General Lee and Guerrilla War

Hattip to commenter Dennis McCutcheon for giving me the idea for this post.  We Americans today view the Civil War as part of our history.  If different decisions had been made at the end of that conflict, the Civil War could still be part of our current reality.  Just before the surrender at Appomattox, General Porter Alexander, General Robert E. Lee’s chief of artillery, broached to Lee a proposal that the Army of Northern Virginia disband and carry out a guerrilla war against the Union occupiers.  Here history balanced on a knife edge.  If Lee had accepted the proposal, I have little doubt the stage would have been set for an unending war between the North and the South which would still be with us.  Douglas Southall Freeman, in his magisterial R. E. Lee, tells what happened next, based upon Alexander’s memoirs, Fighting for the Confederacy.

“Thereupon Alexander proposed, as an alternative to surrender, that the men take to the woods with their arms, under orders to report to governors of their respective states.

“What would you hope to accomplish by that?” Lee queried.

It might prevent the surrender of the other armies, Alexander argued, because if the Army of Northern Virginia laid down its arms, all the others would follow suit, whereas, if the men reported to the governors, each state would have a chance of making an honorable peace. Besides, Alexander went on, the men had a right to ask that they be spared the humiliation of asking terms of Grant, only to be told that U. S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant would live up to the name he had earned at Fort Donelson and at Vicksburg.

Lee saw such manifest danger in this proposal to become guerillas that he began to question Alexander: “If I should take your advice, how many men do you suppose would get away?”

“Two-thirds of us. We would be like rabbits and partridges in the bushes and they could not scatter to follow us.”

“I have not over 15,000 muskets left,” Lee explained. “Two-thirds of them divided among the states, even if all could be collected, would be too small a force to accomplish anything. All could not be collected. Their homes have been overrun, and many would go to look after their families.

“Then, General,” he reasoned further, “you and I as Christian men have no right to consider only how this would affect us. We must consider its effect on the country as a whole. Already it is demoralized by the four years of war. If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from. And, as for myself, you young fellows might go bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.”

Lee paused, and then he added, outwardly hopeful, on the strength of Grant’s letter of the previous night, whatever his inward misgivings, “But I can tell you one thing for your comfort. Grant will not demand an unconditional surrender. He will give us as good terms as this army has the right to demand, and I am going to meet him in the rear at 10 A.M. and surrender the army on the condition of not fighting again until exchanged.”

Alexander went away a humbler man. “I had not a single word to say in reply,” he wrote years afterwards. “He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it, that I was ashamed of having made it.”

Robert E. Lee was a very great general, but he was something  even more precious:  a very good man.  By his actions he spared the nation a Civil War without end.  He said before he surrendered to Grant that he would have rather died a thousand deaths.  However, as he had throughout his life, he put the well-being of others always before his personal wishes.  Lee once said that duty was the most sublime word in the English language.  Never did he live up that ideal more than when he made sure that our Civil War came to an end, even though that end meant his defeat and the defeat of the Confederacy

9 Responses to General Lee and Guerrilla War

  1. Tito Edwards says:

    Probably the greatest general America has ever had.

  2. Dale Price says:

    Lee’s quintessential decency saved America from a horrible fate. We owe him more than we will ever be able to describe.

    Not so BTW, Charles Harness’ excellent sci-fi short story, “Quarks at Appomattox,” explores a related proposal from time travellers with an agenda.

  3. j. christian says:

    Charles Harness’ excellent sci-fi short story, “Quarks at Appomattox,”

    Apologies for the off-topic snicker, but was this a sequel to “Bosons at Bull Run?” Personally, “Gluons at Gettysburg” was a pretty good yarn, too. (Sorry! Couldn’t resist.)

  4. Tito Edwards says:

    “Guns of the South” was also a good alternative-history book where South African Apartheiders went into the past to ensure a Confederate victory (by Harry Turtledove).

  5. T. Shaw says:

    The night before the formal surrender, General Chamberlain had decided to salute the Army of Virginia. The decision “was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”

    The next morning, on April 12, the salute was rendered.

    “When General Gordon came opposite of me, I had the bugle blown and the entire line came to ‘attention’…The General was riding in advance of his troops, his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance almost beyond description. As the sound of that machine like snap of arms, however, General Gordon started, caught in a moment of its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a soldier. He wheeled his horse facing me, touching him gently with the spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion, the horse’s head swung down with a graceful bow and General Gordon dropped his swordpoint to his toe in salutation…On our part, not a sound of trumpet more, nor the roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breathing-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead.”

    After the war, General Gordon would address Chamberlain as “one of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal Army.”

    As other units passed Chamberlain, one Confederate said as he was delivering his flag, “boys, this is not the first time you have seen this flag. I have borne it in the front of battle on many victorious fields of battle and I had rather die than surrender it to you.” Chamberlain replied, “I admire your noble spirit, and only regret that I have not the authority to bid you keep your flag and carry it home as a precious heirloom.” One officer said to Chamberlain, “General, this is deeply humiliating; but I console myself with the thought that the whole country will rejoice at the day’s business. Another officer said, “You astound us by your honorable and generous conduct. I fear that we should not have done the same to you had the case been reversed.” A third officer went even farther by saying, “I went into that cause I meant it. We had our choice of weapons and of ground, and we have lost. Now [pointing to the Stars and Stripes] that is my flag, and I will prove myself as worthy as any of you.”

    However, most of the Confederates were too humiliated to be reversed so quickly. General Wise told Chamberlain, “You may forgive us but we won’t be forgiven. There is a rancor in hour hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, Sir…you go home, you take these fellows home. That’s what will end this war.”

    Chamberlain replied, “Don’t worry about the end of the war. We are going home pretty soon, but not till we see you home.”

    No matter how ill Chamberlain’s salute to the fallen South may have been received, it still remains one of the greatest acts of honor in the military history of the United States.

    Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence.“Bayonet! Forward” My Civil War Reminiscences.
    Gettysburg: Stan Clark Military books, 1994.

    Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence. The Passing of the Armies: The Last Campaign of the
    Armies. Gettysburg: Stan Clark Military books, 1915.

    Dllard, Wallace M. Soul of the Lion; A Biography on General Joshua L. Chamberlain
    Gettysburg: Stan Clark Military books, 1960.

  6. Vox clamantis in deserto says:

    When the War ended, Robert E. Lee was a man without a home and without citizenship.

    Before the War, Lee and his family lived at Arlington House, a mansion on top of a hill in Alexandria County, Virginia. The place is across the Potomac River from Washington. Mrs. Lee had inherited the place from her father, who was related to George and Martha Washington. Mrs. Lee’s father had put together the largest private collection of George Washington memorabilia at Arlington House.

    When Robert E. Lee joined the Confederate Army, he had to abandon Arlington House, which the Union Army soon took over. Yankee soldiers looted the house, not sparing some of the Washington memorabilia. The Union Army buried dead Yankee soldiers at the front yard, at the backyard, and all around the house. This was to ensure that Robert E. Lee and his family would never again live at Arlington House. Thus, the place became Arlington National Cemetery.

    After the War, Washington College needed a leader to take it through the rough postwar years. The college, which had received an endowment from George Washington, asked Robert E. Lee to be their next college president. Lee accepted, and served at the college for five years until his decease in 1870. Later, the college would adopt the name Washington and Lee University.

    Interestingly, both Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee were residents of Lexington, Virginia at different times, Jackson as a professor at the Virginia Military Institute before the War, Lee as president of Washington College after the War.

    In the postwar years, Lee’s citizenship was under a cloud. He applied for amnesty, but the federal government sat on it. In 1975, Congress finally restored Lee’s citizenship.

  7. Kevin in El Paso says:

    To suggest that the nation’s future balanced “on a knife’s edge” during that moment of temptation by Alexander is to besmirch the noble name of Lee. Even the quoted recouting of the story exposes the blatant lie in the suggestion that Lee considered it seriously, even for a moment.

    You might as well sully the reputation of Washington (another famous Virginian) by saying he was giving serious thought to keeping the presidency as long as he could.

    What’s this facsination with dancing on the graves of the South’s warriors? You don’t really want to bring up the issue of relative goodness here. Though slavery was certainly horrible, you have to stretch the meaning of words and tarnish your reputation for truth to suggest that the federal government entered into the war to abolish slavery. So what end must have been declared to justify the means of 75,000 volunteers in the spring of 1861? Was it really emancipation? If that were true, would any have been able to argue that it was the only way?

    Those of you who actually say the word “indivisible” in the Pledge certainly see nothing wrong in completely destroying the consent of the governed that had existed in the repuiblic until that day.

    Now Obama merely takes it all to it’s natural conclusion. If southern consent was not required in 1861 under Lincoln, his 21st century political descendent cannot be blamed for deciding that no consent is required today.

  8. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Kevin, you took offense where none was intended. The entire post was in praise of Lee. Some Lost Cause enthusiasts are just as quick to take offense against purely imaginary insults as devotees of other forms of identity politics.

  9. niall sheedy from ireland says:

    i have lived in a country with guerrilla war that has lasted a hundred years,it never ends! this kind of fight has no honour,which is a reflection of our times.Lee was a model to all men of how to act-charity, kindness and true courage.Never thinking of himself,always of others and the greater good.His foundation his faith.Godbless Lee Godbless the south!

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