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Lee and the Lost Cause

Artist Keith Rocco‘s depiction of the Surrender at Appomattox

Some readers were none too happy with my characterization of Lee’s General Order No. 9 as an early (pardon the pun) expression of a certain explanation of Confederate defeat attributing that outcome to the “overwhelming numbers and resources” of the Union, to use Lee’s phrasing (although aide Charles Marshall composed the draft document).

However, just 72 hours before, Lee had informed Grant that he did not share Grant’s view about “the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia”; the next day, he told Grant, “I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army.” It was not until April 9 that Lee changed his mind (or dropped his false bravado) and responded to the reality of the situation. The order that followed was characteristic of a new line of explanation: that of being overwhelmed. On April 12, Lee informed Jefferson Davis that he had only 7892 infantry carrying arms; he did not explain why that was the case, or why the number of Confederates who surrendered was more in the neighborhood of 25,000 (we have to revise our notion of stacking arms at Surrender Triangle if only a third of the soldiers were armed).

Lee also told Davis that “the enemy was more than five times our numbers,” which would not appear to be the case if some 25,000 Confederates surrendered. Eight days later, on April 20, Lee acknowledged that the number of those who surrendered amounted to 26,018, but claimed that all those unarmed me came back into the army on the evening of April 9 only after hearing of the surrender. It is odd that Lee was in the neighborhood of Appomattox Court House when he wrote the first letter on April 12, several days after the reported flood of returnees commenced, but claimed he did not know of this until he was back at Richmond.

Playing the numbers game was one of the most prominent themes on both sides after the war. Confederates tended to exaggerate the numbers they faced, while Union chroniclers argued for a much lower disparity. Lee was not immune to the practice. In the years following the war he set himself to the task of trying to compose a history of the Army of Northern Virginia in order to focus on the odds faced by that army. His goal, he said, was to recognize the bravery of his men. “It will be difficult to get the world to understand the odds against which we fought,” he wrote Jubal Early in 1866.

This project collapsed, in part because Lee was not able to gather the records he desired: it may have been just as well. For in a series of interviews in 1868 Lee revealed another trait usually associated with what’s called the Lost Cause approach to Confederate history: a tendency to explain Confederate defeats in terms of the failure of Confederate subordinates to perform, and not because of anything done by their Union counterparts. Heading the list of the guilty for Gettysburg were Jeb Stuart and Richard Ewell, although in another interview Lee complained that James Longstreet was “often slow,” but in that case he was highlighting the Wilderness.

There’s always been an inherent tension in these two traits: if the Confederates were going to be overwhelmed in any case by superior numbers, then who cares about minor errors, which at most could only reshape the path toward the inevitable conclusion? And yet there is no doubt from Lee’s postwar writings and conversations that he thought the war was winnable. That the Confederacy lost was not due to Union leadership, but to the small margin of error the Confederates enjoyed if they were to win, a margin frittered away by Confederate actions on the field and elsewhere. That Lee was perfectly willing to point fingers, engage in recriminations, and assail the recollections of others suggests that it was best for his reputation that he never managed to assemble his account.

Comments (7) to “Lee and the Lost Cause”

  1. Brooks,

    Very nice post.

    How much credibility, however, do you ascribe to those “interviews” from 1868 which conveniently were published after
    Lee’s death in 1870? As published in Gallagher’s collection on Lee, they sound remarkably similiar in refrain, and frankly
    don’t sound much like the Lee I’d imagine. They sound more like the Lee other’s wanted to create.


  2. I give them a good deal of credibility, in part because they fit in with some other comments Lee was
    making at the time. We tend to think of Lee as a hero from the war on, but there were people who were
    critical of Lee in the years after the war, and it’s safe to say he heard about it. The E. C. Gordon
    one is the most dubious, the Allen one the least.

    Another fact is that the interviews contradict the notion of a long-suffering but silent Lee who took it
    all in stride. That’s the image folks wanted to create. A truly fabricated interview would have had Lee
    railing at Longstreet. Ewell wasn’t much of a target, Stuart an uncertain one.

    I see Lee and George H. Thomas as both being fortunate in having fate prevent them from getting involved
    in postwar debates about military operations. Both had surrogate defenders. Poor Grant had Adam Badeau. :)

  3. Brooks, your points about Lee’s interviews having the ring of truth are
    compelling. Although many (of us) Southerners are often tempted to raise
    Lee above common humanity, he would have been both less and more than
    human if he didn’t observe the shortcomings in others whom he felt let
    him down. These interviews were a private unburdening of himself to
    colleagues on campus. It seems more remarkable that throughout the war
    his critical views of other officers were not printed in his reports or
    made public, and while he did not hesitate to relieve or reassign
    officers who disappointed him, he generally accepted responsibility for
    failures himself. But he was a man of strong feelings and emotions –
    a man who held his temper in check and of a daring and aggressive nature.
    He must have known that he didn’t exhibit much in the way of personal
    weaknesses himself and, therefore, like Jackson, would have found it
    difficult to accept them in others. However, I think it’s hard to
    picture him writing a history blaming others for Confederate defeat or
    in some way assailing the reputations of fellow officers for posterity,
    particularly brave ones who had sacrificed greatly, like Ewell. That
    doesn’t seem to fit the Lee we read of, even putting the Lost Cause Myth
    aside, if indeed that’s fully possible in some of our cases. I can’t
    quite see Lee being petty or uncharitable. And of course, his own reputation
    didn’t need defending in that manner.

  4. Here’s Lee’s dilemma: how could he write the history he wanted to
    write? How could he honor his men if the guiding premise was
    “impossible odds”? How do you say to your men, “You were brave,
    but you never had a chance?” And how would you explain how you
    didn’t know that, and that while their sacrifice was brave and
    honorable, it was futile? Having already removed the idea of
    craftier Union generalship from the equation, we are left with
    mistakes on the battlefield or failure of support from
    politicians and the home front (these latter themes are
    present in Lee’s wartime correspondence; the generalship issue
    is rarely addressed directly).

  5. I agree. Had he lived longer, I’m sure that Lee would still have
    preferred that Jubal Early and others write the Confederate history, for a variety
    a variety of reasons.
    Also, to your pointere is a description of an incident at the
    college post-war when Lee overhears a student exclaim with disgust how
    he wasted his years in the war. Lee reacts immediately, rebuking him
    with the thought that he should one day come to realize that those years
    were spent the best way possible. I think that Lee believed what he
    did was right and that right was in itself worth doing even if it failed.
    He surely must have felt that it was Providence that the South lost but
    also that they were meant to participate in that just but losing cause –
    resigned but a bit unreconstructed (anyway that’s my take).

  6. Add to Brooks’ summary of Lee’s dilemma the issue of having fought for a cause that
    was found to be unjust, and it’s one heck of a puzzle. While some dismiss it, I think
    Connelly’s essays on the development and “religion” of the Lost Cause in “God and
    General Longstreet” makes sense. If your cause was unjust, just change the cause.

  7. On this day, freedom died.