Today – January 19th – is the birthday of Robert E. Lee, formerly a holiday throughout the States of the Confederacy and still a holiday in the State of Virginia [where it is celebrated as Lee-Jackson day in order to also honor Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson born January 21st]. Lee’s birthday has been celebrated since 1889 with Jackson added to the holiday in 1904.
In the interest of accuracy it was celebrated as Lee-Jackson-King day briefly but the inclusion was too much for too many and so the holidays were split out with Lee-Jackson day being celebrated by the State on the Friday before the federal observance in order to give government employees a four-day weekend [sic transit].
Herman Melville said, when I look at Lee, I think of Washington and to understand the South and the Confederacy you need to understand the truth of that statement. When John Brown was hanged in 1859 for his raid on the federal armoury at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia he had been convicted of treason – against the State of Virginia – and the officer in charge of the militia detachment that oversaw the hanging was Robert E. Lee.
When Texas seceded from the union in 1861 Lee, who was then part of the Department of Texas, did not follow General David E. Twiggs in to Army of the Confederacy but rather returned to Washington where he was promoted to colonel – by Lincoln – and was eventually offered a generalcy. Just as President James K. Polk had offered Jefferson Davis a federal commission as a general and command of a brigade of militia and Davis declined the appointment arguing that the United States Constitution gives the power of appointing militia officers to the states, and not to the federal government, Robert E. Lee declined command of the defense of Washington D.C., as he feared that the job might require him to invade the South.
Willing as he was to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty when old fuss and feathers, Winfield Scott, and the fair weather Virginian, Francis Blair, offered him a major generalcy on behalf of Lincoln he sought permission to take leave rather the participate in what they all thought would be a brief war and when this was denied Lee resigned – after 32 years of service – from the United States Army on the 20th of April 1861 and took up command of the Virginia state forces on the 23rd of April. It is a large part of the measure of the man that Lee did not wear the insignia of a Confederate general, but only the three stars of a colonel, equivalent to his last U.S. Army rank. He refused to wear a general’s insignia until the War for Southern Independence had been won and he could be promoted, in peacetime, to general in the Confederate Army.
That never happened and he never held political office but at Appomattox, like Washington at Fraunces Tavern, he bade farewell to his troops and, like Washington, spent the remainder of his life promoting the prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among the people of the United States which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community. His birthday is an occasion every American should be proud to celebrate.
Although the following books is not exclusively about Robert E. Lee it is about Virginia, the South and the Confederacy when there was a chance that men like Washington and Lee might still prevail in American life. We are not advocates of the moonlight and magnolia view of the South, neither was Washington, neither was Lee, neither are the authors of this book. It is about the everyday realities of a horrible conflict that has led us to our current situation and it is well worth the reading.
Virginia at war, 1862 Lexington : University Press of Kentucky, c 2007 edited by William C. Davis and James I. Robertson, Jr. for the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies Virginia History Civil War, 1861-1865 Campaigns Hardcover. x, 243 p. : ill. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 229-233) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
Works about Virginia as a Civil War battlefield are certainly plentiful but on the home front, what the citizens were thinking, feeling, and enduring remains a topic still not fully explored. Virginia at War: 1862, provides the reader valuable insight into Virginia life as the reality of full war unfolded on the citizenry.
In this collection of essays we are introduced to the chaos of war while the two sides fought for control of Virginia. Starting with details about the political front and early euphoria from the South’s victories in the Seven Days campaign, writer John Salmon contrasts the early leadership of the two sides. He writes, “the Confederate government and people sang General Robert E. Lee‘s praises as they rejoiced over their deliverance and treated the thousands of wounded flooding the city. As Southern morale soared, Northern confidence plummeted at first as the public absorbed the news of McClellan’s defeat” and he would not be the last Union commander to be bettered by Lee.
By September 1862, General McClellan was back in command of the Army of the Potomac resulting from fellow Gen. John Pope‘s debacle at Second Manassas. This was also a particularly trying time for General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia as they mended from the ravages of a rapidly expanding war. Having lost at least one-fourth of his army in the Maryland fields of Antietam, Lee needed a plan. While Lee had retreated back into Virginia, the general did not regard himself as defeated. He deemed the move from Antietam as a redeployment, not as a conclusion to the Maryland campaign and while Lee certainly had aggressive goals, his army was suffering from the constant stress and simply put was tired.
No matter how well-disciplined, war brings out the worst in men under tremendous pressure, and conditions in Virginia were no exception. The progressive nature of crime against civilians as the war grinds on makes compelling reading. Always one of the biggest consequences of the lowest level of man’s cruelty, rape would become all too common. Women, both free and slave, were often not safe, and it was poorly controlled – or actively encouraged by “political generals” – Union troops committing these acts.
All the essays provide insight into circumstances foreign to many contemporary readers such as Virginia’s Industry during 1862 and “Richmond the Confederate Hospital City,” describes the mammoth task of maintaining some semblance of order in the so-called “medical facilities” of the day. Administrators and hospital personnel did what they could, and in some ways were incredibly efficient with what they had to work with. Women were pressed into new roles and that topic alone would provide a volume of interesting reading as women working in prisons and hospitals full of wounded men was a radical idea in 1862 and was not looked at favorably by many.
It is also difficult for twenty-first century readers to separate themselves from our world constant – if not incessant instantaneous information overload – to venture back to the communication resources of the 1860s. Those behind the lines received their information through lithograph and print. That, along with rumor and complete untruths, helped both sides quickly realize how propaganda could work to aid their cause or create serious dissension. But printing materials such as paper were needed before either could be done. The north again had the industrial advantage coupled with a complete absence of scruple and the plethora of lies that they published now find themselves cited as part of the historical record and it can be no surprise that the record is accordingly skewed where it is not completely false.
The casual reader of Civil War history generally assumes the Southern states were a solid block of confederate patriotism, and that should especially have been true of Virginia. Southern sympathy vied with unionism for supremacy in the hearts and minds of many residents who would become fifth column West Virginians. And just one year made a big difference since instead of eastern Kentucky being held in Southern hands, which would have fortified Southwest Virginia, union incursions of various sizes made Virginians in the area miserable. Infighting and recrimination were the order of the day for the hill billy’s and bushwhacking, poverty, and disease brought on by the war in the back country of West Virginia undermined the entire state.