That battle was the summit of two historic military careers, each lifted higher by the other. The mutual confidence between Lee and Jackson inspired them to do things together that they would not have dared with anyone else. The battle was won by their teamwork, by the determination of their soldiers—and by Lee’s reputation: The turning point came before the fight was fully joined, when Hooker in his mind came face to face for the first time with Lee, and he folded.
Lee’s aide, Major Charles Marshall, was with him as bedraggled Confederate soldiers surged around their general, cheering him in the burning woods. Marshall wrote, “As I looked upon him, in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, I thought that it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient times rose to the dignity of gods.”
Historians playing psychiatrist suggest that Lee was so tightly repressed beneath his austerity that in combat his inner self burst loose and drove him to attack against all reason. But that implies lack of control, something that even Lee’s critics rarely perceive. Their most telling example came after the Confederate high point at Chancellorsville, when Lee launched his last major invasion of the North.
When his troops bumped into Federals outside the town of Gettysburg, Lee had no Jackson at his right hand. But he still had the troops who had fought so magnificently two months earlier. As he wrote after Chancellorsville, “There never were such men in an army before. They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led. . . . “ After two days of pounding, Lee sent those troops across the open fields in the attack that history remembers as Pickett’s Charge.
Two of my great-grandfathers were in that charge, in the 53rd Virginia and the 7th North Carolina. More than once I have stood on Seminary Ridge where they spread out before moving across those summer fields and tried to feel what they must have felt, seeing the mass of Union battle flags waiting for them behind the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge, watching the Union cannon line up hub to hub, waiting. I have knelt behind that wall and looked back the other way, wanting to see what the Yankees saw as my grandfathers and 15,000 other Confederates kept on coming as solid shot and canister tore holes in their long ranks of gray. I have never been able to do it with dry eyes.
Lee’s critics asserted that on that July afternoon his army had not been “properly led,” that he should not have attacked there and then—and hindsight supports them. His assault was opposed by his balky and argumentative corps commander, James Longstreet, and then imperfectly coordinated. On the heels of his grandest victory, Lee’s army was repulsed in the climactic battle of the war.
He accepted the defeat as his own. To George Pickett, mourning his division, Lee said, “Come, General Pickett . . . upon my shoulders rests the blame. The men and officers of your command have written the name of Virginia as high today as it has ever been written before. . . . Your men have done all that men could do; the fault is entirely my own.”
Through July 4, the whole next day, Lee kept his command in place, organizing his retreat but seeming to glare across at Union Major General George G. Meade, daring him to renew the fight. Even then, Meade refused to follow up with an attack that could have demolished the Rebel army. The Confederates limped back to Virginia.
Once again, Lee’s reputation for aggressiveness had protected his army. But the next spring, Lincoln sent against him a general who saw the hard truth beyond that reputation: After three years of war, Lee had no prospect of replacing his losses. And he was hobbled strategically by his mission of protecting Richmond.
When Ulysses S. Grant came east to take command of Union forces, he understood that Lee’s army, not the Confederate capital, was his main objective—but the way to get at that army was to drive on to Richmond and pin Lee down in siege warfare.
Grant had little in common with Lee beyond a West Point education and a high order of generalship. He was short, often unkempt in a private’s coat, wholly without the aura of dignity that surrounded Lee even in midbattle. He chewed cigars, and sometimes he drank. But he had a decisive mind, a stubborn will, and a strategy.
When Grant started to carry it out in May 1864, Lee made him pay a terrible price at the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, near Fredericksburg. In the thickets, Lee had to be restrained from personally leading troops in a desperate charge. An anonymous poem told of it:
“There he stood, the grand old hero, great Virginia’s god-like son/Second unto none in glory—equal of her Washington.” Texas troops around him refused to go forward until he moved out of harm’s way; one of them grabbed his horse’s reins. As he watched them charge, his “god-like calm was shaken, which no battle shock could move/By this true, spontaneous token of his soldiers’ child-like love.”
Lee’s troops, and poets afterward, may have seen him as “god-like,” but Grant did not. Instead of pulling back after each mauling as his predecessors had done, Grant drove on. In a month, he lost almost 55,000 troops in a campaign that ground down in the bloodbath of Cold Harbor, outside Richmond.
From there, Grant sideslipped south of the James River and Petersburg. That began the siege of Richmond—and as Lee himself had said, once that happened, loss of the capital was only a matter of time.
During that last hard winter of war, too late to change anything, Lee was made general in chief of all Confederate forces. In Richmond to plead for more supplies, he told his oldest son, “Well, Mr. Custis, I have been up to see the Congress, and they do not seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving. . . . When this war began I was opposed to it, bitterly opposed to it, and I told these people that unless every man should do his whole duty, they would repent it—and now, they will repent.”
After Lee’s final effort to break out of the tightening noose, his thin lines were turned at last. On April 2, 1865, he telegraphed Jefferson Davis that Richmond must be evacuated. Retreating westward, Lee groaned to Brigadier General Henry A. Wise over what was happening to his country. Wise told him, “There has been no country, General, for a year or more. You are the country to these men. They have fought for you.”
Two days later, at the obscure village named Appomattox Court House, Grant’s divisions caught up with the disintegrating Army of Northern Virginia.
From Grant came a note asking Lee to surrender, to prevent “any further effusion of blood.”
Lee at first refused. Then he learned that the Yankees had circled ahead and cut off further flight. Hearing this, Lee said to his aides, “Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
The way Lee surrendered the last remnant of his army has contributed as much to his legend as has the way he fought the war.
Porter Alexander urged him to let his soldiers scatter, perhaps to fight on as guerrillas. Lee said no; they would become marauders, stealing to survive, bringing on “a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.” Alexander wrote later: “He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it, that I was ashamed of having made it.”
On April 9, Lee put on his best uniform, with a red sash and engraved sword. “I have probably to be General Grant’s prisoner and thought I must make my best appearance,” he said as he rode toward the front before dawn on that Palm Sunday morning.
Lee met Grant at the home of a Virginian who had moved away from Manassas to escape the war. Grant, whose toughness in the West had won him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender,” was generous at the end. He allowed Southern soldiers to take their horses home for the spring plowing. At Lee’s request he ordered rations for the famished Confederates.
Lee returned to his troops. Some were burning their ragged battle flags rather than surrender them. They crowded to the roadside and reached out to touch his horse’s flanks as he rode past. Some started to cheer him, then broke down in sobs. One held up his arms and shouted, “I love you just as well as ever, General Lee!” Tears welled in Lee’s eyes, the first those close to him could remember seeing.
Last April, I walked again over that most hallowed American ground, when the apple trees bloomed as they did that Sunday in 1865. I wondered what Lee must have been thinking. How far had these men and boys marched while he rode, day after day, battle after battle? How many others would still be living, at home in peace, if he had not held them together fighting for so long? How many hundreds of thousands of widows and fatherless children, on both sides, wished now that he and those who followed his lead had stood by the Stars and Stripes in 1861?
Lee dismounted, beside a great oak where he would tent for the night, and turned about. “Men,” he said, “we have fought through the war together; I have done the best I could for you. . . . Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I will always be proud of you. Goodbye, and God bless you.”
His throat was so full he could say no more.