Reading the Man Chapters 16-20

With the government running again, we continued our discussion this week. Chapter 16 starts with Wesley Norris’ telling his story of how he, his sister Mary, and one of their cousins ran away from Arlington and were captured near Westminster, Maryland, just short of the Pennsylvania border. They were brought back to Arlington, and Lee had them whipped and then had their backs washed in brine. After that they were sent to jail and  hired out. Ms. Pryor writes of Norris’ story, “Its veracity has been questioned by generations of Lee aficionados, and we might be tempted to dismiss it as the exaggerated ranting of a bitter ex-slave. Except for one thing: all of its facts are verifiable.” [p. 261] She begins her discussion by telling us about George Washington Parke Custis’ will. “When he died he owned three estates, assorted other properties in the Chesapeake region, and 196 slaves. Most of the land, including Arlington, was not very productive, a number of properties listed in the will had uncertain boundaries and titles, and Lee estimated that debts ran upward of $10,000, a mighty sum at that time. By the terms of Custis’s will, Lee was made executor of the estate. … Custis had provided for his kin in what he believed to be equitable and even grand style. He left his daughter the Washington heirlooms and a life interest in Arlington. These would revert to his eldest grandson upon Mary Lee’s death. The White House and Romancoke estates were given to his other grandsons, and a $10,000 legacy to each of his four granddaughters. The old man also freed his slaves, with the stipulation that the estate debts and legacies were to be paid first and that the manumission was to take place within five years. Custis had meant to be generous, his scanty understanding of the state of his properties and a näiveté about the human reactions such a will would cause made it extremely difficult to fulfill. ‘He has left me an unpleasant legacy,’ Lee would write. Lee arrived to find that ‘everything is in ruins and will have to be rebuilt.’ Mills, slave dwellings, and mansion houses were leaky and dilapidated. Long-neglected lands were producing little, if any, cash crops. Some of the properties that Custis noted ‘I may own’ did not have deeds or other legal certificates. To pay off the will’s provisions would encumber Arlington, a property valued at $90,000, with a $50,000 debt. In addition, the instructions of the will were contradictory, and Lee thought they would require legal interpretation. Virginia law stipulated that freed slaves had to move out of the state, and that the former master must support any who were underage, old, or infirm, but n o allowance for the newly freed blacks was specified in Custis’s instructions. ‘There is no such provision nor indeed any for their maintenance which proceeded from his usual want of care in matters of business & I presume a belief that we should take care of them,’ wrote Mary Lee in exasperation.” [pp. 261-262] Lee attacked the problem of making Arlington a profitable concern and raising the legacies from those profits with his customary zeal. He made a number of improvements in the way things were done, rebuilt buildings, brought in new tools, and cultivated previously unused lands. There remained, however, the question of how and when to manumit the slaves. “To Lee the blacks remained bondsmen, a workforce to be used at the owner’s will. It was his right to employ them where and how he wanted, to increase the profits of the estate: ‘dispose of them at the end of the year to the best advantage,’ Lee instructed one agent, who was to handle a half dozen slaves he had wrenched away from Arlington and lodged in a Richmond jail. If he did not own their souls, Lee certainly believed he owned their skills, their energy, and their time. The Lees could not afford to support a large band of idle workers, and they felt they could not free them immediately and still fulfill both the Virginia laws and the Custis will. The labor of the slaves was the key to enhancing productivity–and productivity was what Lee needed in order to make the property solvent.” [p. 263] The fly in his ointment was the Custis slave population. “Over the years George Washington Parke Custis had grown more and more lax with his servants, particularly at Arlington. Finally he had asked little of them but to cultivate their gardens and raise the food they would eat. Now they encountered a master who believed that it was their duty to work and, moreover, was accustomed to the disciplined structure of the army. From his arrival at Arlington, Lee found himself ‘endeavoring to urge unwilling hands to work’ and trying to reorganize his human resources in a rational fashion. Already disgruntled with the taxing new demands, the slaves were further dismayed when Lee began hiring hands to other plantations. With no means of communication, they had no idea where they were being sent, how long they would be there, or what the conditions would be. In addition, Lee rented out so many hands that the black community at Arlington was badly fragmented. The youngest and strongest were chosen to be hired away because they brought in the greatest revenue. By 1859 old men and little boys were the only workers left at Arlington. Worst of all, Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families. By 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days. There was singular distress among the slaves, and the community’s opinion that Lee was a ‘hard taskmaster’ and ‘the worst man I ever see’ was sharpened. Their response was to withhold cooperation, and finally to protest openly.” [pp. 263-264] Ms. Pryor discusses how Lee struggled against the recalcitrance of the slaves, and she provides the evidence that corroborates Wesley Norris’ story. His role as planter marked another failure for Lee. “Lee was unsuccessful as a master largely because he neglected to see the situation in human terms. He embraced the legal and economic aspects of the master-slave system without really grasping its complex underlying relationships. He never recognized the slaves’ fundamental desire to change their condition; instead he tried to superimpose his sense of ‘duty’ upon them. Moreover, by breaking up families and proposing to ship them far away from their community, he both denied the slaves’ humanity and stepped beyond the genteel code of paternalism that even proslavery men professed. Lee could have freed the slaves immediately at the death of his father-in-law; as executor he had that ability. Virginia law made this difficult, but the law had been circumvented before at Arlington. He could have freed them and rehired them to make the estates solvent, or worked with imported labor. Instead Lee took decisions that ultimately had to be upheld by force. The option he finally chose, of selling land to furnish money for the legacies, was what Custis had specified from the beginning. His failure to communicate on human terms and to see beyond self-interest caused him to mishandle a delicate situation. Lee never lost his legal rights over the slaves, but he did lose his moral authority. And that was because he continued to treat the African-Americans at Arlington as property, when they thought of themselves as free men.” [p. 275]

In the next chapter we consider Robert E. Lee’s facing the question of Virginia’s secession. The chapter begins with Lee’s letter to his cousin Roger Jones, then a lieutenant in the U.S. Army who would serve in the Union army during the war and would eventually rise to the rank of brigadier general. In that letter, dated April 20 1861, Lee wrote, “Sympathizing with you in the troubles that are pressing so heavily upon our beloved country, & entirely agreeing with you in your notions of allegiance &c I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relations, my children & my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army & never desire again to draw my sword save in defence of my State.” [p. 276] As Ms. Pryor wrote, “Here was a man who had written only a few  years earlier that his country ‘was the whole country. That its limits contained no North, no South, No East, no west, but embraced the broad Union, in all its might & strength, present & future. On that subject my resolution is taken, & my mind fixed.’ Then, with underlined emphasis, he concluded: ‘I know no other Country, no other Government, than the United States & their Constitution.’ Lee had disavowed this lifelong allegiance only hours before he wrote Roger Jones, who was another young cousin, and another West Point graduate with a divided heart. At this moment, on April 20, 1861, Lee knew that Virginia had seceded from the United States, but he did not yet know what her stance would be in the looming conflict. He was also unaware that the previous day Jones had defended the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry against Virginia forces, finally burning the establishment to keep as much of its ordnance as possible out of rebel hands.” [p. 278] Much is made of Lee’s pacing back and forth regarding his decision of what to do when Virginia seceded, but his pacing wasn’t really over how he would decide what to do. “From the start of the crisis Lee knew that his destiny was to follow the fortunes of Virginia. If his state chose to stay in the Union, so would he; if it withdrew, his actions would follow suit. He was candid about this with everyone who asked him and never changed his conviction that this was the only respectable course. … He told a friend, Charles Anderson, that even though he saw little justification for secession, he had been educated to believe that his ‘loyalty to Virginia ought to take precedence over that which is due to the Federal Government.’ Anderson, recalling the legacy of Lee’s brother Henry, who had railed against the primacy of states’ rights, and Light-Horse Harry’s passionate belief in Washington’s nationalist principles, recalled: ‘I sadly asked myself: whence was this education?‘ ” [pp. 285-286] Indeed. Lee turned his back on his country, on George Washington, and on his father and eldest brother. “Light-Horse Harry Lee had led an army to stymie the first challenge to federal authority during the Whiskey Rebellion, and though he was once heard to declare that Virginia was his ‘country’–which he felt bound to ‘obey’–he had ultimately concluded that ‘our happiness depends entirely on maintaining our union’ and that ‘in point of right, no state can withdraw itself from the union.’ ” [p. 286] Much is also made, in popular viewpoints, of Lee supposedly being reluctant to go with the confederacy and his supposedly being so antislavery he was almost an abolitionist. “Another part of Robert Lee’s dilemma was that although he was convinced that the framers of the Constitution had never intended the right of secession, he strongly agreed with the secessionists on virtually every other policy. He believed in racial supremacy and could not envision an egalitarian society; he thought the nation had been founded on ‘perpetual union,’ but admitted that if the bond could ‘only be maintained by the sword and bayonet, instead of brotherly Love & friendship … its existence will lose all interest with me.’ He spoke out for the Crittenden compromise, which would have guaranteed the permanent existence of slavery and permitted its extension into the territories, maintaining that this cornerstone of proslavery thought deserved ‘the support of every patriot.’ Above all, Lee ‘resented’ aggressive badgering by the North and feared southern political impotence under the rule of its majority population.” [p. 286] In the letter quoted at the beginning of the chapter, Lee wrote he couldn’t raise his hand against his relations. But his relations, like the rest of the country, were divided. ” ‘I feel no exalted respect for a man who takes part in a movement in which he can see nothing but ‘anarchy & ruin’ … and yet that very utterance scarce passed Robt Lees lips … when he starts off with delegates to treat with Traitors,’ was one response from his family. A young relative began a school fight when he was asked whether his father–a Unionist–was ‘the Rebel traitor Lee.’ Roger Jones, whom Lee declined to advise, finally decided to fight for the Union. A bevy of relations in the army and navy followed suit. Phillips Lee [R. E. Lee’s cousin] never wavered from his Union loyalties, serving through the war with distinction. His younger brother John Fitzgerald Lee, an 1834 West Point graduate, retained his position as judge advocate of the Union army. Cousin John H. Upshur also resisted ‘tremendous pressure’ in order to remain with the Union. Orton Williams, of course, did resign; but his brother Laurence fought on the side of the North, serving at one point as an aide-de-camp to General McClellan. Philip Fendall, whose family had done so much for Robert Lee’ smother, never wavered from his Union loyalties. Sister Anne was also not in agreement with Robert, and her son, Louis Marshall, fought with General John Pope against his uncle. No one in that family ever spoke to Lee again. With great reluctance Smith Lee became a Confederate naval officer, where he served without enthusiasm, and as late as September 1863 still ‘pitched into’ those responsible for ‘getting us into this snarl.’ Saying that both the Lees and his in-laws in the Mason family had pressured him with ideas that Virginia came first, he grumbled, ‘South Carolina be hanged. … How I did want to stay in the old navy!’ His wife tried to reverse their son Fitz Lee’s pro-South decision and herself held ‘to the north end of the Long Bridge’ until she was ‘dragged away from Washington … kicking.’ In early 1861 Mary Lee was also conflicted, and her daughters teased her about her staunch Unionist talk. Though she sympathized with some of the South’s complaints, she wrote, ‘for my part, I would rather endure the ills we know, than rush madly into greater evils & what could be greater than the Division of our glorious Republic into petty states, each seeking its private interests & unmindful of the whole.’ Lee’s sons joined the Confederate forces, but only after their father had declared his intentions. There is a strong chance that if Lee’s decision had been different they would have followed his lead. Had Robert Lee taken the part of the Union, he still would have faced confrontation within his border-state family, many of whom sided with the South. But his assertion that he was acting in simple solidarity with a like-minded group of relatives would never be borne out.” [pp. 292-293]

The next chapter deals with how the Civil War affected Lee’s beloved Arlington. When war broke out and Virginia seceded and joined the rebellion, both sides realized the strategic value of Arlington, which overlooked Washington and would be a natural artillery platform. The Union immediately took steps to secure this important site, meaning Arlington would be occupied for the duration of the war. “The property also became the site of a far-reaching project for educating the newly freed slaves. ‘Freedman’s Village’ was the outgrowth of the Union Army’s attempts to care for Arlington’s black people and a response to the needs of thousands of runaways who arrived in Washington. In 1863 the Department of Washington directed that inhabitants of ‘contraband’ camps be consolidated at Arlington, and at one point up to two thousand people lived and worked in the rows of whitewashed buildings on the southern corner of the estate. Schooling was arranged, a hospital was erected, and a farm was developed. To complete the village, a cemetery was created in one corner of the grounds.” [p. 309] Ms. Pryor goes into how the government appropriated Arlington due to nonpayment of taxes and how, through the actions of Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, it was turned into a national cemetery.

Chapter 19 looks at Lee in the first years of the Civil War. Ms. Pryor begins the chapter with two letters from Lee. The first, to Jefferson Davis and dated June 5, 1862, was shortly after he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia. He gives Davis a strategic outline of his position and McClellan’s position. He writes, “After much reflection I think if it was possible to reinforce Jackson strongly it would change the character of the war. This can only be done by the troops in Georgia, S.C. & N.C. Jackson could in that event cross Maryland into Penna. It would call all the enemy from our Southern Coast & liberate those states. If these States will give up their troops I think it can be done. McClellan will make this a battle of Posts. He will take position from position, under cover of his heavy guns, & we cannot get at him without storming his works, which with our new troops is extremely hazardous. You witnessed the experiment Saturday. It will require 100,000 men to resist the regular siege of Richmond, which perhaps would only prolong not save it– I am preparing a line that I can hold with part of our forces in front, while with the rest I will endeavor to make a division to bring McClellan out. He sticks under his batteries & is working day & night. He is obliged to adhere to the R.R. unless he can reach James river to provision his Army. I am endeavoring to block his progress on the R. R. & have written up to see if I can get made an iron battery on tracks with a heavy gun to sweep the country in our front. The enemy cannot move his heavy guns except in the R. r. You have seen nothing like the roads in the Chick[ahominy] bottom. Our people are opposed to work. Our troops, officers, community & press. All ridicule & resist it. It is the very means by which McClellan has & is advancing. Why should we leave to him the whole advantage of labour. Combined with valour fortitude & boldness, of which we have our fair proportion, it should lead us to success. What carried the Roman soldiers into all countries, but this happy combination. The indices of their labour last to this day. There is nothing so military as labour, & nothing so important to an army as to save the lives of its soldiers. … Our position requires you should know everything & you must excuse my troubling you.” [pp. 317-318] In the second letter, to General Martin W. Gary and dated September 20, 1864, reads, “It is very important that I should know what force the enemy has at Williamsburg & vicinity, or in & about Warwick CtHouse. What is the probability of a party of men getting below Williamsburg without discover & what force the enemy could bring to oppose their return. Is there any force in Charles City County & of what character? I wish you would send trusty scouts secretly in both directions & let me know the true state of things.” [p. 318] I agree with Ms. Pryor when she tells us, “Rarely do documents reveal the essentials of a leader’s thinking as clearly as do these two short messages from Robert E. Lee’s headquarters.” [p. 318] What I see is a general who thinks outside the box, who is thinking of seizing the initiative, and who is completely solicitous of his boss’ need to be informed of what is going on. There is a very large contrast here between Lee and Joseph E. Johnston. Johnston would be thinking of retreating, not of attacking, and Johnston would be keeping his plans to himself, not fully informing Davis of what he was thinking and saying clearly he realized Davis needed to be kept informed. We also see a general obsessed with getting information about the enemy and using a small number of trustworthy, competent men to get that information, which is what he learned from Winfield Scott in Mexico. “The letters even inadvertently crack the old myth that he was too much of a gentleman to refer to the Federal forces as ‘the enemy.’ Of course he did so, countless times, though the longevity of that particular fable is impressive.” [p. 319] Lee did learn many things from Winfield Scott. “What was it Lee absorbed from this mentor? Certainly the understanding that leadership can transform the improbable into the inevitable; and that force of character is needed to overcome political as well as military setbacks. Moral courage, decisiveness, and attention to detail all helped Scott command events. Scott also taught Lee the possibility of conquering superior forces by ‘head-work’ and that unorthodox movements, executed with fervor, could be a winning formula. Lee’s personal experience of the Mexican campaigns convinced him of the advantage of flanking maneuvers, which would become his battlefield signature, and that political nerve centers could hold the key to ultimate victory. But there were also things Lee did not fully learn from his experiences with Scott: the effective use of staff consultation, or the need at times to let cautious professionalism override zeal. Perhaps most importantly, Scott left Lee a model of unshakable personal assurance that kindled reciprocal confidence in his men. It was a trait Lee would hone to perfection.” [p. 325] As a commander, Lee could be difficult for his subordinates. “Lee knew what he wanted from these officers. He called the ideal general ‘attentive, industrious & brave’; ‘prompt, quick and bold’; and ‘cheerful under all circumstances.’ He did not always make it easy for them to fulfill these expectations. Though unparalleled in his dedication, and usually careful not to take credit for others’ work, Lee could be stern and unbending. He sometimes left officers as senior as Longstreet out of his plans, and gave discretionary orders that could cut a subordinate two ways. His instructions frequently pushed officers to take responsibility and initiative, but this flexibility also left the orders open to misinterpretation. at the same time he expected unquestioning obedience, and grew sarcastic if his generals made even small diversions from what he thought was his clear intent. One of Lee’s men remembered this kind of tricky instruction. ‘General Lee … said he wanted me to reconnoiter along the enemy’s left and return as soon as possible … and left me only that knowledge of what he wanted which I had obtained after long service with him, and that was that he wanted me to consider every contingency which might arise.’ ” [pp. 332-333] In summarizing Lee’s generalship, Ms. Pryor wrote, “What strikes one most about Lee’s generalship in the latter half of 1862 is not the perfection of it–for there were glaring management faults, and major tactical as well as strategic errors–but its intensity, its variety, and its initiative. From the time Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he seized control of the military arena, forcing the Union to respond to him, and even transforming their offensive drives into desperate defensive stands. He was on the move, evading superior forces, agilely repositioning, and frustrating his adversaries by the difficulty of pinning him down. Lee pioneered the use of entrenchments, but was quick to exploit opportunities to gain the upper hand through surprise, innovation and sheer bravura. He experimented with tactics, too, staging assaults, invasions, and counter-offensive movements as well as maneuvers that combined both defense and offense elements. Though he faltered in his attempts to exploit victory, he did not relinquish the momentum. All over the South, and certainly within his army, he raised expectations as well as morale by the very dynamic he created. And the fighting spirit he encouraged in his soldiers set a standard for combat performance that the North was compelled to meet. By Christmas 1862, Lee was forcing every combatant to wage the war on his terms.” [p. 337]

Chapter 20 looks at Lee in 1863. Titled “Apogee/Perigee,” it delves into the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. In talking about the confederate flanking maneuver at Chancellorsville that led to victory, Ms. Pryor writes, “A good deal of ink has been expended in speculating about who originated the brilliant tactic. Jackson’s mapmaker, who is among the most credible sources, implied that it was his chief. Lee later went on to rather elaborate efforts to give himself the credit. What is more important is the fact that it showed a near-perfect collaboration in design, timing, and execution between the two men–a symmetry that was missing on too many other occasions among senior leaders in the Army of Northern Virginia. Ultimately everything worked at Chancellorsville because it was infinitely prepared and precisely implemented; and because the very audacity of the movements flabbergasted the Yankees and undermined their fighting spirit. That demoralization carried over from this field, leaving a lingering disquiet about what Lee and his army were capable of doing.” [pp. 345-346] Lee gets criticism for his high casualty rate, and Ms. Pryor makes the point that Lee himself was disappointed with the casualty rates when compared with the gains from the victories he purchased with the blood of his men. “Lee felt from the first that the best chance for the Confederacy’s survival was to decisively defeat the Union army, and he held to this belief until the end of the war. ‘If we can defeat or drive the armies of the enemy from the field, we shall have peace,’ he would write. ‘All our efforts & energies should be devoted to that object. … Lee believed that quick, crippling victories would so devastate northern morale that the will to oppose the South would collapse. He also responded to southern public opinion that soared on news of big victories, bolstering popular support in spite of the increasing difficulties of daily life.” [pp. 347-348] The weakest part of the book concerns the battle of Gettysburg. Ms. Pryor believes Lee directed Ewell to take Culp’s Hill if practicable, when in fact it was Cemetery Hill, and she believed J.E.B. Stuart and the confederate cavalry were part of the attack plan for the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge, with orders to attack the rear of the Union Army. There is no evidence of that, and indeed Stuart’s actions make no sense if that was his mission. His actions make sense only if, as he said in his report, his mission was to guard the left flank of the confederate army and then be prepared to exploit a breakthrough and retreat of Union soldiers if one should occur.

Ranger Troy Harman facilitated our discussion of this part of the book. He had some prepared questions, which was a good idea, but unfortunately I think his focus was  too diffuse. He went on a number of tangents instead of remaining focused on the book itself. In addition, he made the claim that the South paid 2/3 of the tariff prior to the war, a claim that is obviously not correct [see the discussion here].


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