Since 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.