“Cometh the hour, cometh the man”: Lee Takes Command June 1862


There would be few in this room without some knowledge and some opinion of General Robert E. Lee. That opinion would I think be largely positive and reflective of Lee’s stature and renown in civil war literature as well as his cult status in southern history. The historical record tells us Lee led his southern army with great skill and that his fame was well earned. He became a revered figure in the South and gained grudging respect in the North where his victories cast him as something of a scarlet pimpernel. Tonight I want to provide a strategical overview of the Valley and Peninsula campaigns. In doing so I will cover Lee’s relative anonymity as a commander at the critical hour of his calling as well as examining some of the factors that allowed him to act with the confidence he exhibited when summoned to command. Lee was, I will argue, the only man for the job who possessed the necessary attributes to turn southern fortunes around. There were no others President Jefferson Davis could turn to in 1862 or the rest of the war for that matter.


In June 1862 the achievements that built Lee’s fame lay in the future. The general, who succeeded Joseph E. Johnston on 2 June following Johnston’s wounding at Seven Pines on the outskirts of Richmond, was largely unknown and as much a mystery to southerners as he was to northerners. The future in early June 1862 did not look bright. As Ross Brooks so ably demonstrated last month, southerners in May 1862 despaired over the Confederacy’s prospects and felt God had forsaken their cause. Tennessee was lost, New Orleans captured, southern ports were blocked and there were numerous Union incursions along the eastern seaboard and now McClellan’s Union army, after a painstakingly slow advance up the peninsula, lay only five miles from the Confederate capital. Little wonder chronicler Mary Chestnut could not put pen to paper at this critical time as the Confederate government made arrangements to flee.


Lee at this time was acting as military advisor to President Davis. It was an appointment he had been given after his return from a stint improving Confederate coastal and port defences along the Atlantic coast. Lee had been despatched to that theatre after he had returned to Richmond following his failed expedition to drive the Federals from West Virginia late in 1861. That unhappy campaign against General George McClellan, fought with raw troops in difficult country while beset by miserable weather, hardly served as a public endorsement of Lee’s generalship. Irrespective of this Davis would turn to Lee in June 1862. Apart from the trust Davis had in Lee, the particulars of Lee’s military resume suggested he was the obvious choice.


When the war broke out and before Lee declared his hand for the Confederacy, Winfield Scott, the United States’ general-in-chief, under whom Lee had served in the Mexican War, determined to offer Lee a senior command. Scott stated that Lee, thrice brevetted in Mexico, was ‘the best soldier’ he had ever seen ‘in the field.’ Clearly Lee was held in great esteem within the regular army but it must be said that the United States had not put a large army in the field since the Mexican War which ended in 1848 and before that, one had to look to the revolutionary army for experience. Lee, like most civil war generals, was light on battlefield experience and command experience of large formations. In Mexico he had been an engineer officer and aide to his commanding officer Winfield Scott and General Wool. He had been wounded in action and his placement of batteries and reconnaissance were said to have been instrumental in contributing to victory in a number of actions namely at Veracruz, Cerro Gordo and on the road to Mexico City. Since then he had eked out a career in various military posts including three years as commandant of West Point. In October 1859 Lee was placed in command of the militia and U.S. Marine detachments despatched to Harper’s Ferry to suppress the uprising led by John Brown. Lee displayed undoubted competence in all his endeavours and given the overtures made of him at the outset of the civil war he was obviously seen as an exceptional talent albeit within quite a narrow context.  One might argue that Lee’s application to military duty and his bravery in battle were facets that were hardly unique in that they were mirrored by the service records of many of his peers.


In February 1861 Lee became a prisoner of the Confederacy when Texas seceded and General David E. Twiggs infamously surrendered the entire Department of Texas as soon as the Lone Star state declared for the Confederacy. Lee returned to Washington where he was promoted to Colonel of the 1st U.S. Cavalry. Three weeks later he was offered the rank of major-general and command of the Washington defences. He resigned from the U.S. Army on 20 April 1861. Virginia’s secession is often cited as the deciding factor in that decision, that it made Lee’s position untenable in that he could not raise a sword against the state of his birth. It may well have been true in Lee’s case but it certainly wasn’t for many other Virginian born officers. Forty per cent of officers from the Old Dominion serving in the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the civil war remained loyal to the Union.


In 1861 Lee was 54 years old and thus held a degree of seniority within the army – many of his peers had abandoned the service for civilian careers. His family was well connected to American military tradition given his marriage to Mary Custis whose father was the adopted son of George Washington. In 1857 Lee occupied her ancestral home at Arlington which she had gained through inheritance. Lee’s father Light Horse Harry Lee was a controversial hero of the war of Independence and trusted lieutenant of George Washington. When Lee was five years old, Harry fled America leaving his family and debts behind as he took refuge in Bermuda. Lee was raised by his mother and by all accounts he was groomed as a man of breeding and his demeanour was that of the quintessential southern aristocrat. Cold and quiet and grand is how Mary Chestnut described him.


Yet for all Lee’s social standing and professional endeavours he was little known outside of the army and outside of southern aristocratic circles.


On entering Confederate service Lee was marked as an officer deserving the rank of full general and was listed third in a group of five when the Confederate Congress authorized the rank of full general in May 1861. The officers, in order of designated seniority were: Samuel CooperAlbert Sidney JohnstonRobert E. LeeJoseph E. Johnston, and P.G.T. Beauregard. Joseph E. Johnston felt slighted by these rankings and there seems no doubt it poisoned his relationship with Davis. As the only soldier among that group with the rank of general to cross from the old regular army to the Confederacy, Johnston felt he should have been acknowledged as the new nation’s premier soldier.


For southerners looking at that list in early June 1862 it can only have added to the sense of insecurity gripping the Confederacy. Samuel Cooper, nearing 64 years of age, was deskbound as the army’s adjutant, Albert Sidney Johnston had been killed at Shiloh, Robert E. Lee was seen as a failure following the West Virginia expedition, Joseph E. Johnston now lay in hospital severely wounded and P.G.T Beauregard hero of Manassas, who had subsequently been driven from the field at Shiloh after Albert Sidney Johnston’s death, had in recent days abandoned Corinth in Mississippi. The flamboyant Creole then took an unauthorised leave of absence to recover from sickness.


The Confederacy’s stocks must have seemed low indeed to Jefferson Davis as he pondered the crisis before him. In Virginia the Confederate forces were under pressure at all points. Jackson’s small force in the Shenandoah Valley faced a three pronged Union offensive and at Fredericksburg Irving McDowell’s 40,000 strong Corps was poised ready to strike south and join McClellan’s push on Richmond.


A source of vexation for Davis had been the petulance of his army commander Joseph E. Johnston who avoided meetings, offered only vague responses to requests for information and generally kept the president in the dark about the movements and intention of the army defending Richmond. In this Davis would no doubt have received a sympathetic ear from his counterpart Abraham Lincoln who was finding his army commander’s behaviour as equally perplexing.


When Johnston was wounded and Lee took command Johnston magnanimously told a friend who despaired of the Confederacy’s fortunes “The shot that struck me down is the very best that has been fired for the Southern cause yet. For I possess in no degree the confidence of our government, and now they have in my place one who does possess it, and who can accomplish what I never could have done – the concentration of our armies for the defence of the capital of the Confederacy”


This confidence that Johnston had been unable to gain, mostly through his own vanity and intransigence, Lee had quickly earned. Since his entry into Confederate service Lee deferred to the President and Secretary of War on almost all matters. He would advise courses of action and troop movements but in doing so always left his suggestions open to the final approval of his Commander-in-chief. In the face of Johnston’s obfuscation Lee must have been a tonic for Davis’s jaded spirits. After his return from the Atlantic coast in March 1862 Lee was appointed as the chief military advisor to Davis and assumed a role as a strategic planner. Through the office of the president he was in essence general-in-chief of all Confederate forces in Virginia and had influence on all theatres in which Confederate armies operated.


Lee has been criticised as being too Virginia-centric in his strategic view. Thomas Connolly was one southern historian who certainly felt that the Confederate war effort was compromised by this and that the Army of Tennessee’s campaigns were always undermined by it. Connolly essentially revisits criticism made by J. F. C. Fuller and T. Harry Williams about Lee’s lack of understanding of the western theatre and of his bias for Virginia. It is an argument that I think was rebutted handsomely by Albert Castel but such a discussion would take us far from June 1862. It is important, however, to understand Lee’s strategic view of the war as it stood in June 1862 as it is instructive to understanding his actions in the Seven Days battle.


Lee accepted and probably endorsed the territorial defence strategy that the Confederacy was irrevocably shackled too. Morally and ethically the fledgling Confederate nation could not sacrifice any one state for the greater good. Critics such as J. F. C. Fuller have argued that a more appropriate strategy was to concede large tracts of the Upper South and concentrate in the heartland around Chattanooga and draw Union forces to them. This was hardly a credible plan and could provide only a military and political death to the Confederacy. The South to survive as a viable political entity simply had to maintain its territories.


On the question of foreign intervention Lee warned in the fall of 1861, “We must make up our minds to fight our battles and win independence alone. No one will help us.” A defensive war awaiting aid from Britain or France was therefore not part of any Lee plan.


Lee understood the concept of total war. In 1861 he wrote “Since the whole duty of the nation [will] be war until independence [is] secured, the whole nation should for a time be converted into an army, the producers to feed and the soldiers to fight.”


In December 1861 Lee recommended that Virginia introduce conscription for the war’s duration. In 1862 his endorsement of the Southern Congress’s proposed conscription act was critical to its successful passage. The Confederacy needed every able bodied man in the field until it could win its independence. Privately he told his President that the South needed to emancipate its slaves or enact a gradual emancipation if it wanted to win broad support. Davis could not support destroying the cornerstone of the Confederacy and only when in its death throes did the Confederacy adopt the idea.


When the Confederate armies in the west faced multiple threats in early 1862 it was on Lee’s suggestion that the garrisons of the coastal defences in the Gulf be stripped and sent to reinforce Albert Sidney Johnston. It was Lee who counselled Johnston to strike at Grant before Buell could join him. Shiloh was the result with the Confederates coming within a whisker of crippling Grant’s army.


It is in the context of Lee’s role as military adviser that we need to understand Jackson’s valley campaign in May and June 1862. The philosophy behind it was, threaten the Potomac line of communications to Washington with the hope that Federal forces would be withdrawn from Johnston’s front in response. Johnston at that time was holding a position in central Virginia with Jackson effectively acting as his left flank. By mid May Johnston was pressed back against the gates of Richmond and any plan of driving the Federals from the Valley was far from his thoughts.


Initially Johnston had been in accord with Lee’s view about threatening Washington. However, Lee’s strategic view differed markedly from Johnston’s as the Federals inched closer to Richmond. Johnston’s view became narrower, being focused purely on the army before Richmond whereas Lee continued to think about alleviating pressure on the capital by acting offensively elsewhere.


It is worth listing the series of opinions about Confederate strategy in relation to the defence of Richmond that we know Lee and Johnston expressed. Once McClellan had debouched at Fort Monroe and began preparation for the reduction of the Confederate defences at Yorktown under John Magruder the differences in opinion surfaced immediately. Johnston had taken command on the 17 April of the defence of the Peninsula and his advance guard had begun arriving to reinforce Magruder a week beforehand. On examining the ground Johnston decided he wanted to concentrate his force around Richmond, reinforce it from the troops from the coastal defences in the Carolinas, and then fight the decisive battle to save the Confederate capital. He reasoned that the pestilential peninsula was no place for an army and that it compromised the army’s health and that ultimately would lead to a retrograde movement which would undermine its morale. Faced with this request Davis was reluctant to accede to it without first consulting Lee and the Secretary of War George W. Randolph. A meeting was convened in which Johnston, G. W. Smith and Longstreet represented the army with Lee and Randolph cast as the president’s men. Lee advised that the coastal defences should not yet be denuded, that Johnston’s force should remain on the peninsula and that the Norfolk naval yard should be held as it would be inevitably lost were the Yorktown line to be given up. Davis declared in favour of Lee’s point of view as did Randolph. Smith supported Johnston and Longstreet made little comment.


Johnston saw McClellan’s army as the main threat to Richmond’s safety, Lee saw the Federal forces gathered in the Valley and particularly McDowell’s Corps as being the main threat. He wanted time to delay McClellan, fortify Richmond and strike at Banks in the lower valley and then fight the battle that Johnson envisaged. On 21 April he urged Jackson to strike at Banks to relieve the Federal build up at Fredericksburg. Following a request from Jackson for 5,000 reinforcements, Lee replied on 30 April with his apologies for his inability to fulfil the request but with a suggestion that Jackson draw from Edward Johnson’s command to strike at Banks or alternatively to combine with Edward Johnson, Ewell and Anderson to strike at McDowell’s force. The aim of both these suggestions was to keep McDowell’s Corps from reaching Richmond.


On 3 May Joseph E. Johnston abandoned Yorktown for the Williamsburg defences. On 5 May Jackson struck the advance guard of General Fremont’s force under General Milroy which effectively halted the westernmost prong of the Federal advance into the Valley.


On 10 May Joseph E. Johnston wrote to Lee urging the President to concentrate all the forces in North Carolina and Eastern Virginia for a strike against McClellan to prevent the possibility of being driven beyond Richmond, a position which he said would threaten the survival of the army.


On 16 May Lee wrote to Jackson stating reinforcements – troops brought up from the North Carolinian coast – were being sent to Gordonsville for his use and that in any movement he made he was not to lose sight of the fact that he may be required to support Johnston before Richmond. Critically Lee wrote, “Whatever movement you make against Banks, do it speedily, and if successful drive him back to the Potomac, and create the impression as far as is possible that you design threatening that line.”


Soon after this Johnston ordered General Ewell to move eastward to be closer to Richmond and furthermore ordered the two reinforcing brigades that were being brought up from North Carolina to join his army. This was contrary to Lee’s intentions for their use and when Jackson learned of it he promptly telegraphed Lee for clarification. President Davis intervened, overrode Johnston’s orders, and on 25 May Jackson’s reinforced army drove Banks from Winchester. Alarm bells immediately rang in Washington with various governors of the eastern states asked to send as many spare men as could be raised for the immediate defence of the capital. Jackson again telegraphed Lee for instructions and was urged to press the enemy, to threaten an invasion of Maryland and an attack on Washington. Jackson accordingly made a feint at Harpers Ferry but by this time Lincoln and Stanton had set as many troops as they were able in Jackson’s direction.


This brings us to the battle of Seven Pines fought over two days on 31 May and 1 June 1862.  This battle, of which little has been written, ranks as the twelfth worst in terms of killed and wounded in the four years of war. Fought on sodden fields after a week of the severest downpours seen for many a year Johnston concentrated his army south of the Chickahominy River to try and defeat the portion of McClellan’s army which was virtually trapped on that side by the fortuitously flooding of the river and surrounding swamps. McClellan had positioned half of his army on the north side with the expectation that they would link up with McDowell’s force when it descended from Fredericksburg.


Lee was as anxious as any other southerner in the city with the capital’s fate resting on the outcome. Having been frustrated at not being able to participate actively in the Battle of Manassas he was determined to be involved in this affray. He wrote to Johnston asking for some active role either as a staff position at headquarters or in the field. Johnston did not respond to the request and Lee rode to Johnston’s headquarters asking to be of assistance. As the battle unfolded Lee was at President Davis’ side and was with the president when Johnston was wounded late on the 31 May. The battle had been largely inconclusive, the plan had been a reasonable one but delays occurred that saw the original plan quickly rendered useless.


Who would now command the army? Before Davis turned to Lee he had to consider one other general and that was G. W. Smith who was second in command and had assumed command with the news of Johnston’s wounding. With Lee, Davis visited Smith to ascertain what his plan might be. The interview did not begin well with Smith asking the president if he had any information about the position and state of the army. Smith had no plan other than to push some units forward the next day and as Davis and Lee rode back to Richmond in the early hours of 1 June, Davis resolved to place Lee in command of the army.


George McClellan welcomed the change in command for he believed Lee to be “too cautious and weak under grave responsibility – personally brave and energetic to a fault…yet wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility” and that he was “likely to be timid and irresolute in action.” If ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, this was it.


News of Lee’s appointment heralded a torrent of speculation about his ability. One trenchant critic was the Richmond Examiner or rather its editor Edward A. Pollard – an avowed Davis opponent and hater of anyone who enjoyed the president’s confidence. He had adjudged Lee a failure in West Virginia and the public had pretty much fallen in line with that view. Lee had not done much wrong in Western Virginia but had been unable to expel the Union forces there which had been the expectation of southerners after Bull Run. He was lambasted as being overrated as a soldier, as being too showy, relying on his historic name and too tender of heart. Thereafter he was sent to South Carolina and Georgia to oversee the construction and improvement of the Atlantic defences. It was thankless work and though he did good work much of it was out of the Richmond public’s eye. Moreover it was Lee who was blamed for the army’s refusal to fight on the peninsula, it being known he had insisted on Johnston remaining in the Yorktown defences. The Richmond Examiner greeted his appointment with the announcement “Evacuating Lee, who has never once risked a single battle with the invader, is commanding officer.”  As Frederick Maurice states Lee was considered very much a retreating strategist.


What southerners wanted was action. They wanted to see results and nothing short of the expulsion of the Federals from the city’s gates was going to satisfy them. Gary Gallagher has argued that this expectation derived from a culturally aggressive and heroic mindset and was a powerful force in determining the behaviour and actions of southern generals and is one that should be considered in any judgement of battlefield decisions.


In the first weeks after assuming command Lee did not feed this appetite. His men were put to improving the city’s fortifications. Now he became known as the King of Spades and his grey hair and apparent fussing brought the added appellation of Granny Lee. Again the Richmond Examiner chafed “guns and ammunition would now only be in the way, spades and shovels being the only implements General Lee knew about”. Lee did not respond to such criticisms other than to comment privately that he lamented the people’s lack of understanding of the good effects that physical work would have on his soldiers.


The digging and apparent idleness of the army while the blue horde lay only a stone’s throw away was concerning Porter Alexander, engineer and signal officer at the time, and he wondered to a colleague whether Lee had the audacity to strike at and to drive the Yankees from Richmond. His colleague was Colonel Joseph Ives, who had accompanied Lee to South Carolina and who was a friend of the president, though one detested by the president’s wife, and he replied “If there is one man in either army…head and shoulders above every other in audacity, it is General Lee! His name might be Audacity. He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker, than any other general in his country, North or South; and you will live to see it too.”


Not surprisingly Porter Alexander often wondered from where Ives’ prescience had evolved.


One of the first things Lee did was to rename the army now under his command. From June 1862 on it would forever be known as The Army of Northern Virginia. This was a statement of intent on Lee’s part for anybody who wanted to take note. The place of the army in Lee’s mind was not on the James, not in southern or central Virginia but rather staring down its enemy while protecting the northernmost border of the Confederacy.


Lee understood in 1862 as he did in 1864 that a prolonged siege in Richmond would lead to the neutering of the army and the virtual end of the Confederacy. For the Confederacy to survive, its armies needed freedom to manoeuvre, to strike north -whether in the eastern or western theatre – to wrest the initiative from the Federals and force them to withdraw forces from various strategic points to concentrate on the threat from the southern armies in the field. The South lived only as long as its armies did. Lincoln knew it as did Grant when he made the Southern armies his targets in 1864. The South would never be able to overturn the material advantage the North had but it may gain the moral edge if it could make the North tire of the war. The only way the North would tire of the war was if it cost too much, not in a financial sense but rather in the loss of its soldiers. How many buckets of blood was the North prepared to spill for the sacred cause of Union? Only if the body count became unpalatable would the North stop fighting and for that to happen the Confederate armies must be prepared to fight. This was Lee’s philosophy and it was Stonewall Jackson’s too – Asked by a staff officer at Fredericksburg how the army could cope against such a numerous foe, Jackson had bluntly replied. “Kill them, sir, kill every man”. Few others in the Confederate service grasped the totality of what was required.


Let us then return to active operations with Lee now in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. On 8/9 June Jackson won successive victories at Cross Keys and Port Republic against the pursuing Federal forces thus causing more alarm in Washington and furthering his reputation. Lee wrote to Jackson congratulating him on his victories and advising him of the likelihood of the valley army having to ready itself for a move toward Richmond.


On 12 June Lee despatched J. E. B. Stuart to explore beyond the Union right flank at Mechanicsville. This resulted in Stuart’s ride around McClellan. It brought Lee the welcome news that the Federal flank was ‘in the air’. With this discovery Lee summoned Jackson to bring the 18,500 strong valley army to the Chickahominy above Richmond.  He would attack McClellan’s right rear supported by Stuart while Longstreet, D. H. Hill and A. P. Hill’s divisions assailed the front once Stonewall engaged. The date of attack was set for 26 June.


Stuart’s raid left McClellan with a great feeling of unease for his right flank. Rather than refuse his right flank, that is pivot it back a distance, McClellan fired off telegraphs and letters about the possibility of a Rebel attack in that direction. Eventually on 25 June he sent his left forward in a move that threatened to trump Lee’s planned attack. A sharp battle was fought at Oak Grove which brought McClellan’s lines half a mile closer to Richmond. Magruder’s Confederates put up a noisy and stubborn resistance which satisfied McClellan that Lee’s main army remained in front of him.


The next day at Mechanicsville Lee launched the first of a series of attacks that, added to the previous days fight, became known as the Seven Days battle. Gaines Mill, Golding’s Farm, Savage’s Station, Frayser’s Farm, and Malvern Hill followed. Virtually all were tactical defeats for the Confederates or stalemates at best but every battle was a strategic victory as the Federals withdrew after each. The Confederate attacks had been uncoordinated, Jackson had been tardy and the Union soldiers’ obstinate but by week’s end McClellan had shifted his base from White House to City Point and his army lay inexplicably cowed below its guns at Harrison’s Landing.


Lee’s army suffered 20,614 casualties, McClellan’s 15,849. Lee’s audacity stood for all to see and so too did his modis operandi for the rest of the war. Given an opportunity to take the initiative Lee would always oblige.


The heavy casualties Lee sustained represented 20 per cent of his army. By comparison the Federals lost 14 per cent. These figures have provided the springboard for Lee critics such as Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson to charge Lee with fighting battles the Confederacy could ill afford – to posit that he bled the Confederacy dry. This reductionism when applied to virtually all Lee’s battles reveals that the Confederates almost always lost more men on a percentage basis – as they also did in the West. Thus it is deduced that Lee was the South’s costliest general losing the one thing that the South could not afford to lose – men. And when Lee needed those lost soldiers most in 1864/65 to resist the tide of blue and stave off final defeat he could not draw on them. Such an argument ignores the fact that for two years after June 1862, the main Union army was kept at bay, generally on the back-foot and always north of the Confederate capital. And the Confederate capital was both materially and symbolically important to the Southern war effort.


None of Lee’s critics in this regard McWhiney, Jamieson, Nolan, Connolly, Fuller et. al. beyond offering vague suggestions that Lee should have tempered his aggression and adopted a defensive strategy, advance any specific plan as to how this may have been enacted.


The concept of an offensive defensive is often mentioned as the military policy the South ought to have adopted, that is apply an offensive strategy and use defensive tactics. This view gained traction as a result of the Lee/Longstreet controversy at Gettysburg with the view put forward that having invaded the North the Confederates then should have found defensive ground and awaited a Federal attack. It relies on the assumption that your enemy will oblige and shelve any strategic impulses they may have of their own. The truth is no strategic policy was ever advanced officially nor conveyed with any clarity to southern governors or generals. We can say, given Lee’s attitude and given the subsequent thrusts north both East and West that an offensive preference was the dominant philosophy. And it was, I would argue, the right policy as the material advantage of the North would benefit siege operations the most and for that reason I do not believe the South could afford a static defence. That course of action invited the North to come to them with the inevitable result that the Union’s advantage in artillery and manpower would win out as Vicksburg 1863, Atlanta 1864 and Richmond 1865 all demonstrated. If those disasters had been invited in 1862 it is likely the war would have been significantly shortened.


When Lee attacked McClellan on the Peninsula he fulfilled the expectations southerners had of their generals. In answer to his president’s concerns for the safety of the Confederate capital Lee explained his plan, gave his assessment of his opponent’s likely response and offered his opinion that if successful his attack might “change the character of the war.” It did. Robert E. Lee was the right man for the job when the critical hour arrived in June 1862.