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
LAST CAMPAIGNS OF THE YEAR 1863.
VI. Lee in the Autumn and Winter of 1863
General Lee's headquarters remained, throughout the autumn and winter of 1863, in a wood on the southern slope of the spur called Clarke's Mountain, a few miles east of Orange Court-House.
Here his tents had been pitched, in a cleared space amid pines and cedars; and the ingenuity of the "couriers," as messengers and orderlies were called in the Southern army, had fashioned alleys and walks leading to the various tents, the tent of the commanding general occupying the centre. Of the gentlemen of General Lee's staff we have not considered it necessary to speak; but it may here be said that it was composed of officers of great efficiency and of the most courteous manners, from Colonel Taylor, the indefatigable adjutant-general, to the youngest and least prominent member of the friendly group. Among these able assistants of the commander-in-chief were Colonel Marshall, of Maryland, a gentleman of distinguished intellect; Colonel Peyton, who had entered the battle of Manassas as a private in the ranks, but, on the evening of that day, for courage and efficiency, occupied the place of a commissioned officer on
Beauregard's staff; and others whose names were comparatively unknown to the army, but whose part in the conduct of affairs, under direction of Lee, was most important.
With the gentlemen of his staff General Lee lived on terms of the most kindly regard. He was a strict disciplinarian, and abhorred the theory that a commissioned officer, from considerations of rank, should hold himself above the private soldiers; but there was certainly no fault of this description to be found at army headquarters, and the general and his staff worked together in harmonious cooeperation. The respect felt for him by gentlemen who saw him at all hours, and under none of the guise of ceremony, was probably greater than that experienced by the community who looked upon him from a distance. That distant perspective, hiding little weaknesses, and revealing only the great proportions of a human being, is said to be essential generally to the heroic sublime. No man, it has been said, can be great to those always near him; but in the case of General Lee this was far from being the fact. He seemed greater and nobler, day by day, as he was better and more intimately known; and upon this point we shall quote the words of the brave
John B. Gordon, one of his most trusted lieutenants:
"It has been my fortune in life," says General Gordon, "from circumstances, to have come in contact with some whom the world pronounced great--some of the earth's celebrated and distinguished; but I declare it here to-day, that of any mortal man whom it has ever been my privilege to approach, he was the greatest; and I assert here, that, grand as might be your conception of the man before, he arose in incomparable majesty on more familiar acquaintance_. This can be affirmed of few men who have ever lived or died, and of no other man whom it has ever been my fortune to approach. Like
Niagara, the more you gazed, the more its grandeur grew upon you, the more its majesty expanded and filled your spirit with a full satisfaction that left a perfect delight without the slightest feeling of oppression. Grandly majestic and dignified in all his deportment, he was genial as the sunlight of this beautiful day; and not a ray of that cordial social intercourse but brought warmth to the heart as it did light to the understanding."
Upon this point, General Breckinridge, too, bears his testimony: "During the last year of that unfortunate struggle," he says, "it was my good fortune to spend a great deal of time with him. I was almost constantly by his side, and it was during the two months immediately preceding the fall of Richmond that I came to know and fully understand the true nobility of his character. In all those long vigils, he was considerate and kind, gentle, firm, and self-poised. I can give no better idea of the impression it made upon me, than to say it inspired me with an ardent love of the man and a profound veneration of his character. It was so massive and noble, so grand in its proportions, that all men must admire its heroism and gallantry, yet so gentle and tender that a woman might adopt and claim it as her own."
We beg the reader to observe that in these two tributes to the worth of the great soldier, his distinguished associates dwell with peculiar emphasis upon the charms of private intercourse with him, and bear their testimony to the fact that to know him better was to love and admire him more and more. The fact is easily explained. There was in this human being's character naught that was insincere, assumed, or pretentious. It was a great and massive soul--as gentle, too, and tender, as a woman's or a child's--that lay beneath the reserved exterior, and made the soldier more beloved as its qualities were better known. Other men reveal their weaknesses on nearer acquaintance--Lee only revealed his greatness; and he was more and more loved and admired.
The justice of these comments will be recognized by all who had personal intercourse with the illustrious soldier; and, in this autumn and winter of 1863, his army, lying around him along the Rapidan, began to form that more intimate acquaintance which uniformly resulted in profound admiration for the man. In the great campaigns of the two past years the gray soldier had shared their hardships, and never relaxed his fatherly care for all their wants; he had led them in battle, exposing his own person with entire indifference; had never exposed _them_ when it was possible to avoid it; and on every occasion had demanded, often with disagreeable persistence from the civil authorities, that the wants of his veterans should be supplied if all else was neglected. These facts were now known to the troops, and made Lee immensely popular. From the highest officers to the humblest private soldiers he was universally respected and beloved. The whole army seemed to feel that, in the plainly-clad soldier, sleeping, like themselves, under canvas, in the woods of Orange, they had a guiding and protecting head, ever studious of their well-being, jealous of their hard-earned fame, and ready, both as friend and commander, to represent them and claim their due.
We have spoken of the great revival of religion which at this time took place in the army. The touching spectacle was presented of bearded veterans, who had charged in a score of combats, kneeling devoutly under the rustic roofs of evergreens, built for religious gatherings, and praying to the God of battles who had so long protected them. A commander-in-chief of the old European school might have ridiculed these emotional assemblages, or, at best, passed them without notice, as freaks in which he disdained to take part. Lee, on the contrary, greeted the religious enthusiasm of his troops with undisguised pleasure. He went among them, conversed with the chaplains, assisted the good work by every means in his power; and no ordained minister of the Gospel could have exhibited a simpler, sincerer, or more heartfelt delight than himself at the general extension of religious feeling throughout the army. We have related how, in talking with army-chaplains, his cheeks flushed and his eyes filled with tears at the good tidings. He begged them to pray for him too, as no less needing their pious intercession; and in making the request he was, as always, simple and sincere. Unaccustomed to exhibit his feelings upon this, the profoundest and most sacred of subjects, he was yet penetrated to his inmost soul by a sense of his own weakness and dependence on divine support; and, indeed, it may be questioned whether any other element of the great soldier's character was so deep-seated and controlling as his spirit of love to God. It took, in the eyes of the world, the form of a love of duty; but with Lee the word duty was but another name for the will of the Almighty; and to discover and perform this was, first and last, the sole aim of his life.
We elaborate this point before passing to the last great campaign of the war, since, to understand Lee in those last days, it is absolutely necessary to keep in view this utter subjection of the man's heart to the sense of an overruling Providence--that Providence which "shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will." We shall be called upon to delineate the soldier meeting adverse circumstances and disaster at every turn with an imperial calmness and a resolution that never shook; and, up to a certain point, this noble composure may be attributed to the stubborn courage of the man's nature. There came in due time, however, a moment of trial when military courage simply was of no avail--when that human being never lived, who, looking to earthly support alone, would not have lost heart and given up the contest. Lee did not, in this hour of conclusive trial, either lose heart or give up the struggle; and the world, not understanding the phenomenon, gazed at him with wonder. Few were aware of the true explanation of his utter serenity when all things were crumbling around him, and when he knew that they were crumbling. The stout heart of the soldier who will not yield to fate was in his breast; but he had a still stronger sentiment than manly courage to support him--the consciousness that he was doing his duty, and that God watched over him, and would make all things work together for good to those who loved Him.
As yet that last great wrestle of the opposing armies lay in the future. The veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia defended the line of the Rapidan, and the gray commander-in-chief, in his tent on Clarke's Mountain, serenely awaited the further movements of the enemy. During the long months of winter he was busily engaged, as usual, in official correspondence, in looking to the welfare of his men, and in preparations for the coming campaign. He often rode among the camps, and the familiar figure in the well-known hat, cape, and gray uniform, mounted upon the powerful iron-gray--the famous "Traveller," who survived to bear his master after the war--was everywhere greeted by the ragged veterans with cheers and marks of the highest respect and regard. At times his rides were extended to the banks of the Rapidan, and, in passing, he would stop at the headquarters of General Stuart, or other officers. On these occasions he had always some good-humored speech for all, not overlooking the youngest officer; but he shone in the most amiable light, perhaps, in conversing with some old private soldier, gray-haired like himself. At such moments the general's countenance was a pleasant spectacle. A kindly smile lit up the clear eyes, and moved the lips half-concealed by the grizzled mustache. The _bonhomie_ of this smile was irresistible, and the aged private soldier, in his poor, tattered fighting-jacket, was made to feel by it that his commander-in-chief regarded him as a friend and comrade.
We dwell at too great length, perhaps, upon these slight
personal traits of the soldier, but all relating to such a human
being is interesting, and worthy of record. To the writer,
indeed, this is the most attractive phase of his subject. The
analysis and description of campaigns and battles is an
unattractive task to him; but the personal delineation of a good
and great man, even in his lesser and more familiar traits, is a
pleasing relief--a portion of his subject upon which he delights
to linger. What the writer here tries to draw, he looked upon
with his own eyes, the figure of a great, calm soldier, with
kindly sweetness and dignity, but, above all, a charming
sincerity and simplicity in every movement, accent, and
expression. Entirely free from the trappings of high command,
and with nothing to distinguish him from any other soldier save
the well-worn stars on the collar of his uniform-coat, the
commander-in-chief was recognizable at the very first glance,
and no less the simple and kindly gentleman. His old soldiers
remember him as he appeared on many battle-fields, and will
describe his martial seat in the saddle as he advanced with the
advancing lines. But they will speak of him with even greater
pleasure as he appeared in the winters of 1862 and 1863, on the
Rappahannock and the Rapidan--a gray and simple soldier, riding
among them and smiling kindly as his eyes fell upon their
tattered uniforms and familiar faces.