Gen. Robert E. Lee on the Civil War
Gen. Robert E. Lee
Gen. Lee answers questions
Q & A Session with Gen. Robert E. Lee by Michael M. Nakade, M.A.
(An imaginary Q & A session in a 7th grade history classroom in 2013. Gen. Robert E. Lee fields questions from students.)
Question #1: Gen. Lee, would you tell us about your family?
Answer: My father was a Revolutionary War hero with a nickname “Light Horse Harry.” He later became a governor of Virginia. My two uncles signed the Declaration of Independence. My father had three children from his first marriage. Then, he married my mother, Ann Hill Carter. My parents had four children, myself included. I was the youngest in the family.
My father, Henry Lee, abandoned my mother and me when I was 11 years old. He was reckless with his money and was financially ruined. He escaped to England and never returned. I think I grew up quickly as a result. My mother suffered poor health, and I made a point to be a good kid. After seeing how my father lived, I vowed to be responsible and in-control. This character trait stayed with me until I died in 1870.
Question #2: Gen. Lee, why did you become a soldier?
Answer: I have always been a kind of person who liked a structured lifestyle. I felt a military life would suit me well. More importantly, my family did not have much money to pay for my education. It made a perfect sense to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York because it was free.
Question #3: Gen. Lee, what kind of a cadet were you at West Point?
Answer: My fellow cadets thought I was too perfect, and in a way, I was. Never once I was given any consequences for breaking school rules. No Saturday night detention. No Sunday morning work detail. No suspension from school. Academically, I graduated 2nd in my class of 46. As I told you before, being responsible and being in control meant everything to me. I did not party with the boys while I was at West Point.
Question #4: Gen. Lee, what did you do after graduation from West Point?
Answer: I joined the United States Army and began my military career. I helped build fortresses, roads, and bridges for the Army as a young officer. Then, the Mexican-American War came in 1846, and I worked closely with Gen. Winfield Scott and had the privilege of learning from Gen. Scott. He truly was an amazing military strategist and a leader.
Question #5: Gen. Lee, was it true that you agonized over the decision to work for the Confederacy in April 1861 when Virginia seceded from the Union?
Answer: Yes. I agonized over the decision. President Lincoln asked me to lead the U.S. military for the war between the North and the South. Gen. Winfield Scott had recommended me to President Lincoln for the top military post in the North. But, I could not imagine that I would raise my sword against Virginia, my home state. Ultimately, my loyalty to Virginia was more important to me at the time. It was not an easy decision.
Question #6: Gen. Lee, you were not the head of the Confederate Army at the start of the Civil War. Why weren’t you? You took the command in June 1862, 14 months after the start of the conflict. What took you so long?
Answer: Initially, President Jefferson Davis had me as his military adviser in Richmond, Virginia. In other words, I had a desk job. The top three field command positions went to Gen. P.G. T. Beauregard, Albert Sydney Johnston, and Joseph E. Johnston. I was put in the command of the Army of Northern Virginia when Gen. Joe Johnston was wounded in May 1862.
Question #7: Gen. Lee, you fought Gen. McClellan at Antietam, Maryland in September 1862. Later, many historians said that it was the turning point of the war. How do you see the battle at Antietam?
Answer: The South was riding on a winning streak against the North in the eastern theater. England and France were watching the situation very closely. I had figured that England would come to our aid with one more Southern victory. I only wished that we had achieved a decisive victory in Antietam, Maryland. That victory would have prompted England to recognize the Confederate States of America as a new and independent nation.
But, because we did not, England remained neutral. Lincoln then issued the Emancipation Proclamation soon after. So, in that sense, it really was a turning point of the war.
Question #8: Gen. Lee, you still had two more impressive military victories after Antietam. They are victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Why didn’t England recognize the Confederate independence after those Southern victories?
Answer: It was because of the Emancipation Proclamation that took effect on January 1, 1863. It declared that slaves in the Confederate states were forever free. In reality, it freed not a single slave, but it declared that the Civil War was not only about saving the Union, but also about abolishing the institution of slavery in the South. With this new goal, England could no longer recognize the South as an independent nation. The South was fighting to preserve the institution of slavery, and it was deemed unsavory by many people in England. Those two Confederate victories were great, but I knew the South was in trouble because the South could not count on England’s help.
Question #9: Gen. Lee, what about the battle at Gettysburg in early July 1863? Wasn’t Gettysburg the most important battle of the Civil War?
Answer: Gettysburg became very famous after the war for two reasons. One reason was the staggering number of casualties. In three days, there were over 46,000 casualties on both sides. It was brutal, to say the least. Second reason was Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that took place in November 1863. His speech made the battle very well known. Militarily speaking, it was neither decisive nor significant in terms of affecting the outcome of the War. The Confederacy lived on for nearly two more years after the battle at Gettysburg. The South still had a chance to win the independence after Gettysburg. So, I do not regard this battle as the most important game changer of the War.
Question #10: Gen. Lee, what prompted you to invade Gettysburg, Pennsylvania? I thought you could just stay in the South and defeat the invading Yankees?
Answer: First of all, having battles in Virginia frequently was difficult for the farmers in Virginia. I planned for the invasion of southern Pennsylvania to capture some much needed food and fodder for my army. Secondly, I was desperate to win on the northern soil. The Confederate Army was on a long losing streak in the West and in the Mississippi River valley. The South needed a victory in the East to boost the morale. Thirdly, fighting the defensive warfare in the South was a sure way to lose the war. The North could come to the South and surround some key cities. The Yankee soldiers could put siege warfare on us and would eventually win because they could wait until we run out of food. That’s why it was important for me to keep attacking and winning battles in the field. I knew the North’s superior manpower and material would eventually overwhelm us if the war drags on.
Question #11: Gen. Lee, when did you think that the South was going to lose the war?
Answer: The fall of Atlanta in September 1864 made Lincoln’s reelection possible. The people in the North smelled the victory, and they were going to push for the complete conquest of the South. There was no more hope for negotiated peace when Lincoln was reelected. The Democratic candidate, McClellan, was proposing for ending the war through armistice. But, McClellan was easily defeated in the election. It meant that the Republican Party would abolish the institution of slavery in the South and would bring an end to our traditional Southern way of life.
Question #12: Gen. Lee, you became a hero to millions of people in America after the war, even though you fought for the cause of the Southern independence. How do you feel about that?
Answer: I do believe that my commitment to honor and duty was recognized. My hero is George Washington, and I feel it is important for a leader to set good examples. I do, however, insist that I am not a saint. I made my share of mistakes. The truth of the matter is that many folks in the South felt the need to justify the reason for their rebellion against the United States in the 1860s. They needed to emphasize how wonderful I, Robert E. Lee, was so that they could feel good about their efforts to win the independence from the North. My reputation was well utilized to help the cause of the Southern independence. Some folks even suggested that I was opposed to slavery. That was not true. I never once insisted that the South should abolish slavery. They tried to make me more acceptable to the people in the North after the War.
Question #13: Gen. Lee, what did you do after the Civil War?
Answer: I accepted a job offer from Washington College in Lexington, Virginia in 1865. I served as the president of this college until my death in 1870. Shortly after my death, the school changed the name to Washington and Lee University. It is such an honor that my hero, George Washington and my name are tied together at this school.
(Information cited here comes from The Teaching Company's Lecture Series on the Civil War by Prof. Garry Gallagher of the University of Virginia.)