Reading the Man Chapters 21-26

This is the final installment of our consideration of Ms. Pryor’s book. Chapter 21 looks at the several tragedies Lee and his family endured during the Civil War. In July of 1862, while Lee was making a name for himself, “Rooney’s two-year-old boy, the namesake of Robert E. Lee, ‘a most lovely little fellow,’ caught cold and died. His grandparents, who had escaped the heartbreak of childhood death, were deeply saddened, and Rooney, completely devastated, tortured himself with remorse, citing his ‘many & daily sins’ as the cause of the death. … While they were still recovering from this sorrow, McClellan’s forces seized and burned the White House plantation that Rooney had inherited.” [p. 364] In August of 1862, Lee’s daughter Annie contracted what seems to be typhoid fever. She and her sister Agnes moved to Jones Springs, North Carolina, where they thought she would be able to recover. “Symptoms of headache, dizziness, and intestinal troubles still discomfited her, but she told her mother she thought it was just ‘a little bilious attack, so I have been persuaded to take your favorite, a blue pill for the last two nights.’ That pharmaceutical reference is ominous, for blue pills, or blue mass, a common prescriptive of the day, contained large doses of mercury, within the more benign casing of licorice root, honey, and rose petals. In even small doses, mercury could cause aggression, depression, and chronic fatigue; in larger amounts it resulted in nerve damage and death. For several weeks Annie remained ill, though everyone expected she would recover. Typhoid fever was a serious illness in the nineteenth century, causing high temperatures and weakness, but if left to natural healing powers many patients got well. Yet Annie grew more listless, then began to have violent fevers, palpitations, debilitating diarrhea, deafness. Now the doctors augmented her regimen with an hourly dose of brandy, cream, and morphine. Alarmed, Mrs. Lee with difficulty traveled to North Carolina to nurse her. Agnes ministered during the day, and her mother took over at night, sleeping by the sickbed, wiping the alternately flushed and chilled brow. Annie slipped into a coma. The disease and the combination of poisonous medicines proved more than her system could control. Mary Lee proclaimed her to be ‘in the hands of God who will do all things well for her,’ and Agnes crawled into her bed to try to keep her warm. Annie only vaguely regained consciousness, once asking for a hymnbook, later murmuring ‘I am ready to rise.’ At seven o’clock on the morning of October 20, 1862, Anne Carter Lee expired, her frigid hands sheltered in her mother’s bosom for warmth. She was twenty-three years old.” [pp. 364-365] Both R. E. Lee the father and R. E. Lee Jr. the son were surprised by the news of her death. One of Lee’s aides handed him the personal mail. “The two spent several minutes discussing routine army matters, and the aide left. When he unexpectedly returned, entering Lee’s tent without ceremony, he was startled ‘to see him overcome with grief, an open letter in h is hand.’ ‘To know that I shall never see her again on earth, that her place in our circle which I always hope one day to rejoin is forever vacant, is agonizing in the extreme,’ Lee told Mary.” [p. 365] Tragedy struck soon after. “Rooney’s wife, affectionately called ‘Chass,’ gave birth that autumn to a baby girl, but this second child succumbed to a lung infection and died before she could be named.” [pp. 365-366] The following spring Lee himself had health issues, “suffering from chest pains and chronic lung problems severe enough to force him into bed.” [p. 366] This may have been the beginning of heart disease for Lee. The troubles continued. “On June 9, 1863, Rooney, aka ‘Fitzhugh’ or W. H. F. Lee, now a major general n the cavalry, was shot in the thing at Brandy Station, where his horsemen arrived late in the action to save the day for J. E. B. Stuart. His father saw him on the night after the battle, as they were bringing him from the field. … His own home destroyed, Rooney, accompanied by Rob, was taken to convalesce at Hickory Hill, his wife’s family home. There, with sisters Agnes and Mildred and his mother in attendance, Federal troops raided the estate and took him prisoner. … Rooney’s capture began a torturous period of waiting, and scheming through the bureaucracy for his release.” [p. 366] This was hard on the family and harder still on his wife. “Worn down by grief and disappointment, Chass never rallied in strength or spirit, and despite all ministrations, she slipped out of life around Christmas 1863. This death placed another weight on Lee, who had been especially fond of her since she was a girl. … Rooney was finally released in March 1864, under circumstances that are not clear. He returned to Richmond to find his wife dead, his home still under occupation, and the Confederacy’s social fabric badly frayed.” [p. 367] The family continued to endure tragedies. Agnes Lee was close to Orton Williams, Markie’s brother. “A shared love of horses, and Orton’s charismatic spirit, kept the two conspired in romance for years. Markie once reminisced that at Arlington ‘it was always–where are Agnes & Orton?–Those Forest shades could tell.’ … he, along with a Lieutenant Dunlop, had been hung as a spy by the Federal army on June 9. When Lee saw the article, he was incensed. ‘I read in the papers yesterday an account of the death of Orton Williams, which I can hardly believe. … I see no necessity for his death except to gratify the evil passions of those whom he offended by leaving Genl. Scott.’ ” [pp. 372-373] This might seem excessive loss for four short years, but more was to come. “Bishop Meade, who had heard Robert say his catechism as a toddler, died in 1862, clutching Lee in his last hours with a ‘cold and pulseless’ hand. … A few months after Chass died, while Lee was still in heightened anxiety about Rooney’s imprisonment, Anne Lee Marshall [Lee’s sister] breathed her last. A Union sympathizer to the end, she had never reestablished contact with her brother, though it was said that in her Baltimore home she often bragged that none of the Federals ‘can whip Robert.’ Growing ever more despondent, Lee tried to comfort himself with his evangelical formulations, but he could not hide his depression. When Mary Childe, the niece he adored, passed away in the last months of the war he grieved as he had at Annie’s death, anguished that he had now been left without a link to his father, mother, or sisters.” [pp. 376-377] The Lees endured tremendous personal loss during the war in addition to the property losses one would expect from those on the side of the rebellion.

The next chapter looks at Lee’s relationship with politics and politicians, including the intersection with slavery and white supremacy. “One important unifying element of the southern cause was the widespread belief that theirs was a unique social system, which had successfully retained a delicate balance within a diverse population. Much of the South was rough frontier, on the fringes of civilization, and the population was made up of what a Lee cousin called ‘all sorts & shades.’ Social stratification was managed at least in part by understanding one’s place in it. Slavery was at the heart of this system, even for many who thought the institution unfortunate. Its retention had to do not only with protection of property rights among the wealthier classes, but with the establishment of social order. All whites, from squires to squatters, could identify with each other because of what they were not: black. And blacks, who were considered a dangerous public menace if not under strict management, were effectively controlled.” [p. 383] By far, Lee’s most important political relationship was with confederate president Jefferson Davis. “Davis saw Lee as ‘standing alone among the Confederate soldiers in military capacity,’ remarked Secretary of the Navy Mallory. Not only did Lee fight with a will; he subordinated his personal interest to the larger political goals and never vied for power. Lee was the only military adviser to claim a seat in cabinet meetings. At least occasionally Davis actually deferred to him in affairs of war. … This kind of trust was earned by hard work on Lee’s part. Davis never quite felt he was informed enough or respected enough, and Lee took the trouble to offer him both endless reports and near total fealty. From the time he took over the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee regaled his commander in chief with a running account of matters large and small, always couched in the most obsequious terms. When he ventured a suggestion, it was quickly followed by a phrase such as ‘I hope your Excellency will not suppose that I am offering any obstacles to any measure you may think necessary.’ He sent newspaper clippings, details of terrain, tidbits gleaned by scouts–a veritable flood of information that kept Davis placated. In one fine example Lee rambled through a list of men who might be promoted and the need to teach disciplinary habits to commanding officers, then describes his attempts to find out if the Yankees were constructing a canal, the quality of an assault on Union lines, and his constant frustration with deserters. Such letters were among the most important that Lee would ever write, as they were the key to his influence with the government and ability to advocate for his army. His aide Charles Marshall recalled that their composition was laborious and they still read as if the words are carefully weighted. They have the air of dispassion, but in fact are among Lee’s most artful writing. The thread that runs through them is the looming threat of an overwhelming foe, and his need for additional forces and supplies. It is the agenda of nearly every letter, and Lee effectively uses the power of suggestion as well as straightforward statements to reinforce his point. Sometimes he doctors figures either to show his need or underscore his success. He also omits details, especially when he feared Davis or Seddon might disapprove of his actions.” [pp. 387-388] Perhaps the most controversial political issue within the confederacy during the war was the issue of whether or not to use enslaved people as soldiers. “The political debate about the use of slaves in the army heightened in late 1864, and ultimately filtered down into the army. Lee was behind this. He, like Davis, had sidestepped teh issue when it was first raised by General Patrick Cleburne of the Army of Tennessee earlier in the year, and he had not changed his mind about his preference for keeping the blacks subjugated. In his definitive letter on the subject, Lee reiterated his belief that the ‘relation of master and slave … is the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country.’ … He now had to think in raw survival terms. His chief concern was that the slaves would have small incentive to fight on his side. To countermand this, Lee believed they must be promised freedom. After reluctantly embracing the idea, he persuaded Davis to float it among southern leaders, while he instituted a remarkable democratic discussion within his army. It was an explosive issue that hit at the most fundamental assumptions of the South’s rebellion. Within Lee’s ranks there was dissension, and discomfort at the idea of soldiering in equal partnership with persons they had long considered inferior.” [p. 396]

The next chapter deals with Lee’s relationship with his army, the Army of Northern Virginia. “Lee thought the line officers should all come from the gentry; it pained him ‘to see young men like [Beverly Tucker], of education & standing from all the old & respected families in the state serving in the ranks.’ He hated the electoral system, but never convinced Richmond to change it. Giving the men a choice over their company commanders at least assured their willing compliance, for the men were apt to resent those who exercised direct power over them, and did not always recognize supervision they thought unworthy. Often they complained that they were treated like the slaves they disdained.” [p. 406] Lee’s staff was notoriously small and overworked. “In addition to overwork and bleak surroundings, the staff suffered Lee’s difficult temperament, with some audible sighs. He was quick to censure and slow to praise or recommend his team for promotion, causing several aides to cast around for better opportunities. Lee’s indifference to staff recognition was not quite as pronounced as they maintained, but their feeling of undervaluation is revealing. He also still had difficulty in accepting personal blame and sometimes rebuked aides for his own shortcomings. Once, when Lee lost control during an interview, he berated Venable: ‘Why did you permit that man to come to my tent and make me show my temper?’ After quarreling with his subordinates he sulked and snubbed them for days, and, unable to apologize, finally tried to make amends by offering a glass of buttermilk or a peach. An uninitiated staff member found that everyone around the general was afraid of him, and though the newcomer had known Lee socially before the war, he soon felt the same way. Some of it was Lee’s unpredictable temper, the fear of seeing ‘the flush … over that grand forehead and the temple veins swell’; but it was also the way Lee constantly tested the men against his impossible standards and ridiculed them on sensitive points, joking not with them, but at their expense.” [p. 407] Lee thought very highly of the men of his army, and he “cultivated a manner of speaking with them that recognized the dignity of each individual. He seems never to have talked down to them, never showed the arrogance of position or appeared to hurriedly pass them off to his staff.” [p. 412] He and the men forged a bond that translated into fighting prowess. “Much of the stamina and fighting spirit … was injected by Lee personally. He was more present and available during these months [of the Overland Campaign] than at any other time of the war, and the confidence between him and his men was a striking feature of the 1864 campaigns. Lee had worked among his troops before, energizing them as they irritably dug fortifications before the Seven Days battles; vainly seeking to rally infantrymen who ‘ran like hounds’ when his center broke at Sharpsburg; directing a small detached force at Chancellorsville while Jackson executed his beautiful flanking maneuver. In 1864 he was almost forced to take a more active role, for Longstreet was wounded at the Wilderness, Ewell buckled under the pressure, and A. P. Hill seemed unable to inspire his men to daring. … The stakes were very high from the Wilderness to Petersburg, and Lee personalized the contest, exerting his forceful character to its maximum extent, taking each victory or setback with open emotion.” [p. 420]

Chapter 24 looks at Lee immediately after the war. Soon after the war, Thomas Cook, a reporter with the New York Herald, secured an interview with Lee. “Lee took care to present himself as confident, robust, and anxious for reconciliation. He was quick to point out, however, that ‘should arbitrary, or vindictive, or revengeful policies be adopted, the end was not  yet.’ He stated that the issue of states’ rights had been decided by military power, not philosophical justice, then trivialized the entire conflict as a difference of political opinion–hardly grounds for accusations of treason. He excused Jefferson Davis’s actions and proposed that Davis should be shown leniency because he had been a late and reluctant convert to secession. He explained his own actions in the same way. Lee further stated that the ‘best men of the South’ were pleased to see the end of slavery, and they had only continued the institution because of their Christian concern for black people. According to the reporter, Lee then showed his hand a bit more and said: ‘The negroes must be disposed of, and if their disposition can be marked out, the matter of freeing them is at once settled,’ suggesting that without such a ‘disposal’ the former Confederate states would work to undermine emancipation. Lee’s main message, however, was that the South had waged a ‘half earnest’ rebellion, that every Southerner had overcome his moment of passion, and that no one should ‘be judged harshly for contending for that which he honestly believed to be right.’ Above all, Lee argued that the former Confederate states be treated with moderation so that the sons who were the country’s ‘bone and sinew, its intelligence and enterprise’ might stay and work for its future.” [p. 431] As we can see, Lee was not above prevarication and outright fabrication if it served his purposes. Lee also was not afraid to issue demands to the victors. Lee’s words were met with scathing criticism in the loyal states. Lee would eventually accept an offer to be president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, where he took a hands-on approach, making a number of changes, such as using Sylvanus Thayer’s running of West Point as a model for his own direction of Washington College. While he made a number of improvements, it wasn’t easy on those at the college. “Lee was known for his ‘fierce and violent temper, prone to intense expression,’ and his administrative staff, as well as the students and faculty, learned to be wary, especially as the explosion often carried over to those not responsible for annoying the president. Some were concerned that nothing seemed to impress him; that he never apologized when clearly in error; that he had a way of testing the youths and their teachers to prove his superiority.” [p. 439] While in Lexington, Lee was able to enjoy close family life. “Custis got a teaching job nearby at the Virginia Military Institute. Rob and Rooney visited occasionally, and both married during these years, with a good deal of encouragement from their father. Smith and Carter Lee sent their sons to the college, and the young nephews added some zest to the family meals. Daughter Mary continued to distance herself; Agnes was quiet and sad; Precious Life took on the housekeeping duties with a good deal of authority, which greatly amused her father. ‘Mildred … considers herself now a great character,’ he told one of his new daughters-in-law. ‘She rules her brother & nephews with an iron rod & scatters her advice broadcast among the young men of the college. I hope it may yield and abundant harvest.’ Romantic encounters for the girls, however, were rare. Beaux were scarce in the South at the time: so many young men had been killed, and those who remained were too poor or too distracted to don their wooing clothes. The general did not encourage suitors, and though some hardy gentlemen braved Lee’s intimidating house, finding his daughters ‘splendid and lively’ if not beautiful, few measured up to his or the young ladies’ expectations.” [p. 440]

The book’s penultimate chapter looks at Lee in the light of the politics of Reconstruction. “Lee’s progressive stance toward education, and his belief that Southerners should stay with their homes as they faced uncertain prospects, was an exceptional moment of foresight–justly admired and still resonant after fifteen decades. This long-range outlook, however, seems to have been relegated to one compartment of his mind. Lee’s political precepts, as well as his efforts to accept the tragic events of the war (and his part in them), would be far more myopic. … [H]e planted himself in his favorite aggressively defensive position, denying any positive outcome to the conflict and balking at social change. [In the letter that opened the chapter] His struggle is quickly visible in this draft, for Lee stumbles over nearly every word, trying to reformulate his thoughts in a gently defiant fashion. He is anxious to state his opinion on the war’s outcome, and do a little revisionist history on the reasons for his participation in it.” [p. 445] Although he denied in public that he read the newspapers, he assiduously followed the press in both the North and the South. “Most of his opinions sought to justify the preeminence of states’ rights, and he expressed an overt dislike–even fear–of majority politics and strong federal government.” [p. 450] Lee portrayed himself outwardly as accepting the results of the war, yet inside he seethed with anger. “In private he penned political treatises that throb with controlled rage, containing harsh words about ‘a national civilization which rots the life of a people to the core’; ‘the gaol [sic] to which our progress in civilization is guiding us’; or ‘unprincipled men who look for nothing but the retention of place & power in their hands.’ This and several other draft essays he wrote were never published, but their cross-hatched and unfinished pages are like the smoke from a roiling volcano.” [p. 450] The biggest political issue of Reconstruction was the status of African-Americans. “Lee had never been comfortable with the idea of intermingling with blacks, and the issue of race and power was one that seemed to jar his most fundamental assumptions. … Like others of his region, he persisted in truly believing that blacks were incapable of functioning on their own, that they had no inclination to work, and aspired to nothing beyond daily comfort and amusement. Such attitudes not only justified the adherence to slavery in the first place, they calmed the unspeakable worry that the freed blacks might succeed, thereby becoming a threat to status, economy, and pride. Lee’s worldview was still strongly hierarchical–even within his enlightened vision of widespread education, he could not see beyond offering only as much ‘knowledge & high mental culture as the limited means of the humble can command.’ From the end of the war he took care to distance himself from the ex-slaves as much as possible, maintaining his control by aloofness. He tried to employ white rather than black servants in his household, though in the end the family acquiesced to hiring three or four ‘tolerable … respectable, but not energetic’ freedmen. As before the war, his expectations fulfilled long-honed stereotypes. He told Congress he thought the ex-slaves less able than whites to acquire knowledge and inclined only to work sporadically on ‘very short jobs … they like their ease and comfort, and I think, look more to their present than to their future condition.’ He advised his planter friends to shun black labor, for he felt the freedmen would work against their former owners and destroy property values. ‘I have always observed that wherever you find the negro, everything is going down around him,’ he told one cousin, ‘and wherever you find the white man, you see everything around him improving.’ Although he did not always state it so starkly, he continued to think, as he had told the Herald, that the blacks had best be ‘disposed of’ and endorsed the idea of importing European workers to replace them. Lee particularly hoped that English immigration could be increased so that the South would benefit from ‘good citizens whose interests & feelings would be in unison with our own.’ … Lee’s vision did not include granting African-Americans the same option of productive citizenship that he wished to offer to immigrants. He explained to the Joint Committee on Reconstruction that ‘at this time,t hey cannot vote intelligently’ and that he opposed black enfranchisement on the grounds that it would ‘excite unfriendly feelings between the two races.’ He was also concerned about the educational opportunities being provided to the blacks by the Freedmen’s Bureau and private northern charities, preferring they be taught by white Southerners, who were ‘acquainted with their characters and wants.’ Most of all he feared that blacks might procure enough political leverage to offset white control.” [pp. 452-453]

The final chapter details the end of Lee’s life. His health failing from a probable atherosclerosis, Lee would die on October 12, 1870. The myth-making about Lee would shift into high gear from his death. Ms. Pryor gives us an assessment of Lee. “The greatest honor we can give Lee is to admire him for who he actually was, rather than as an imaginary creature, which only insults him by implying that the reality was inadequate. Lee the underdog might quicken our empathy, but it is important to recognize that he was never a victim of fate. His story, in fact, forces us to confront the weight of one person’s decisions in a free society. Like all tragic figures, Lee’s life was a product of his own will.” [p. 471]

This book was really outstanding. It’s well written and packed with information. If you want to understand Robert E. Lee, this book is mandatory.

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7 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    By far, this installment is the most intense regarding the diversity of topic matter. It was very difficult to shift out of the highly melancholic note of the opening chapter, thus, it took me a pause and a return to fully engage the rest of the review.

    It did not surprise me that Lee was an elitist who wanted to fill the upper ranks with the boys from aristocracy, so nothing new from this chapter. I will jump to the post war chapter, because I find this chapter to be thee most revealing. We are all led to believe on the surface that Lee was fully conciliatory in his attitudes towards reunifying the country. I was very surprised to read of his very deep anger post-war, and how much resentment he harboured. This does not align with the receding, muted individual who immediately after the war, feared retribution by the Northern courts. Of everything I have read in the review, this expressed resentment of Lee’s leaves me wanting further investigation.

    I must say that I am happy to be acquainted with two of the best reviewers rolling around the blogoshpere: you, Albert, and Pat Young. I truly admire the patience and attention to detail that is generously offered up so that we, the greedy readers, can have our own little Cliff’s Notes experience of books that we may not get around to reading.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Shoshana. I’m very glad you like the reviews. Since this blog consists of me sharing what I’ve learned, I tend to focus more on what the books tell us than most reviews. There is much more in the book worth exploring.

    2. The idea that Lee was an ‘elitist who wanted to fill the upper ranks with the boys from aristocracy’ does not withstand even casual scrutiny.

      The lament about Tucker is one of a young man being at war rather than at studies.

      Lee was a meritocratist – he firmly believed in promotion due to ability. Jackson, Longstreet, Ewell, Hill, Stuart, etc : boys of the aristocracy? I think not.

      The pre-war Lee did not hob-nob with the plantation and political elite who seldom visited army posts.

      1. Hill was an aristocrat from a very wealthy family besides being a West Pointer. Each of those men was a West Point graduate, which is what Lee gravitated toward. Stuart came from an elite planter family. His father was a wealthy slaveholder, politician, and attorney in addition to having a plantation. Ewell was raised on Stoney Lonesome, an estate near Manassas, and his family had rich Revolutionary War and War of 1812 roots. Jackson had established himself as a successful resident of Lexington, professor at VMI, and owning about a half dozen people. Longstreet’s father was also a planter, with Longstreet being born at the family’s South Carolina plantation. West Point was a destination for a number of sons of the elite in the South.

        The prewar Lee certainly did hobnob with George Washington Parke Custis at Arlington, which was as plantation and political elite as one could get.

        1. Thanks. That is good information.

          How does it promote the concept that Lee ‘wanted’ to fill the upper ranks with the aristocratic?

          Elsewhere, he ‘hated the electoral system’. He did so explicitly because it favored social status over military prowess.

          Who is an example of Lee wanting an aristocratic background over a military one?

          Wade Hampton is almost a counter-example. Lee had reservations due to his aristocratic upbringing.

          1. The electoral system didn’t just privilege social status. It was a popularity contest where the men were able to elect officers who would be their buddies instead of demanding they do what was necessary.

            But look at the comment regarding Beverly Tucker, who had no military training: “Lee thought the line officers should all come from the gentry; it pained him ‘to see young men like [Beverly Tucker], of education & standing from all the old & respected families in the state serving in the ranks.’ “:

            Lee had reservations about Hampton because of his lack of professional military training. Hampton was not a West Pointer.

      2. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

        “The idea that Lee was an ‘elitist who wanted to fill the upper ranks with the boys from aristocracy’ does not withstand even casual scrutiny.”

        I beg to differ, as the two paragraphs written by Mr. Mackey, clearly illustrate.

        BTW, two paragraphs seems pretty casual to me based on the depth of this review 🙂

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