1863: “I Have No Complaints To Make Of Any One But Myself”

Camp Orange

8 Aug 1863

Mr. President

Your letters of 28 July & 2 Aug have been recd., & I have waited for a leisure hour to reply, but I fear that will never come. I am extremely obliged to you for your attention given to the wants of this Army * the efforts made to supply them. Our absentees are returning, & I hope the earnest & beautiful appeal made to the country in your proclamation, may stir up the virtue of the whole people & that they may see their duty & perform it. Nothing is wanted but that their fortitude should equal their bravery to ensure the success of our cause.

We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies & to prevent our falling into greater disasters. Our people have only to be true & united, to bear manfully the misfortunes incident to war & all will come right in the end. I know how prone we are to censure, & how ready to blame others for the nonfulfillment of our expectations. This is unbecoming in a generous people & I grieve to see its expression. Continue reading

1862: “The People Are All Very Kind”

November 2, 1862

I am in most magnificent health, growing fatter every day. I went today with the Gen. & rest to the Episcopal Church in Berryville. Mr. Luter preached a very good sermon and the girls all were dressed in their best and looked pretty, the music was good and altogether I enjoyed it highly. And then there was such a glorious dinner for us here [in camp] when we got back, thanks to the good people of Clarke & Jefferson [counties], that I passed really a delightful day, “at charity with myself and all mankind,” which frame of mind I find a good dinner conducive to. I saw Ned Lee at church, and his health seems to be much better now. Continue reading

General Lee’s Gettysburg: Lessons We Must Learn

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

Did you ever walk on a balance beam when you were a kid? Confidently, you increased the speed of each step – “Mom, Dad, look at me!” And then what usually happened? Well, if you were like most kids, you fell off just as Mom looked your way.

There’s something about pride. The moment we think we’re invincible, something happens to prove we’re not. The Bible talks about this…Proverbs 16:18 – “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Now imagine you’re the commander of a large army that has really only had one major defeat in the last two years of campaigning. You have some of the most devoted soldiers on the planet and have (make that past tense – had) some of the best “take the initiative” generals in history. Meet Confederate General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg.

Road to Gettysburg

Having graduated second in his class at West Point without a demerit on his record, holding a distinguished military record from the Mexican War, superintended engineering projects and mischievous cadets, and captured a notorious radical abolitionist, Colonel Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Union army in the spring of 1861. In the end, he decided to follow his home state – Virginia – to the Confederate side and resigned his commission.

Robert Lee had strong familial ties to Virginia. The state had been the Lee Family’s home for several generations and Robert Lee’s father had been a commander for George Washington. Also, his property – inherited by marriage to Mary Custis – was on Virginia soil. But perhaps just as magnetic as his family and his home were his beliefs in the fundamental liberty of a state to control its own business with little interference from the Federal government. State’s Rights was a cornerstone of the Confederacy; it was a cornerstone in Robert Lee’s beliefs, too.

Having cast his lot with Virginia – Lee was commissioned as a Confederate general. His early assignments included a “defense” of western Virginia and overseeing the fortifications of Charleston, South Carolina. Then he became a military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and when Richmond’s defender – Joe Johnston – was wounded in 1862, Davis put Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

"Lee - The Enemy Is There" by Mort Kunstler (http://www.mortkunstler.com/html/art-limited-edition-prints)

“Lee – The Enemy Is There” by Mort Kunstler (http://www.mortkunstler.com/html/art-limited-edition-prints)

With his trusted generals Jackson and Longstreet, Lee swept a chain of victories for the Confederacy: Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville. By summer 1863, he was ready to make his second northern invasion, perhaps capturing Washington City and ending the war.

Plans Unravel at Gettysburg

Like his opponent – George Meade – Robert E. Lee didn’t initially intend to fight at Gettysburg. By the time Lee discovered the started battled, quite a few troops had been committed and he thought he could go ahead and sweep the roads clear and get victory. It actually worked…but Union retreated to a strong defensive position. And lack of initiative from Lee’s new subordinate commanders let opportunities slip away.

On July 2, Lee planned simultaneous attacks on both Union flanks. In the age of GPS and radios, it might have worked brilliantly, but in 1863 it devolved to uncoordinated assaults and heavy casualties.

Observing that his enemy’s flanks were strong, Lee guessed that their center was weak. It was a valid, but unconfirmed surmise. Despite the protest of General Longstreet, Lee launched a two hour artillery barraged followed by a “charge” of 15,000 men against the Union line on July 3. The guess and gamble failed.

"It's All My Fault" by Mort Kunstler (http://www.mortkunstler.com/html/art-limited-edition-prints)

“It’s All My Fault” by Mort Kunstler (http://www.mortkunstler.com/html/art-limited-edition-prints)

Ever the leader, Lee tried to comfort his troops…and he prepared to retreat. There would be no capture of Washington City – no Confederate victory.

After Gettysburg

Returning to Virginia, Lee sent a letter of command resignation to President Davis who refused to accept it. Lee was the best general they had to command the Army of Northern Virginia. So Lee stayed and fought defensively through Mine Run Campaign, Overland Campaign, Petersburg Siege, and eventually surrendered at Appomattox.

In the post war years, Robert E. Lee became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. Robert E. Lee died on October 12, 1870, and was mourned throughout America.


Remember the balance beam? Remember that moment you’re “invincible”?

I think Lee was very confident – maybe overconfident, maybe “invincible” – as he approached Gettysburg. He was undoubtedly a brilliant tactician and leader. At Gettysburg, his strategies were good, but they were also flawed by lack of information and lack of follow-through by his subordinates.

There have been books written to defend Lee at Gettysburg…and there have been books written to blame him. Neither is my goal. My dad always said if you point your finger to blame, remember there are three fingers pointing back at you.

The better question is: what should we learn from General Lee at Gettysburg?

The negative: be careful of overconfidence.

The positive: when you make a mistake, take responsibility.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts about Lee at Gettysburg?

The Last Salute To The Army of Northern Virginia

General Lee signed the surrender document for the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. (You can find that story here). However, on April 12, 1865, the Confederate soldiers formally laid down their weapons under the watchful eyes of victorious Union soldiers.

It was a tense moment. It was awkward for the Union soldiers to watch; in their hearts, many of them had come to respect their enemies’ courage. It was heartbreaking moment for the Confederates; some units simply disbanded and did not appear at the ceremony, but most came. In some units, there were less than a hundred soldiers when years before there had been thousands. It was a moment when both sides felt the loss of war.

The Union general presiding over the surrender was General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The event made a solemn impression on him and wrote several accounts of the day in later years. He gave an order during the ceremony which set the tone for reconciliation.

Rather than write a long article, I thought I’d share a piece of poetry I drafted about six years ago about the surrender ceremony. (Poetry by Sarah Kay Bierle, 2009, All Rights Reserved.)

The Last Salute

The field is silent and still,

The days of war are past;

The Confederates break camp on the hill,

The day of surrender is here at last.


Silently the victors wait,

Waiting for the formalities of the day.

No longer is there any hate,

No longer do any want to slay.

The gray column moves out,

Toward the open field,

Slowly they come, though they would rather turn about,

Instead of their weapons and flags to yield.

General Gordon rides along,

His head bent down.

The words he hears are like a joyful song;

“Salute them!” is the order which sounds.


Salute them as brothers,

Salute them as brave men;

Salute those slain 258,000 others,

Salute them for more than can be told with pen.


They expect humiliation and receive honor instead,

And Gordon returns the salute.

Not another word is said;

They lay down their guns, never again to shoot.


The flags they gently fold,

Never more shall they wave in the sky.

The sorrow of some is hard to be told.

Never more shall they the Union defy.


Salute them as long lost brothers,

Salute them as new friends!

Salute them and forget the bitterness of others.

Salute them; this is the war’s long-awaited end!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. General Chamberlain received some slight criticism for his order to have Union troops salute the surrendering Confederates. Do you think his order was beneficial? If so, why? If not, what should he have done and why?