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General Lee’s Unsolved Problem

April 2024
12min read

A southern writer analyzes the handicaps unwittingly laid on the general by President Davis

Long after the Civil War was over, with contemplative years for perspective, Jefferson Davis wrote that Robert E. Lee always commanded subject to his orders. The former Confederate president made quite a point of this overlordship, and held to the concept of Davis, the leader, manipulating armies and generals and the destinies of a people. Of course, Davis was right. As he made of the Confederate experiment a one-man show, technically he was Lee’s boss.

Davis never imagined that the struggle was maintained by the extent to which Lee imposed his own ideas on him. The nature of the war in its main theater in Virginia changed in proportion to Lee’s influence in three main phases. The early indecisiveness was determined by Davis’ complete control before Lee emerged; the period of bold strokes and great hopes, 1862-63, reflected Lee’s influence; and the nature of “the long agony” beginning in 1864 was determined by the effect of the control Davis continued until it was altogether too late to do anything about it.

For Davis got in over his head as leader of an extemporized revolutionary movement, and lacked the flexibility of character and the suppleness of mind to change with changing conditions. While he lacked also the humility to admit to his limitations, his organism revealed the unnatural strain (as it invariably did under stress) by the psychosomatic ailments that afflicted him during the war years.

Actually he brought to the war only the bureaucratic technique learned as a peace-time secretary of war, and neither magnitude nor nature of disaster could budge his grasp on the familiar details of certainty. Likewise, his leadership was from the book, an abstraction, a part of his personal concept of the aristocrat.

Under the definition of aristocrat as a member of a ruling class, Davis was synthetic. He was a nouveau , characterized by the personal arrogance of the selfmade Bourbons of the new cotton kingdom. Davis was touchy about his dignity, while purblind about the feelings of others. He knew nothing about people, either as individuals or in the mass.


In Lee, Davis encountered the real thing, the perfected product of the ruling class which Davis presumably represented. Davis never quite knew what to make of him. Though in time Lee’s successes caused Davis privately to admit in a cry of anguish that Lee might act as his military equal in the field (“Oh, if only I could take one wing and Lee the other!”), it never occurred to him that Lee was able to achieve this recognized equality only by a character which made it possible for him to work through the commander in chief for the sake of his land.

Lee’s struggle in his relations with Jefferson Davis represented one of the great, undramatized achievements of the war, even though this undeclared and ceaseless struggle never reached a decision—and the president probably never realized it was happening.

The essence of Lee’s character and mental cast, as related to Davis, derived from a generic aristocracy of which he was a natural product—indeed, as has been said, “a flowering.” With all the nonsense about the Virginia Aristocrat, Lee’s family achieved that ideal of communal responsibility which the myth attributed to all. To Lee, leadership was a moral responsibility to the people from which his class arose and not a thing of personal pride.

For Lee there was no inner conflict in fulfilling his moral obligation through the constituted authority; deference to all constituted authority was inherent in his conservative society. That Davis made it personally difficult for Lee changed nothing: this was a detail, merely another burden to be borne in performing his duty to his state.

There is no question that Davis’ peremptoriness and insensitivity to others gave Lee trouble. He wrote Mrs. Lee, “Mr. Davis can be very sharp.” Harder to bear even than the unconscious rudeness of the self-aware aristocrat were the thoughtless wastes that Davis exacted of Lee’s time, energies, and talents. He would call Lee in for interminable conferences, in which the soldier was used as a sounding board while his advice was never heeded, and Lee’s aide mentions the harassed state in which he returned from these futile conferences.

But all this was in the realm of Lee’s personal difficulties. The real, though inarticulated, struggle was over the essential differences in the military purposes of Lee and of Davis.

Davis believed that a static defense of territory (accompanied by proclamations of their rights) would cause independence to be granted . Lee believed that independence would be won in the field, by counterstrokes designed to drive the enemy away and discourage future attempts at subjugation.

So Lee had to fight two wars—the open fight against the avowed enemy and the tacit fight to achieve his ends through the constituted authority. That Lee, a superb physical specimen, aged more than any other general on either side can fairly clearly be attributed to the dual strain of the two wars he fought. Not a self-analytical or reflective man, Lee suffered the strain mutely with no faltering in the loyalty he gave the man in the office.

From first to last, Davis’ policy expressed itself militarily through a system of defense in which immobilized units were placed, in bureaucratic order, to represent the territorial dominion of the Confederacy. In 1862, before Lee took command, when all the troops in Virginia would not have equalled the one main Union army in the state, Davis had seven “armies” scattered so as to form, with pins on a chart, an imposing outline of the map of the Old Dominion.


On resigning from the U.S. Army in the spring of 1861, Lee offered his services directly to Virginia, which had not then joined the Confederacy, and was offered the thankless and Herculean assignment of fortifying its many avenues of entree against the coming invasion. He was then a magnificent looking man of 54, with a strong build and fine carriage. He had not yet grown his beard, and his mustache and hair were dark. A former engineer and cavalryman who disliked paper work intensely (all during the war it tried his temper), he perceived that his task must be performed from a desk—and that was where Davis found him when the Confederacy’s capital was changed to Richmond.

From Davis’ arrival in Richmond, with the Virginia troops mustered into the Confederate Army, Lee was unceremoniously thrust into an anomalous position. Retained at the desk where Davis first encountered him, he became something like an unofficial executive officer of the commander in chief for the Department of Virginia. Davis used the proven soldier, not where his services would contribute to his state’s defense, but where his courteous self-negation and patriotic subordination served the president personally.

To the crucial military sector at Manassas Junction, Davis had sent glory-loving P.G.T. de Beauregard, and Davis and the Creole wrote back and forth on important matters of the Virginia defense as if Lee did not exist. Then, when the first big conflict—“Manassas” to the South: “Bull Run” to the North—was fought (on the lines of defense drawn by Lee), Lee was left to cool his heels in his Richmond office, while Davis rushed off to Manassas. There he took part in the conference, of later controversy, with Beauregard and Joe Johnston, who between them managed to immobilize the victorious army then and for months to come—or until the Federals had built a larger war machine to come at them again the following spring.

During these months of inaction in Virginia, while events took a serious turn against the Confederates, Davis sent Lee on an ignominious assignment to western Virginia (“an inspector’s job,” a Richmond newspaper called it) to act as Davis’ representative-without-authority in a squabble between political generals. After that, Lee was sent to erect coastal fortifications in the Charleston area. Then Lee was brought back to Richmond for another desk job—this time as “advisor to the commander in chief.” His brother officers regarded the assignment as such a humiliation that only the elaborately courteous “Prince John” Magruder could bring himself to congratulate Lee.

Though Lee accepted this “advisory” role without complaint, and patiently trotted back and forth the block between the war office and the president’s office like a glorified clerk, he was depressed by the futile, nerve-straining assignment. His change to a position of influence came about indirectly. Disaster was threatening from all sides and very close to Richmond, and Joe Johnston, the field commander in Virginia, was stubbornly refusing to confide in the president. Instead, the sprightly little general was retreating up the Peninsula before the Federal General, George B. McClellan, in defiance of the Administration’s expressed wishes. Further to complicate the situation, Joe Johnston was in titular command of the troops in northern Virginia confronting McClellan’s pincer under General Irvin McDowell, and of Stonewall Jackson’s small, detached force in the Shenandoah Valley. With Johnston out of communication with them, the president allowed the clerical details concerning those troops to fall on Lee. This was the chance seized by the long-suffering Lee to perform as a soldier. He quietly began a correspondence with the aggressive-minded Jackson that was to change the nature of the Confederacy’s struggle in Virginia, as well as Lee’s relations to Davis.

At the time, the Unions had more men than the Confederates at each of three danger spots—the Peninsula toward Richmond from the east, the Piedmont toward Richmond from the north, and the supply-land of the Valley. Joe Johnston’s idea was to concentrate all Confederates in front of Richmond to meet McClellan, but Lee reasoned that if the Confederates concentrated, so would the Unions. Lee perceived that he and the strange Presbyterian in the Valley were thinking along the same lines: a threat to the North from the “covered way” of the Valley (as Grant called it) would immobilize the Unions in middle Virginia and keep them away from McClellan.

Lee made no announcement of the plan, which grew in scope as it evolved between Jackson and him. In fact, with a guile unassociated with his legend, he urged Jackson to hurry. Lee knew that when Johnston, nearing Richmond, re-established communications with the distant troops, he would call off any movement that threatened to keep reinforcements away from him . As it worked out, Jackson’s dazzling Valley campaign caused the Union authorities to withhold McDowell’s troops, north of Richmond, whereupon Davis forced Joe Johnston to attack McClellan seven miles east of Richmond, at Seven Pines. There Johnston was hit by a stray bullet. By the accident of this Yankee shot, Lee was finally given field command in June, 1862, and the first phase of the war in Virginia was over—though the president did not realize it.

Lee in the field was not Lee the “advisor.” From the assumption of command of the loosely-organized divisions, brigades, legions and whatnot called an army, Lee planned the strategy to effectuate his own aggressive policy. Though he deferentially cleared the plans (of the Seven Days and then the great Second Manassas Campaign) through Davis, the plans were his and the army became his as no other army in the war was identified with its leader. From the mob he inherited, Lee moulded the Army of Northern Virginia. In less than three months, Lee cleared Virginia of the enemy and was invading north!

With this success, Lee’s influence over the president entered the positive phase. Lee had to beg for the release of troops from garrisons and fixed positions, and Davis always compromised; Lee was constantly thwarted by the inefficiency of supply services which fell foul of the bureaucracy; but for his strategy Lee made the plans and the president formally approved. In the field, Lee commanded without advice or interference from anyone.


In his first battle (Mechanicsville, which opened his Seven Days Campaign), Davis had rushed to the field with a large entourage and even issued orders to a brigade of D.H. Hill without consulting anybody. When Lee saw him, he showed a tough side and, in effect, ordered Davis away. When Lee led an army on the field, he was the constituted authority there, and he let the president know it. Davis never ventured on another field commanded by Lee.

Within that pattern of relationship, Lee suffered a temporary decline in the extent of his power after the invasion failed at Sharpsburg, Maryland, in September, 1862. Back in Virginia, he wanted to withdraw deeper toward Richmond in order to draw the enemy after him and catch him in a counterstroke, as he had caught General John Pope at Second Manassas. This of course expressed his policy of destroying the enemy; but Davis ordered him to fight on an arbitrarily drawn line across the waist of the state, on a terrain from which no fruits of the victory were possible. The repulse of the clumsy Union attack at Fredericksburg was the most pointless important battle of the war, and Lee knew it. But Davis was pleased that his territorial defense was intact, and Lee remained chained to the line of the Rappahannock River for the coming spring. There he tried to destroy the enemy, but even the Civil War masterpiece at Chancellorsville achieved only another repulse of the Union Army.

However, the mere fact of field victories restored his influence with the president in the policy area sufficiently for him to gain a partial approval for another try for decision through invasion. Lee wanted his invasion to be part of a general advance, with immobilized units striking out from their positions and garrisons stripped to protect Virginia against raids. But the other forces remained fixed, and a number of battle-wise, war-hardened veterans of Lee’s army were held in Virginia. One-fourth of Pickett’s crack Virginia division was uselessly guarding a supply depot near Richmond during the attack at Gettysburg.

The Gettysburg stroke was Lee’s last chance at executing his own policy. Arithmetic was overtaking his defense of his land. Yet, now that it was too late, for the last phase of the slow-coming end that began in the spring of 1864, Lee became for the first time in complete control of his whole area.

Under the massive, three-pronged Union thrust for a decision, Lee’s battleground became of necessity the state of Virginia; and, against the almost overwhelming pressure of Grant, Lee defended, from day to day, with an army which revealed the ravages of attrition. While he gave a more personalized and active field generalship to his own declining army, he unofficially assumed the combined roles of commanding general and chief of staff for the theater. Had he not done so, the war would have ended (as Grant expected) in the summer.

While thwarting Grant’s thrust at Richmond, always for his desperate measures Lee ceremoniously cleared through the bureaucratic structure of the president. Sick half the time, his beard and hair whitening, and with the army 24 hours a day, Lee had no time for the president’s cherished conferences.

However, for Davis, Lee’s communications, along with military items from the war office, served to satisfy his sense of participation as commander in chief. War clerks mention the president staggering homeward at the end of the day up the steep walks of Capitol Square burdened with the paper work he was taking home.

For Lee, the added burden of working through the inefficiency of Davis’ bureaus was nerve-racking, and he revealed the strain with uncharacteristic short bursts of temper. Once Beauregard, resurrected in the East and commanding a Department within Lee’s area, entered a telegraphic debate with the Old Man on the subject of proper channels to go through for reinforcements, and Lee cut loose even at the president in angry impatience.

Lee was finally forced into the strictly defensive position which he had always dreaded. Tied to Richmond and its railroad junction with the South, he was actually withstanding a siege—and he knew victory that way was hopeless.

During the spring and summer of 1864, he and Davis had perforce worked at the level of details. For the last fall, winter, and brief spring, Lee continued to work with the commander in chief on details (because for Davis by then there was nothing else) but there was time again to resume the conferences. Davis would write Lee wistfully when military duties in the lines kept him from a meeting.

They had come, full cycle, round to the first days when Davis came to Richmond, only now, when it was all over, the two men met as equals. Of course, Lee conferred with the president for the larger plans but, as in the first summer, Lee could not bring himself to express opinions outside the proper sphere of his authority. Though he knew the war was lost, and wanted peace, he continued to report dutifully on the actions that whittled away his disintegrating army.

To Davis, Lee had come to exist as an immutable abstraction: his army had never been driven from a field—therefore, it never would. Davis clung to his irrational belief in defense during that fall and winter when the country collapsed outside of Lee’s area, and Lee’s area dwindled to the ground he held.

So the president and Lee would meet in the little room off the White House parlor, with their boots spread on the white rug to get warmth from the slagfire in the grate, and Mrs. Davis would bring in substitute coffee in thin china cups, and in the winter afternoons the erect gentleman and the aging aristocrat discussed the details of their defense as if they were talking about the same thing.

Lee, longing for a climax to the ordeal, consulted the president on the advisability of abandoning the Richmond area. He wanted movement in the open for one final throw, and he outlined the physical needs in minutest detail. Davis, in his memoirs, recalled how stoutly he suggested that Lee “anticipate the need” and move at once. In memory, he attributed the Old Man’s remaining in the freezing trenches to Lee’s reluctance to retreat. He had not heard a word Lee said about the need of subsistence for man and beast, for more horses, for more wagons—and, above all, for the drying of the muddy roads.


Even when Grant’s superb army overwhelmed Lee’s survivors at Petersburg, and Lee wired the war office that Richmond must be evacuated, Davis in reply asked if Lee could not delay his retreat in order that papers be removed from the capital!

When Lee, in final fulfillment of his moral obligation, suffered the last long week of the retreat that ended at Appomattox, the president still clung to his abstract defense. He was the only leader, Confederate or Union, who did not accept the end with the end of Lee. He missed the whole point of the Confederacy’s struggle when, from the beginning, he missed the point of Lee.

In the first year, before Lee held any authority, the Confederacy stood on the verge of defeat; during the fifteen months of Lee’s limited authority, though conditions were far less favorable than at the beginning, the Confederacy most nearly won its independence; during the last fifteen months of Lee’s complete authority in his own area, a defeat which overtook the rest of the weakening Confederacy was staved off in his area only by virtue of this belated authority.

Without the authority he won through his own character, the war would have ended sooner; had this authority been granted from the beginning, clearly the war would have taken quite a different course. The end might have been the same but it definitely would not have come about through attrition which prolonged the agony and brought (as Sherman said) “ruin and misery” to a people about whom Davis never knew anything.

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