William W. Bergen on “Lee at 200”

Thanks to Bill Bergen for allowing me to share this talk which he will present tonight at the final session of the University of Virginia’s seminar on Robert E. Lee.  Bill is Assistant Dean for Administrative Services for the University of Virginia’s Law School.  Bergen has lectured widely and has served as an instructor at several of the University’s annual Civil War Conferences. He is the author of “The Other Hero of Cedar Creek: The ‘Not Specially Ambitious’ Horatio G. Wright,” a biographical essay appearing in Gary W. Gallagher’s ed. The 1864 Shenandoah Campaign published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2006.

The Robert E. Lee of legend is perfect, imperturbable, stoic. But one can glimpse the restlessness of the man from a close reading of Lee’s private letters. Take, for example, his strange penchant for counting socks.

More than a dozen of Lee’s letters to Mary Custis Lee during the first five months of 1864 contain references to the homemade socks she had sent. Among the comments the General wrote back to the home front were “There were 67 pairs . . . instead of 64 as you supposed.” “the number of pairs scarcely ever agrees with your statement;” “There were only 23 pairs & not 25 as you stated. I opened the bag & counted them myself twice.” As Lee’s biographer Emory Thomas put it, “Confronted with massive problems, most of which he could not solve, Lee tended to refocus his attention simpler matters over which he did have some influence.” I don’t know about you, but I have had bosses like that; not for nothing did Lee’s staff call him “the tycoon” behind his back.

This seminar has examined Lee from several perspectives, and the overall effect has been to paint a more human portrait. Tonight’s topic is whether Lee matters in today’s world, and my task is to focus on the relevance of Lee the soldier. The answer to the question is easy: Lee is highly relevant. As Gen. John F.C. Fuller, one of Lee’s early and most distinguished military critics conceded, “few generals have been able to animate an army as [Lee’s] self-sacrificing idealism animated the Army of Northern Virginia . . . What this bootless, ragged, half-starved army accomplished is one of the miracles of history.” Lee was the indispensable man, and surely the Civil War would neither endured so long or been so bloody were it not for Lee’s military brilliance. Lee’s military accomplishments guarantee that the study of what he did, and how he did it, will remain germane to the profession of arms for generations to come.

One approach to studying Lee’s significance is to identify the skills that he demonstrated as a soldier, and determine the extent to which one might emulate them. Some of these skills are teachable, at least to a point. Lee learned much at West Point, both as a student and as superintendent in the 1850’s. Graduating second in his class, Lee, like all top graduates, was assigned to the engineers, and he had a major hand in designing forts along the east coast. There he employed the drawing and drafting skills he was taught at the Point. This experience and education combined to develop what became in warfare an uncanny eye for terrain. We can see some of Lee’s power of observation at work in his surviving sketches.

While superintendent, library records show Lee read French military histories and the campaigns of Napoleon, and engaged faculty members in discussion. He apparently consulted with his venerable engineering professor, Dennis Hart Mahan, about the importance of field fortifications in warfare. Those lessons would be put to use repeatedly during the Civil War as a means to help equal the odds against a numerically superior foe and to allow for a reserve that Lee could use to launch an attack. So Lee never stopped studying for a war he knew might never come. Contrast this approach to that of his subordinate, Richard Ewell, a West Pointer who once said that in the old army "I learned all about commanding fifty United States dragoons and forgot everything else.”

Experience, too, teaches lessons, but it requires thought and reflection to understand and absorb them, and there is every reason to believe Lee did just that. His wartime service as an aide to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott in Mexico could not have been at a higher level for so young an officer, and what he learned there that would he applied 15 years later. It is to his service with Scott that Douglas Southall Freeman attributed Lee’s audacity, tactical and strategic planning abilities, and the importance he placed on reconnaissance.

Because of his gentle manner, we tend to forget that Lee was a sharp student of human nature. In Mexico and in his other postings, Lee learned lessons, both positive and negative, about how to get the best out of subordinates, how to delegate responsibility, how to get along with civilian superiors. During the Civil War, the skill with which Lee removed or transferred officers not up to his standards and found at times spectacular replacements is a testament to his ability to measure how men could, and could not, grow into a role.

Lee’s education, both experiential and formal, contributed to an uncanny ability to absorb and analyze disparate pieces of information. Lee’s facility for doing this was demonstrated repeatedly, but never to greater effect during the battle of Chancellorsville, usually ranked as his greatest victory. A newspaper report about the kind of rations being issued to the Union Army, a sighting of a pontoon train on the move, enemy pickets suddenly wearing full marching gear – all these formed clues to the Union army’s direction, size, and composition that proved key to Lee’s success.

But it is one thing to receive and assimilate such information and another to act on it. Lee did so act, and while he was occasionally wrong, his decisive and aggressive action often spelled the difference between defeat and victory. Lee did not wait until things were perfectly clear. Again at Chancellorsville, Lee’s ability to recognize that the early U.S. forces moves were feints and that the main threat was to come from the west was crucial to his capturing the initiative. His ability to decide quickly allowed him to repeatedly divide his smaller army to meet shifting enemy dispositions.

So studying Lee’s life remains relevant to the profession of arms, and today’s soldiers can, to a point, emulate him. He was forever learning. He developed strong skills of observation. He learned how to obtain, analyze, and act on information. He became an expert on human foibles. Pertinent lessons these to us all . . . . but these qualities sound like those found in inane self-help books. At least four such books are in prints today that purport to use Lee’s words and deeds to teach lessons to today’s leaders.

But beyond developing skills and studying how Lee came to issue the orders that he did, how does one teach that indefinable quality of leadership? Robert E. Lee understood that leadership stems more from character than anything else. From whatever source—the need to restore the Lee family reputation, the values conveyed at West Point, his deep religious faith, or something deeper inside his psyche—Lee’s character stands out as his greatest attribute. It was that character that gave him the stamina and great courage to perform so well in Mexico and to remain calm in the direst of circumstances during the Civil War.

It was that strength of character that separated him from his peers. Careful study and examined experience alone do not produce great generals. One needs but to read the list of engineers who became prominent generals in either army—George McClellan, Joseph Johnston, Pierre Beauregard, George Meade, Henry Halleck—to appreciate how Lee overcame the natural prudence of an engineer to become, in the words of a staff officer, “audacity personified.” That aggressiveness, that moral courage, that instinct for the initiative, can only come from within.

But personal character is not sufficient to become a general for the ages. While many people demonstrate character, rare is the ability to project it as Lee did. Abraham Lincoln put this quality into metaphoric form. "Character,” he once wrote, “is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Lee was the real thing, but long was the shadow he cast. His ability to inspire others by his very presence is a rare quality, and it explains much about why many gave their all because Lee was relying on them. Lord Wolseley, who as an English observer had met and traveled with Lee during the Civil War, rose to command the British Army and was well acquainted with the great men of his age. Yet he would write in his memoirs that Lee’s “greatness made me humble, and I never felt my own individual insignificance more keenly than I did in his presence.” There is no way to teach such character, and in this sense Lee remains a mystery still.

We end where we began, with a glimpse of the human side of Robert E. Lee. Besides being the president of Washington College, Lee was senior warden at Grace Episcopal Church, a stone edifice sited just steps from his home and within sight of his office. In the Episcopal Church, wardens are the top lay officials in the congregation, and on the unseasonably cold evening of September 27, 1870 Lee chaired a meeting of the church’s governing board, know then, as now, as the vestry. The rector of the church was the Rev. William Pendleton, Lee’s erstwhile chief of artillery. Pendleton owed his wartime rank largely to his West Point classmate, Jefferson Davis, but all in the army recognized that Pendleton was a hopeless blunderer. Pendleton, complained one of his subordinates, "is like the elephant, we have & we don’t know what on earth to do with him, and it cost a devil of a sight to feed him." Lee, with his characteristic tact and instinct for knowing how far he could push his president, eased Pendleton into administrative duties where he could cause little harm.

After a long discussion, Lee and the vestry realized that they were $55 short of the amount needed to raise the rector’s salary. The meeting ended when Lee quietly told his colleagues that “I will give that sum.” As the gathering broke up, Lee donned his heavy military cloak, and perhaps reflected that, even in peacetime, Pendleton remained a burden. Lee walked back uphill through a gathering storm to his home. Once there, he sat down to dinner but was unable to speak. Doctors were summoned, and a bedside vigil began that would end only with his death two weeks later on October 12, 1870.

As the general lay dying, a tempest of Shakespearean fury blew up, washing out bridges and roads. When the storm passed, Lexington residents were treated to a rare and, to many, ominous, display of Northern Lights. Not content with these mythic events to foreshadow the passing of the great warrior, one chronicler reported that Lee, in his delirium, wandered back to the battlefield, issuing orders to generals long dead, and concluding with the appropriate final words “strike the tent.” Modern scholarship has found that this account contradicts several others, and that Lee’s condition probably precluded his saying more than a word at time. And so the last substantive words we have for certain from Robert E. Lee is “I will give that sum.” His last words reflected an acceptance of personal responsibility while in a job he felt obligated to hold, in deference to an old associate who remained needful of his support. . . . “I will give that sum.” Fitting final words those for someone whose entire life was defined by duty and character.

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