An eyewitness description of Robert E. Lee: “As near perfection as a man can be”
In early May of 1863—days after his greatest victory—General Robert E. Lee began planning an invasion of the North. Lee was a Virginian, the fiftysix- year-old commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, a man brevetted for gallantry during the Mexican War, and a former superintendent of West Point. He was a member of the Virginia aristocracy, the son of an acclaimed Revolutionary War cavalry commander—Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee—and he had served with distinction in the prewar United States Army, rising to the rank of colonel. In the view of many, both Northern and Southern, he was also a military genius. “His name might be Audacity,” observed a fellow officer. “He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South. . . . ”
Tall, gray-bearded and dignified, he was a quietly devout Christian. “I am nothing but a poor sinner,” he once said, “trusting in Christ alone for my salvation. . . . ” He was also an ardent admirer of George Washington. Lee’s wife, Mary Anne Custis Lee, was the daughter of Washington’s adopted son, and Lee’s father had been Washington’s wartime subordinate and postwar friend. With such ties to the nation, Lee had come with regret and reluctance to Southern command. He considered slavery to be a “moral & political evil” and described secession as a “calamity,” but on the eve of the war he declined an offer to command the principal Northern army. Instead, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and returned to his family home on the Virginia side of the Potomac opposite Washington, D.C. “I shall return to my native state,” he asserted, “and share the miseries of my people. . . . .” When Virginia seceded, he agreed to accept command of the state’s troops, and when Virginia joined the Confederacy, he became a Confederate general. He held various posts during the first year of the war, eventually serving as the chief military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
In June of 1861, he accepted command of the Confederate army, soon after spearheading the defense of the Confederate capital Richmond when threatened by the Federal Army of the Potomac under Major General George McClellan. Lee reorganized his forces into the Army of Northern Virginia, and in a series of engagements called the Seven Days Battles, he demolished McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign and drove the Federal army away from Richmond. In August of 1862, he boldly moved his army into northern Virginia, where he defeated Major General John Pope and another Federal army at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He subsequently attempted to lead his army on a campaign into Maryland, a potential invasion of the North, but was forced to withdraw following the bloody Battle of Antietam in September of 1862.
In December of that year, he inflicted a disastrous defeat on the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Fredericksburg, In May of 1863; he once again defeated the Army of the Potomac—this time under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker—at the Battle of Chancellorsville. It was his most heralded victory, but it came at great cost: his invaluable subordinate, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, died of pneumonia from wounds suffered at Chancellorsville. “I know not how to replace him,” Lee admitted. Shortly thereafter, despite the loss of Jackson, Lee began seriously contemplating and planning a campaign to take the war to the North. It would be risky, but Lee had the confidence and support of his superiors, his officers, and his soldiers. While he was respected and feared in the North, he was revered in the South—for his character and devout faith as well as his military genius. Typical of the Southern attitude toward Lee was a description of him recorded in 1863—not by a Southerner, but by a British military observer, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur L. Fremantle.
General Lee is, almost without exception, the handsomest man of his age I ever saw. He is fifty-six years old, tall, broad-shouldered, very well made, well set up—a thorough soldier in appearance; and his manners are most courteous and full of dignity.
He is a perfect gentleman in every respect. I imagine no man has so few enemies, or is so universally esteemed. Throughout the South, all agree in pronouncing him to be as near perfection as a man can be. He has none of the small vices, such as smoking, drinking, chewing, or swearing, and his bitterest enemy never accused him of any of the greater ones. He generally wears a well-worn, long, gray jacket, a high, black felt hat, and blue trousers tucked into his Wellington boots.
I never saw him carry arms; and the only mark of his military rank are the three stars on his collar. He rides a handsome horse, which is extremely well groomed. He himself is very neat in his dress and person, and in the most arduous marches he always looks smart and clean.
In the old army he was always considered one of its best officers; and at the outbreak of these troubles, he was lieutenant-colonel of the 2d cavalry. He was a rich man, but his fine estate was one of the first to fall into the enemy’s hands. I believe he has never slept in a house since he commanded in the Virginian army, and he invariably declines all offers of hospitality, for fear the person offering it may afterwards get into trouble for having sheltered the rebel general. . . .
It is understood that General Lee is a religious man, though not so demonstrative in that respect as Jackson; and unlike his late brother in arms, he is a member of the Church of England. His only faults, so far as I can learn, arise from his excessive amiability.
Rod Gragg is the author of The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader, historian, and a former journalist. Rod Gragg is director of the Center for Military and Veterans Studies at Coastal Carolina University, where he also serves as an adjunct professor of history.