The Mystery of Robert E. LeeRoundup
tags: Confederacy, Robert E. Lee
Mr. Guelzo is the senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University and the director of the James Madison Program’s Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship.
No one who ever met Robert Edward Lee — whatever the circumstances of the meeting — failed to be impressed by the man. From his earliest days as a cadet at West Point, through 25 years as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers and six more as a senior cavalry officer, and then as the supreme commander of the armies of the Confederacy, Lee’s dignity, his manners, his composure, all seemed to create a peculiar sense of awe in the minds of observers. In the midst of the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Lee astonished Francis Charles Lawley, the London Times’ special correspondent in America, for “the serenity, or, if I may so express it, the unconscious dignity of General Lee’s courage, when he is under fire.” Abraham Lincoln remarked that a photograph of Lee showed that Lee’s “is a good face; it is the face of a noble, noble, brave man.” Not even Ulysses Grant could escape the sense of being upstaged by Lee when they met at Appomattox. “He was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face,” Grant wrote in his memoirs, “dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new” and “wearing a sword of considerable value,” while Grant was self-conscious of “my rough travelling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general” sewn on. “I must have contrasted strangely,” Grant admitted, “with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form.”
These impressions appear so consistent, and over so many years, that it has been easy to conclude that dignity, manners, and composure simply were the man, that there was (as Douglas Southall Freeman insisted at the end of his four-volume biography of Lee) “no mystery” at all to Robert E. Lee. Or, as Burton Hendrick wrote (in The Lees of Virginia), that “Lee’s character” was ruled by a “great simplicity,” or that (in the words of an even more worshipful biographer, Clifford Dowdey) Lee “could rest totally . . . in very simple things.”
It made no difference. At the same moment, he assured his West Point classmate Jack MacKay that “it was as much as I could do to make both ends meet this year & I am anxiously looking for the dividend of the VA Bank to enable me [to] Square off all scores.” When he transferred out of the Corps of Engineers in 1855 to become lieutenant-colonel of the Second U.S. Cavalry in Texas, he insisted on writing checks on his Alexandria bank from Texas for his wife at Arlington to deposit for cash, all the while chiding her to “be very particular dear Mary when you deal in money matters” and to “keep a memorandum book & set everything down.” His advice for his youngest son in 1856 was to cultivate “industry & frugality” and “be prudent, before he is liberal, & be just before he is generous.”
Other kinds of cracks opened under pressure. Trained as an engineer, and the director of a series of demanding coastal-engineering projects (from controlling the silting-up of the St. Louis waterfront to the construction of Fort Carroll in Baltimore’s harbor), Lee was at his happiest with a draftsman’s notebook in hand — and impatient when matters spilled out of the kind of control that T-squares and algorithms could impose. After the close of the Maryland campaign in 1862, he unleashed on his two chief subordinates, James Longstreet and “Stonewall” Jackson, a long lecture by letter on “the depredations committed by this army, its daily diminution, and the loss of arms thrown aside as too burdensome by stragglers.” No shortcoming in either commander missed his perfect eye. “Roll-calls are neglected, and officers of companies and regiments are ignorant of the true condition of their commands, and are unable to account properly for absentees.” He now wanted “a brigade guard” to bring up the rear of “each brigade . . . to keep up the ranks, drive up all stragglers, irrespective of commands, and all leaving the ranks.” We must, he insisted, “infuse a different spirit among our officers” — which was, more or less, what he had found a-begging in the Confederacy as a whole. “Our people are so little liable to control that it is difficult to get them to follow any course not in accordance with their inclination,” he admitted to Justus Scheibert, the Prussian military observer. And when Scheibert “expressed frankly [his] admiration for the lion-like bravery of his men,” Lee disagreed. “Give me also Prussian discipline and Prussian forms, and you would see quite different results!”