Robert E. Lee: The Soldier

Continued from Part 2.

“He [Lee] was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring…a Christian without hypocrisy…He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward.”[1] – Senator Benjamin Harvey Hill

As a commander who won victory after victory despite fighting against long odds, Robert E. Lee’s ability as a soldier is unquestionable.  Lee’s talents were recognized before the war, during the war, and after the war, by all sorts of different people. Early in 1861, U.S. General-in-Chief and hero of the Mexican War, Winfield Scott, described Lee as “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.”[2] Ulysses S. Grant, Lee’s most successful opponent, described himself as “sad and depressed” when Lee surrendered, and said he could not rejoice “at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause.”[3] Teddy Roosevelt clearly admired Lee.[4] Woodrow Wilson praised the General.[5] So did Franklin Delano Roosevelt.[6] During his time as President of the United States, World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower took time out of his day to write a private letter defending Lee from a critic.[7] Winston Churchill is supposed to have remarked: “Lee was the noblest American who had ever lived and one of the greatest commanders known to the annals of war.”[8] Despite being an excellent soldier, Lee did not welcome the breakup of the Union, or of war, both of which he prayed God would prevent.[9] In later life, he denounced Bismarck’s invasion of France.[10]

It should come as no surprise that, as a devout Christian, Lee pursued excellence in all that he put his hand to, dedicating his works to the Lord He served, labouring as unto God and not unto men. Neither should it be a surprise that Lee’s devout Christianity shaped the way he fought the war. Lee practiced what is known as limited or just warfare. According to the theory of just warfare as advanced by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, wars must meet two criteria.[11] First, a combatant must establish jus ad bellum, the right to go to war.[12] Second, combatants must practice jus in bello, right conduct in war. As a soldier and gentleman, Lee’s concern was jus in bello, which prohibits tactics malum in se (evil in themselves), such as rape, pillaging, weapons of mass destruction, etc. Additionally, waging war on civilians is prohibited and prisoners must be treated humanely and with respect.[13]

There is perhaps no better illustration of Lee’s dedication to just warfare than General Orders No. 73, which he issued to the Army of Northern Virginia during the Gettysburg campaign in 1863. The orders state, in part: “the duties expected of us by civilization and Christianity are not less obligatory in the country of the enemy than in our own.”[14] Lee went on to remind his troops that they should confine their war-making to “armed men,” rather than “the unarmed and defenceless.”[15] Doing harm to the civilian population or disturbing private property would be considered “barbarous” by the commanding general, and such actions could not be carried out before the eyes of an all-seeing God without “offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth.”[16] Lee ordered that all requisitioned supplies would be paid for.[17] He also ordered that any soldier who “insulted a woman by word, look, or act, would be instantly shot.”[18] He explained his orders to General Isaac Trimble, saying: “I cannot hope that Heaven will prosper our cause when we are violating its laws. I shall, therefore, carry on the war in Pennsylvania without offending the sanctions of a high civilization and of Christianity.”[19] Interesting, isn’t it, how civilization and Christianity were inextricably linked in Lee’s mind?

It is worth noting that these orders were issued after Union commanders had begun practicing total war against the South. When the braggart General John Pope was given command of Union forces in central Virginia in mid-1862, he immediately issued orders allowing his troops to subsist off the land while paying only for goods taken from Union loyalists, required his cavalry to do away with their supply trains, and held local citizenry responsible for any actions taken by guerrillas against his troops.[20] Orders were also issued requiring all male noncombatants along the route of march to swear an oath of allegiance or be arrested and expelled from the region. If they returned, they would be treated as spies, and any man or woman who corresponded with anyone in the Confederate Army–even a mother writing to her son–would be subject to execution as a spy.[21] Lee was furious at what he considered mistreatment of civilians, labelling Pope a “miscreant” to be “suppressed.”[22] Pope’s conduct paled in comparison to that of Colonel John Basil Turchin, who marched his brigade into Athens, Alabama on 2 May, 1862 and promptly set his troops to work pillaging, plundering, destroying, raping and gang-raping. Some of the villainous scum frightened a pregnant townswoman so badly that she miscarried and died. Turchin was court-martialed and dismissed from the army.[23] Lincoln intervened, countermanded Turchin’s dismissal, and promoted him to Brigadier General; the U.S. Senate approved Turchin’s promotion on 17 July, 1862.[24] In spite of this, Lee told his troops, “we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered.”[25] This was a deeply personal injunction; the Army of Northern Virginia included 103 Virginia units and nineteen Alabama units at the time Gen. Orders 73 were issued.[26]

Targeting civilians was the surest way to incur Lee’s wrath. At 10:00 A.M. on 11 December 1862, over one-hundred Union artillery pieces began lobbing shells into the town of Fredericksburg, setting large portions of it ablaze. Hundreds of women and children poured out of the town, looking for shelter from the artillery and the bitter December weather. Lee furiously exclaimed: “These people delight to destroy the weak and those who can make no defense; it just suits them!”[27] It wasn’t just Federals who sparked Lee’s ire at Fredericksburg. While the General inspected the positioning of the army’s artillery on the morning of 11 December, he noticed one battery poorly placed and inquired who had put it there. “Colonel Chilton,” replied the battery commander. Lee grew angry at this; Chilton was a staff officer and had no right to order units about, especially if his busy-bodying acted to the detriment of the troops. Lee’s neck grew red and his head jerked, but with characteristic self-restraint, he limited himself to remarking: “Colonel Chilton takes a lot upon himself.”[28]

One of Lee’s greatest difficulties throughout the war was ensuring that his troops were led by competent officers. When the war began, there were comparatively few men with professional military education available, and such education didn’t necessarily guarantee competence. The harsh school of combat had a way of weeding out the bad commanders, whom Lee generally had transferred to administrative positions or quiet backwaters.[29] Unfortunately, the school of combat also had a way of killing off many of the best officers, and this attrition only got worse as the war dragged on. The longer the odds became and the more desperate the fighting grew, the more officers exposed themselves to rally their troops – and the more they got themselves killed in the process.[30] The loss of officers at Chancellorsville was ghastly, and Gettysburg was even worse.[31] During the summer of 1864, the Second Corps lost two of its three division commanders killed.[32] Sometimes military law, which required promotions be assigned by seniority, prevented Lee from promoting a brilliant officer because a mediocre man held seniority of commission. Lee did all that he could do, and worked with what he had when circumstances got in the way.[33]

When Lee corrected officers, he did so to instruct and educate, not to humiliate or shame, and his rebukes were so tactful and courteous as to be inoffensive.[34] Men of ability who survived the fighting were sure to receive praise in Lee’s reports, and possibly promotion as well. Failure to be mentioned in a report was all the censure Lee would officially register; sometimes he would praise an officer’s troops without praising the officer in question.[35] Officers who were trying their best but still having difficulty learning were sure to receive understanding treatment at his hands. When one of Lee’s corps commanders, A.P. Hill, wished to court-martial a brigadier for a mistake he had made, Lee thus admonished Little Powell:

“These men are not an army; they are citizens defending their country. General Wright is not a soldier; he’s a lawyer. I cannot do many things that I could do with a trained army…I have to make the best of what I have…if you humiliated General Wright, the people of Georgia would not understand. Besides, whom would you put in his place? You’ll have to do what I do: When a man makes a mistake, I call him to my tent, talk to him, and use the authority of my position to make him do the right thing the next time.”[36]

Lee despised cruelty, spite, greed, and selfishness, and in rebuking these he was uncharacteristically undiplomatic.[37] On one occasion an officer launched into a rant about Grant’s cavalry destroying the army’s supply depot. The officer was upset, not because the troops had lost hundreds of tons of rations, but because the Yankees had stolen his personal cow and he now had no milk for his coffee. This officer declared that: “If I were in command of this army, I would notify General Grant that… I should not give his prisoners whom we hold a morsel of food, and if he wanted to save them from starvation, he would have to send rations here to them!” General Lee’s reply was livid and instant: “The prisoners that we have here, General –––––, are my prisoners; they are not General Grant’s prisoners, and as long as I have any rations at all I shall divide them with my prisoners.”[38]

Lee viewed leadership as servanthood. He served his superiors, his subordinates, his State, his people, and God. He communicated with President Davis freely, openly, and almost daily. His candor was always mingled with humility and proper military deference to civilian authority. Davis responded with complete trust and generally gave Lee a free hand.[39] To his generals he was almost always courteous, as noted above. But it wasn’t just those of high rank to whom he was courteous. He was as flawlessly polite and kindly thoughtful to civilians and junior officers as he was to presidents and generals. A farmer who visited the camps walked over and addressed him as “colonel” because of his plain appearance. Lee chatted with him for a while before the farmer declared that he had come to meet General Lee and asked if it was possible. “I am General Lee,” Lee told him, “and I am most happy to have met you.”[40] An exhausted staff officer who reported to Lee and then flung himself on the ground to sleep awoke to find himself covered by Lee’s waterproof poncho.[41] A colonel who had lost his gauntlets was given a pair of Lee’s own.[42] Despite receiving multiple invitations to soirees and dinners during the march through Maryland in 1862, Lee attended only one. The affair in question was attended by a multitude of officers and one bashful-looking corporal whom the higher-ranking soldiers snubbed. Lee walked over to the corporal, placed a hand on his shoulder, and praised his unit’s courage and performance.[43] When the General’s aide, Walter Taylor, became frustrated and petulant because of Lee’s own shortness of temper, Lee did not shout at him or ruin his career. Instead, he simply looked Taylor in the eye and told him: “Colonel Taylor, when I lose my temper, don’t let it make you angry.”[44]

In addition to the love Lee displayed for his troops through his constant efforts to properly feed, clothe, and equip them, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of recorded personal encounters which demonstrated his humility and respect for every member of the army, regardless of his rank or station.[45] On one occasion, a private of the 16th N.C. Infantry saw Lee examining a distant position through his binoculars, walked up, and addressed the General. Lee asked him what he needed, and the man responded by saying that he was out of chewing tobacco. Could the General please spare him some? Lee did not partake, so he referred the soldier to a staff-member who happily obliged him.[46] One day, upon returning to his headquarters, Lee found a curious soldier poking his head into the General’s tent. Lee told him: “Walk in, Captain, I am glad to see you.” The soldier replied: “I ain’t no captain, General Lee. I’s jest a private in the Ninth Virginia Cavalry.” Lee kindly responded: “Well, come on in, sir. If you aren’t a captain, you ought to be.”[47] During the march into Maryland in 1862, Lee and Powell Hill came upon a group of soldiers lying in the road. Hill ordered them out of the way, but Lee countermanded him, saying: “Never mind, General, we will ride around them. Lie still, men.” He then turned his horse out of the road and rode past them. Hill and the generals’ staff officers, of course, followed.[48] During the Gettysburg campaign, one sunbaked infantryman saw Lee sitting atop a nearby hill and dropped out of the ranks to speak with him. Lee asked him how he was and what he needed. The man asked for a rag to keep the sweat out of his eyes. Lee gave the soldier his own handkerchief and encouragingly ordered him back to his column.[49]

Personal sacrifice was also a way in which Lee demonstrated servant leadership. Lee’s staff was miniscule.[50] Unless illness compelled him to accept offers to stay in people’s homes, Lee lived in a tent like his troops. He shared his soldiers’ rations, and when people sent him presents of food or other luxuries, Lee donated them to the hospitals.[51] Despite having the opportunity to remain with his family in Richmond for Christmas in 1863, he deliberately returned to the front to spend Christmas with his troops.[52]

Lee also refused to let his pride or concern for his fame and reputation dictate his tactical or strategic decisions. When quizzed about a refusal to silence press criticism by initiating a battle, Lee responded that the battle would have resulted in no material advantage. “But,” replied General William E. Starke, “your reputation was suffering, the press was denouncing you, your own state was losing confidence in you, and the army needed a victory to add to its enthusiasm.” Lee’s reply was simple and unequivocal: “I could not afford to sacrifice the lives of five or six hundred of my people to silence public clamor.”[53] Numerous generals and politicians throughout history have thought public opinion more important than the lives of their troops. Happily for “Johnny Reb,” Robert E. Lee was not such a man.

Lee did not just demonstrate his Christian faith through his conduct of the war and love for his troops, but also through the way he personally treated his foes. In accordance with Christ’s command, Lee loved his enemies and prayed for them.[54] Lee showed love, compassion, and respect for his foes. After Union General Philip Kearny was killed at Chantilly, Lee sent the body to Pope under a flag of truce, along with a note in which he said “The body of General Philip Kearny was brought from the field last night, and he was reported dead. I send it forward under a flag of truce, thinking that possession of his remains may be a consolation to his family”.[55] Following Pickett’s Charge, a wounded Federal soldier saw Lee riding by and called out “Hurrah for the Union!” Lee rode over and dismounted; the Yankee thought Lee was going to kill him. Instead, the General knelt down, grasped his hand, looked him in the eye, and said: “My son, I hope you will soon be well.”[56] Once when Lee and an unnamed subordinate were reconnoitering enemy lines, the junior general exclaimed that he wished they were all dead. The army commander instantly reprimanded him: “How can you say so, General? Now, I wish that they were all at home attending to their own business, and leaving us to do the same.”[57]  Lee expressed a similar sentiment to a Pennsylvania woman who visited his headquarters as the army marched northward in 1863, saying he wished he could go home and eat his own bread in peace.[58]

Lee’s love for his enemies continued after the war. In 1869, the Reverend J. William Jones arrived at Lee’s home for a visit, and saw the General speaking to a shabbily dressed man who left in a cheerful mood just as Jones arrived. Lee told him the man was an old soldier who had fallen on hard times. When Jones asked which unit he had belonged to, Lee quietly said: “He fought on the other side, but we must not remember that against him now.”[59] On one occasion after the war, a group of friends were visiting Lee’s home and a clergyman burst into the bitterest invective against the North and the government, expressing particular displeasure at Lee’s indictment by a vengeful grand jury. In company, Lee simply said it didn’t matter what they did to him, as he hadn’t long to live anyhow. Once he could get the pastor alone, Lee gently rebuked the reverend, who apologized. The General then told him: “I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South our dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”[60]


[1]Hill Jr., Benjamin H. Senator Benjamin H. Hill of Georgia; His Life, Speeches and Writings (Atlanta, GA: H.C. Hudgins & Co., 1891), 406.

[2]Jones, J. William. Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee, Soldier and Man (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1906), 127-128 and Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1875), 58.

[3]See Grant’s personal memoirs, Ch. LXVII. https://www.bartleby.com/1011/67.html

[4]https://the-american-catholic.com/2017/08/23/theodore-roosevelt-on-robert-e-lee/

[5]https://leefamilyarchive.org/reference/essays/mcmurray/index.html

[6]https://www.dallasnews.com/news/2017/09/06/flashback-fdr-unveiled-robert-e-lee-statue-without-controversy-in-1936/

[7]https://www.civilwarprofiles.com/dwight-d-eisenhower-in-defense-of-robert-e-lee/

[8]Crocker, H.W. Robert E. Lee on Leadership (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 4.

[9]Jones, Life and Letters, 118.

[10]Freeman, Douglas S. R.E. Lee: A Biography, Volume IV (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), 485. All

R.E. Lee citations refer to the online transcription of the first edition which can be found for free at the following

link: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/People/Robert_E_Lee/FREREL/home.html

[11]https://iep.utm.edu/justwar/

[12]Childress, James F. “Just-War Theories: The Bases, Interrelations, Priorities, and Functions of Their Criteria,” Theological Studies 39, no. 3 (September 1978): 428-439.

[13]Ibid., 440-445.

[14]Lee, Robert Edward. The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee, ed. Clifford Dowdey and Louis H. Manarin (New York: Bramhall House, 1961), 533-534.

[15]Ibid.

[16]Ibid.

[17]U.S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XXVII, Part 3 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), 912-913.

[18]Hoke, Jacob. The Great Invasion of 1863 (Dayton, Ohio: W.J. Shuey, 1887), 198.

[19]Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 26 (Richmond, VA: Southern Historical Society, 1898), 119.

[20]Dept. of War, Official Records, Series I, Volume XII, Part 2, 50-52.

[21]Ibid.

[22]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume II, 264-265.

[23]Dept. of War, Official Records, Series I, Volume XVI, Part 2, 273-278.

[24]DiLorenzo, Thomas J. The Problem With Lincoln (Washington, D.C.: Regnery History, 2020), 51.

[25]Lee, Wartime Papers, 534.

[26]https://www.nps.gov/gett/learn/historyculture/anv-orderofbattle.htm “Units” meaning infantry and cavalry regiments and artillery batteries. The Union atrocities described are illustrative, not exhaustive. For further details see Walter Cisco’s War Crimes Against Southern Civilians and Punished With Poverty by James and Walter Kennedy.

[27]Cooke, John Esten. A Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1871), 177.

[28]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume II, 443-444.

[29]Crocker, Lee on Leadership, 135-138.

[30]Freeman, Douglas S. Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command,Volume III: Gettysburg to Appomattox(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), xi-xxvi.

[31]Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenants, Volume II: Cedar Mountain to Chancellorsville(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943), 648-651, Volume III, 190-205.

[32]Ibid., 578, 610. They were Robert E. Rodes and S. Dodson Ramseur. The surviving division commander was Major General John B. Gordon.

[33]Ibid., 190-205, 434-449, 588-612.

[34]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume III, 218-239.

[35]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume III, 233, and Lee’s Lieutenants, Volume II, 234-235, 387-396, 651-666, Volume III, 190-216, 434-449, 496-514, 588-612.

[36]Freeman, R.E. Lee,Volume III, 331.

[37]Maury, Dabney H. Recollections of a Virginian in the Mexican, Indian, and Civil Wars (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), 236-237.

[38] Rosser, Thomas L., Maj. Gen. “General Robert E. Lee: Personal Portraits of General Lee,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Volume 43 (New York: Frank Leslie Pub. House, 1897), 15-16. The emphasis is original. While Rosser mercifully omitted the offending officer’s name, he fastidiously noted that Lee employed it in the reproof.

[39]Crocker, Lee on Leadership, 50-59, 62.

[40]Jones, Personal Reminiscences of Lee, 235.

[41]Long, Armistead L. Memoirs of Robert E. Lee (New York, J.M. Stoddart & Company, 1886), 301. The officer in question was Col. Charles S. Venable.

[42]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume III, 235.

[43]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume II, 355.

[44]Taylor, Walter H., Lt. Col. Four Years With General Lee (New York: Appleton, 1878), 77.

[45]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume I, 472-526, Volume II, 88, 415-419, Volume III, 8-17, 206-217, 244, 525-545, Volume IV, 58-73, 139-142.

[46]Walter Clark, Editor. History of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861‑65, Volume I (Raleigh, NC: E.M. Uzzell, 1901), 753.

[47]Crocker, Lee on Leadership, 79-80.

[48]Hartman, Theodore. “Some Incidents of Army Life,” Confederate Veteran Volume 30 (Nashville, TN: S.A. Cunningham, 1922), 45.

[49]Sorrel, G. Moxley, Brig. Gen. Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1905), 178.

[50]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume II. 229-231. For an interesting examination of Lee’s staff, their lives, military careers, and contributions to history, see Sacrificing for the Lost Cause: General Robert E. Lee’s Personal Staff by Robert W. Sidwell. It must be noted that Sidwell thinks Lee’s staff built his reputation at the expense of their own and of the truth. Nevertheless, this PhD dissertation is useful as it is the only work I have been able to find examining Lee’s staff in detail.

[51]Varina Davis recalled missing a visit from General Lee during the winter of 1864-1865. The General had come to apologize to President Davis for giving away a barrel of molasses which had been meant for Davis and had accidentally been directed to Lee’s HQ. Lee had already given it away before the mistake was realized and thus could only offer his apologies.

[52]Freeman, R.E. Lee, Volume III, 216-217.

[53]Long, Memoirs of Lee, 493-494.

[54]Matthew 5:44-45, NKJV: “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

[55]Dept. of War, Official Records, Series I, Volume XII, Part 3, 807.

[56]Long, Memoirs of Lee, 302.

[57]Jones, Personal Reminiscences of Lee, 196.

[58]Hoke, Great Invasion, 198. Lee’s wants were always humble. After he had accepted the Presidency of Washington College, he wrote: “I should have preferred a small farm where I could have earned my daily bread.” See R.E. Lee, Jr., Recollections and Letters, 20-21.

[59]Jones, Personal Reminiscences of Lee, 196-197.

[60]Ibid., 195-196. According to Jones, Lee quoted Matthew 44 at the reverend doctor in question. The indictment ultimately came to nothing, thanks partly to the intercession of Ulysses Grant, who indignantly insisted that his promise that Lee and his troops would be unmolested must be respected, or else he would resign. See Jean Edward Smith, Grant, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 418.

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