McClellan thought he was timid. Newspapers called him ‘Granny Lee.’ But once in command, the general attacked quickly and boldly.
The musketry and artillery fire had died away with nightfall on May 31, 1862. For most of that day, the fighting had raged in the woodlots and clearings around Seven Pines and Fair Oaks Station, several miles outside Richmond, Virginia. The combat’s fury and the bloodletting surpassed anything in the experience of those trapped within it. The day had not gone as planned by the attacking Confederates. Muddy roads and flooded bottomlands from the previous night’s thunderstorms, misunderstood orders, and piecemeal assaults had hampered the Southern operations. Consequently, the error-plagued offensive had not gone forward until early afternoon, hours behind schedule. The attackers had a few successes, overrunning a Union redoubt and wrecking the enemy’s front line. But Federal resistance stiffened, and reinforcements blunted a final Rebel thrust.
The Confederate commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, rode out from his headquarters late in the day to inspect the terrain and the army’s lines. Johnston had spent the entire morning and most of the afternoon waiting anxiously for word of the attack at Seven Pines. It was not until nearly 3 p.m. that the commander received a dispatch reporting on the action. Now, as he ventured forth to get a firsthand look, a piece of artillery shell struck Johnston in the chest, breaking some ribs. Staff officers secured a litter, and the painfully wounded general was carried to the rear.
Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Brigadier General Robert E. Lee met the litter party. Relations between Davis and Johnston had been strained for months; both men were proud and thin skinned, and they had disagreed over military policy. Davis, however, spoke kindly to the wounded general, expressing hope that Johnston would soon be able to return to duty.
The president started back toward Richmond, accompanied by Lee. Since March, Lee had served as Davis’s military adviser, and the two had developed a mutual trust. At some point, as they rode, Davis asked Lee to assume command of the army. It was to be a temporary assignment. At the time, newspapers called the general “Granny Lee” for his perceived indecisiveness and even timidity. Unlike Johnston, however, Lee had the confidence of Davis. And with a crisis at hand, Davis had no one else.
The magnitude of the crisis extended far beyond the lines at Seven Pines and Fair Oaks. For months, a foreboding shadow had settled across the Confederacy. Defeat had followed defeat—Forts Henry and Donelson, Nashville, Shiloh, New Orleans, and Roanoke Island. Finally, with the Union Army of the Potomac at the outskirts of Richmond, the Confederacy seemed to be a short-lived dream. In words unspoken, Lee had been asked to stay the darkness. Over the next year, he would build an army and craft a strategy of maneuver and aggression that would offer the Confederacy its best hope of victory.
A member of the 4th South Carolina, writing home on June 2, 1862, expressed reservations about Lee’s appointment to command the army and stated: “I know little about him. They say he is a good general, but I doubt his being better than Johnston or [James] Longstreet.” The soldier undoubtedly spoke for thousands of his comrades. Few had served with Lee in the antebellum army, and fewer had sat with him in councils or ever spoken to him. An officer who knew Lee and his family, Brigadier General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, had confided earlier, “With profound personal regard for General Lee, he has disappointed me as a General.”
When Union major general George McClellan heard that Lee had replaced Johnston in command of the Confederate army, he forwarded the news to President Abraham Lincoln and said, “I prefer Lee to Johnston—the former is too cautious & weak under grave responsibility—personally brave & energetic to a fault, he yet is wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid & irresolute in action.” Lee was 55 years old, a son of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. An 1829 graduate of West Point, ranking second in the class, he had served primarily on engineering and staff assignments. During the Mexican War, however, he distinguished himself on Major General Winfield Scott’s staff; Scott regarded his fellow Virginian as the finest officer in the regular army. In April 1861, Union authorities offered Lee command of an army. When Virginia seceded, he instead resigned his commission, traveled to Richmond, and was appointed commander of the state’s volunteer forces. He directed the mobilization with skill until Virginia formally joined the Confederacy.
In late July, President Davis assigned him to conduct operations in western Virginia, where the Federals had achieved minor successes. The duty frustrated Lee. Mountainous terrain, foul weather, feuding subordinates, and sick and undisciplined troops resulted in disappointment and failure. By year’s end Lee was in South Carolina, overseeing the construction of coastal defenses. In March 1862, Davis recalled Lee to Richmond to serve as his adviser on military affairs.
A day after he assumed command of the army, Lee confessed to his daughter-in-law, “I wish [Johnston’s] mantle had fallen on an abler man.” Despite such humility, Lee was enormously talented. As Edward Porter Alexander, the famed Rebel artilleryman and the army’s chief of ordnance, put it, “No one could meet Lee and fail to be impressed with his dignity of character, his intellectual power, and his calm self-reliance.”
A handsome man, Lee had an imposing physical presence and a reserve that shielded his essentially private nature. But in dealing with government officials, fellow officers, and common soldiers, Lee was courteous and kind. A private who had served under him in western Virginia remembered that Lee “soon won the affection of all by his politeness and notice of the soldiers.”
Walter Taylor, a member of Lee’s personal staff, noted that “General Lee was naturally of a positive temperament, and of strong passions, and it is a mistake to suppose him otherwise; but he held these in complete subjection to his will and conscience.” When angered, Lee revealed it with a “little nervous twist or jerk of the neck and head,” a reddened face, a brusque manner, and clipped words.
Few things irritated Lee more than the mounds of paperwork that he had to deal with daily as an army commander. Still, as he soon demonstrated, he understood the workings of an army, the constant requirements of supply, ordnance, and organizational changes. His work habits acquired over decades stood him in good stead. He was attentive, industrious, and meticulous. Lee was, asserted his friend Major General Henry Heth, “the embodiment of order and punctuality.” As the strains on Southern resources deepened, the demands on his time and skills mounted. A hallmark of his generalship was his ability to maintain the army’s prowess despite the crippling scarcities of rations, clothing, ordnance, and fodder.
To Taylor, a defining characteristic of the general was his “sublime devotion to duty.” In the soldier’s trade, duty governed a man’s life and prescribed its limits. For Lee, it was an uncompromising principle. It meant to him, in the words of historian Joseph Harsh, a “pragmatic acceptance of the hand dealt him by fate.” The performance of his duty would, like a lodestar, lead the way.
In time, Lee’s personal attributes and habits inspired confidence and instilled loyalty. But Lee’s most renowned biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, attributed his consummate skill as a general to his intellect: “Lee was preeminently a strategist, and a strategist because he was a sound military logician.”
Lee excelled at deductive reasoning. He sifted through reconnaissance reports, information from spies, captured documents, Northern newspaper articles, and prisoner interrogations to formulate strategy across a broad landscape. Where opponents might see the dim outline of possibilities, Lee perceived opportunities.
Lee had devised an overall strategy by the time he took command of the army. During the past several months he had witnessed the string of Union victories and the loss of Southern cities and territories as the Davis administration followed a defensive strategy. By June 1862, in the view of historian Gary W. Gallagher, “Confederate armies had been losing ground in every quarter…as a cancer eating at Southern morale and will.” Perhaps worst of all, the North’s largest force, the Army of the Potomac, threatened Richmond.
Joseph Johnston supported a defensive strategy. He told fellow generals “that the true policy of the Confederacy was to save men & only fight at an advantage—that we had plenty of territory, but no troops to spare.” In March, he withdrew the army from Centreville in northern Virginia, abandoning and destroying more than a million pounds of critically needed foodstuffs and forage. When the Federals disembarked on the Virginia Peninsula east of Richmond in early April, Davis ordered Johnston’s army to the capital and down the Peninsula to confront the 100,000-man Union host. Within weeks, however, Johnston retreated toward Richmond, trailed by the enemy. Finally, confronted by a possible advance of a second force south from Fredericksburg, Johnston struck at Seven Pines and Fair Oaks.
Johnston’s passive defensive strategy had allowed fighting to reach the edge of the Confederate capital. If the Union commander, General McClellan, closed the vise tighter and rolled up heavy cannons to within range of the city, Richmond could be doomed.
Lee had watched with mounting concern Johnston’s withdrawal up the Peninsula into the fieldworks outside the city. He had fashioned with Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson an offensive operation in the Shenandoah Valley that had stalled, for the present, an overland advance by the Federals from Fredericksburg.
At a May 14 cabinet meeting, when Davis and his advisers considered abandoning the city, Lee exclaimed with uncharacteristic fervor, “Richmond must not be given up; it shall not be given up!” The passion of his words stunned the others.
Lee understood clearly the strategic, industrial, and symbolic importance of Richmond. If the Confederates were to win independence, Richmond must not fall. And to the general, the security of the capital lay well beyond its environs.
Lee saw the civil conflict for what it had become—a struggle between two democratic societies. Each side had to sustain the support of its respective people, their willingness to accept the sacrifices and casualties to achieve the ultimate victory. Lee directed his strategy against the will of the Northern people. Through the enemy’s press, he watched the political climate in the Union closely. The goal of independence could only be achieved by a political settlement with the Lincoln administration. In turn, Lee realized, Southern civilian morale could be upheld only by battlefield victories.
Time was the silent enemy of the Confederacy. A protracted war meant almost certain defeat for the 11 seceded states, whose human and economic resources paled before those of the Union states. The harvests of Northern farms, the furnaces of steel mills, the web of railroads, and the reservoir of manpower had forged a terrible sword of military power. If the will of the Northern citizenry held firm, the outcome appeared inevitable.
Against these long odds, Lee would act. When the time came, he rejected the passive defensive stance of the previous winter and spring and led the army down a fork in a road no other Confederate general dared to follow. As he wrote to Davis later in the war, “If we can defeat or drive the armies of the enemy from the field, we shall have peace. All our efforts & energies should be devoted to that object.”
Within days of Lee assuming command of the army, Porter Alexander spoke with Captain Joseph C. Ives of Davis’s staff. Alexander inquired if Lee was audacious enough, believing that such an attribute was an absolute requirement if the South, with its inferior resources and manpower, was to have “any chance at all.” Replied Ives: “Alexander, if there is one man in either army, Federal or Confederate, who is head & shoulders, far above every other one in either army in audacity that man is Gen. Lee, and you will very soon have lived to see it.”
A Texan private subsequently compared Lee’s temperament to that of “a game cock,” adding that the “mere presence of an enemy aroused his pugnacity and was a challenge he found hard to decline.” In Lee’s words, he strove to “destroy,” “ruin,” “crush,” and “wipe out” enemy forces.
From his first days in command, Lee committed the army to aggressive and daring movements. His aggressiveness was born, in part, of his reasoned assessment of how the numerically inferior Confederacy could achieve independence. Taking the offensive also offered opportunities. It allowed Lee to dictate operations and to seize and retain the strategic or operational initiative in the theater. He could frustrate Union plans, form the contours of a campaign, and maneuver the Federals onto fields advantageous to his army. Celerity and swift concentration of forces became a hallmark of Lee’s strategic operations. Together they presented the possibility of inflicting a decisive, perhaps even lethal, strike against the enemy. As soon as possible, he intended, as he explained to Jefferson Davis, “to bring McClellan out.”
Lee fashioned his offensive on two established military principles—a concentration of forces and a turning movement. Civil War officers who had fought in Mexico, like Lee, had witnessed the principles utilized by Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Whether strategically in a theater or tactically across a battlefield, massing troops against an opponent’s vulnerable point gave a general superiority in numbers, while a turning or flanking maneuver forced an enemy to retire or offer battle at a disadvantage.
Lee masterfully applied both principles. In a broad sense, they defined his generalship for two years, before he was forced by another master, Ulysses S. Grant, to wage a defensive struggle. He preferred maneuver over frontal assaults, and always conducted campaigns to inflict a crippling blow. Once he gained tactical momentum on a battlefield, he pressed it. This was evident at key battles in Lee’s first year of command. [See “Lee’s Glorious Year,” previous page.]
Like all great generals, Lee accepted the reality of the soldier’s trade—the effusion of blood for a purpose. Within the army, the rank and file likewise accepted the costs. There were dissenting voices, typified by a private, who wrote a few months after Lee took command: “I am getting pretty tired of this mode of wasting lives.”
Many others in both armies undoubtedly shared his sentiment, but sacrifices, even their own, for the cause mattered more. As Moxley Sorrel, chief of staff for Major General James Longstreet, said, Lee was willing to spill his men’s blood “when necessary or when strategically advisable.”
Longstreet believed that his commander’s “characteristic fault was headlong combativeness,” adding that Lee was “too pugnacious.” Unquestionably, when Lee encountered the Federals on a battlefield, he sought annihilation. The barren result of victories like those at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville frustrated him; he wanted a killing blow. But such a victory was beyond the capacity of his and any other Civil War army. “As long as there was a willingness on both sides to fight to the bitter end,” historian Earl Hess maintained, “there would be no decisive battle that quickly led to an end of the war.”
None of this could have been known when Lee took command on June 1, 1862. With such a purpose, with personal attributes unmatched by any other Confederate commander, and with authority from the president over a vital theater of operations not given to Joseph Johnston, Lee and a handful of staff officers dismounted at army headquarters east of Richmond in the middle of that Sabbath day. Uncertainty about Lee hung over the city and the army. The Richmond Examiner railed against his appointment, while a clerk in the War Department jotted in his diary, “This may be hailed as the harbinger of bright future.”
Major General Gustavus W. Smith, who had stepped in as commander when Johnston was wounded, relinquished the army to Lee. Davis had preceded his new chief strategist to headquarters, and the two men surely conferred before the president returned to Richmond. Lee went to work.
Adapted from A Glorious Army, by Jeffry D. Wert. Copyright © 2011. Published by arrangement with Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.