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Special Report
Lee's father, Maj. Gen. "Light-Horse Harry" Lee fought in the Revolutionary War. (Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, Stratford)

Making Sense of Robert E. Lee

"It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it."— Robert E. Lee, at Fredericksburg.

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

The days of July 1-3, 1863, still stand among the most horrific and formative in American history. Lincoln had given up on Joe Hooker, put Maj. Gen. George G. Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac, and sent him to stop Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. Since Jeb Stuart’s scouting operation had been uncharacteristically out of touch, Lee wasn’t sure where Meade’s army was. Lee had actually advanced farther north than the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when he learned that Meade was south of him, threatening his supply lines. So Lee swung back in that direction. On June 30 a Confederate brigade, pursuing the report that there were shoes to be had in Gettysburg, ran into Federal cavalry west of town, and withdrew. On July 1 a larger Confederate force returned, engaged Meade’s advance force, and pushed it back through the town—to the fishhook-shaped heights comprising Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, and Round Top. It was almost a rout, until Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard, to whom Lee as West Point superintendent had been kind when Howard was an unpopular cadet, and Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock rallied the Federals and held the high ground. Excellent ground to defend from. That evening Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who commanded the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, urged Lee not to attack, but to swing around to the south, get between Meade and Washington, and find a strategically even better defensive position, against which the Federals might feel obliged to mount one of those frontal assaults that virtually always lost in this war. Still not having heard from Stuart, Lee felt he might have numerical superiority for once. “No,” he said, “the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.”

The next morning, Lee set in motion a two-part offensive: Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps was to pin down the enemy’s right flank, on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, while Longstreet’s, with a couple of extra divisions, would hit the left flank—believed to be exposed—on Cemetery Ridge. To get there Longstreet would have to make a long march under cover. Longstreet mounted a sulky objection, but Lee was adamant. And wrong.

Lee didn’t know that in the night Meade had managed by forced marches to concentrate nearly 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 of a mile south of where Lee thought it was. The disgruntled Longstreet, never one to rush into anything, and confused to find the left flank farther left than expected, didn’t begin his assault until 3:30 that afternoon. It nearly prevailed anyway, but at last was beaten gorily back. Although the two-pronged offensive was ill-coordinated, and the Federal artillery had knocked out the Confederate guns to the north before Ewell attacked, Ewell’s infantry came tantalizingly close to taking Cemetery Hill, but a counterattack forced them to retreat.

On the third morning, July 3, Lee’s plan was roughly the same, but Meade seized the initiative by pushing forward on his right and seizing Culp’s Hill, which the Confederates held. So Lee was forced to improvise. He decided to strike straight ahead, at Meade’s heavily fortified midsection. Confederate artillery would soften it up, and Longstreet would direct a frontal assault across a mile of open ground against the center of Missionary Ridge. Again Longstreet objected; again Lee wouldn’t listen. The Confederate artillery exhausted all its shells ineffectively, so was unable to support the assault—which has gone down in history as Pickett’s charge because Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division absorbed the worst of the horrible bloodbath it turned into.

Lee’s idolaters strained after the war to shift the blame, but the consensus today is that Lee managed the battle badly. Each supposed major blunder of his subordinates—Ewell’s failure to take the high ground of Cemetery Hill on July 1, Stuart’s getting out of touch and leaving Lee unapprised of what force he was facing, and the lateness of Longstreet’s attack on the second day—either wasn’t a blunder at all (if Longstreet had attacked earlier he would have encountered an even stronger Union position) or was caused by a lack of forcefulness and specificity in Lee’s orders.

Before Gettysburg, Lee had seemed not only to read the minds of Union generals but almost to expect his subordinates to read his. He was not in fact good at telling men what to do. That no doubt suited the Confederate fighting man, who didn’t take kindly to being told what to do—but Lee’s only weakness as a commander, his otherwise reverent nephew Fitzhugh Lee would write, was his “reluctance to oppose the wishes of others, or to order them to do anything that would be disagreeable and to which they would not consent.” With men as well as with women, his authority derived from his sightliness, politeness, and unimpeachability. His usually cheerful detachment patently covered solemn depths, depths faintly lit by glints of previous and potential rejection of self and others. It all seemed Olympian, in a Christian cavalier sort of way. Officers’ hearts went out to him across the latitude he granted them to be willingly, creatively honorable. Longstreet speaks of responding to Lee at another critical moment by “receiving his anxious expressions really as appeals for reinforcement of his unexpressed wish.” When people obey you because they think you enable them to follow their own instincts, you need a keen instinct yourself for when they’re getting out of touch, as Stuart did, and when they are balking for good reason, as Longstreet did. As a father Lee was fond but fretful, as a husband devoted but distant. As an attacking general he was inspiring but not necessarily cogent.

At Gettysburg he was jittery, snappish. He was 56 and bone weary. He may have had dysentery, though a scholar’s widely publicized assertion to that effect rests on tenuous evidence. He did have rheumatism and heart trouble. He kept fretfully wondering why Stuart was out of touch, worrying that something bad had happened to him. He had given Stuart broad discretion as usual, and Stuart had overextended himself. Stuart wasn’t frolicking. He had done his best to act on Lee’s written instructions: “You will . . . be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can, and cross the [Potomac] east of the mountains. In either case, after crossing the river, you must move on and feel the right of Ewell’s troops, collecting information, provisions, etc.” But he had not, in fact, been able to judge: he met several hindrances in the form of Union troops, a swollen river that he and his men managed only heroically to cross, and 150 Federal wagons that he captured before he crossed the river. And he had not sent word of what he was up to.

When on the afternoon of the second day Stuart did show up at Gettysburg, after pushing himself nearly to exhaustion, Lee’s only greeting to him is said to have been, “Well, General Stuart, you are here at last.” A coolly devastating cut: Lee’s way of chewing out someone who he felt had let him down. In the months after Gettysburg, as Lee stewed over his defeat, he repeatedly criticized the laxness of Stuart’s command, deeply hurting a man who prided himself on the sort of dashing freelance effectiveness by which Lee’s father, Maj. Gen. Light-Horse Harry, had defined himself. A bond of implicit trust had been broken. Loving-son figure had failed loving-father figure and vice versa.

In the past Lee had also granted Ewell and Longstreet wide discretion, and it had paid off. Maybe his magic in Virginia didn’t travel. “The whole affair was disjointed,” Taylor the aide said of Gettysburg. “There was an utter absence of accord in the movements of the several commands.”

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