“It is Well that War is so Terrible…”

001confSince my trip to Fredericksburg last week I’ve been thinking about the words Robert E. Lee supposedly uttered to James Longstreet during the battle on Telegraph Hill.  If you look up the quote Online you will get any number of versions.  Here are just a few:

1. It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it.
2. It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.
3. It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.

I’ve always been struck by the slight differences between the three interpretations so I decided to look for the origin of the quote.  I started with both George Rable and Francis O’Reilly’s recent studies of the battle.   Both point to the 1907 publication of Edward Porter Alexander’s Military Memoirs of a Confederate, which references Lee as follows: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.” (p. 302).  Keep in mind that these words were supposedly uttered to James Longstreet, but he makes no mention whatsoever in his own memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox, which was published in 1896.

In the introduction to his edited collection on Fredericksburg, Gary Gallagher offers a few remarks on the Lee quote.  He notes that Douglas Southall Freeman cited John Esten Cooke’s 1871 biography of Lee with a few alterations to the quote itself and also mentions Jackson’s failure to reference the comment.  Cooke served on Stuart’s staff so I guess there is the possibility that Lee said it; as far as I know Cooke’s is the earliest reference.  Freeman’s referencing of the quote is worth reading:

Lee’s eyes flashed as he saw them, and the blood of “Light-Horse Harry” fought in his veins with the calmer strain of the peace-loving Carters.  Turning to Longstreet he revealed the whole man in a single sentence: “It is well that war is so terrible–we would grow too fond of it!”  As he uttered the words, he seemed in the eyes of a British correspondence who stood by to have about him an “antique heroism.” (2:462)

First, if that ain’t a dose of psycho-history I don’t know what is.  I guess we could suggest that Longstreet’s failure to cite the sentence in his memoir was intentional given the critical nature of much of the book.  However, it’s just as likely that Lee never said it at all.  There is something about the quote that is too good to be true.  It functions to reinforce our preferred image of Lee on the battlefield.  Consider Gallagher’s brief assessment:

These two brief sentences have done much to define Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia for generations of readers: the brilliant soldier, his martial ardor aroused, quietly exulting as the men of his famous army demonstrated their prowess on yet another battlefield. (vii)

I am not for a moment denying Lee’s leadership skills and military prowess on the battlefield, but I have a sense that the pervasiveness of this quote tells us more about our own attitudes toward the Civil War than it does about Lee.  That may sound strange, but if we assume for a moment that Cooke may have heard something said to Longstreet during the battle, by 1871 (and Lee’s death) it may have become ever so slightly altered to fit into his already growing mythical status.

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23 comments… add one
  • Martha Feb 21, 2022 @ 20:25

    It is antique as in classical. Lee expressed something very Homeric.

  • Jane Arnold Apr 28, 2016 @ 6:37

    Lee was classically trained. Perhaps he was thinking of Erasmus as he watched the slaughter on Marye’s Heights. Erasmus said, “War is delightful for those who have no experience of it.”

  • John B. Robb Apr 19, 2015 @ 7:41

    The first point I would make regarding the lack of corroboration of Lee’s remark in other memoirs is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The writings of Lee’s senior lieutenants had much ground to cover, with the focus on their own doings: they were not professional biographers.

    Second, Porter Alexander was one of the most astute, careful, and objective observers of the confederate officers around Lee who left memoirs, and the most analytical of any of the memoirs I’ve read. Alexander was also for a long time a close and trusted member of Lee’s staff, and would have been one of the officers most likely to have overheard such a remark, and to have been struck by it sufficiently to remember and record it.

    Third, this remark is fully in character for Lee, and I would expect that he expressed such sentiments many a time.

  • Samuel Fondren Feb 2, 2015 @ 18:30

    “It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow to fond of it.” —R.E. Lee, from Lee, by Douglas Southall Freeman

    I have studied Freeman’s research material and know his his zeal for facts, and I would take his word for it. No one had researched Lee better.

    I believe it was at Marye’s Heights, and there was a British correspondent there as well. He marveled at Lee’s ‘antique heroism.’

  • John Nihen Aug 4, 2013 @ 3:21

    I’ll have to go look it up, but I think this quote was attributed to Gen. George McLellan in Jeff Schaara’s novel “God & Generals,” allegedly just before the Battle of Fredericksburg. I realize that G&G is a fictional retelling, but I was surprise after seeing Gettysburg to hear people associating the quote with Robert E. Lee.

  • Jobobby87 Jan 12, 2012 @ 13:06

    When I read the quote whether Lee made it up himself, was quoting it from somewhere, or was attributed to him posthumously I find it has a forward looking sense. The American civil war was far more violent than most Americans today realize. The effects of looking at an event with the fog of time in between us. But, look what’s happening today. We do more war waging on a computer screen than ever before these days. As a result, the more technology is removing us from the battlefield the more willing we war to use warfare as a means to get what we want. You don’t see the carnage thousands of miles away in some air conditioned room the same way you do with the enemy in your face. War has become less terrible and we have become too fond of it and are getting fonder with each new high-tech super toy we put on the field.

    The quote, whether it was Lee’s or not, should be seen not as some profound novelty of a long past war, but a warning even if its too late to heed it.

    • Ray O'Hara Jan 12, 2012 @ 13:32

      a good point that brings to mind a Star Trek episode where Kirk and friends visit a planet where two sides are fighting a war by computer simulation. people die do to the simulation’s results but there is no actual fighting, just those “killed’ report to chambers where they are euthanized . Kirk causes a “violation” of the agreement which will bring about actual war in the hope that real destruction and carnage might lead to an end to a war that has lasted for generations.

  • Ed Aug 24, 2010 @ 8:30

    A different twist — and one relevant to a high school teacher: the quote is textbook ADHD.

    They didn’t know what it was then, but it existed and it is inherited. The quote references both – it is no where near enough to do anything more than point as significant, but someone with untreated (or even treated) ADHD is going to find command of a battle both focusing and calming — and both to be incredibly pleasurable when compared to the frantic scrambled chaos of the ADHD mind — there is a reason why they recommend such children to go into high-stakes/high-stress jobs where they often thrive beyond their teacher’s wildest dreams.

    Do you have any idea how many high school detention-room regulars go on to become really good cops — if they have a chief who will both tolerate them while keeping them in line, they are high maintenance but good officers.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2010 @ 8:42

      Thanks Ed, but I am not sure that one quote is sufficient to make such a diagnosis.

  • James S. Robbins Dec 2, 2008 @ 12:02

    Kevin, here is another important tidbit to add to the discussion. In War Talks of Confederate Veterans (1892), George S. Bernard uses the quote with respect to the Battle of Chancellorsville, but credited to “one of Britain’s great cavalrymen, as he wiped his sword upon his horse’s mane, after a famous charge” (pp. 48-9). So perhaps the quote originated after Balaclava or some other battle, and was either attributed to Lee gratuitously, or Lee was quoting a saying he and Longstreet knew but observers thought he was originating. This might also explain why Longstreet didn’t mention the quote later, since it would be much less noteworthy a comment if it was second-hand.

    I have looked around a little to see if the quote is sourced to other than Lee and have not found anything. Of course as you know the variations make searching difficult — it could be something like “Well be it that war is so terrible…” for example. But the fact that Bernard knew the quote in a context wholly removed from Lee is very important. It is much more credible to believe that the quote migrated to or was repeated by Lee than that a Lee quote was somehow attributed to a British cavalryman, especially in a book about the Confederate Army.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2008 @ 7:39

    There is a tension in Lee’s comment between the natural tendencies of fascination and revulsion. On the one hand, he acknowledges that battle brings about a certain sense of awe and at the same time he expresses concern regarding the level of attraction. At the same time he seems to be suggesting that if battle was not as bloody that a certain level of “fondness” would be justified or more easily defended.

  • matthew mckeon Sep 11, 2008 @ 18:21

    Patton was an unabashed war lover his whole life, and deliberately created a persona(the dirty talk, the pistols, elaborate uniforms) that expressed this. He was transgressive in an age that found war a horror, and the more common leadership style was like Eisenhower, rational, managerial, democratic, and plain in appearance.

    Lee obviously found a personal fulfillment in the challenge of leading a major army and triumphing against the odds. He had the emotional distance necessary to order costly attacks, when he decided victory demanded them. He did express, especially after the war, a civilized repugnance to the idea of fighting wars at all(see Fellman’s “Making of Robert E. Lee,”).

    A good comparsion would be the Duke of Wellington, who mentioned his disgust with war towards the end of his military career more than once.

  • David Rhoads Sep 10, 2008 @ 13:29

    While the “it is well that war is so terrible” saying seems to fit precisely the picture of Lee that Freeman sought to present and, indeed, conforms to the description Longstreet offered (and was excoriated for) of Lee as a man whose “blood was up” in the midst of battle, I have never understood why it is so widely perceived as a profound statement. Although it’s fairly clear what Lee may have been getting at–i.e., the somewhat curious affinity for the spectacle of violence that characterizes human beings in general, especially when that violence occurs on a large scale and is overlaid with the trappings of tribe or state–the statement itself doesn’t quite parse logically. It’s good that war is bad, we’re told, because if it weren’t bad we would enjoy it too much. Of course, if it weren’t bad, it wouldn’t matter that we enjoy it.

    My own take on the quotation–if in fact Lee actually said it or something like it to Longstreet as he looked down on the appalling carnage taking place below Marye’s Heights–is that it expresses something similar to the confession whispered by George C. Scott in the character of George Patton in the movie “Patton”: “I love it. God help me, I do love it so.”

  • Kevin Levin Sep 10, 2008 @ 5:55

    Brooks, — No doubt, Grant would be an exception to my statement.

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 10, 2008 @ 3:44

    It’s not something Grant would have said. He was rather grim about the whole business.

  • Dan Sep 9, 2008 @ 23:07

    I sincerely believe Lee said it, but I also believe he read it somewhere.

  • Matt McKeon Sep 9, 2008 @ 19:16

    I’ve also understood it as; Lee amidst the exultation of the victorious Confederates, makes a civilized and humane acknowledgement of that war is, after all, hell.

    But of course, I’m reading into this quote what I want to hear. Lee is enigmatic enough to serve as mirror.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 9, 2008 @ 18:50

    Brooks, — You may be right. That said, it seems to me that such a view would be pervasive throughout the military for any number of reasons, but why do we make such a big deal that Lee expressed such a view?

    Larry, — Thanks so much for taking the time to look it up. I appreciate the effort and will definitely give you some extra-credit in my grade book 🙂

    • Rob Baker Oct 28, 2014 @ 4:30

      Found this post today as I was refining my notes for class. I am of the mind that Lee could have uttered the famous words, or at the very least something preferable. However, analyzing other officers throughout the early Republic, one quickly sees that this sort of mindset is not really extraordinary. A lot of these men are very hungry for war, yet once they experience it, they are more solemn in their reflections.

      For example, Sherman’s often quotes phrase, “War is hell.” People use that small snippet to depict a war hungry animal hell bent on destruction. However, take a look at the quote in its entirety.

      I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.

      Paints a rather interesting picture, yes? You should see what these guys wrote about their involvement in Indian Removal throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s.

  • Larry Cebula Sep 9, 2008 @ 18:34

    The phrase “antique heroism” struck me as worth the google and I found this 1863 reference to the phrase being descriptive of Lee, though it is attributed originally to someone else:

    “It would be presumptuous in me to say one word in commendation of the serenity, or, if I may so express it, the unconscious dignity of Gen. Lee’s courage, when he is under fire. No one who sees and knows his demeanor in ordinary life would expect any thing else from one so calm, so undemonstrative and unassuming. But the description applied after the battle of Alma to Lord Raglan, by Marshal St. Arnaud, and in which, noticing Lord Raglan’s unconsciousness under fire, he speaks of his ” antique heroism.”

    This is from The Rebellion Record by Frank Moore (1863):

    The book does not seem to have anything like the iconic quote, however. The books itself is a cut-and-paste of various news sources, the quote above is attributed to a “London ‘Times’ Narrative” dated December 12, 1862.

    So if this British correspondent “stood by him” while Lee uttered the words, he did not write it down and is not the source for the quotation.

    You Civil War historians can take it from here. I am just some guy with Google.

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 9, 2008 @ 18:29

    See, I think he said it, or something very much like it. Lee liked the challenge of battle (Longstreet tells us this elsewhere, and he’s not alone). Sure, he regretted the bloodshed, but I think that otherwise he looked forward to battle.

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