Legacy of Lee and Jackson

by John Taylor, A Virginian

In December 2013, the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania discovered it had portraits of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.1 In the world we live in today, it should not be surprising that somebody was offended that they had such portraits at the Army War College. The disgruntled reacted predictably. They wanted the portraits removed. A turn of events like this also has a tendency to bring out the ugly underbelly of unconditional unionism. Go to the comments section of a news story about Lee and Jackson (or anything remotely Confederate) and invariably, some northerner, centralizer or fellow-traveler will argue that Lee and Jackson were traitors who should have been hanged after the war. Some will go so far as to suggest all white southerners should have been executed, as if white southerners were passive putty to be molded in the hands of a victorious and all-powerful North.2

This kind of outrage and blood lust frequently come from ignorance or, at best, a very shallow understanding of history, and the American political system. Helping dispel this is one of the reasons to keep paintings of Lee and Jackson around. There are additional reasons.

One reason for keeping portraits of Lee and Jackson is a purely military one. These two men have much to teach today’s military leaders how to fight outnumbered and win. It seems very unlikely that the US military will outnumber its future opponents, and be able to outmuscle them. Thus, Grant is no longer the ideal for American military leaders, especially not his Overland Campaign. In May 1864, Grant’s armies outnumbered Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia 118,000 to 64,000 in Virginia.3 Over the next two months, Grant’s Army of the Potomac lost more soldiers than Lee had in his entire army.4 The United States military is extremely unlikely to face an opponent with whom they can trade casualties at anything near the rate of a man for a man. Grant’s Army of the Potomac traded nearly two US casualties for each Confederate killed, wounded or captured. Thus, Grant is not the role model for the US military.

Jackson and Lee both fought outnumbered and won, at least, winning most of their battles and achieving or nearly achieving their campaign objectives. In Jackson’s Valley Campaign, Lee instructed Jackson to threaten Washington, if possible, in order to keep Union troops away from Richmond. Jackson did this to a tee, defeating three separate Union armies, keeping 75,000 Union soldiers occupied and robbing McClellan of 40,000 men of the Union I Corps. Further, by the rapidity of his movements, Jackson succeeded in getting his 17,000 troops to Richmond in time to participate in the Seven Days’ Battles which pushed Little Mac back from the doorstep of Richmond. By deducting 40,000 Union troops from the forces at Richmond and adding 17,000 Confederate troops, Jackson was responsible for a swing of 57,000 troops. This adjustment of the force ratios was a key component in the Confederate victory in the Seven Days.

Similarly, Lee at Chancellorsville faced an opponent that heavily outnumbered his army, and still decisively defeated it. In May 1863, Lee’s ANV consisted of around 62,500 troops and was facing a Union Army of the Potomac of 138,000.5 By rapidity of movement, tactical aggressiveness and prudent risk-taking, Lee was able to divide, and then sub-divide his smaller force and defeat Hooker’s Army of the Potomac in detail.

Lee faced his toughest opponent in Grant during the summer of 1864. In this campaign, the Army of the Potomac outnumbered the Army of Northern Virginia 118,000 to 64,000. Generally, Grant kept side-stepping to his left, and Lee to his right. In most cases, Lee anticipated Grant’s moves and arrived at the key point before Grant. Eventually, Grant could not side-step anymore and, at Cold Harbor, on June 3rd, 1864, Grant tried to punch through Lee’s army with a frontal assault. The result was a disaster so stunning that Grant abandoned trying to get into Richmond from north of the James, and swung his armies around south and tried to advance via Petersburg. The key point is that Lee anticipated Grant’s moves and inflicted more casualties on Grant’s armies than Lee had in his entire army, and forced Grant to abandon his line of operations in favor of another line. That is fighting outnumbered and winning.

Next, Jackson and Lee are useful in modeling a proper relationship between military and civilian authorities. Jackson had been a Breckenridge Democrat in the 1860 elections, and thus was probably not opposed to secession should Lincoln win. Lee, however, was vehemently opposed to secession up until Virginia actually withdrew from the Union. Then, Lee resigned his commission from the Army of the United States. After the war, Lee wrote this: “I was not in favor of secession, and was opposed to war; in fact, … I was for the Constitution and the Union established by our forefathers; and, … as far as I know, it is that for which the South has all along contended.”6

Lee served as Jefferson Davis’ principle military adviser from 1861 until the end of the war. Both men kept civilian authorities informed of their intentions and operations to the extent possible. Any talk about Jackson and Lee attempting to destroy the Union if simply gross exaggeration and breathless hyperbole. Anyone advancing that argument simply does not understand the nature of our federal republic. If Lee and Jackson had won every single engagement in which they participated, there still would have been a country known as the United States. It would have consisted of states that wished to be members of that union. Hobbesian centralizers today may hate their memory perhaps because they do not wish to have their example before the people. Lee and Jackson were military leaders who acknowledged their duty to subordinate themselves to civilian authorities. On the other side, however, we have the example of northern military leaders who overthrew elected state governments and replaced them with appointed military governors. These two examples are worth bearing in mind.

Finally, there is a philosophical reason northerners and statists do not wish to see images of Lee and Jackson in public. Lee once said, “I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South dearest rights, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”7 Sometimes, however, evil simply does not like being confronted with virtue. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan repeatedly condemns God for his virtue. Likewise, people like Alan Nolan cannot tolerate the image of a virtuous Lee of Jackson to remain unchallenged. People who think like Nolan must destroy that image, just as Milton’s Satan must strive to destroy God. Contrast this with Lee’s character, as Lee said, “The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He can not only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.8 One wishes Lee’s maligners shared Lee’s views on this, but their very nature prevents them from believing this way. Regardless, the virtues of Lee and Jackson serve as positive examples for Americans with open minds and hearts that are not filled with hate.

Detractors of Lee and Jackson say they are symbols of racism, slavery and treason. In closing, I would say that we should keep images of Lee and Jackson in the public eye. Not because we agree with their detractors, but because we disagree with them as to what Lee and Jackson stand for. In a speech in Atlanta in 1874, Benjamin H. Hill summarized Lee’s life on this wise:

When the future historian comes to survey the character of Lee, he will find it rising like a huge mountain above the undulating plain of humanity, and he will have to lift his eyes toward heaven to catch its summit. [Lee] possessed every virtue of the great commanders without their vices. He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy; and a man without guilt. He was a Caesar without his ambition; a Frederick without his tyranny; a Napoleon without his selfishness; and a Washington without his reward. He was obedient to authority as a servant, and loyal in authority as a true king. He was gentle as a woman in life; modest and pure as a virgin in thought; watchful as a Roman vestal in duty; submissive to law as Socrates, and grand in battle as Achilles.9


2 One could well argue that, had the north attempted a vindictive policy, that the United States in the late 1860s and early 1870s would have erupted in violence along the lines of Ireland in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and the south might well have achieved its independence after all.


3 James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, pg. 724. While McPherson may not be the most favorable to the Confederate point of view, most northerners accept his arguments, and thus he is useful here. J. G. Randall and David Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction, (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath & Co., 1969), 418, put the figures at 118,000 to 60,000.


4 James McPherson, 742.


5 Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee, vol. II, pg. 506.


6 Letter to George W. Jones March 22, 1869, Published in J. William Jones, Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee, (NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1875), 273.


7 J. William Jones, Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee, (NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1875), 75.


8 Gamaliel Bradford, Lee the American, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912), 233.


9 Jones, 222-3.