Ralph Peters’ Civil War Insights – Part 3
‘Lee and His Generals,’ 1867 lithograph by Augustus Tholey.
During the 150th anniversary month of the end of the Civil War acclaimed strategist and best-selling author Ralph Peters shares his superb insight on America’s bloodiest conflict in ArmchairGeneral.com’s exclusive 3-part article series. This, the concluding part of the series, looks at Robert E. Lee, Jubal Early and Wade Hampton. Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2.
Our Civil War has haunted me for over a half-century. Since childhood, I’ve read about it and visited every battlefield I could. Later, I studied it seriously and taught it to fellow military officers. Then I wrote novels about it. I’m still writing and still learning: The Civil War is inexhaustible, with new sources of information still emerging.
Along my pilgrim’s path, I’ve met some surprises and some of my initial beliefs have changed—usually notions based on “common knowledge” that wasn’t very knowledgeable. So as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of that still-echoing war, I’d like to share a few insights—none of which were on the mind of the nine-year-old boy whose father took him to the centennial reenactment of First Manassas.
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Robert E. Lee was a haunted man. Much has been made of the “marble man” image constructed for Lee after the war by former subordinates and “Lost Cause” advocates, but the truth is that Lee had done his best to construct a perfect façade for himself from his youth. Of all the surprises I’ve had over the years, perhaps the greatest in individual terms has been Robert E. Lee’s psychological complexity. His whole life was shaped by his father’s tragedy—by the legacy of Revolutionary War hero “Light-horse Harry” Lee, who disgraced himself with debts, deceits and bankruptcy. Robert grew up on the black-sheep side of the distinguished Lees of Virginia, living in genteel poverty and, as a boy, nursing his semi-invalid mother first during his father’s flight from creditors then after the tarnished hero’s death.
From his formative years, Lee strove to sculpt himself into a perfect gentleman in morality, comportment and, not least, speech (to the end of his life, his language remained more formal and studied than that of his peers, more old-fashioned). Through strength of will and self-discipline, he became the man he wished to present to the world, but still faced social obstacles, including his prospective father-in-law’s reluctance to let the well-bred Mary Custis marry a young officer whose father (and half-brother, too) had been begrimed with scandal. Lee bore all, establishing an almost superhuman reputation from West Point through the Mexican War, and through self-denial he even increased a small inheritance into relative wealth before Secession. Eventually, he came to the rescue of his father-in-law’s wretchedly managed, deeply indebted estate (the heart of which forms Arlington National Cemetery).
Historians identify the twin strains of honor and chivalry as prime influences on Confederate officers, but Lee was, above all, a man of honor, not superficial chivalry. The distinction is important: Lee wasn’t a hotheaded gallant from the pages of Walter Scott’s historical novels, but his sense of personal honor was exaggerated even by Southern standards, kept white-hot by old devils lurking in childhood memories of shame. That sense of honor made it impossible for him to accept that the war had been lost until a needless excess of blood had been shed. Accustomed to winning through on strength of character, he could not bear to lose in his life’s greatest endeavor—especially to a man such as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, whom Lee could not help but regard as inferior. Light-horse Harry Lee’s bad debts killed tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers months after defeat had become inevitable: Despite Lee’s lifelong resistance, the sins of the father were visited on the son, with a bloody twist.
For all that, I’ve come to have more, not less, respect for Lee as I grasped his humanity. If his image was marble, his pride was glass. And his heart was all too human.
Top Confederate die-hards had not supported secession. After the war, many Southerners poured their souls into the “Lost Cause” mythology that deified Robert E. Lee and ennobled the failed Confederacy. That movement was typical of how populations cope with lost wars or reverses, from the German “stab-in-the-back” theory in the wake of the First World War to the American belief that we might have triumphed in Vietnam had we done just a few things differently. What’s surprising, though, are the antebellum positions of the men who became the leading figures in the Lost Cause movement: The two most-influential advocates, former lieutenant-generals Jubal Early and Wade Hampton, had been adamantly against secession until the first shots were fired.
The story of Robert E. Lee’s personal struggle with his conscience over whether to remain in his U.S. Army uniform or go with Virginia is well known. Less familiar is Jubal Early’s fiery opposition to secession at the Richmond convention weighing the prospect: Early was all for staying in the Union. Similarly, Hampton, one of the famous magnates of the South and a man whose family owned 2,000 slaves, believed that South Carolina’s secession was folly (Hampton also believed that slavery was doomed).
In the course of the war, these men changed. Both developed into fearless, brutal fighters. Widely condemned for his failures against Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, Early fought remarkably well against odds of three-to-one but could not pull off the astounding victories Stonewall Jackson had achieved against lesser Union commanders. Along the way, Early learned to hate Yankees with a ferocity that drove him to dash to Mexico, rather than sign a parole as the South surrendered. When he did return at last to his native Virginia—from Canadian self-exile—Early led the charge to portray Lee as the Confederacy’s saint, as a flawless man and unerring commander.
Hampton was an even stranger case. Unlike Early, who was a graduate of West Point, Hampton had no military background. Yet, the plantation grandee learned to love fighting with an ugly passion. Reserved in personality, in battle Hampton became a demon, a general given to splitting skulls with his saber. Late in the war, he lost a son and saw another wounded under his personal command, but long before that he had begun to seethe with hatred of his opponents. When General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the last significant Rebel army, Hampton could not reconcile himself to defeat and rode off alone, sick and exhausted, to aid in the flight of the Confederate president, intending to wage guerrilla war thereafter. Only physical collapse and his wife’s appeals made him face defeat.
After the war, Hampton endured financial ruin and the desolation of his remaining properties, but he rebuilt (on a humbler scale), paid-down debts and enjoyed a career in South Carolina politics, both in formal offices and “behind the throne.” He made the Lost Cause his cause, yet courted African-American voters and opposed their unjust ill-treatment (although he never accepted their equality). But he never trusted a single Yankee again.
As an aside: Appointed Lee’s chief of cavalry a few months after J.E.B. Stuart’s death, Hampton lacked the latter’s flamboyance and romantic aura but proved the superior cavalry commander, embracing dismounted tactics with sharp success and shunning cavalier gestures that killed men to no purpose. Again, the new man saw through problems the old guard had failed to recognize. (See Part 2 for the discussion on how young officers were the ones who led the innovations that occurred during the war.—Editor)
For all of our romantic delusions about the Civil War, it was a horrid ordeal of death and destruction. And it taught good men to hate.
Ralph Peters is the author of the prize-winning Civil War novels Cain at Gettysburg and Hell or Richmond, as well as of the new novel, Valley of the Shadow, which recreates the struggle between Sheridan and Early in the autumn of 1864. A long-time member of the Armchair General team, Ralph is a former enlisted man and a retired Army officer who now appears as Fox News’ Strategic Analyst.