have been the most beautiful human in America, a kind of precursorcross between Cary Grant and Randolph Scott. He remained in his element gossiping v belles around their beaux in ~ balls. In theater of grinding, hellish human being carnage he maintained a pet hen because that company. He had actually tiny feet the he loved his youngsters to tickle no one of this things seems to fit, for if ever before there to be a grave American icon, it is Robert Edward Lee—hero that the Confederacy in the civil War and a symbol of the aristocracy to some, of enslavement to others.

After Lee’s death in 1870, Frederick Douglass, the previous fugitive slave who had end up being the country most significant African-American, wrote, “We can scarcely take up a newspaper . . . That is not filled v nauseating flatteries” that Lee, from which “it would certainly seem . . . That the soldier that kills the most men in battle, also in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian, and also entitled to the highest place in heaven.” 2 years later on one the Lee’s ex-generals, Jubal A. Early, apotheosized his so late commander together follows: “Our beloved chef stands, like some lofty shaft which rears that head amongst the highest, in grandeur, simple, pure and also sublime.”

In 1907, ~ above the 100th anniversary of Lee’s birth, president Theodore Roosevelt expressed tendency American sentiment, praising Lee’s “extraordinary ability as a General, his dauntless courage and high leadership,” adding, “He stood the hardest of every strains, the stress, overload of bearing himself well with the gray night of failure; and therefore out of what appeared failure he aided to construct the wonderful and mighty triumph that our nationwide life, in which every his countrymen, north and south, share.”

We may think we understand Lee because we have actually a mental image: gray. Not only the uniform, the mythic horse, the hair and beard, but the resignation with which he accepted dreary burdens that readily available “neither pleasure no one advantage”: in particular, the Confederacy, a cause of i m sorry he take it a dim view till he visited war for it. That did not watch right and wrong in tones of gray, and also yet his moralizing could generate a fog, as in a letter indigenous the front come his invalid wife: “You should endeavour to enjoy the pleasure of act good. The is all that renders life valuable.” every right. But then that adds: “When i measure my very own by that conventional I to be filled through confusion and also despair.”

His own hand most likely never drew human blood nor fired a shoot in anger, and his only Civil war wound to be a faint scrape on the cheek from a sharpshooter’s bullet, but many thousands of men died quite horribly in battles where he to be the leading spirit, and also most of the casualties were on the other side. If us take as a given Lee’s granitic conviction that whatever is oh my gosh will, however, he was born come lose.

As battlefield generals go, he might be incredibly fiery, and also could go out of his way to it is in kind. However in also the many sympathetic version of his life story the comes throughout as a bit of a stick—certainly contrasted with his scruffy nemesis, Ulysses S. Grant; his zany, ferocious “right arm,” Stonewall Jackson; and the dashing “eyes” the his army, J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart. For these men, the Civil battle was simply the ticket. Lee, however, has come down in background as too fine because that the bloodbath of 1861-65. Come efface the squalor and horror that the war, we have the image of Abraham Lincoln releasing the slaves, and we have actually the photo of Robert E. Lee’s gracious surrender. Still, because that many contemporary Americans, Lee is at finest the moral indistinguishable of Hitler’s brilliant field marshal Erwin Rommel (who, however, turned against Hitler, together Lee never ever did against Jefferson Davis, who, to be sure, was no Hitler).

On his father’s side, Lee’s household was amongst Virginia’s and also therefore the nation’s most distinguished. Henry, the scion who was to become known in the Revolutionary battle as Light-Horse Harry, to be born in 1756. He graduated from Princeton in ~ 19 and also joined the Continental army at 20 together a captain the dragoons, and also he rose in rank and also independence come command Lee’s irradiate cavalry and also then Lee’s legion the cavalry and also infantry. Without the medicines, elixirs, and food take care of Lee’s raiders captured from the enemy, George Washington’s military would no likely have survived the harrowing winter encampment of 1777-78 at sink Forge. Washington became his patron and also close friend. With the war almost over, however, Harry made decision he was underappreciated, therefore he impulsively resigned from the army. In 1785, the was chosen to the continental Congress, and in 1791 he was elected governor of Virginia. In 1794 Washington put him in command the the troops that bloodlessly put down the Whiskey Rebellion in west Pennsylvania. In 1799 the was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he famously eulogized Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Meanwhile, though, Harry’s fast and loose speculation in hundreds of thousands the the new nation’s acres went sour, and also in 1808 he was diminished to chicanery. He and his second wife, Ann Hill Carter Lee, and also their kids departed the Lee genealogical home, where Robert was born, because that a smaller sized rented home in Alexandria. Under the conditions of bankruptcy that acquired in those days, Harry was still liable because that his debts. That jumped a personal appearance bail—to the dismay of his brother, Edmund, who had posted a sizable bond—and wangled passage, through pitying assist from chairman James Monroe, to the West Indies. In 1818, after 5 years away, bother headed home to die, yet got only as far as Cumberland Island, Georgia, where he to be buried. Robert was 11.

Robert appears to have been also fine because that his childhood, because that his education, because that his profession, for his marriage, and also for the Confederacy. Not according come him. Follow to him, he was not fine enough. For every his audacity top top the battlefield, he embraced rather passively one raw deal after another, bending end backward for everyone from Jefferson Davis come James McNeill Whistler’s mother. (When he to be superintendent that the U.S. Army Academy, Lee acquiesced to Mrs. Whistler’s request on behalf of her cadet son, that was ultimately dismissed in 1854.)

By what can we know of him? The functions of a general are battles, campaigns and usually memoirs. The engagements the the polite War shape up more as bloody muddles than as commanders’ chess games. Because that a lengthy time during the war, “Old Bobbie Lee,” as he was described worshipfully by his troops and nervously by the foe, had the significantly superior Union pressures spooked, but a century and also a third of evaluation and counteranalysis has resulted in no main point consensus regarding the genius or the folly the his generalship. And also he composed no memoir. That wrote an individual letters—a discordant mix that flirtation, joshing, lyrical touches, and also stern religious adjuration—and that wrote official dispatches that are so impersonal and (generally) unselfserving regarding seem above the fray.

During the postbellum century, when Americans North and also South chose to take on R. E. Lee together a national and also a southerly hero, he was generally explained as antislavery. This presumption rests no on any public place he took however on a i in an 1856 letter to his wife. The passage begins: “In this enlightened age, over there are couple of I believe, but what will certainly acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a ethical & political evil in any type of Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages.” but he go on: “I think it yet a better evil to the white than to the black color race, & while mine feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are an ext strong for the former. The blacks space immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful self-control they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction together a race, & i hope will certainly prepare & lead them to better things. Exactly how long their subjugation might be essential is recognized & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

The only means to acquire inside Lee, perhaps, is through edging fractally approximately the document of his life to uncover spots where he come through; by hold up next to him several of the fully realized characters—Grant, Jackson, Stuart, Light-Horse take care of Lee, man Brown—with who he interacted; and also by subjecting to modern-day skepticism specific concepts—honor, “gradual emancipation,” magnificent will—upon which that unreflectively established his identity.

He wasn’t always gray. Until war age him dramatically, his spicy dark brown eyes were additional by black hair (“ebon and also abundant,” together his doting biographer Douglas Southall Freeman puts it, “with a tide that a woman can have envied”), a durable black mustache, a solid full mouth and chin unobscured by any type of beard, and dark mercurial brows. He was no one to hide his watch under a bushel. His heart, meanwhile . . . “The heart, he preserved locked away,” together Stephen Vincent Benét proclaimed in “John Brown’s Body,” “from every the picklocks that biographers.” account by civilization who knew him offer the impression that no one knew his totality heart, even prior to it was broken by the war. Probably it broke many years prior to the war. “You recognize she is choose her papa, constantly wanting something,” the wrote about one that his daughters. The an excellent Southern diarist that his day, mar Chesnut, tells united state that once a lady teased him around his ambitions, the “remonstrated—said his tastes were of the simplest. He just wanted a Virginia farm—no end of cream and fresh butter—and fried chicken. No one fried chicken or two—but unlimited fried chicken.” Just before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, among his nephews uncovered him in the field, “very grave and tired,” carrying about a fried chicken leg wrapped in a item of bread, which a Virginia countrywoman had actually pressed upon him however for i beg your pardon he can not muster any type of hunger.

One thing that clearly drove him to be devotion come his house state. “If Virginia stand by the old Union,” Lee said a friend, “so will certainly I. But if she secedes (though I execute not believe in secession together a constitutional right, nor the there is sufficient reason for revolution), then I will follow my aboriginal State v my sword, and, if require be, with my life.”

The North took secession together an act of aggression, to it is in countered accordingly. When Lincoln called on the loyal states for troops to invade the South, Southerners can see the concern as defense no of slavery however of homeland. A Virginia convention that had actually voted 2 come 1 versus secession, now voted 2 come 1 in favor.

When Lee read the news the Virginia had actually joined the Confederacy, he said to his wife, “Well, Mary, the question is settled,” and also resigned the U.S. Military commission he had held for 32 years.

The days of July 1-3, 1863, quiet stand among the many horrific and also formative in American history. Lincoln had provided up ~ above Joe Hooker, put Maj. Gen. George G. Meade in command of the army of the Potomac, and sent that to prevent Lee’s intrusion of Pennsylvania. Since Jeb Stuart’s scouting operation had been uncharacteristically the end of touch, Lee wasn’t certain where Meade’s army was. Lee had actually actually advanced farther north than the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when he learned that Meade was southern of him, threatening his supply lines. For this reason Lee swung earlier in that direction. On June 30 a Confederate brigade, follow the report that there to be shoes to be had actually in Gettysburg, ran into Federal cavalry west of town, and withdrew. On July 1 a larger Confederate pressure returned, involved Meade’s breakthrough force, and also pushed it ago through the town—to the fishhook-shaped heights making up Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, tiny Round Top, and also Round Top. The was virtually a rout, till Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard, to who Lee together West allude superintendent had been kind once Howard to be an unpopular cadet, and also Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock rallied the Federals and also held the high ground. Fantastic ground to defend from. The evening Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who commanded the an initial Corps of the military of northern Virginia, urged Lee not to attack, but to swing approximately to the south, get in between Meade and also Washington, and also find a strategically even much better defensive position, against which the Federals can feel obliged come mount one of those frontal attacks that virtually always lost in this war. Still not having heard indigenous Stuart, Lee felt he might have numerical superiority for once. “No,” he said, “the enemy is there, and also I am going to attack him there.”

The following morning, Lee set in activity a two-part offensive: Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps was to pin under the enemy’s right flank, on Culp’s Hill and also Cemetery Hill, when Longstreet’s, through a couple of extra divisions, would certainly hit the left flank—believed to it is in exposed—on Cemetery Ridge. To acquire there Longstreet would need to make a long march under cover. Longstreet placed a sulky objection, however Lee was adamant. And also wrong.

Lee didn’t know that in the night Meade had managed by compelled marches come concentrate virtually his entire army at Lee’s front, and had deployed it skillfully—his left flank was now extended to little Round Top, nearly three-quarters the a mile south of where Lee believed it was. The disgruntled Longstreet, never ever one come rush into anything, and confused to find the left flank furthermore left than expected, didn’t start his attack until 3:30 the afternoon. It almost prevailed anyway, yet at last to be beaten gorily back. Back the two-pronged offensive was ill-coordinated, and the commonwealth artillery had actually knocked the end the Confederate firearms to the north before Ewell attacked, Ewell’s infantry come tantalizingly close to acquisition Cemetery Hill, however a counterattack compelled them to retreat.

On the third morning, July 3, Lee’s arrangement was approximately the same, but Meade seized the initiative by pushing forward on his right and also seizing Culp’s Hill, i m sorry the Confederates held. For this reason Lee was compelled to improvise. He chose to strike directly ahead, in ~ Meade’s heavily strengthened midsection. Confederate artillery would soften the up, and also Longstreet would straight a frontal assault throughout a mile of open up ground versus the facility of Missionary Ridge. Again Longstreet objected; again Lee wouldn’t listen. The Confederate artillery tired all that is shells ineffectively, so to be unable to support the assault—which has gone under in background as Pickett’s charge since Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division absorbed the worst that the terrible bloodbath that turned into.

Lee’s idolaters strained after the war to shift the blame, yet the consensus today is that Lee controlled the fight badly. Each supposed significant blunder that his subordinates—Ewell’s failure to take it the high floor of Cemetery Hill top top July 1, Stuart’s getting out that touch and also leaving Lee unapprised the what pressure he to be facing, and the lateness that Longstreet’s attack on the 2nd day—either no a blunder at all (if Longstreet had struck earlier that would have encountered an also stronger Union position) or was led to by a absence of forcefulness and also specificity in Lee’s orders.

Before Gettysburg, Lee had actually seemed not only to check out the minds of Union generals but nearly to expect his subordinates to review his. The was no in fact an excellent at telling males what to do. That no doubt suited the Confederate fighting man, that didn’t take kindly to gift told what to do—but Lee’s just weakness together a commander, his otherwise reverent nephew Fitzhugh Lee would certainly write, was his “reluctance to protest the desire of others, or come order castle to do anything that would certainly be disagreeable and also to i m sorry they would certainly not consent.” v men and also with women, his authority acquired from his sightliness, politeness, and unimpeachability. His commonly cheerful losing patently extended solemn depths, depth faintly lit by glints that previous and potential refusal of self and also others. It all appeared Olympian, in a Christian cavalier sort of way. Officers’ understanding went out to him across the latitude he granted castle to it is in willingly, creatively honorable. Longstreet speak of responding to Lee in ~ another crucial moment through “receiving his anxious expressions really as appeals for reinforcement that his unexpressed wish.” When world obey you since they think you permit them to monitor their very own instincts, you need a crawl instinct yourself for as soon as they’re gaining out the touch, together Stuart did, and when they space balking for good reason, as Longstreet did. As a father Lee was fond however fretful, as a husband devoted but distant. As an attacking general he to be inspiring yet not have to cogent.

At Gettysburg he was jittery, snappish. He was 56 and bone weary. He might have had dysentery, despite a scholar’s extensively publicized delinquent to that result rests top top tenuous evidence. He did have actually rheumatism and heart trouble. He preserved fretfully wondering why Stuart was out of touch, worrying the something poor had occurred to him. He had offered Stuart vast discretion together usual, and Stuart had overextended himself. Stuart no frolicking. He had actually done his best to plot on Lee’s composed instructions: “You will certainly . . . Have the ability to judge whether you have the right to pass about their military without hindrance, law them every the damage you can, and also cross the east of the mountains. In one of two people case, after crossing the river, girlfriend must move on and also feel the ideal of Ewell’s troops, collecting information, provisions, etc.” however he had not, in fact, to be able to judge: the met several hindrances in the form of Union troops, a swollen river the he and also his men regulated only heroically come cross, and also 150 federal wagons that he captured before he overcome the river. And also he had actually not sent out word that what he was up to.

When top top the afternoon of the second day Stuart did display up in ~ Gettysburg, after pushing himself nearly to exhaustion, Lee’s just greeting come him is stated to have actually been, “Well, general Stuart, you are right here at last.” A coolly disastrous cut: Lee’s method of chewing out someone that he felt had actually let him down. In the months after Gettysburg, as Lee stewed over his defeat, he repeatedly criticized the laxness the Stuart’s command, deep hurting a guy who prided self on the sort of dashing freelance effectiveness by which Lee’s father, Maj. Gen. Light-Horse Harry, had characterized himself. A link of implicit trust had been broken. Loving-son number had failure loving-father figure and vice versa.

In the past Lee had likewise granted Ewell and Longstreet broad discretion, and also it had paid off. Maybe his magic in Virginia didn’t travel. “The totality affair to be disjointed,” Taylor the aide said of Gettysburg. “There to be an utter lack of accord in the motions of the numerous commands.”

Why did Lee stake everything, finally, on one ill-considered thrust straight up the middle? Lee’s critics have never come up with a reasonable explanation. Evidently that just acquired his blood up, as the expression goes. As soon as the usually repressed Lee felt an overpowering require for emotional release, and also had an army at his disposal and also another one in prior of him, that couldn’t organize back. And why need to Lee suppose his imprudence come be any less unstable to Meade 보다 it had been to the various other Union commanders?

The spot against which he hurled Pickett was appropriate in front of Meade’s headquarters. (Once, Dwight Eisenhower, that admired Lee’s generalship, took field Marshal Montgomery to visit the Gettysburg battlefield. Lock looked in ~ the site of Pickett’s charge and also were baffled. Eisenhower said, “The male should have acquired so mad that he want to hit that man with a brick.”)

Pickett’s troops advanced with precision, closed up the gaps that withering fire tore into their smartly dressed ranks, and at close quarters combated tooth and nail. Acouple of hundreds Confederates did rest the Union line, but only briefly. Someone counted 15 body on a spot of ground less than 5 feet vast and three feet long. It has been estimated that 10,500 Johnny Rebs made the charge and also 5,675—roughly 54 percent—fell dead or wounded. As a Captain Spessard charged, he observed his son shot dead. He laid him the end gently on the ground, kissed him, and got ago to advancing.

As the minority who hadn’t been cut to ribbons streamed back to the Confederate lines, Lee talk in splendid calm amongst them, apologizing. “It’s every my fault,” that assured stunned privates and corporals. He took the moment to admonish, mildly, an officer who was beating his horse: “Don’t whip him, captain; it does no good. I had a foolish horse, once, and kind therapy is the best.” climate he resumed his apologies: “I am an extremely sorry—the task was too great for you—but we mustn’t despond.” Shelby Foote has referred to as this Lee’s best moment. However generals don’t desire apologies from those in ~ them, and also that go both ways. After midnight, the told a cavalry officer, “I never saw troops behave more magnificently 보다 Pickett’s department of Virginians. . . . ” then he dropped silent, and also it was then that he exclaimed, as the officer later on wrote the down, “Too bad! Too bad! OH! as well BAD!”

Pickett’s charge wasn’t the fifty percent of it. Altogether at Gettysburg as countless as 28,000 Confederates to be killed, wounded, captured, or missing: more than a third of Lee’s entirety army. Probably it was since Meade and also his troops to be so stunned by their very own losses—about 23,000—that castle failed to pursue Lee ~ above his withdrawal south, catch him versus the flooded Potomac, and wipe his army out. Lincoln and the north press to be furious the this no happen.

For month Lee had actually been traveling with a pets hen. Expected for the stewpot, she had won his love by beginning his tent an initial thing every morning and laying his breakfast egg under his Spartan cot. As the army of northern Virginia was breaking camp in all deliberate speed for the withdrawal, Lee’s employee ran about anxiously crying, “Where is the hen?” Lee himself uncovered her nestled in her accustomed point out on the wagon that transported his personal matériel. Life goes on.

After Gettysburg, Lee never mounted another murderous head-on assault. The went on the defensive. Approve took end command of the eastern front and 118,700 men. He set out come grind Lee’s 64,000 down. Lee had actually his guys well dug in. Grant resolved to turn his flank, pressure him into a weaker position, and also crush him.

On April 9, 1865, Lee ultimately had to recognize that he was trapped. In ~ the start of Lee’s long, combative retreat by step from Grant’s overpowering numbers, he had actually 64,000 men. By the finish they had inflicted 63,000 Union casualties yet had been lessened themselves to fewer 보다 10,000.

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To be sure, there to be those in Lee’s army who proposed continuing the struggle as guerrillas or through reorganizing under the governors that the assorted Confederate states. Lee reduced off any kind of such talk. He to be a professional soldier. He had actually seen more than enough of governors that would it is in commanders, and he had no respect for ragtag guerrilladom. The told Col. Edward Porter Alexander, his artillery commander, . . . The guys would end up being mere bands of marauders, and also the enemy’s mounties would go after them and overrun many large sections they may never have occasion come visit. Us would bring on a state of work it would take the nation years to recover from.”

“And, as for myself, you young fellows could go come bushwhacking, however the only dignified course because that me would be, to go to Gen. Grant and surrender myself and also take the consequences.” the is what the did ~ above April 9, 1865, in ~ a farmhouse in the town of Appomattox Court House, put on a fulldress uniform and carrying a obtained ceremonial sword which the did not surrender.

Thomas Morris Chester, the just black correspondent for a major daily newspaper (the Philadelphia Press) throughout the war, had actually nothing however scorn for the Confederacy, and referred come Lee as a “notorious rebel.” but when Chester saw Lee’s come in shattered, burned-out Richmond after ~ the surrender, his dispatch sound a much more sympathetic note. After Lee “alighted from his horse, he automatically uncovered his head, thinly extended with silver hairs, together he had actually done in acknowledgment that the veneration that the world along the streets,” Chester wrote. “There to be a general rush of the small crowd come shake hands through him. During these manifestations not a word was spoken, and when the ceremony was through, the basic bowed and also ascended his steps. The silence was then damaged by a couple of voices calling for a speech, to which he payment no attention. The basic then passed right into his house, and the crowd dispersed.”