The Mind and Heart of Robert E. Lee

It had been a rough spring for Robert E. Lee. Everything he had attempted to stave off what increasingly seemed to be inevitable had fallen short. At Fort Stedman his effort to force Grant to contract his lines around Petersburg had failed; at Five Forks the Yankees gained the upper hand, followed by the rather rapid evacuation of Richmond (a contingency Lee had long anticipated but still seemed unprepared to accept). What passed for Confederate staff work and logistical support contributed to the failure to find supplies at Amelia Court House, causing a costly delay; then, at Sailor’s Creek, he openly wondered if his army had dissolved. When on April 7 he opened a letter delivered to Confederate lines under flag of truce, he confronted for the first time a request to surrender.

I’ve written before about how Lee responded to that request, what was on his mind, and discussed the tale that he rejected a proposal to conduct guerilla warfare, a claim that rests upon a misinterpretation of sources.

It is difficult to believe that Lee did not realize that surrender was really the only option available to him. His army was no longer an effective fighting force, with less than 10,000 men carrying arms, and another 18,000 or so men now simply accompanying that force. The only question left is whether they would meet their end peacefully or in one final violent clash that would have obliterated them. It was in this state of mind that he corresponded with Grant, engaging in what can be best seen as a game of bluff, trying to fool an adversary who was in no mood to be fooled. Yes, he was trying to cut the best deal he could, but Grant’s answers made it evident that there was only one deal on the table. Whatever Lee might once have gained by negotiating months ago, he had no chance of gaining that now, and his counterpart was quick to place the responsibility of further bloodshed–needless bloodshed–on Lee’s shoulders.

It should cause us to pause to realize that Lee hesitated and procrastinated. It would not be until April 9 that he would finally concede that he had no choice other than to meet Grant. That’s the sign of a proud man, but it is also the sign of a stubborn man, and men died because of that stubbornness and reluctance to accept final defeat.


7 thoughts on “The Mind and Heart of Robert E. Lee

  1. Pete Carmichael April 8, 2015 / 6:46 pm

    And maybe a man who was proud, stubborn, and feared that he might eventually get the noose for his traitorous acts

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 8, 2015 / 7:10 pm

      So he delayed surrendering because he feared for his own life?

  2. Rosemary April 9, 2015 / 2:20 am

    I bet what he feared was loss of control,

  3. Pete Carmichael April 9, 2015 / 6:26 am

    Or maybe he still held out hope that Providence would appear in the bottom of the 9th and save the day. Who knows! There was some hard evidence that a desperate man like Lee could cling to for hope. The fighting at Cumberland Church–which is almost always overlooked—showed that the ANV had not dissolved, and that it could hold its own against the Army of the Potomac. You are correct that Lee’s sense of honor could cause blinding stubbornness, and that he was trying to cut a good deal with Grant. But in the end we are denied answers because of the paucity of wartime sources during the final days of the A. Campaign.

  4. John Foskett April 9, 2015 / 7:17 am

    This wasn’t the first time that Lee apparently indulged in delusion. I’m not sure who would have decided rationally on the July 3 assault at Gettysburg. More revealing, perhaps – it appears that on September 18, 1862 Lee was seriously considering making an attack. He was talked out of it by, of all people, Stonewall Jackson. Old Jack hardly fits the definitions of “timid” or “cautious”, yet he – not Lee – was the voice of reason on that occasion. Given the events of the day before, the near destruction of his army, with his back to the river, even standing pat was risky (well, maybe not terribly risky given who was facing him). Thinking about attacking was irrational, however..

  5. Sherree April 9, 2015 / 9:08 am

    Hi Brooks,

    Happy Victory at Appomattox Day!

    I am certainly glad that Lee quit procrastinating and made the right decision, at last , since my direct ancestor was on his way to Richmond when he and the other men in his division learned of the surrender and turned around and went home. (this, according to local records) Had Lee continued to have his Hamlet moment and my ancestor had been killed, I might not have been born. Now, that might not be important to many people, but it is to me.

    Thanks for being the historian who helped me to see Sherman in a different light. I always had the highest regard for Grant, and, of course, for Lincoln. But Sherman–no.

    I still have problems with Sherman in the West, but not with Sherman in the South. He sort of seems like Patton to me: hard, realistic, the man to get the job done.

    I hope that you blog Reconstruction. That is where the real war begins.

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