One hundred and fifty years ago this spring, Robert E. Lee faced one of the most important decisions of his life. The nation was steeling itself for the bloody shock of civil war, and the very outcome of that conflict might hang on what he decided to do.
Libraries full of books have been written about Lee, the first soldier of the Confederacy. His generalship has been praised, parsed, deconstructed, second-guessed, and subjected to a thousand what-ifs. Lee himself is revered by many as a hero, reviled by some as a traitor—yet in many ways, remains to most an enigma. His familiar visage has been cast in marble and bronze a thousand times over, and it is difficult to get past the mythology to glimpse the man.
Like millions of other Americans caught up in the turbulent events of the Civil War, Lee improvised as he went, making difficult decisions under extraordinary pressure in response to events and forces out of his control. One way to assess Lee is to look at five decisions he faced. Not only did each of them exert a powerful impact on American history, they also offer revealing insights into the man himself.
DECISION ONE: COMMAND, APRIL 18, 1861
On the morning of April 18, 1861, Lee rode from his hilltop house in Arlington, Va., down to Washington, D.C. The city was ablaze with news: Fort Sumter had surrendered to the South. President Lincoln had called out an Army of 75,000 to put down the incipient rebellion. Lee’s home state of Virginia was on the verge of joining the Confederacy.
Lee had been summoned to an urgent conference with Francis Blair Sr., a close political ally to President Lincoln. The son of American Revolution hero “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, the 54-year-old colonel had distinguished himself in the war against Mexico, made headlines when he captured renegade abolitionist John Brown, and was considered one of the U.S. Army’s most capable soldiers. With top general Winfield Scott too old and infirm to take the field, Blair conveyed a breathtaking offer to Lee from President Lincoln: command of the Union Army.
Lee was an ambitious officer with 32 years of service. He well understood that Blair was offering him a glittering prize that could well lead to the White House. A few months earlier he had written “as an American citizen, I prize the Union very highly & know of no personal sacrifice that I would not make to preserve it, save that of honor.” Here was a chance to make good on that pledge.
Yet he turned Blair down cold. “How can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?” he asked Lincoln’s emissary.
Lee hurried from his tête-à-tête with Blair to a second meeting that afternoon with his friend and commander Gen. Scott, telling him what had transpired. “You have made the greatest mistake of your life,” said Scott, “but I feared it would be so.” Within days Lee’s home state had seceded from the Union, and Lee himself had resigned his commission to ultimately take up arms for the South.
Lee wrote his wife four years earlier that he considered slavery “a moral and political evil.” He told Blair that he “looked upon secession as anarchy.” So why did he spurn a chance to command the Union and instead take up a cause for which he was less than enthusiastic? While Lee professed to dislike slavery, he disliked abolitionists even more. He felt that the South had been “aggrieved” by acts of the North that called out for redress. As the son of a Revolutionary War hero, he was likely sympathetic to Southerners who saw this as a second revolution against tyranny.
Ultimately, though, Lee seemed to feel as if the decision was out of his hands. As his wife wrote a few months later, “My husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his state.” Virginia had joined the Confederacy, and to Lee’s way of thinking, his loyalty to the United States was trumped by his loyalty to the state of his birth. This attitude mystified Lincoln mightily, but Lee himself never second-guessed his decision. “I did only what my duty demanded,” he wrote, after living through four grinding years of war. “I could have taken no other course without dishonor.”
DECISION TWO: INVASION, SEPTEMBER 1862
Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Lee commander of the Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of 1862. A Union army under Gen. George McClellan was threatening Richmond, and the South seemed in dire peril.
Although heavily outnumbered, Lee managed to inflict two major defeats on the Union in the Seven Days Battles and the Second Battle of Bull Run. Then he faced the critical decision of what to do next. The safe choice would be to dig in and await the next Union foray into Southern territory. Instead, Lee changed the dynamics of the conflict by invading the North.
“Lee was part riverboat gambler,” says Holy Cross College historian Edward O’Donnell, “perfectly willing at various moments throughout the war to risk everything.” The South was outnumbered nearly two to one, and Lee thought the only chance of winning was to inflict a quick knock-out blow that would embolden the peace faction in the North and lead to foreign recognition. He was ready to risk total annihilation in pursuit of that goal. “It was daring of necessity” says University of Texas historian H.W. Brands. “He was on the side of the underdog. He had to take chances.” Factoring into Lee’s calculations was his view of the general facing him, George McClellan, “He is an able general, but a very cautious one,” Lee told one of his officers.
Lee’s daring was undone by an accident. A duplicate copy of his orders, wrapped in three cigars, was found in a field by a Union corporal, and passed up to McClellan. “It’s essentially like finding your opponent’s playbook on the eve of the Super Bowl,” says O’Donnell. Galvanized by this captured information, McClellan promptly went on the attack. The result was the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history. While the battle was a draw, it blunted Lee’s invasion of the North and cost the South more than 10,000 killed, wounded, and missing. What was perhaps the Confederacy’s best chance to win a decisive victory slipped away.
DECISION THREE: END RUN, MAY 1, 1863
Lee returned to the defensive, defeating an attacking Union army at Fredericksburg, Va., in December 1862. It was on that occasion that he delivered his most famous quote: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.” The following May, Union Gen. Joe Hooker went south with an army nearly twice the size of Lee’s. After a bruising day of fighting around Chancellorsville, Va., on May 1, Hooker seemed poised to either destroy Lee’s army or force a retreat. That night, Lee warmed himself at a campfire as he conferred with his trusted lieutenant, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. “How can we get at these people?” Lee mused out loud.
Once again, he decided to gamble. It is a fundamental military principle that a commander should never divide his forces when facing a superior enemy. Lee decided to do just that. He kept just a small portion of his men and sent Jackson and the bulk of his army on a wide end-around to attack Hooker’s undefended right flank. It was a breathtaking risk. For most of a day, as Jackson marched into position, Lee would hold the line with 14,000 soldiers against an enemy force of more than 70,000. No wonder that one Confederate officer called Lee “audacity personified.” If Hooker grasped what was happening, he could destroy the Southern army piece by piece. Yet Lee seemed unfazed by the high stakes. “Well, go on,” he told Jackson.
The result was a brilliant victory that Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman called “flawless.” But while yet another Union army scurried north in disarray, the battle ultimately did the South more harm than good. The Confederacy’s scarcest resource was its soldiers. More than 13,000 were killed, wounded, or captured at Chancellorsville. The most costly of those casualties was Jackson himself, gravely wounded by friendly fire. “Any victory is dearly bought which deprives us of the services of General Jackson, even for a short time,” said Lee, on hearing the news. When Jackson died a week later, Lee was permanently deprived of those services. At the same time, the victory seemed to instill in Lee a sense that his rank and file soldiers could retrieve any situation with their fighting abilities. That belief would lead him to his worst decision of the war.
DECISION FOUR: DOUBLE OR NOTHING, JULY 3, 1863
After Chancellorsville, Lee invaded the North once more. During the first three days of July 1863, his army came to grips with a force under Gen. George Meade at the obscure crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pa. Lee’s army achieved great success on the first day, but was bloodily repulsed on the second day. He faced a fateful decision about what to do on the third day of the battle.
Meade’s army was dug in along a piece of high ground known as Cemetery Ridge. Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, who Lee called “my old warhorse,” argued that the Confederates should maneuver around Meade’s flank. Lee refused: “The enemy is there,” he said, “and I am going to strike him.” Lee decided to launch an infantry assault on the center of Meade’s heavily defended line with 15,000 men. Longstreet later wrote that he pleaded with Lee not to do it: “General, I have been a soldier all my life … It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”
Lee brushed him off and ordered the attack, which has gone down in history as Pickett’s Charge, one of the most famous and futile actions in military history. Military historians and armchair generals have argued about this decision ever since. It has been suggested that Lee was impaired by illness, that he was demonstrating a strong stubborn streak, or simply that he believed one final blow would be enough to knock out this army as he had done to so many others.
The most perceptive analysis seems to have come from Longstreet himself. “In defensive warfare he was perfect. When the hunt was up, his combativeness was overruling. … He found it hard, with the enemy in sight, to withhold his blows.” Lee’s aggressiveness and daring had served him in good stead in many battles. Here, they led him to a crushing defeat.
As the bloody and broken survivors of that terrible charge trickled back to Confederate lines that blisteringly hot afternoon, Lee showed another facet of his character: a simple willingness to take responsibility. “It is I who have lost this fight,” he told the retreating soldiers, “and you must help me out of it the best you can.”
DECISION FIVE: SURRENDER, APRIL 9, 1865
In April 1865 Lee faced his final decision of the war. The tattered remnants of his army were on the verge of disintegration, hounded by vastly larger forces under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Lee seemed to face a stark choice—surrender or destruction. But there was a third way. One of his closest aides, Gen. Porter Alexander, passionately argued that the army could “scatter like rabbits and partridges in the woods” as a prelude to taking up guerilla warfare against invading Northern forces.
It was not an isolated thought. The Confederacy had embraced guerilla raiders such as Mosby, Morgan, and Quantrill, and many in the South preferred any sort of resistance over the humiliation of surrender. Among them was President Jefferson Davis, even then on the run from Union forces, and hoping to continue the war by any means possible.
Lee rejected the idea out of hand. “The country would be full of lawless bands,” he told Alexander, “(and) a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover.” Instead, he dressed himself in his best uniform, complete with sword and sash, and surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va. He wrote to President Davis explaining his decision. “A partisan war may be continued … causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence.”
Lee’s decision may have saved the country an even greater trial than the one it had just experienced. The smoldering fire of guerilla warfare, once ignited, is difficult to stamp out. Had Lee decided differently, the agony of the Civil War might have dragged on decades, with catastrophic results for the entire country. Such was Lee’s prestige that his example paved the way for other Confederate generals to surrender, and helped put the divided nation on the long road to healing.
Lee’s decisions reveal a general willing to roll the dice as long as there was the tiniest chance of a payoff, and a man willing to pay the consequences for staying true to his beliefs. Like anyone who has made decisions in the heat of battle, Lee probably wouldn’t have minded having a few do-overs. But he rarely agonized over the decisions he made, nor expended much effort justifying them for posterity. He was a man content to let his actions speak for him.
These 150 years later, with the fires of battle cooled, he would probably be equally content to be judged, for good or ill, on the basis of the choices he made.
Rick Beyer is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker from Lexington, Mass. A contributor to HISTORY, his most recent book is The Greatest Music Stories Never Told.
SIDE BAR: The Softer Side of a Legend
The visual image most of us carry of Robert E. Lee is that of an austere old soldier with a proud carriage and a face aged by the burdens of war. It is easy to forget that he was a flesh-and-blood mortal with a more human side. At age 38 he wrote a friend that “you are right in my interest in the pretty women, & it is strange I do not lose it with age.” At about the same time he began a lifelong correspondence with a young cousin, Martha “Markie” Williams, in which he was surprisingly frivolous and flirty. “Oh Markie, Markie,” he wrote early on, “when will you ripen?”
He could be playful and teasing with his wife, his daughters, and young officers on his staff. His love of animals was legendary. On the morning of the surrender, the only crack in his stoic façade came when a courier galloped up on a horse he had ridden almost to death. “Oh, you have killed your beautiful mare,” moaned Lee, the fate of his army for a moment forgotten.
As superintendent of West Point before the war, and president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) in his final years, the man capable of ordering thousands of young soldiers to their deaths showed a fatherly patience and extraordinary tenderness for wayward students. Lee once suggested to a particularly tough professor at Washington College that he should “always observe the stage driver’s rule.” Puzzled, the professor asked what that might be.
Lee replied: “Always take care of the poor horses.”—RB