A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
LEE INVADES MARYLAND.
XIII. Lee in December, 1862
Before passing to the great campaigns of the spring and summer of 1863, we propose to say a few words of General Lee, in his private and personal character, and to attempt to indicate the position which he occupied at this time in the eyes of the army and the country. Unknown, save by reputation, when he assumed command of the forces in June, 1862, he had now, by the winter of the same year, become one of the best-known personages in the South. Neither the troops nor the people had perhaps penetrated the full character of Lee; and they seem to have attributed to him more reserve and less warmth and impulse than he possessed; but it was impossible for a human being, occupying so prominent a station before the general eye, to hide, in any material degree, his main great characteristics, and these had conciliated for Lee an exalted and wellnigh universal public regard. He was felt by all to be an individual of great dignity, sincerity, and earnestness, in the performance of duty. Destitute plainly of that vulgar ambition which seeks personal aggrandizement rather than the general good, and dedicated as plainly, heart and soul, to the cause for which he fought, he had won, even from those who had denounced him for the supposed hesitation in his course in April, 1861, and had afterward criticised his military operations, the repute of a truly great man, as well as of a commander of the first ability. It was felt by all classes that the dignity of the Southern cause was adequately represented in the person and character of the commander of her most important army. While others, as brave and patriotic, no doubt, but of different temperament, had permitted themselves to become violent and embittered in their private and public utterances in reference to the North, Lee had remained calm, moderate, and dignified, under every provocation. His reports were without rhodomontade or exaggeration, and his tone uniformly modest, composed, and uninflated. After his most decisive successes, his pulse had remained calm; he had written of those successes with the air of one who sees no especial merit in any thing which he has performed; and, so marked was this tone of moderation and dignity, that, in reading his official reports to-day, it seems wellnigh impossible that they could have been written in the hot atmosphere of a war which aroused the bitterest passions of the human soul.
Upon this point of Lee's personal and official dignity it is unnecessary to dwell further, as the quality has long since been conceded by every one acquainted with the character of the individual, in the Old World and the New. It is the trait, perhaps, the most prominent to the observer, looking back now upon the individual; and it was, doubtless, this august moderation, dignity, and apparent exemption from natural infirmity, which produced the impression upon many persons that Lee was cold and unimpressible. We shall speak, in future, at greater length of his real character than is necessary in this place; but it may here be said, that the fancy that he was cold and unimpressible was a very great error. No man had stronger or warmer feelings, or regarded the invasion of the South with greater indignation, than himself. The sole difference was, that he had his feelings under greater control, and permitted no temptation to overcome his sense of that august dignity and composure becoming in the chief leader of a great people struggling for independent government.
The sentiment of the Southern people toward Lee may be summed up in the statement that they regarded him, in his personal and private character, with an admiration which was becoming unbounded, and reposed in him, as commander of the army, the most implicit confidence.
These expressions are strong, but they do not convey more than the truth. And this confidence was never withdrawn from him. It remained as strong in his hours of disaster as in his noontide of success. A few soured or desponding people might lose heart, indulge in "croaking," and denounce, under their breath, the commander of the army as responsible for failure when it occurred; but these fainthearted people were in a small minority, and had little encouragement in their muttered criticisms. The Southern people, from Virginia to the utmost limits of the Gulf States, resolutely persisted in regarding Lee as one of the greatest soldiers of history, and retained their confidence in him unimpaired to the end.
The army had set the example of this implicit reliance upon Lee as the chief leader and military head of the Confederacy. The brave fighting-men had not taken his reputation on trust, but had seen him win it fairly on some of the hardest-contested fields of history. The heavy blow at General McClellan on the Chickahominy had first shown the troops that they were under command of a thorough soldier. The rout of
Pope at Manassas had followed in the ensuing month. At
Sharpsburg, with less than forty thousand men, Lee had repulsed the attack of nearly ninety thousand; and at Fredericksburg
General Burnside's great force had been driven back with inconsiderable loss to the Southern army. These successes, in the eyes of the troops, were the proofs of true leadership, and it did not detract from Lee's popularity that, on all occasions, he had carefully refrained from unnecessary exposure of the troops, especially at Fredericksburg, where an ambitious commander would have spared no amount of bloodshed to complete his glory by a great victory. Such was Lee's repute as army commander in the eyes of men accustomed to close scrutiny of their leaders. He was regarded as a thorough soldier, at once brave, wise, cool, resolute, and devoted, heart and soul, to the cause.
Personally, the commander-in-chief was also, by this time, extremely popular. He did not mingle with the troops to any great extent, nor often relax the air of dignity, somewhat tinged with reserve, which was natural with him. This reserve, however, never amounted to stiffness or "official" coolness. On the contrary, Lee was markedly free from the chill demeanor of the martinet, and had become greatly endeared to the men by the unmistakable evidences which he had given them of his honesty, sincerity, and kindly feeling for them. It cannot, indeed, be said that he sustained the same relation toward the troops as General Jackson. For the latter illustrious soldier, the men had a species of familiar affection, the result, in a great degree, of the informal and often eccentric demeanor of the individual. There was little or nothing in Jackson to indicate that he was an officer holding important command. He was without reserve, and exhibited none of that formal courtesy which characterized Lee. His manners, on the contrary, were quite informal, familiar, and conciliated in return a familiar regard. We repeat the word _familiar_ as conveying precisely the idea intended to be expressed. It indicated the difference between these two great soldiers in their outward appearance. Lee retained about him, upon all occasions, more or less of the commander-in-chief, passing before the troops on an excellent and well-groomed horse, his figure erect and graceful in the saddle, for he was one of the best riders in the army; his demeanor grave and thoughtful; his whole bearing that of a man intrusted with great responsibilities and the general care of the whole army. Jackson's personal appearance and air were very different. His dress was generally dingy: a faded cadet-cap tilted over his eyes, causing him to raise his chin into the air; his stirrups were apt to be too short, and his knees were thus elevated ungracefully, and he would amble along on his rawboned horse with a singularly absent-minded expression of countenance, raising, from time to time, his right hand and slapping his knee. This brief outline of the two commanders will serve to show the difference between them personally, and it must be added that Jackson's eccentric bearing was the source, in some degree, of his popularity. The men admired him immensely for his great military ability, and his odd ways procured for him that familiar liking to which we have alluded.
It is not intended, however, in these observations to convey the idea that General Lee was regarded as a stiff and unapproachable personage of whom the private soldiers stood in awe. Such a statement would not express the truth. Lee was perfectly approachable, and no instance is upon record, or ever came to the knowledge of the present writer, in which he repelled the approach of his men, or received the humblest of them with any thing but kindness. He was naturally simple and kind, with great gentleness and patience; and it will not be credible, to any who knew the man, that he ever made any difference in his treatment of those who approached him from a consideration of their rank in the army. His theory, expressed upon many occasions, was, that the private soldiers--men who fought without the stimulus of rank, emolument, or individual renown--were the most meritorious class of the army, and that they deserved and should receive the utmost respect and consideration. This statement, however, is doubtless unnecessary. Men of Lee's pride and dignity never make a difference in their treatment of men, because one is humble, and the other of high rank. Of such human beings it may be said that _noblesse oblige_.
The men of the army had thus found their commander all that they could wish, and his increasing personal popularity was shown by the greater frequency with which they now spoke of him as "Marse Robert," "Old Uncle Robert," and by other familiar titles. This tendency in troops is always an indication of personal regard; these nicknames had been already showered upon Jackson, and General Lee was having his turn. The troops regarded him now more as their fellow-soldier than formerly, having found that his dignity was not coldness, and that he would, under no temptation, indulge his personal convenience, or fare better than themselves. It was said--we know not with what truth--that the habit of Northern generals in the war was to look assiduously to their individual comfort in selecting their quarters, and to take pleasure in surrounding themselves with glittering staff-officers, body-guards, and other indications of their rank, and the consideration which they expected. In these particulars Lee differed extremely from his opponents, and there were no evidences whatever, at his headquarters, that he was the commander-in-chief, or even an officer of high rank. He uniformly lived in a tent, in spite of the urgent invitations of citizens to use their houses for his headquarters; and this refusal was the result both of an indisposition to expose these gentlemen to annoyance from the enemy when he himself retired, and of a rooted objection to fare better than his troops. They had tents only, often indeed were without even that much covering, and it was repugnant to Lee's feelings to sleep under a good roof when the troops were so much exposed. His headquarters tent, at this time (December, 1862), as before and afterward, was what is called a "house-tent," not differing in any particular from those used by the private soldiers of the army in winter-quarters. It was pitched in an opening in the wood near the narrow road leading to Hamilton's Crossing, with the tents of the officers of the staff grouped near; and, with the exception of an orderly, who always waited to summon couriers to carry dispatches, there was nothing in the shape of a body-guard visible, or any indication that the unpretending group of tents was the army headquarters.
Within, no article of luxury was to be seen. A few plain and indispensable objects were all which the tent contained. The covering of the commander-in-chief was an ordinary army blanket, and his fare was plainer, perhaps, than that of the majority of his officers and men. This was the result of an utter indifference, in Lee, to personal convenience or indulgence. Citizens frequently sent him delicacies, boxes filled with turkeys, hams, wine, cordials, and other things, peculiarly tempting to one leading the hard life of the soldier, but these were almost uniformly sent to the sick in some neighboring hospital. Lee's principle in so acting seems to have been to set the good example to his officers of not faring better than their men; but he was undoubtedly indifferent naturally to luxury of all descriptions. In his habits and feelings he was not the self-indulgent man of peace, but the thorough soldier, willing to live hard, to sleep upon the ground, and to disregard all sensual indulgence. In his other habits he was equally abstinent. He cared nothing for wine, whiskey, or any stimulant, and never used tobacco in any form. He rarely relaxed his energies in any thing calculated to amuse him; but, when not riding along his lines, or among the camps to see in person that the troops were properly cared for, generally passed his time in close attention to official duties connected with the well-being of the army, or in correspondence with the authorities at Richmond. When he relaxed from this continuous toil, it was to indulge in some quiet and simple diversion, social converse with ladies in houses at which he chanced to stop, caresses bestowed upon children, with whom he was a great favorite, and frequently in informal conversation with his officers. At "Hayfield" and "Moss Neck," two hospitable houses below Fredericksburg, he at this time often stopped and spent some time in the society of the ladies and children there. One of the latter, a little curly-headed girl, would come up to him always to receive her accustomed kiss, and one day confided to him, as a personal friend, her desire to kiss General Jackson, who blushed like a girl when Lee, with a quiet laugh, told him of the child's wish. On another occasion, when his small friend came to receive his caress, he said, laughing, that she would show more taste in selecting a younger gentleman than himself, and, pointing to a youthful officer in a corner of the room, added, "There is the handsome Major Pelham!" which caused that modest young soldier to blush with confusion. The bearing of General Lee in these hours of relaxation, was quite charming, and made him warm friends. His own pleasure and gratification were plain, and gratified others, who, in the simple and kindly gentleman in the plain gray uniform, found it difficult to recognize the commander-in-chief of the Southern army.
These moments of relaxation were, however, only occasional. All the rest was toil, and the routine of hard work and grave assiduity went on month after month, and year after year, with little interruption. With the exceptions which we have noted, all pleasures and distractions seemed of little interest to Lee, and to the present writer, at least, he seemed on all occasions to bear the most striking resemblance to the traditional idea of Washington. High principle and devotion to duty were plainly this human being's springs of action, and he went through the hard and continuous labor incident to army command with a grave and systematic attention, wholly indifferent, it seemed, to almost every species of diversion and relaxation.
This attempt to show how Lee appeared at that time to his solders, has extended to undue length, and we shall be compelled to defer a full notice of the most interesting and beautiful trait of his character. This was his humble and profound piety. The world has by no means done him justice upon this subject. No one doubted during the war that General Lee was a sincere Christian in conviction, and his exemplary moral character and life were beyond criticism. Beyond this it is doubtful if any save his intimate associates understood the depth of his feeling on the greatest of all subjects. Jackson's strong religious fervor was known and often alluded to, but it is doubtful if Lee was regarded as a person of equally fervent convictions and feelings. And yet the fact is certain that faith in God's providence and reliance upon the Almighty were the foundation of all his actions, and the secret of his supreme composure under all trials. He was naturally of such reserve that it is not singular that the extent of this sentiment was not understood. Even then, however, good men who frequently visited him, and conversed with him upon religious subjects, came away with their hearts burning within them. When the Rev. J. William Jones, with another clergyman, went, in 1863, to consult him in reference to the better observance of the Sabbath in the army, "his eye brightened, and his whole countenance glowed with pleasure; and as, in his simple, feeling words, he expressed his delight, we forgot the great warrior, and only remembered that we were communing with an humble, earnest Christian." When he was informed that the chaplains prayed for him, tears started to his eyes, and he replied: "I sincerely thank you for that, and I can only say that I am a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone, and that I need all the prayers you can offer for me."
On the day after this interview he issued an earnest general order, enjoining the observance of the Sabbath by officers and men, urging them to attend public worship in their camps, and forbidding the performance on Sunday of all official duties save those necessary to the subsistence or safety of the army. He always attended public worship, if it were in his power to do so, and often the earnestness of the preacher would "make his eye kindle and his face glow." He frequently attended the meetings of his chaplains, took a warm interest in the proceedings, and uniformly exhibited, declares one who could speak from personal knowledge, an ardent desire for the promotion of religion in the army. He did not fail, on many occasions, to show his men that he was a sincere Christian. When
General Meade came over to Mine Run, and the Southern army marched to meet him, Lee was riding along his line of battle in the woods, when he came upon a party of soldiers holding a prayer-meeting on the eve of battle. Such a spectacle was not unusual in the army then and afterward--the rough fighters were often men of profound piety--and on this occasion the sight before him seems to have excited deep emotion in Lee. He stopped, dismounted--the staff-officers accompanying him did the same--and Lee uncovered his head, and stood in an attitude of profound respect and attention, while the earnest prayer proceeded, in the midst of the thunder of artillery and the explosion of the enemy's shells.
[Footnote 1: These details are given on the authority of the Rev. J. William Jones, of Lexington, Va.]
[Illustration: Lee at the Soldiers' Prayer Meeting.]
Other incidents indicating the simple and earnest piety of Lee will be presented in the course of this narrative. The fame of the soldier has in some degree thrown into the background the less-imposing trait of personal piety in the individual. No delineation of Lee, however, would be complete without a full statement of his religious principles and feelings. As the commander-in-chief of the Army of Northern Virginia, he won that august renown which encircles his name with a halo of military glory, both in America and Europe. His battles and victories are known to all men. It is not known to all that the illustrious soldier whose fortune it was to overthrow, one after another, the best soldiers of the Federal army, was a simple, humble, and devoted Christian, whose eyes filled with tears when he was informed that his chaplains prayed for him; and who said, "I am a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone, and need all the prayers you can offer for me."