Mike Scruggs

Robert E. Lee: duty and providence


By Mike Scruggs –

Part 4 of a Series

The unsuccessful engagement at Cheat Mountain and the failure to block a Union advance in the Kanawha River Valley were disappointing, but they involved only three small Confederate brigades and few battle casualties. The disadvantages of terrible weather, muddy roads, and widespread sickness were formidable obstacles to success in western Virginia. Moreover, the lack of cooperation of generals Loring, Floyd, and Wise with Lee, and their petty rivalries, jealousies, and resentments among themselves, severely hampered any chance of overcoming an already difficult situation.

President Davis, though an experienced military leader himself, perhaps erred in not giving Lee direct rather than advisory authority over these generals. But knowing something of the egotism and political differences among the generals, Davis probably judged that advisory authority was the best way to revitalize their military effectiveness. Lee tolerated the situation for too long. He should have pressed Davis for more direct authority to suppress the brigade commanders’ self-serving egotism and demanded their prompt execution of orders.

The Richmond and other Southern newspapers exaggerated the importance of Confederate failures in western Virginia and pounded Lee with much undeserved criticism. They said he was too old, too theoretical, and not aggressive enough. Some began to refer to him as “Granny Lee.” Lee bore all this without succumbing to the temptation to start pointing the finger of blame to others. At 55, the gray-bearded general was a bit older than most active duty general officers (average age about 40), but he would be remembered in history as one of the most aggressive and innovative military commanders in the annals of warfare. He would be called “the Gray Fox.”

Throughout the war, both the Union and Confederate armies suffered much loss of effectiveness because of an uncooperative spirit of self-centered pride and ambition among many general officers. There were notable exceptions, and Lee was one who placed duty far above any personal considerations.

“Duty…is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things….You cannot do more—you should never wish to do less.”—Lee, in a personal letter to one of his sons.

“General Lee…showed a personal disinterestedness, and unselfish devotion to principles and country, rarely to be met in this world.”—Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.

“You must expect discomforts and annoyances all through life. No place or position is secure from them, and you must make up your mind to meet with them and bear them.”—Lee, to his daughter, Agnes.

“I cannot see a single ray of pleasure during this war; but as long as I can perform any service to the country, I am content.”—Lee, to his wife.

In November 1861, Davis placed Lee in command of the coastal forces in South Carolina to defend against threatening action by a large fleet of Union Navy ships assembling near Charleston. As an experienced engineering officer, Lee built an array of coastal defenses formidable enough to discourage any reasonable Union consideration of a major attack on Charleston by sea.

On March 2, 1862, Davis recalled Lee to Richmond and gave him command of all military operations of the Confederate armies. Davis, however, made most of the operational decisions and left implementation to Lee. About that time, the 35-year-old Union Commanding General, George B. McClellan, responded to Lincoln’s pressure to take Richmond with a bold strategy to use Union Naval superiority to make an amphibious landing at Fort Monroe at the southern end of the Virginia Peninsula and then move north to besiege Richmond.

The Peninsula Campaign was harder going than McClellan anticipated, and the Union Navy lost many ships to the ironclad CSS Virginia. Nevertheless, on May 31, a Union army of 105,000 men was positioned on the northeast outskirts of Richmond straddling the Chickahominy River. Joe Johnston, commanding the 60,000 troops of the Army of Northern Virginia protecting the city, knew that he could not survive a siege, so he attempted to overwhelm the two Union corps of 34,000 men isolated on the south side of the Chickahominy with 22 of his 29 infantry brigades (51,000 men). It took some time for Union forces to stabilize after this assault, essentially stalling any immediate Union chance of capturing Richmond. The fiercest fighting took place at a crossroads called Seven Pines. Near dusk, Johnston was seriously wounded when struck by a bullet in his right shoulder and almost simultaneously hit in the chest by Union artillery shrapnel, knocking him from his horse and breaking his right shoulder and two ribs. Johnston was evacuated to Richmond, and Major General G. W. Smith, who had been plagued with ill health, assumed temporary command, but acted indecisively. Lee and Davis arrived on horseback and were both disappointed with Smith’s indecisive actions.

The fighting ended about 11:30 am on June 1, when the Confederates withdrew to their defensive positions in Richmond. McClellan was in bed with typhoid fever and was only able to ride to the action at Fair Oaks Station near the end of the battle, which was inconclusive. However, the Union had suffered over 5,000 casualties with 790 dead. The Confederates suffered over 6,000 casualties with 980 dead. McClellan resolved to bring up his big siege guns to finish off the Confederacy. But unfavorable weather (rain, flooding, and mud), Confederate cavalry, mobile railroad artillery, and fear of the elusive and quick-striking Stonewall Jackson would make moving heavy siege guns slow and difficult.

Toward evening, President Davis made Lee the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, a decision that would dramatically change the course of the war. After building extensive defensive earthworks around Richmond, Lee launched the “Seven Days” offensive on June 25. By July 1, he had driven McClellan’s huge army back to the James River and saved the Confederate capital. Within three months the Union Army had been driven off the Virginia Peninsula.

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