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Face to Face With Lee

ISSUE:  Summer 1927

An Aide-de-Camp of Lee, being the Papers of Colonel Charles Marshall sometime Aide-de-Camp, Military Secretary, and Assistant Adjutant General on the Staff of Robert E.Lee, (1862-1865). Edited by Major General Sir Frederick Maurice: Boston: Little Brown & Co. $4.00.

When Anatole France was asked what he was reading he answered “I read nothing—I reread.” Voltaire in the eighteenth century made a somewhat analogous answer to a correspondent seeking advice on good books. “There are no good books” —answered the sage of Ferney—”They have all been burned —at least in France.” The Papal Church of those royal days made good books contraband. They, were therefore carefully studied; whilst now, good books are smothered under a mass of literary junk—manufactured after the manner of cheap motor-cars. And thus the weary Main Street man learns of books as he learns of patent medicines and cigarettes through the vast machinery of modern advertising.

Thank God that I am not dependent for a living on wholesale reviewing of books. Stop and imagine for a moment the state of your mental digestive apparatus when each morning you find new books piled on your desk at the rate of two or three dozen a day. The pity of it is that these many showily, dressed claimants for popular favour are loudly advertised as offering revelations of a startling nature. How can our friend of Main Street resist such lurid appeals?

We have had latterly biographies innumerable of every notable likely to attract public attention, for instance the diatribe on William II by an obscure journalist named Cohn who writes of a man whom he has only seen from the sidewalk, if at all; and who gives his book the sensational title of “The Last of the Hohenzollerns”! The American publishers advertise what I know to be false by announcing that the Imperial victim of this so-called biography meditates a reply. Meanwhile the great body of dailies are so dependent on advertisements for their existence that they treat leniently the methods of such biographers—or should I call them biographters?

What joy then to read and re-read, to annotate and fondle a modern book of real historical value in biographical form! This refers more particularly to the papers of Colonel Marshall who was military secretary to Lee during the whole of that great man’s important activity in the Confederate army (1862-1865).

Had these papers been published as the author left them their historic value would have been great, but they are made immensely more valuable by the admirable editing of so good a soldier and scholar as Major General Sir Frederick Maurice. He has done for Marshall’s narrative what Yule and Cordier did for the story of Marco Polo, or John Bigelow for the autobiography of Ben Franklin.

He has done more than even he suspects, for he has impaired the hitherto unchallenged prestige of John Hay’s and John Nicolay’s ten heavy volumes on Abraham Lincoln, We Americans are passionate readers of history—I would almost assert that Hume and Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, and Froude have been more widely circulated in the United States than in Great Britain. We also have produced histories that command the respect of scholars but these for the most part deal with peoples far away and institutions that do not awaken, the embers of local passion. Motley’s “Dutch Republic,” Prescott’s “Mexico,” Thayer’s “Cavour,” Lea’s “Moriscos in Spain”—such works have a fame beyond our borders. But when the theme is nearer home we cannot yet unite on the American historian as we do in praise of de Tocqueville and of Bryce; of Trevelyan’s “American Revolution” or of Henderson’s “Stonewall Jackson.” This is reason enough for joy over the work of Sir Frederick Maurice which may, we hope, be followed by further studies in the same field.

Of Colonel Marshall’s twelve chapters the Editor says that there is hardly one “which will not be found to contain important and authoritative information upon some question which has been a matter of dispute amongst historians.” General Maurice not being a Jeffersonian democrat or a McKinley republican or even a Theodoric Bull Mooser can study great characters like Lee and Grant, Fremont and McClellan without any poisonous admixture of political rancour. If my meaning is not clear enough, pray read as I have read the ten volumes of John Hay and note the zeal with which faults are magnified when committed by, other than men of his own party. It has remained for Colonel Marshall and his British commentator to remove at last from George B. McClellan the stain which political exigencies attempted to fix upon him. Colonel Marshall as the only intimate of Lee during those important years gives McClellan credit for having planned the campaign against Richmond in the manner most dangerous to the Confederate cause. McClellan committed faults which are easily pointed out by Messrs. Nicolay and Hay who never commanded a regiment. Faults were committed by other generals in that war, indeed which of them had not several to atone for, even Lee himself? But it is not amongst great soldiers that these faults are magnified into crimes, and to the glory of our regular army North and South be it said that the stones and the mud so liberally hurled at McClellan were never aimed by such as had campaigned with or against him.

We have in these pages the highest testimony of General Maurice regarding the honesty and accuracy of Colonel Marshall’s notes and military observations (page 157)—-to quote from General Maurice’s introduction: “This is a story which as far as I have been able to ascertain has not been told by anyone of like authority.”

Regarding McClellan we who knew him well can supplement both Maurice and Marshall by risking the opinion that aside from purely military or even political considerations he was foredoomed to failure in so far as his fate was determined by the politicians of Washington and not by one of his peers. McClellan like Lee was of distinguished ancestry and the very soul of social chivalry and professional rectitude. His beautiful wife was equally remarkable in I her sphere and whether in Europe or at home the salon of the McClellans was a gathering of only such as were of like breeding.

We must remember also that when our foremost military authority, the then venerable Winfield Scott, selected him to command the armies of the United States, there was practically no army in the European sense, only a glorified levee en masse; and the whole gigantic organization devolving upon this young West Point graduate who was then only twenty-six years of age. Lee was nearly twenty years his senior and so was President Davis, both veterans of the Mexican War. Davis had his faults and Marshall frankly suggests them, for Lee was under the Confederate constitution a mere second in command to his fiery President— but many a time must “little Mac,” (as he was fondly, called by his men,) have envied Lee and Jackson their legal subordination to one who was at least capable of discussing the problems of a soldier. Whenever Lincoln had a day off in Washington he donned his high hat and showed himself in the camps of McClellan. Discipline was difficult enough at any time but never more so than when the decisions of a properly constituted court martial gave sentences which the soft-hearted Lincoln could not help reversing. Lee like Washington had a soft heart also, but the soft heart that makes life easy for deserters and lazy pickets puts in peril the lives of a whole military detachment. The politicians in Washington, spurred on by the howling Press behind them, kept clamouring to McClellan for victories and called him names ranging from “coward” to “traitor” because he did not fulfill their promises of crushing the rebellion in time for the fall elections. The political mob could not rise to the level of such a man but they could drag him down and guillotine him politically as the Paris mob of 1793 did those generals who failed in battle. In a word McClellan incurred the enmity, of the mob for he was like Lee and George Washington, an aristocrat. Had Napoleon been a gentleman he would never have lived through his campaign in Italy.

The publishers have weighted this book with many illustrations that illustrate nothing. Children like a book with pictures and childish grown-ups are attracted by them, but in a work dealing with character so dramatically portrayed as in these pages the addition of portraits taken from a photograph that gives but a momentary mood are to me of an irreverence like unto that horrible bust of Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey or the blasphemous attempts to make unto ourselves a graven image of our Blessed Saviour. Henry James who was very wise and always witty—if you gave him time enough—told me one morning when we chatted much together over our early coffee that he did not know of any first-class novel that was improved by so-called illustrations—au contraire. In his own novels he forbade it, whenever possible.

Liberal quotation is the last refuge of the incompetent book-reviewer and so is moisture of the eye and choking in the voice.

Forgive me—yet I defy any reader of this volume to close it without a tear and a gulp—as we have done before in situations recalling Kipling’s lordly lines—

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.

The Great Civil War is over. It is April of 1865. The North has crushed — nay has pulverized — an enemy one quarter of his weight in man-power and everything else that makes an army strong. The starving troops of Robert E. Lee are hopelessly beaten and completely surrounded near Appomattox and the curtain is ready to go down on the wreckage of the Southern Confederacy and a Northern triumph soon to be soured by the poison of reckless legislation. Colonel Marshall is with his beloved General Lee—let him tell the story. No Tacitus could make it more eloquent or brief.

“We struck up the hill towards Appomattox Court House. There was a man named McLean who used to live on the first battle-field of Manassas, at a house about a mile from Manassas Junction. He didn’t like the war, and having seen the first battle of Manassas, he thought he would get away where there wouldn’t be any more fighting so he moved down to Appomattox Court House. General Lee told me to go forward and find a house where he could meet General Grant, and of all people, whom should I meet but McLean. I rode up to him and said, ‘Can you show me a house where General Lee and General Grant can meet together.’ He took me into a house that was all dilapidated and that had no furniture in it. I told him it wouldn’t do. Then he said, ‘Maybe my house will do!’ He lived in a very comfortable house, and I told him I thought that would suit. I had taken the orderly along with me, and I sent him back to bring General Lee and Babcock, who were coming on behind. I went into the house and sat down, and after a while General Lee and Babcock came in. Colonel Babcock told his orderly that he was to meet General Grant, who was coming on the road, and turn him in when he came along. So General Lee, Babcock and myself sat down in McLean’s parlour and talked in the most friendly and affable way.

“In about half an hour we heard horses, and the first thing I knew General Grant walked into the room. There were with him General Sheridan, General Ord, Colonel Badeau, General Porter, Colonel Parker, and quite a number of other officers whose names I do not recall.

“General Lee was standing at the end of the room opposite the door when General Grant walked in. General Grant had on a sack coat, a loose fatigue coat, but he had no side arms. He looked as though he had had a pretty hard time. He had been riding and his clothes were somewhat dusty and a little soiled. He walked up to General Lee and Lee recognized him at once. He had known him in the Mexican war. General Grant greeted him in the most cordial manner, and talked about the weather and other things in a very friendly way. Then General Grant brought up his officers and introduced them to General Lee.

“I remember that General Lee asked for General Lawrence Williams, of the Army of the Potomac. That very morning General Williams had sent word by somebody to General Lee that Custis Lee, who had been captured at Sailor Creek and was reported killed, was not hurt, and General Lee asked General Grant where General Williams was, and if he could not send for him to come and see him. General Grant sent somebody out for General Williams, and when he came, General Lee thanked him for having sent him word about the safety of his son,

“After a very free talk General Lee said to General Grant: ‘General, I have come to meet you in accordance with my letter to you this morning, to treat about the surrender of my army, and I think the best way would be for you to put your terms in writing.’ General Grant said: ‘Yes, I believe it will.’ So a Colonel Parker, General Grant’s Aide-de-Camp, brought a little table over from a corner of the room, and General Grant wrote the terms and conditions of surrender on what we call field note paper, that is, a paper that makes a copy at the same time as the note is written. After he had written it, he took it over to General Lee.

“General Lee was sitting at the side of the room; he rose and went to meet General Grant to take that paper and read it over. When he came to the part in which only public property was to be surrendered, and the officers were to retain their arms and personal baggage, General Lee said: ‘That will have a very happy, effect!’

“General Lee then said to General Grant: ‘General, our cavalrymen furnish their own horses; they are not Government horses, some of them may be, but of course you will find them out—any property that is public property, you will ascertain that, but it is nearly all private property, and these men will want to plough ground and plant corn.’

“General Grant answered that as the terms were written, only, the officers were permitted to take their private property but almost immediately he added that he supposed that most of the men in the ranks were small farmers, and that the United States did not want their horses. He would give orders to allow every man who claimed to own a horse or mule to take the animal home.

“General Lee having again said that this would have an excellent effect, once more looked over the letter, and being satisfied with it, told me to write a reply. General Grant told Colonel Parker to copy his letter, which was written in pencil, and put it in ink. Colonel Parker took the table and carried it back to a corner of the room, leaving General Grant and General Lee facing each other and talking together. There was no ink in McLean’s inkstand, except some thick stuff that was very much like pitch, but I had a screw boxwood inkstand that I always carried with me in a little satchel that I had at my side, and I gave that to Colonel Parker, and he copied General Grant’s letter with the aid of my inkstand and my pen.

“There was another table right against the wall, and a sofa next to it. I was sitting on the arm of the sofa near the table, and General Sheridan was on the sofa next to me. While Colonel Parker was copying the letter, General Sheridan said to me, ‘This is very, pretty country.’

“I said, ‘General, I haven’t seen it by daylight. All my observations have been made by night and I haven’t seen the country at all myself.’

“He laughed at my remark, and while we were talking I heard General Grant say this: ‘Sheridan, how many rations have you?’ General Sheridan said, ‘How many do you want?’ and General Grant said, ‘General Lee has about a thousand or fifteen hundred of our people prisoners, and they are faring the same as his men, but he tells me his haven’t anything. Can you send them some rations?’

” ‘Yes,’ he answered. They had gotten some of our rations, having captured a train.

“General Grant said: ‘How many can you send?’ and he replied ‘Twenty-five thousand rations.’

“General Grant asked if that would be enough, and General Lee replied ‘Plenty; plenty; an abundance’; and General Grant said to Sheridan ‘Order your commissary to send to the Confederate Commissary twenty-five thousand rations for our men and his men.’

“After a while Colonel Parker got through with his copy of General Grant’s letter and I sat down to write a reply. I began it in the usual way: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of such a date,’ and then went on to say the terms were satisfactory. I took the letter over to General Lee, and he read it and said: ‘Don’t say, “I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of such a date;” he is here; just say, “I accept these terms.” ’ Then I wrote:

Headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia

April 9, 1865

I received your letter of this date containing the terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th instant, they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.

“Then General Grant signed his letter, and I turned over my letter to General Lee and he signed it. Parker handed me General Grant’s letter, and I handed him General Lee’s reply, and the surrender was accomplished.”

But read the whole book and then read it again for every page is good.


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