Defeating the Confederacy took every measure of the Union. The South had fielded one of the greatest armies in history. Their leadership was impeccable. Aside from the fact that they fought for slavery (which is not a small aside), they fought with honor. Nobody embodied that honor more than Robert E. Lee.
Born in 1807 in Virginia, he was the son of General Harry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. Robert grew up in Alexandria, and was appointed to West Point, where he graduated second in his class of 1829. An engineer by training, he spent 15 years working on projects such as the harbor of St. Louis and the channel to the Mississippi. When war broke out with Mexico, he was assigned to General Scott for the Vera Cruz to Mexico City campaign. He distinguished himself with his reconnaissance work and was wounded at Chapultepec in September of 1847.
After the war he returned to Washington’s Engineering Bureau, helping to build Atlantic Coast defenses. He also spent three years as the superintendent of West Point, was made a lieutenant colonel and sent to a cavalry regiment in Texas. He commanded a force gathered to suppress John Brown’s insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. When the Southern secession movement occurred, Virginians called him to Arlington. Lee was offered succession to Winfield Scott, at Scott’s suggestion, as commandeer of the entire Union Army.
It was a terrible and painful time for Lee, torn by loyalty to Virginia and loyalty to America. He crossed his personal Rubicon, resigning his commission and taking over as major general of Virginia state forces in 1861 should war commence. Lee spent some time in western Virginia. Technically he might have been considered a traitor because of his support of the “secesh” movement. In fact much hope was pinned on him by both sides. It was believed that he had the prestige to bring the conflict to a peaceful conclusion somehow. Even after the war started, some hope was held out that he might help bring it to a speedy end, but exactly who would benefit from this fanciful scenario was lost amid much confusion, jealousy and chaos.
Southerners were hot-blooded in 1861. Many protested that Lee was too close with his former Northern associates to wage real war on them. But Confederate president Jefferson Davis had full confidence in him. Lee stayed close to Davis in Richmond, the Confederate capitol, during McClellan’s siege of the city. When Joe Johnston was wounded, Lee took command of the combat defense forces. Lee managed to halt McClellan, then took the war to the Union at Bull Run, before embarking on Maryland in a combination military-recruitment-political propaganda campaign. In Maryland, so close to the capitol, Lee built up his supplies and lent his personal prestige to a public effort at getting the state to join the secessionist cause in full. All the while. He recruited soldiers into his growing army. Lincoln was apoplectic over this threat. He could hear the sounds of war from the White House, nervously complaining about McClellan’s lack of willingness to wield his forces in full measure.
McClellan and Lee danced around each other until September 17, 1862 when their forces met in the bitter, bloody battle of Antietam. Like Gettysburg later, it was a standoff with Lee in retreat, and the Union failing to make quick chase of him in a hunt-and-destroy mission that might have shortened the war. Lee’s men took position along the Rapppahannock River, hunkered down for the cold Winter. General A.E. Burnside crossed the river and engaged, but he was thrown back with heavy losses. Lee held out the rest of the Winter. When Spring came around Joe Hooker took up the line and a battle of maneuver and position ensued. Lee outsmarted Hooker, achieving victory at Chancellorsville on May 6, 1863. Lee had originally wanted to return to Virginia. His ragged men had been camped near the river throughout the Fall, Winter, and now well into the Spring.
Stonewall Jackson's death had a deep effect on Lee. Possibly because of Jackson's death, Lee decided on a course of aggression that he knew would decide the war one way or another. It would end the kind of stalemate that he had found himself in ever since he ventured into Maryland. He marched on the Northern territories, causing Lincoln more nervousness. Lee crossed the Potomac with the intent of threatening targets of opportunity, depending upon the fluid nature of warfare. These targets included Harrisburg, Washington and Baltimore.
As mentioned, Meade rode his flank until Gettysburg on July 1-3, which was actually an unintentional conflict. After the defeat, Lee made the slow, sad retreat to Virginia that he had originally intended to make almost a year earlier.
The war dragged on, and in the Spring of 1864, U.S. Grant, fresh off of victories in Mississippi and Tennessee, was sent to Virginia to take on Lee on his home turf. Lee was, throughout the war, forced to employ jab-and-parry maneuvers with undermatched personnel. Under these circumstances he had not won decisive victories. His “victories” had been in avoiding massive losses. But Grant came at him with everything he had. He had twice as many men as under Lee’s command, with superior material.
On May 4, 1864, the Northern army began moving across the Rapidan River. A two-day battle ensued with heavy losses on both sides. Lee managed to push Grant off course. In wilderness fighting Grant suffered further losses. But Lee, who had lost Jackson at Rappahanock, this time saw James Longstreet meet the similar dubious end, which was to be shot by accident by his own men. Longstreet did not die, but he was lost to Lee. Flanking maneuvers followed. Grant refused to give in despite the losses. With superior numbers Grant knew if he maintained his will he would win. His troops eventually managed to force the Confederates back through the Spotsylvania Court House, across the North Anna River, to Cold Harbor on the north of Richmond and across the James River to Petersburg, 30 miles below Richmond. Lee held, but with Grant began a siege of attrition. Northern politicians were horrified at the reports of Grant’s losses, and the weak-hearted questioned whether it was worth it.
“I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all Summer,” Grant said, and he was absolutely right. The war raged amid hot and cold weather, misery, starvation, disease of the worst possible kind, and an inhumanity that must have made the devil smile. This went throughout the Summer, Fall and Winter. In February, 1865, Lee was made Commander in Chief of all the Southern armies, which is like being named manager of a baseball team that is 20 games under .500 with 20 games to play. On April 2, Lee’s army began leaving its stench-filled lines in front of Richmond, heading westward towards Lynchburg. They needed to do this to meet new supplies that otherwise would not make it to the lines unless they took the chance of going out to get them. Lee decided to take “advantage,” if the word can be applied, of the forced situation to take his last stand. Grant mustered his forces in a final show of force. Lee’s battalions were all but slaughtered. Grant took Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy, a city that had hovered on his horizon for the past year – so close and yet so far. Sherman’s juggernaut steamrolled through the Carolinas to junction with and support Grant’s army. The end was at hand.
Robert E. Lee proudly offered up the surrender of the Virginia army at Appomattox on April 9. 30,000 starving men were under his final command. 100,000 of Grant’s warriors held the boot to their neck. The Confederacy surrendered shortly thereafter. President Johnson, a Southerner who ascended to the Presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, issued proclamations of amnesty to Confederate officers of rank. The amnesty did not extend to Lee, who along with his officers had been allowed to keep sidearms and horses by Grant. The scene at the courthouse and throughout those days was melancholy. The respect for Lee and his army was genuine. Lincoln’s call for “malice towards none” was generally the attitude of the North. The South was too tired, defeated, starving and ripped asunder to muster animosity. Everybody just wanted to go home. A half-hearted attempt to indict Lee for treason never went anywhere. He was then made president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee). Lee helped maintain order in the South until his death in 1870.
History, as has been mentioned, is a funny thing. There are some people who seemed destined for greatness. Lee was one of those. His father was a famous military man and he sprang from aristocratic loins in a place of extraordinary heritage - the Virginia of Washington, Jefferson and other great thinkers and leaders of the American Revolution. Lee was an academic ace, schooled in the classics. He was a man of privilege and learning, of honor and, to be sure, he was the very picture of the “Southern gentlemen.” He was a star at West Point, targeted for greatness by all who knew him. He groomed under Winfield Scott. His men loved him, his manners were impeccable, and he extended courtesy in every sweep and gesture of his being. As if touched by God, he was the right man in the right place when one of history’s greatest confrontations seemed to call for him, like a god being asked to materialize from Mt. Olympus to lead mortals in their strife. Amid the pomp and circumstance of the South’s early foray into the war, Lee rode astride a cause we know to be on the wrong side of history. At its core it was immoral, but in the way Satan disguises his agenda, it was made to look like the most honorable of adventures, led by the most honorable of men. The devil does it that way sometimes.
Therefore, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox was the final act of a real-life Greek tragedy. Lee had read Plato and Shakespeare’s adventures of the human spirit – King Lear, Macbeth, Henry V. He must have recognized he was great man in great times, living out these kinds of dramas.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism