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.”