January 19 will mark the birthday of one of the most revered military leaders in American history. In fact, Robert E. Lee remains one of the most studied and respected military commanders in world history, though he was ultimately on the losing side.
Robert Edward Lee was born on Stratford Hall plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in 1807. He was the youngest son of Revolutionary War hero, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee and Anne Hill Carter. Henry Lee III was a close military confident of fellow Virginian, George Washington. He was a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress form 1786 to 1788 and later became the 9th Governor of Virginia from1791 to1794. However, he lost most of his fortune in the financial panic of 1795-6. Nevertheless, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1799. During his one two-year term he wrote the Congressional tribute to Washington on his death in 1799: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” Continued financial difficulties resulted in a year in debtors prison in 1809. He spent most of the rest of his life in the West Indies trying to recover his wealth and from injuries received while rescuing a friend from mob violence in 1812. He died in 1818 on his way back to Virginia, when young Robert was only 11-years-old.
In growing up, the young Lee was influenced by his father’s military and political legacy including his financial humiliation and struggles. He was also strongly influenced by his mother’ s Biblical teachings and the character of his father’s friend, George Washington. It was not surprising that he decided upon a military career and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Lee graduated second of the 46 cadets who graduated in June 1829 and began his career as a Second Lieutenant assigned to the Engineer Corps. Lee distinguished himself in combat reconnaissance assignments under General Winfield Scot in the Mexican War from 1846 to 1848, but his emerging leadership style and effectiveness became most apparent during his tenure as Superintendent the U.S Military Academy from 1852 to 1855.
Lee immediately saw the need for tighter academic and discipline standards at the Academy and undertook a careful study of needed changes. Then he began to implement them without fanfare. Although Lee’s outstanding academic performance and strict military bearing had gained him the nickname “the Marble Man” with his classmates as a cadet, his leadership style was anything but stiff and overbearing. The Cadet Corps was only about 200 at the time, and he took a personal interest in every cadet, especially those who struggled with the strenuous academic and strict military discipline of the school. Lee had high standards, but his style was not to push, drive, or threaten. According to his most celebrated biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman,
“He carried them [the cadets] on his heart, and spent many an anxious hour debating how he could best train them to be servants of their country by making them masters of themselves.”
Lee kept a close eye on class reports, and when he perceived that a cadet was in danger of failing, he watched his standing week by week, consulted his instructors, and sometimes brought the young man in for a personal talk. He sometimes wrote letters to parents encouraging them to encourage disheartened students. When a cadet’s failure seemed inevitable, he would write the parents encouraging them to let him resign and thereby save him the humiliation of dismissal.
Later as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies, one of the reasons for Lee’s spectacular success in motivating Confederate soldiers, who were often badly outnumbered, out-gunned, and coping with inadequate supplies and clothing, was that they knew his orders were not given to gain himself promotion, praise, or personal glory. He had the highest standards of duty and honor and that included responsibilities to his troops as well as cause and country.
Here are some quotes from Lee and others that illustrate the general’s “shepherding” style of leadership.
On discipline Lee remarked, “A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.”
“As a general principle, you should not force young men to do their duty, but let them do it voluntarily and thereby develop their characters…. Make no needless rules.”—Lee to faculty of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) while president of the institution after the war.
“His soldiers reverenced him and had unbounded confidence in him, for he shared all their privations.”—Recollection of a Confederate officer.
“It was remarkable what confidence the men reposed in General Lee; they were ready to follow him wherever he might lead, or order them to go.”—a private in the Army of Northern Virginia.
“When a man makes a mistake, I call him to my tent, talk to him, and use the authority of my position to make him do the right thing the next time.”—Lee, advising a subordinate officer.[After Lee took command]…”the troops improved in appearance…The discipline became better; they went into battles with shouts and without being urged, and when in, fought like tigers….A more marked change for better never was made in any body of men than wrought in his army…”—A Northern newspaper reporter, 1862.
When told that his chaplains were praying for him daily Lee responded:
“I can only say that I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation.”
Responding to public praise, Lee said:
“I tremble for my country when I hear of confidence expressed in me. I know too well my weakness, that our only hope is in God.”
Robert E. Lee Making Hard Choices
From December 20, 1860, through February 1, 1861, seven Southern states seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The immediate cause of their secession was not slavery. There was tension between North and South over slavery, but Abraham Lincoln and most Northern political leaders were willing to let it be. The principal Northern objection to slavery was that they did not want it to spread to new territories or prospective states or to overflow into Northern states that had already phased out slavery. A substantial part of this Northern objection to slavery was an antipathy toward blacks. In fact, Illinois (the President’s own state), Indiana, Ohio, and Oregon had strict laws against blacks entering into their territories.
The Northern states were tolerant of slavery as long as it was contained in the South. On February 28 and March 2 of 1861, in order to forestall or prompt reconsiderations of Southern secessions, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate passed by the required two-thirds of its un-seceded members a prospective Constitutional Amendment (the Corwin Amendment) that would have forever prohibited any Congressional legislation that interfered with slavery:
“No Amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give power to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of such State.”
Lincoln endorsed this prospective Amendment in his inaugural speech on March 4, 1861. The South, however, ignored it. The primary Southern reason for secession was independence from all Northern economic and political dominance. Ohio, Maryland, and Illinois actually ratified the Amendment, but the outbreak and continuation of the war, which was really a war to prevent Southern independence, essentially dissolved further interest in ratification.
The immediate causes of Southern secession were an unfair tax system to be imposed on the South by a Northern Congressional majority and continuing Northern disregard for the Constitution. Approximately 87 percent of the Federal Tax burden fell on the South in the form of tariffs on imported goods. The new Morrill Tariff would raise average tariff rates from 15 percent to 47 percent over the next three years. Lincoln’s number one campaign issue in the 1860 election had been to pass high-tariff legislation to protect Northern industry from foreign competition. He thus endorsed the Morrill Tariff in his inaugural speech and promised to collect it even from seceded states. In addition to the tax burden, high tariffs severely impacted Southern income from cotton exports. Hence the South favored free trade or low tariffs, while politically dominant Northern industry demanded high protective tariffs. Federal tax revenues also went disproportionately to Northern projects.
After over 40 years of bitter disputes over tariff rates, Southerners realized that politically dominant Northern commercial interests had no reservations about trampling the Constitution under foot to advance their interests regardless of the economic suffering imposed on the South. Hence Southern States depended upon strict adherence to the Constitution and States Rights to protect their commercial and political interests from an unsympathetic Northern majority that aggressively advanced its interests over that of the nation.
Southern secession would mean a devastating loss of Federal tax revenue to the Union. Moreover, Southern free trade would ruin Northern shipping. Foreign trade would shift from high-tariff Northern ports to low-tariff Southern ports.
On March 29, 1861, Lincoln’s Cabinet approved his plan to reinforce Fort Sumter, although they knew it meant war. Col. Robert E. Lee was already in route from Texas to Washington for a meeting with U.S. Army Commandant Winfield Scott, who had been his commander in the Mexican War. Scott considered Lee the greatest military genius in America. They met in Washington on April 1 and evidently discussed the possibility of war–which Scott already knew was in the works.
At 4:30 am on April 12, Confederate batteries encircling Fort Sumter began to bombard it to prevent its reinforcement and resupply by Union warships nearing Charleston’s defense perimeter. Fort Sumter was forced to surrender to the Confederates on April 14, but Lincoln never expected reinforcement and resupply to be accomplished. His real purpose was to use the Fort Sumter incident to rally the Northern public to support his planned invasion of the South.
On April 15, Lincoln called on state governors for 75,000 volunteers to invade the Southern states and put down the “rebellion.” This was the immediate cause of the war.
On April 18, Francis Preston Blair, acting with Lincoln’s authorization, offered Lee the position of Supreme Commander of the United States Army and command of nearly 100,000 men.
Lee later described his reaction:
“After listening to his remarks, I declined the offer he made me to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field; stating as candidly and as courteously as I could, that, though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.”
As an immediate consequence of Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops to invade the South, four other states seceded: Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. In addition, Lincoln had to send troops to Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland to prevent them from seceding.
Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on April 20, and wrote this brief note to his sister:
With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native state, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.”
To his wife, he had already written: “There is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honor.” hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.”
To his wife, he had already written:
“There is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honor.”