Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 03/January/Address on the Character of Gen. R. E. Lee

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 3  (1877) 
Address on the Character of Gen. R. E. Lee by John Hampden Chamberlayne
January 1877

Address on the Character of General R. E. Lee,

Delivered in Richmond on Wednesday, January 19th, 1876, the Anniversary of General Lee's Birth, by Captain John Hampden Chamberlayne.

[We were urged at the time of of delivery by a number of gentlemen who heard it to publish this admirable address, and have always purposed doing so. It may be well, however, that it has been postponed, so as to appear on the eve of another anniversary of the birth of our great chieftain.]

Fellow Citizens:
I shall not obtrude upon you apologies or explanations, as if I had the orator's established fame to lose, or looked that future fame to win. You are not come to hear of my small hopes or fears. Yet, to you and to the gravity of the occasion, it is due to say that I appear before you on sudden order, to my sense of duty hardly less imperative than those famous commands under which we have so often marched at "early dawn."

By telegraph, on last Saturday night, this duty was laid upon me, and I come with little of preparation, and less of ability, to attempt a theme that might task the powers of Bossuet or exhaust an Everett's rhetoric.

It can scarcely be needful to rehearse before you the facts of our commander's life. They have become, from least to greatest, parts of history, and an ever-growing number of books record that he was born in 1807, at Stratford, in Westmoreland county, of a family ancient and honorable in the mother country, in the Old Dominion, and in the State of Virginia; that he was appointed a cadet at the United States Military Academy in 1825, and was graduated first in his class,[annotation 1] and commissioned lieutenant of engineers; that he served upon the staff of General Scott through the brilliant campaign from Vera Cruz to the City of Mexico, was thrice brevetted for gallant and meritorious conduct, and was declared by General Scott to have borne a chief part in the counsels and the battles which ended with the triumph of our arms; that he was promoted lieutenant-colonel of cavalry, and served for years upon the Southwestern frontier; that he was in 1861 called to Washington as one of the board to revise the army regulations, and that on the 20th day of April, 1861, four days after the withdrawal of Virginia from the Union, he resigned his commission in the United States army, and that he became commander-in-chief of Virginia's forces, and thereafter accepted the commission of General in the army of the Confederate States.

Still more familiar to you than these facts are the events of which you and I had personal knowledge: how Lee organized, patiently and skilfully, the raw resources of Virginia; how he directed the coast defences of the South Atlantic States, and how he labored against a thousand difficulties in the mountains of West Virginia, serenely accepting without a murmur the popular verdict on what ignorant presumption adjudged a failure. In June of 1862 he was at length placed in command to meet whose vast responsibility his life had been the preparation, and at once his name became forever linked with the Army of Northern Virginia which met and mastered army after army, baffled McClellan, and destroyed successively Pope, Burnside and Hooker; which twice invaded the enemy's country, and which, when at last against it was thrown all the resources of the United States, Grant in its front and Sherman in its rear, Europe for their recruiting ground, and a boundless credit for their military chest, still stood for eleven months defiantly at bay, concentrated on itself the whole resources of the United States, and surrendered at Appomattox eight thousand starving men to the combined force of two great armies whose chiefs had long despaired to conquer it by skill or daring, and had worn it away by weight of numbers and brutal exchange of many lives for one. We all know, too, how the famous soldier sheathed his sword, and without a word of repining, without a look to show the grief that was breaking his heart and sapping the springs of his noble life, accepted the duty that came to him, and bent to his new task, as guide and teacher of boys, the powers which had wielded the strength of armies and almost redressed the balances of unequal fate.

lee and washington.

Such are the leading facts, in barest outline, of the great life that began sixty-nine years ago to-day. Well known as they are, it is wise to recall them when we gather as we have gathered here. In these hurrying days men pass swiftly away from human sight, the multitude of smaller figures vanishing behind the curtain of forgetfulness, the few mighty ones soon wrapt in the hazy atmosphere of the heroic heights, enlarged, it may be, but oft-times dim and distorted, always afar off, unfamiliar, not human, but superhuman, demigods rather than men; our wonder and our despair, who should be our reverence and our inspiration.

Thus has it always been with him who lies at Mount Vernon. Let it be our care, men of this generation, that it be not so in our day with him who lies at Lexington; let it be our care to show him often to those who rise around us to take our place, to show him not only in his great deeds and his famous victories, but also as citizen and as man.

The task is hard to divide what is essentially one, and Lee so bore himself in his great office as that the man was never lost in the soldier. Never of him could it be said that he was like the dyer's hand, subdued to what he worked in: always the sweet, human quality tempered his stoic virtue, always beneath the soldier's breast beat the tender, loving heart.

Most of us here have seen and known him, if not in his splendid youth, fit at once to charm the eye of the Athenian multitude and to awe a Roman Senate, yet in his maturer years, when time and care had worn his body but to show more glorious the lofty soul within. Amongst us and ours his life was led, so blameless as might become a Saint, so tender as might become a woman, so simple as might become the little children "of whom is the kingdom of Heaven." So consistent was that life, so devoted to duty, without a glance to right or left, so fixed on the golden rule, adopted once and forever, that his biographer, even now in a time of passion and distorted truth, hesitates what to choose for his highest praise—lingering in turn over Lee the son, Lee the husband, Lee the father, Lee the friend. Idle then it were for me to picture him in all the relations he bore to those around him, and worse than idle were I to follow what is much the fashion nowadays and make a study of Lee the Christian, pry with curious glance into the sacred chamber wherein man kneels to his God, or dare to touch the awful veil which fools are swift to rend.

But, says the critic, private virtue is not for public use; a Torquemada may be gentle in his home, and a Stuart seek to enslave his people, yet lead a life of chastity.

'Tis true, but still our great commander shines flawless and perfect, at once in the quiet beams of the household hearth and in the fierce light that beats upon the throne of him born to be king of men.

Let one great example show it. None but those who know the power of lofty ambition can tell what vast temptation beset our leaders; none can know the heroism of the decision in the dark days of 1861. He was the favorite soldier of all who followed Scott; he was the picked and chosen man for high command in the armies of the United States. He was besought almost with tears by him he reverenced as a second father; to him was tendered the baton of general-in-chief. Who can tell what visions trooped upon his sight: of power, that dearest boon to the powerful, of fame world wide, of triumphs, not easy but certain. And who can tell but fairer dreams than these assailed him; hope, nay almost belief, that he and he alone might play the noble part of pacificator and redintegrator patriæ, that he might heal the wounds of civil strife, and be hailed by North and South as worthy of the oaken garland.

He had been more or less than human, had not these thoughts, or such as these, arisen when he strove through days and bitter nights to find his duty.

He, we must remember, was wedded to no theory; his mind grasped concrete truth rather than abstractions. His horizon was bounded by no lines of neighborhood or of States. He knew the men of the North, as well as of the South; he had maturely weighed the wealth of the one and the poverty of the other. Few knew so well as he, none better, the devotion we could offer to any cause, but he knew, likewise, the stubborn, deep-resting strength of the Northern will that we took for a passing whim. He had all his life obeyed and respected the organized, concentrated form of the Union, and he, the pupil of Scott, the follower of Washington, the son of Light Horse Harry, might and should and did pause long. Paused long, to decide forever—to decide with never a look backward, with never a regret, even when the end had come, darker than his fears had pictured.

Cast away all, to obey the voice of Virginia, his country; to defend Virginia, his mother. Scarcely twice since the world began has mortal man been called to make such choice.

Will not history consent, will not mankind applaud when we still uphold our principles as right, our cause as just, our country to be honored, when those principles had for disciple, that cause for defender, that country for son, Robert Lee?

The day has by no means come to fix with absolute precision the rank of Lee among the world's great soldiers. But the day will come, and it is ours to gather and preserve and certify the facts to be the record before the dread tribunal of time.

Turning, then, to the soldiership of Lee; from first to last, we see his labor and exactness, giving always the power to gain from every means its utmost result. Thus, he so pursued the sciences which underlie the soldier's art, that he entered the army fully equipped with all that theory could teach, and whilst yet a subaltern was more than once entrusted with tasks of the engineers' bureau which had baffled the skill of men far older and more experienced. The same qualities were shown when he first saw actual war. To us who look back across the field of a gigantic strife, of a struggle where not brigades nor divisions but great armies were the units, where States were fortified camps and a continent the battle-ground; to us that march on Mexico seems as small as it is, in fact, far off in time and space. But small and great are relative, and the little army of Scott which gathered on the sands of Vera Cruz was little in much the same sense as that other army, of Cortez, whose footsteps it followed, and whose prowess it rivaled. In that campaign

LEE'S SOLDIERSHIP

first found fit field. It was he whose skill gave us the quick foot-hold of Vera Cruz. At Cerro Gordo and Contreras his was no mean part of the plan and its accomplishment. At the City of Mexico it was his soldier's eye and soldier's heart which saw and dared what Cortez had seen and dared before, to turn the enemy's strongest position, and assault as well by the San Cosme as by the Belen gateway, a movement greatly hazardous, but, once executed, decisive. In the endless roll of wars that campaign of Mexico must always remain to the judicious critic masterly in conception and superb in execution. But to us it is memorable chiefly as the training school whose pupils were to ply their art on a wider scale to ends more terrible, and Winfield Scott selected from them all Robert E. Lee as the chosen soldier.

The time was soon to come when he should try conclusions with many of that brilliant band, and prove himself the master of each in turn, of McClellan, of Burnside, of Hooker, of Pope, of Meade, of Grant, of whomsoever could be found to lead them by the millions he confronted. When the war of secession began, you all remember how for a time Lee held subordinate place, and how, when what seemed chance gave him command of the forces defending Richmond from the hundred thousand men who could hear, if they would, the bells of our churches and almost the hum of our streets—you all remember how the home-staying critic found fault with him, how he was described as a closet-soldier and a handler of spade and mattock, rather than of gun and bayonet. Sudden and swift was the surprise when the great plan disclosed itself, and the guns at the Meadow Bridges of the Chickahominy cleared the way for the first of those mighty blows which sent McClellan in hopeless rout to the shelter of his shipping, thence to hurry as he might to the rescue of Pope's bewildered divisions, and to organize home guards in the defences of Washington. That single

CAMPAIGN OF THE SEVEN DAYS

is itself fame. To amuse an army outnumbering his own by fifty thousand; to watch with a large detachment lest that army should make a junction with the divisions at Fredericksburg; to bring Jackson's skill and Jackson's devoted men to his aid; to cross a marshy and often impracticable stream; to attack McClellan on his flank and to roll up his army like a scroll, whilst, at each step gained, his enemy should be weaker and himself be stronger and in stronger position, yet at the same time to guard lest his enemy should break his centre as Napoleon pierced the Russians on Austerlitz field—such was the problem. You know, all the world knows, its execution. Despite the errors of subordinates; despite the skill of his opponent, a soldier truly great in defence; despite the rawness of many of his troops; despite the lack in the general officers of the skill necessary to movements so delicate, and despite the inferiority of his force, Lee succeeded fully in his main object, relieved Richmond, inflicted on his enemy losses materially immence and morally infinite; in seven days absolutely undid what McClellan took six months to do, and by a single combination threw back his enemy from the hills in sight of Richmond to a defensive line in Washington's suburbs. This campaign, for its audacity, its wide combination, its insight into the opponent's character, its self-reliance, its vigor of execution, and its astonishing results, may be safely compared with the best campaigns of the greatest masters in the art of war—with Frederick's Leuthen, to which it bears as much likeness as a campaign of days can bear to a battle of hours, or with that greater feat, the amazing concentration by Washington of contingents from New York and from North Carolina, of new levies from the Virginia Valley, and of a French fleet from the West Indies to besiege and to capture the army of Cornwallis.

It is argued that Lee was strong only in defence, and was averse to taking the offensive. Nothing could be more false. He was to prove in the last year of the war his fertility of defensive resource and his unrivaled tenacity of resistance. But his genius was aggressive. Witness the bold transfer of his army from Richmond to the Rapidan, whilst McClellan's troops still rested on the James river. Witness the audacity of detaching Jackson from the Rappahannock line to seize Manassas Junction and the road to Washington in Pope's rear. Witness the magnificent swoop on Harper's Ferry, of which accident gave to McClellan the knowledge and by which timidity forbade him to profit. Witness that crowning glory of his audacity, the change of front to attack Hooker, and that march around what Hooker called "the best position in America, held by the best army on the planet." Witness his invasion of Pennsylvania, a campaign whose only fault was the generous fault of over confidence in an army whose great deeds might, if anything, excuse it; an over confidence, as we ourselves know, felt by every man he led, and which made us reckless of all difficulties, ready to think that to us nothing was impossible. He was a commander who had met no equal; we were an army who saw in half the guns of our train the spoil of the enemy, who bore upon our flags the blazon of consistent victory. If he and we confided in our daring and trusted to downright fighting for what strategy might have safely won, who shall blame us and which shall blame the other? It was a fault, if fault there were, such as in a soldier leans to virtue's side; it was the fault of Marlbrook at Malplaquet, of Great Frederic at Torgau, of Napoleon at Borodino. It is the famous fault of the column of Fontenoy, and the generous haste that led Hampden to his death.

Lee chose no defensive of his own will. None knew better than he that axiom of the military art which finds the logical end of defence in surrender. None knew better than he that Fabius had never earned his fame by the policy some attribute to him, nor saved his country by retreats, however regular, or the skill, however great, to choose positions only to abandon them. The defensive was not his chosen field, but he was fated to conduct a defensive campaign rivaled by few, and surpassed by none in history. Of that wonderful work the details are yet to be gathered, but the outlines are known the world over. The tremendous onset of Lee in the tangled wilderness upon an enemy three times his force, who fancied him retreating; the grim wrestle of Spotsylvania; the terrible repulse of Cold Harbor, from which the veteran commanders of Grant shrank back aghast. These great actions will be known so long as war shall be studied, and future generations will read with admiration of that battlefield of seventy miles, where Lee with 51,000 men confronted Grant with his 190,000—attacked him wherever he showed uncovered front, killed, wounded and captured more men than his own army numbered, and in a campaign of thirty-five days, forced the most tenacious soldier of the Union armies to abandon utterly his line of attack, to take a new position always open to him but never chosen, and to exchange the warfare of the open field for the slow and safe approach of the earthworks and the siege.

They will read, too, that in the midst of this campaign, Lee was bold to spare from his little army force enough to take once more the offensive, to traverse once more the familiar Valley, to break once more through the gate of the Potomac, and to insult with the fires of his bivouacs the capital city of his enemy. Reading these things, they will refuse to believe, what we know, that men were found here and now to call this marvelous campaign a retreat.

The truth is that Lee took a real defensive, if at all, only in the

TRENCHES OF PETERSBURG;

was driven to that defensive not by one army nor by many armies in succession, but by the combined force of the armies in his front and in his rear. Vicksburg it was, not Cemetery Hill, which baffled the Army of Northern Virginia; at Nashville and Atlanta, not from the lines of Petersburg came the deadly blows; and the ragged remnant of Appomattox surrendered not to the valor or skill of the men they had so often met and overcome, but to the men they had never seen, and yielded neither to stubborn Grant nor braggart Sheridan, but to the triumphant hosts of Rosecrans, of Thomas and of Sherman.

It is not hard, then, my friends, to see that history will hold Lee to be a great soldier, wise in counsel, patient in preparation, swift in decision, terrible in onset, tenacious of hold, sullen in retreat, a true son of that Berserker race that rushed from the bosom of Europe's darkest age, furious to fight, lovers of battle, destined to sweep away the old world and to mould the modern.

Rightly to estimate his power as commander is not and may never be possible. There is no second term of comparison. He was in a position as novel as were the conditions of a war where the railroad existed, but the highway was not; where telegraphs conveyed orders, yet primeval forests still stood to conceal armies; where concentration was possible at a speed unknown to war before, but where concentration might easily starve itself before it could strike its enemy.

Strange as the material, were the moral conditions of Lee's command. He was hampered by political considerations; he was trammelled by the supreme importance of one city; and, above all, on him was complete responsibility, but never commensurate power. To the integrity of his army—to the morale of half his force—the successful defence of the South and Southwest was essential, and on operations in which he had no voice turned the issue of his campaigns.

Of these things account will yet be taken, let us be sure of that; for though in barbarous ages conquered peoples write no histories, yet, as the world grows older, history grows more and more a judge, less and less a witness and advocate; more and more to every cause that appeal lies open, which Francis Bacon, of Verulam, made "to future ages and other countries."

Fit is it that we trust to that great verdict, seeing that nothing less than the tribunal of mankind can judge this man, who was born not for a period, but for all time; not for a country, but for the world; not for a people, but for the human race.

Not for him shall the Arch of Triumph rise; not for him Columns of Victory, telling through monumental bronze the hideous tale of tears and blood that grins from the skull pyramids of Dahomey. Not to his honor shall extorted tributes carve the shaft or mould the statue; but this day a grateful people give of their poverty gladly, that in pure marble, or time-defying bronze, future generations may see the counterfeit presentment of this man—the ideal and bright consummate flower of our civilization; not an Alexander, it may be; nor Napoleon, nor Timour, nor Churchill—greater far than they, thank heaven—the brother and the equal of Sidney and of Falkland, of Hampden and of Washington.

  1. Actually, second: see Wikipedia (Wikisource contributor note)