Reading the Man Chapters 11-15

Due to Cadet Bone Spurs reversing his position and causing a government shutdown, the Gettysburg National Military Park folks were forced to cancel this part of the book discussion, but I’ll go through what the chapters covered. Chapter 11 is titled, “Crenellations.” “Crenellation was a common word in Robert E. Lee’s vocabulary. It refers to a defensive wall with intermittent spaces for lookouts or guns, and is most familiar as the toothed upper level of a castle.” [p. 180] This part of the book discusses Lee’s career in the United States Army between the Mexican War and the secession crisis. “His friends were chosen from the same crowd he had enjoyed at West Point–largely Southerners whose academic achievement mirrored his own, and who reciprocated his high regard. Jack Mackay, who loved Shakespeare and fishing and had a dog named Fang, remained Lee’s closest friend. As a young man Lee also spent a great deal of time with Joe Johnston, whose career path paralleled his own, and with whom he liked to ‘prowl around’ the garrison, looking for late-night chatter. Except for the prized relationships with his cousins, army connections were the strongest of his life, and Lee never underestimated their importance.” [p. 182] Ms. Pryor read many hundreds of Lee letters to his friends and colleagues. They were “as sympathetic and quick to applaud hard-earned success as they are full of witty banter. Rarely does he show any overt competition or indulge in malicious gossip. Interestingly, neither does he often extend himself professionally for his friends.” [p. 183] Lee basically stayed out of his colleagues’ business. Pryor speculates Lee may have been a better companion than friend.  Regarding Lee’s political views, “It has been assumed from the activism of his father and father-in-law, and the long veneration his family held for Federalist views, that Lee was a Whig until around 1850, when he clearly began to sympathize with the Democratic Party, which reflected southern priorities on slavery and states’ rights. But if all politics is local, Lee’s foremost concern was for the parochial interests of the army, its troop movements, transfers, and personalities, and how Congress and the popular will would influence its evolution. These issues affected him personally; they had curtailed the work he began near St. Louis, and he would be similarly handicapped by insufficient funding in later postings. Even generous-spirited Lee could not always rise above jealousy and gossip on these subjects.” [p. 185] Lee was a good, competent engineer, but image aside, he wasn’t one of the top engineers. “Lee lacked the imagination and passion of the most talented engineers, and he never rose above a conscientious proficiency in his work. while he was writing earnest descriptions of pile drivings, some of his colleagues were producing the most innovative engineering feats in the world. Chief Engineer Totten, himself a gifted chemist, successfully developed a cement that could withstand the ocean’s most powerful surf. Robert Parrott, who served with Lee at Fort Monroe, experimented with new kinds of rifles and cannon, and cast and constructed the hull for the first iron steamboat on the great Lakes. The intrepid Montgomery Meigs, a fine architect as well as technician, was made chief engineer of the Capitol building in the 1850s, shaping the design of the House and Senate wings, the dome, and the acoustics. In 1859 Meigs planned the Washington aqueduct and the splendid Cabin John Bridge, in its day the world’s largest stone masonry arch. More pedestrian in his abilities and ambitions, Lee would not reach this level of engineering” [p. 191] Many think of Lee as a Virginia aristocrat. In truth, he was middle class. “All of these attitudes and more placed Lee in the ranks of the professional classes, who had to work, but not with their hands, and who sought approbation from society while they looked for ways to advance. If he ever showed any consciousness of this ‘middle class’ association, he does not mention the fact. But he must have been aware that his outlook differed from that of his wife, father-in-law, and two eldest brothers. George Washington Parke Custis and his daughter, with their huge landholdings and their association with Mount Vernon, were aristocracy: there was no one in the country with a higher status than those who were connected to the first president. They had nothing to prove and cared little about outward trappings for the sake of conforming to societal expectation. G. W. P. Custis was charming but undirected, passing over responsible management of his estates to indulge his changeable temperament and artistic hobbies. Mary Custis Lee was gracious and intelligent, but said, did, and wore exactly what she pleased. Popular concepts of standardized behavior or self-denial had no resonance with her. Interestingly, Robert Lee’s two eldest brothers, who had experienced the balmier days at Stratford, were also carefree dilettantes, living in a world they had lost, unapologetic for their outsize schemes or personal misfortunes. Robert and Smith, who experienced less of Light-Horse Harry directly and more of his aftermath, seem to have felt that they existed somewhat precariously in society, that they needed to be all things to all people to maintain a good reputation. This may be one explanation of Robert Lee’s propensity for elaborate explanations whenever he tried to disentangle himself from responsibilities to his friends and family. Mary Lee involved herself when and where she liked, without apology. Her husband took care to make lengthy excuses, all of which were designed to show him in a respectable light.” [p. 194]

In Chapter 12 we look at Lee’s relationships with women. Lee was what we would call today a shameless flirt. “Enormously attached to his wife, he nonetheless carried on a lifelong affair of the heart with ladies young and old. He adored them all: little girls in pantalets; beautiful young cousins with flashing eyes; soft, lavender-clad matrons. … He is relaxed and playful in their company, by turns saucy, joking, and tender. Nothing–not marriage, or war, or advancing age–kept him from acting the beau.” [p. 197] Many times what he wrote was more than a little suggestive. “He was even less coy when he told his much-fancied Eliza Mackay that a letter from her had arrived that aroused him. ‘See what a temptation to sin you will give me,’ he wrote; and then, referring to a nineteenth-century autoerotic euphemism: ‘Do spare me the blame of its commission.’ Then he wrote to Eliza on her wedding night, admitting that he envied her new husband and wondered about all that was taking place in Savannah. ‘And how did you deport yourself My child,’ he wrote quite blatantly. ‘Did you go off well, like a torpedo cracker on Christmas morning? Do regulate me thereon in your next.’ ” [p. 201] There is no evidence Lee ever engaged in any actual infidelity, but he was an agent with some of his friends and colleagues in theirs, especially on the frontier. “The men seemed to think they had a particular license toward Indian and Mexican women, whom they believed to be inferior. Relations with them were common. At one fort it was reported that all but two of the officers kept Indian mistresses. lee’s groomsman Dick Tilghman was one who retained a squaw, and in 1850s Texas Lee helped his friend ‘Shanks’ Evans illicitly transport his ‘woman’ into Camp Cooper. The mistress of another of Lee’s subordinates in Texas lived openly with her lieutenant and gave birth in camp. Lee tolerated all of this without judgment, just as he did his cousins’ adventures or the misuse of drink among the men. If he partook himself, no one ever whispered about it.” [p. 202] Lee had close relationships with a number of women. “In one instance it is hard to imagine that Lee did not come close to overstepping his sexual code of conduct. This was with Markie Williams, a cousin of his wife, and, in the complicated Tidewater tables of genealogy, probably his relative as well. She spent a good deal of time at Arlington, and, along with brothers Laurence and Orton, became an intimate family member. Another dark-eyed beauty, and of a sweet temperament, she and Cousin Robert developed a close and sympathetic relationship. Over time their letters, and Markie’s diary entries, became increasingly sensual, often filled with sentiments that surpassed the bounds of close cousinly affection. ‘Oh Markie, Markie, when will you ripen?’ Lee wrote to her when she was just fifteen.” [pp. 203-204] Lee spent a lot of time writing to various women he admired. “There is something nagging here that makes Lee’s predilections seem a bit more than harmless flirtation. Women and children and animals were his favorite companions, all unquestionably subordinate to me. He could be so familiar and flattering with them because in the end they were not going to challenge him. His preference for their company helps us understand that he may have been more competitive than we thought. Lee had always been a striver, but had not achieved the recognition he longed for, and in the face of disappointment he carefully honed an air of detachment from ambition.” [p. 208]

Chapter 13 looks at Lee as Superintendent of West Point. It was not something he looked forward to before taking on the position. He sent three different letters to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis asking for another assignment, all for naught. “He wrote an uncharacteristically whining letter to his old comrade, P.G.T. Beauregard. He called it an ‘ill wind … that is driving me toward W.P.,’ and lamented ‘the thanklessness of the duty, and the impossibility of either giving or receiving satisfaction. I have been behind the scenes too long. I know exactly how it works. The Supt can do nothing right and must father every wrong.’ Having vented his irritation, he ended with the vow to ‘take it as we find it Beaury’ and to do his best despite the unsavory posting.” [p. 212] As superintendent, he did nothing innovative, but instead maintained the model Sylvanus Thayer set when Lee was a cadet, though he did make improvements in the facilities and courses. “He also improved the course in cavalry tactics. Cadet J.E.B. Stuart was one who remembered the new drill of ‘cutting with our sabers at artificial heads while going full speed.’ Lee showed foresight here, for he trained some of the greatest cavalrymen in American history: Phil Sheridan, Fitz Lee, Joseph Wheeler, and, of course, Stuart. With the eye of an engineer Lee also upgraded the water supply and brought in gas lighting. Lee waged a long battle to have the cadet hospital revamped–which he finally won.” [p. 213] Lee was a conscientious superintendent who worried about and tried to do his best for the cadets. “One of the internal conflicts Lee faced at West Point was that he was a man of both principle and compassion, and while he felt sympathy toward the cadets, he was also unbending in his adherence to duty. For Lee, army regulations were nearly an extension of his own controlled personality, and he had great trouble understanding the inability or unwillingness of his charges to adhere to these rigid behavioral expectation.” [p. 215] A number of cadets committed transgressions, but Lee was not above a little favoritism when it came to his family. “Among the offenders was Lee’s nephew Fitz, who arrived at West Point a ‘wild, careless and inexperienced youth,’ with all the high spirits that would one day making him a dashing cavalry officer. He was nearly dismissed after two episodes of absence without leave, involving midnight rambles and bottles of whiskey, but was allowed to graduate after Lee bargained on his behalf with General Totten. Some of Lee’s charges broke the rules out of forgetfulness, others for the thrill of defying authority.” [p. 215] Lee tried to be a strict disciplinarian while a superintendent, experimenting with that leadership style, and it failed miserably. “At the end of Lee’s posting, his own daughters thought the cadets were more undisciplined than ever, calling them ‘excessively rowdy and ill-behaved.’ Lee never did conquer his disciplinary problems, and his rigid administration was understandably unpopular.” [p. 217] Postwar reminiscences of his former cadets in many cases were influenced by the reputation Lee forged during the Civil War. “There is an interesting discrepancy between those who wrote grand reminiscences of their superintendent, based on appreciative memory and the glow of Lee’s wartime triumphs, and what they expressed at the time. When a request to visit a sick brother was overturned in 1854, one offended family wrote that Lee had ‘about as much heart as an Iron Ram Rod.’ Another, who was denied permission to receive a Christmas box from home, acknowledged that the superintendent had ‘made me so angry that I do not know what to do.’ The cadets hated the system of casting lots to determine quarters, which Lee had instituted in the name of fairness, for it broke up their old friendships. They derided a new type of French drilling that he introduced, claiming that it had them charging all over the field at 45-degree angles in a most painful and undignified fashion. … Some of this was the natural resentment young people felt for any constraining authority, but it is notable that few contemporary cadet letters show any affection for Colonel Lee.” [pp. 217-218]

In the next chapter we look at Lee’s religious beliefs. “Lee came slowly to the evangelical altar. His classical and scientific training gave him great respect for human progress, and he was reluctant to discard the structured logic of West Point for unquestioning acceptance of an inscrutable God. While he was still at the military academy, another lion of the evangelical field, Charles Pettit McIlvaine, became chaplain and slowly began to sway some of the cadets. Notable among these was Leonidas Polk, who would become both a bishop and a Confederate general. Cadet Lee failed to be impressed. … After his marriage he held on to his scientific questioning and boldly announced that he believed that one could ‘disrupt the ‘Lord thy God’ by going contrary to the dictates of the reason & judgment he has given to guide us in this world.’ For years he quoted Falstaff’s merry men, Don Quixote, or General Scott rather than the Bible to explain the mysteries of the universe. He admitted to falling asleep in church, and his young wife complained that he showed ‘little respect for the preacher’ when he was able to stay awake.” [p. 230] Just as many things change over time, so too did Lee’s religious outlook. “Twenty years of cumulative social pressure may have influenced Lee’s desire to trust solely in the mercy of God, but there is strong evidence that his epiphany came at the death of Mary Fitzhugh Custis in April 1853. Just as the passing of William Henry Fitzhugh had launched Mary Lee on her religious journey, his mother-in-law’s unexpected demise proved cathartic to Robert Lee. He called it ‘the most affecting calamity that has ever befallen us’ and struggled to find comfort. The swiftness of her departure–‘one day in the garden with her flowers, the next with her God’–impressed him with an understanding that each moment was precious.” [p. 231] Of course, with slavery being such an issue with the South, it’s necessary to discuss how religion intersected with slavery, especially during the war, with the coming of defeat. “When the end grew near, he, like so many other Southerners, realigned his argument to justify defeat. God and the South had had a sacred relationship. It was because God esteemed Southerners that he had so chastised them. The special tie was not ruptured as long as they bore the affliction bravely, he concluded, ‘until he is graciously pleased to pardon our Sins.’ It would be easy to interpret these lines as an admission of guilt over the wrongs of human slavery or the denial of God’s commandment not to kill. In the South such soul-searching was generally too painful to be broached, and the sins that were evoked–breaking the Sabbath, impatience and foolish quarrelling [sic], sloth and opportunism–substituted for a societal confrontation with shame. Those who dared to approach the ethical questions of slavery couched it in terms of abuse within the system, not a condemnation of the institution itself. Slavery, they believed, had been part of God’s compact with the South, a precious burden placed there so that whites could be sanctified by their responsibility, and Africans could be civilized through Christianity. Few doubted this: it gave them a mission and a purpose, as well as a justification for their continued reliance on the institution. Mary Chesnut recorded her astonishment when, late in the war, she heard from the pulpit a complete reversal of the righteous credo that had heralded the opening of the conflict. What she learned was that God did not condone slavery, and that agony had been visited on the South because of its acceptance of such practices. … Even when military defeat was obviously inevitable, it was denied by many, for the retribution it implied. Some have called it a massive cognitive dissonance, a denial of reality that substituted trivialities for transgression. … In some cases there was a real fear that the slave states had offended God. No one scrambled to publicly abandon the cause, but they did redefine it, often within the parameters of evangelical doctrine.” [pp. 238-239]

In Chapter 15 we look at Lee as an Indian fighter in Texas. Like most army officers of the time, Lee viewed the Indians as inferior. “Lee’s friends Jack Mackay and Ethan Allen Hitchcock were among the few who would show sympathy for the Indians and an appreciation of their culture, but Lee, who termed the natives ‘hideous’ and maintained that the government’s job was to ‘humanize’ them, was more in line with the mainstream view. Regulars also feared the Indians, and in that fear was a grudging admission of their skill. The Comanche were superior horsemen who fought with great ferocity, and with an intimate understanding of the terrain. Their ‘wonderful caution and subtlety’ were such that on one occasion a few warriors stole twenty horses by silently leading them through a guard of 600 soldiers. These were components of guerrilla warfare for which West Point graduates were not well trained. Within Comanche society a brave rose to chieftain through his natural ability to attract followers, and this also gave them certain advantages of leadership. When scalp-bedecked warriors appeared on the horizon, brandishing their red-painted lances and round buffalo-skin shields, the army men looked upon them with dread and detestation.” [p. 245] Lee was in the Second Cavalry, whose mission was to protect settlers and keep peace. “The policy was one of containment–the idea was to keep the Indians in a supervised area–and the unspoken agenda was to ‘civilize’ the Comanche by teaching them agriculture, and impressing on them the need to conform to the white man’s advance. In the racial presumption of the day, native peoples were expected to embrace the ‘superior’ ways of the white man with gratitude. If they did not do so by choice, indiscriminate killing was the accepted alternative. ‘It is a distressing state of things that requires the applications of such treatments, but it is the only corrective they understand, & the only way in which they can be taught to keep within their own limits,’ concluded Lee.” [pp. 245-246] Lee’s efforts in Texas were doomed to failure. “In early spring military posts 1856, after hearing of one particularly gruesome raid, [Albert Sidney] Johnston dispatched Lee with two companies of men to impress the raiders with the full power of the U.S. Cavalry. They set off in late May, the younger officers full of excitement. Camp Cooper with its scanty supplies and austere accommodations, its useless drills, harsh winds, and monotony, was a difficult post. The expedition was seen as a welcome relief from boredom and a chance to show off the army’s skill. Hubris was high after the successes of the Mexican War, and it was a still common conceit that twenty army men should be able to beat twice their number in Indian braves. The expedition turned out to be more a primer on the realities of the Texas wilderness than a chastisement of the Comanche. For weeks Lee and his men patrolled the desolate country, encountering only one small band of Indians, half of whom they killed. The same drought that had burned up the Comanche crops had parched the countryside, and the expedition became obsessed with the search for grass and water.” [pp. 246-247] In addition to his failure against the Comanche, Lee also failed in his efforts against a Mexican “bandito” raider, Juan Nepomuceno Cortinas. Sent after Cortinas, Lee was unsuccessful. “Despite repeated attempts to capture Cortinas, the banditos eluded the U.S. Army and continued to burn ranches and harass the Texans. Charismatic and handsome as well as audacious, Cortinas went on to enjoy a popular political career, and was ultimately elected governor of Tamaulipas Province. It was another period of demoralization for Lee. He did not succeed against Cortinas, and his diplomatic obligations taxed his abilities and his resources. He was beset, as always, by routine matters. Troop changes; cavalry horses that, ‘nearly worn out, sometimes drop dead on the trail’; military posts described as ‘wretched’; and perpetual disciplinary cases–all kept him working into the late hours of the night. At one point he was put in charge of a group of camels, which Jefferson Davis had ordered sent to the Southwest. The idea was to use the beasts to transport materiel and water in the arid countryside, where mules and men languished. The camels did well on a trial run, but Lee, scientific training to the fore, demanded another test. ‘I hope they will not suffer,’ Lee worried, but the expedition nearly ended in the death of both the camels and their escorts. Conditions were not much better in San Antonio. There was no ice, he told Agnes, and the water was ‘strongly impregnated with lime, too.’ Searing temperatures made sleep impossible. it was an atmosphere of low morale and smothered ambition. Desertion–another of Lee’s headaches–was a chronic problem.” [pp. 256-257] One bright spot for Lee was his interaction with friends while in Texas. “A. S. Johnston shared many interests with Lee, and before Johnston was sent to chase the Mormons, they enjoyed a companionable relationship. Lee spent Christmas holidays with Major George H. Thomas and his wife, both fellow Virginians, who would soon face Lee’s own formidable dilemma of loyalty and duty. Captain Nathan ‘Shanks’ Evans was a friend special enough to enjoy Lee’s irreverence and to share indiscretions that few were allowed to witness. With Evans he smuggled whiskey into the garrison in his water barrel, confided his ‘fancy’ for belles ‘neither white nor yellow,’ and once even used his official powers to transport Evans’s ‘woman’–not wife–in a specially escorted wagon to Camp Cooper. ‘I hope you will have great comfort in her,’ Lee drily remarked.” [p. 257]

Lee was in Texas during the Texas secession debates, and for a time, while Department Commander David Twiggs of Georgia was absent, Lee was in command of the department. “Lee was still acting as chief of the Department of Texas when he was informed by local ‘commissioners’ of their intention to secede and thereafter appropriate the armaments and fortifications of the U.S. Army. They also pressured him personally to declare himself on the side of the South. The brother of Major Robert Anderson, who would gain fame defending Fort Sumter, recalled that Lee became really agitated at the idea he would be forced to resign under this kind of intimidation. … The encounter, however, forced Lee to formulate an official plan for defense of U.S. property. Evidently he decided that if Texas did leave the Union on his watch, he would take the cavalry into Cherokee Territory with as much materiel as possible. In any case, he informed a subordinate, he would ‘defend his post at all hazards.’ Twiggs returned to Texas and took over the command in mid-December, and Lee was relieved of the immediate responsibility of negotiating with the secessionists.” [p. 258] At the end of the chapter, Ms. Pryor poses an interesting scenario. “Had he remained in charge of the Department of Texas a few weeks longer, and had the secessionists forced the issue, as they later did at Fort Sumter, the Civil War might have begun there. Commanding the defense of Union property against the rebels would have been Colonel Robert E. Lee.” [p. 259]

These chapters, I think, really humanize Robert E. Lee for us. He’s most definitely not the marble model popular history would have us believe.

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6 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    “Lee’s friends Jack Mackay and Ethan Allen Hitchcock were among the few who would show sympathy for the Indians and an appreciation of their culture, but Lee, who termed the natives ‘hideous’ and maintained that the government’s job was to ‘humanize’ them, was more in line with the mainstream view.”

    I find it very interesting to read this view of Lee’s, immediately followed by the descriptions of the superior tactics of the Indians. Like so many before him and after him: racism clouds the ability to honestly/accurately evaluate the adversary. One does not often get the opportunity to look deep inside of Lee’s beliefs outside of the Civil War. Reading along with this book review (more like a version of Cliff’s Notes on the topic) I am finding myself more and more repulsed by the “real” Lee, verses, the frequently vaunted “mythical” Lee.

    1. That’s an interesting observation, Shoshana. For me, the book humanizes Lee. He’s very much concerned with how he appears to others, and in social and political issues he’s not likely to go outside the mainstream. Where he innovates is in the military sphere. That is where he will call for enlisting slaves into the army and then offering them and their families freedom. Lee also had some progressive views on education [for white men]. He could see inefficiencies and problems and then fix them, but when it came to social issues he wasn’t going to rock the boat.

      1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

        I admit: in some ways, I feel a bit vindicated for Grant. All of the comparisons of how courtly, aristocratic, etc., that Lee was, versus how “rough hewn” and ordinary Grant was. In the end, Grant wins the war of self, too. It seems that Lee suffered under his own image, and the expectations of his society, whilst Grant experienced the inner strength, and the freedom to be who he was, outwardly. Whilst these letters have revealed a whole other “side” to Lee, in reading the papers of Grant, I can honestly say: more of the same — no stark revelation.

        Perhaps it is wee bit unfair of me looking backwards to condemn Lee as weak for caving to these social conventions. However, it seems that few recognize the strength that it takes to step outside those very same conventions, which is probably why Lee made the choice that he did, and George Henry Thomas was able to make the choice that he did.

        1. I think there are some aspects where Lee does fall short of Grant in the areas of character you’ve identified, Shoshana, but let’s remember Grant wasn’t perfect himself. He was a good hater and would settle scores, whereas I don’t find instances of Lee holding grudges and settling scores. Lee’s obsession with honor, which is a concept centered on how one is viewed by others, isn’t unique to him. The concept of honor was widespread in the South, and had been widespread in the rest of the country earlier. The late Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s book, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, is a good source on that concept. Some historians have also postulated his father’s poor behavior, along with his eldest brother’s scandal, caused him to be even more obsessed with the way he appeared to others.

          1. Shoshana Bee · ·

            This can get convoluted, and possibly even conflated, to discuss “honor” 🙂 Since I know how Lee viewed the likes of my ancestors, blacks, and others beneath him, it is very difficult for me to bestow him with any superiority because he knew how to strike a pose and keep up appearances. Indeed, Grant was not perfect, and he did settle scores, but when it came down to it, he was an honorable man in the ways that really mattered.

            UH-OH. I committed the Civil War discussion sin of being unable to discuss Lee without bringing Grant into the discussion!

            A great discussion it is, because I am enjoying this series of chapter reviews very much 🙂

          2. I’m glad you’re enjoying the book discussion, Shoshana. Lee was a white supremacist, but then again, so was almost every other white American at the time. I think we begin to get in trouble when we try to decide who was honorable and who was dishonorable in most cases, though of course there are exceptions to that rule. It’s making a moral judgment on people who lived in a society with values and mores quite different from our own and can inhibit our understanding of them on their terms and thus inhibit our understanding of their actions and motivations. Everyone had character flaws of some type [Of course, there were some historical figures who can only be described as evil, and they’re among the exceptions]. We can certainly identify the character flaws, but I think we ought to not worry about assigning moral superiority because all our heroes had feet of clay. 🙂

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