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Robert E. Lee the Soldier

ISSUE:  Summer 1925

Robert E. Lee the Soldier. By Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $4.00.

For all the score of Lives that have been written of him, neither Robert E. Lee the man nor General Lee the soldier has been adequately portrayed. Nearly all those who have described his personality knew him only during the war or at Lexington, when he was agonizing over the loss of life in battle or was walking slowly in the memory of Appomattox. Every verbal picture shows the soberness of the times in which it was taken. Lee is presented as a man always serious, courteous but reserved, humble in spirit yet so full of dignity that he never unbent. No biographer has yet searched out that part of the earlier correspondence of Lee which shows him not different in the splendor of his character but in other respects quite unlike the traditional Lee. There was nothing frowning or intolerant about his outlook on life. Although he was religious from his youth up, in the rightful sense of the term, he never found mirth and morality incompatible. He loved a jest, was not above mild flirtations, delighted in the company of women, had a few friends in whom he confided gleefully and altogether was a gentleman and an officer to inspire admiration but not to awaken awe. He wrote very charmingly in those calmer days—letters that are much more entertaining than those of the war-period. The Lee who is known and venerated in the South was born, so to speak, on the day Virginia seceded. A happier, merry man died that day and never came to life again, though he seemed to stir after 1867, when General Lee perceived that the ruin of the South was not irreparable.

Equally inadequate has been the study of the soldier. Lee’s first biographers wrote on the basis of their own knowledge, the statements of belligerents and the battle-reports printed during and immediately after the war. Some of them did remarkably well when allowance is made for the limitations of their source-material. Much that General Long wrote and something of Cooke and of J. D. Mc-Cabe, Jr., is still useful. Jones’ “Personal Reminiscences” are a storehouse, substantial if disordered, of letters, anecdotes, panegyric and military critique. Colonel Walter Taylor’s first book contains many items for which the historian owes him thanks. Fitzhugh Lee’s “General Lee” and Dr. H. A. White’s study in the “Heroes of the Nations” series were written after the appearance of the earlier and more important volumes of the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.” Their biographies are much the richer for the study of the reports of Lee’s subordinates, largely unpublished before that time. The same may be said of the critical studies, notably Longstreet’s and Alexander’s, that have been published since the vast government collection was printed. Yet a correct understanding of Lee’s strategy has not emerged from the biographies, the monographs and the related studies of the last twenty years. Instead, most of the recent “Lives” have seemed to be prepared almost exclusively from the existing authorities. A disappointing sameness pervades all of them, barring, of course, Mr. Bradford’s familiar and delightful “Lee the American.”

The reason for this is that the old material has been exhausted and the new sources have not been used. Unless the biographer is a Napier or a Henderson, he cannot greatly improve on the existing descriptions of battles or hope by his narrative to quicken the pulse of a reader whom he is attempting to entertain with one more account of Gettysburg. To make any progress toward a definitive biography he must utilize that material which others have passed by or did not know was in existence. The one class is larger than the other. Within the last years, perhaps three hundred new letters of General Lee have come to light, some of them in most unexpected places and some of them of a sort to make the investigator feel that his labor is not in vain. On the basis of this information, not a few accepted judgments of Lee must, in the reviewer’s opinion, be recast. But the value of all the manuscript material known or believed to be in existence is probably not as great as that of the thousands of brief letters and dispatches already in print and curiously neglected by most historical writers. The “Official Records,” it may be remembered, draw a distinction between “Reports” and “Correspondence” and in many instances print them in separate volumes. It seems unbelievable but it is certain that many of those who have written of General Lee have been quite content to accept the reports as presenting completely the strategy underlying the campaigns as well as the actual operations themselves, and in this belief have completely neglected the “Correspondence.” At least one passage can be pointed out in which Longstreet makes a flat statement of dereliction on General Lee’s part that he could not possibly have put in print if he had read fully the “Correspondence.” Those who have been cocksure in their comments on Grant’s alleged hoodwinking of Lee in the crossing of the James, in June, 1864, can scarcely have placed together in their chronological order the messages that appear in the “Correspondence” of the “Official Records”—to say nothing of those in the “Calendar of Confederate Papers” or in Lee’s “Confidential Dispatches.” If they had, they could not justify their reassertion of claims that were perhaps tenable when originally made by Colonel Roman, who did not have all the papers before him. Not to multiply instances, it can be asserted with some assurance that a biography of Lee that would upset not a few traditions can be written by any historical investigator who will give the same study to the “Correspondence” that most recent writers have devoted to the “Reports.” Until that is done, and use is made of the new material, personal and military, a final biography of General Lee will not be possible. General Sir Frederick Maurice does not claim that his “Robert e. Lee the Soldier” is such a book. At one time he considered preparing a comprehensive biography, as did John Buchan, but he has foregone it. What he has written is, in his own accurate words, an appreciation of the strategy of Lee. It is not blind appreciation, acceptance of all that Lee did as faultless because Lee’s. It is tempered appreciation that will be the more esteemed for its restraint, its candor and its consideration of what Sir Frederick believes to be General Lee’s mistakes. Above all is it appreciation by a man who combines as does no other writer among English peoples the art of the historian and the strategical sense of an experienced and brilliant soldier. Lee has been the theme of historians who were not strategists and of strategists who demonstrated that they were not historians. General Sir Frederick is both. Director of military operations of the imperial general staff until ousted in a memorable controversy with Lloyd George—a controversy in which he was plainly right—General Maurice has been called upon to solve on different terrain and with changed tactics many of the problems of Lee. He writes more authoritatively perhaps than any serious student of Lee’s campaign ever has written, yet with the caution in criticism displayed by those who know from their own endeavor how difficult it is to reconcile strategy and destroying circumstance. He has, in a word, professional eminence that will make his study a standard for those who hereafter attempt to write of Lee and cannot pretend to General Sir Frederick’s equipment. In nothing does he more accurately display his strategical sense than in his selection from the “Correspondence” and the “Reports” of the “Official Record” and from Lee’s “Confidential Dispatches” of the half-dozen lines of the documents that give the substance of Lee’s own plans. This selective ability would distinguish any professional historian.

Sir Frederick accepts the traditional portrait of Lee the man and makes his first contribution when he comes to describe General Lee’s work in organizing the forces of Virginia. This work was brilliantly effective but it was perhaps not quite as much the result of the labor of General Lee as Sir Frederick believes. From 1859 onward the organization of new military units was in progress. By February, 1861, troops were drilling in every county and in every town. As Virginia had sizeable military stores of her own and quickly seized the Federal arsenals in her territory, she was very soon able to mobilize in strength. General Lee systematised this, but even without him it probably would have proceeded briskly.

The campaign of 1861-62 in Western Virginia and the Seven Days’ Battles are dismissed in a few pages. Here, perhaps, Sir Frederick writes from less thorough study than is evidenced in the rest of the book. For there can be no understanding of Lee’s methods after the Seven Days that does not take into account the mistakes he made then, the weaknesses he discovered in his army and the methods he employed to improve the whole of his machinery of war. It was the professional soldier, accustomed to competent staff work who outlined his plans at the Dabb House, in the famous council so excellently described by D. H. Hill, and then excused himself and let his lieutenants work out the details. After he saw how the deficiencies of his staff-or-ganization wrecked his plan for the envelopment of Mc-Clellan, Lee dropped the methods in which he had been schooled. He relied on simpler strategy and on a measure of direct control of operations to which he adhered thereafter at all times and with all his lieutenants, Jackson and Stuart alone excepted. That which amazes is that Lee should have learned so quickly.

In his treatment of operations from Second Manassas through Chancellorsville, Sir Frederick is admirable. He understands the geography of Virginia, though he perhaps overstresses the strategic importance of Bull Run, and he is among the first to show the strategic unity of all that Lee did from the time he sent Jackson northward after Malvern Hill until he turned Burnside back on the Rappahannock that winter. And if it seems to the reader that the chapter on Gettysburg is not quite equal to that on the campaigns that preceded it, disappointment is offset by the clarity and excellence of General Maurice’s analysis of the strategy of the advance into Pennsylvania. This is much the best account that has yet been written. The discussion of the withdrawal from the Rapidan to the James is better than the review of Gettysburg and it concludes with the unqualified assertion that the documents in “Lee’s Confidential Dispatches” definitely prove that Grant did not deceive Lee in moving against Petersburg. Once the armies are stationery in front of Petersburg, General Maurice’s interest drops. His account of the final operations does not show how General Lee developed the “strategic reserve” at a time when Grant with a vastly superior force sought to pin him down to the Petersburg defences. Properly understood and presented, Lee’s strategy during the continual switching of Grant’s offensive from the north to the south side of the river will probably be found as brilliant as any other chapter of Lee’s great record. Perhaps General Maurice would have given it more nearly its true valuation if he had investigated the weakening of General Lee’s transportation and the general break-down of his cavalry in the summer of 1864. Whoever studies the horse-supply of the Confederate armies of the East will understand military mysteries not a few.

General Maurice is too wise a man to attempt to fix Lee’s exact place among the great soldiers of the world. Only the orator or the amateur will assay that. But in the end, comparing Lee with Wellington, Sir Frederick puts him above the Iron Duke and affirms that Lee has the high company of those great captains whose campaigns Napoleon bade his soldiers study if they would know war. That is enough to say.


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