Defense & National Security

An eyewitness description of Robert E. Lee: “As near perfection as a man can be”

An eyewitness description of Robert E. Lee: “As near perfection as a man can be”
Robert E. Lee

[Excerpt from: Illustrated Gettysburg Reader: An Eyewitness History of the Civil War's Greatest Battle]

In early May of 1863—days after his greatest victory—General Robert E. Lee began planning an invasion of the North. Lee was a Virginian, the fiftysix- year-old commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, a man brevetted for gallantry during the Mexican War, and a former superintendent of West Point. He was a member of the Virginia aristocracy, the son of an acclaimed Revolutionary War cavalry commander—Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee—and he had served with distinction in the prewar United States Army, rising to the rank of colonel. In the view of many, both Northern and Southern, he was also a military genius. “His name might be Audacity,” observed a fellow officer. “He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South. . . . ”

Tall, gray-bearded and dignified, he was a quietly devout Christian. “I am nothing but a poor sinner,” he once said, “trusting in Christ alone for my salvation. . . . ” He was also an ardent admirer of George Washington. Lee’s wife, Mary Anne Custis Lee, was the daughter of Washington’s adopted son, and Lee’s father had been Washington’s wartime subordinate and postwar friend. With such ties to the nation, Lee had come with regret and reluctance to Southern command. He considered slavery to be a “moral & political evil” and described secession as a “calamity,” but on the eve of the war he declined an offer to command the principal Northern army. Instead, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and returned to his family home on the Virginia side of the Potomac opposite Washington, D.C. “I shall return to my native state,” he asserted, “and share the miseries of my people. . . . .” When Virginia seceded, he agreed to accept command of the state’s troops, and when Virginia joined the Confederacy, he became a Confederate general. He held various posts during the first year of the war, eventually serving as the chief military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In June of 1861, he accepted command of the Confederate army, soon after spearheading the defense of the Confederate capital Richmond when threatened by the Federal Army of the Potomac under Major General George McClellan. Lee reorganized his forces into the Army of Northern Virginia, and in a series of engagements called the Seven Days Battles, he demolished McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign and drove the Federal army away from Richmond. In August of 1862, he boldly moved his army into northern Virginia, where he defeated Major General John Pope and another Federal army at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He subsequently attempted to lead his army on a campaign into Maryland, a potential invasion of the North, but was forced to withdraw following the bloody Battle of Antietam in September of 1862.


In December of that year, he inflicted a disastrous defeat on the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Fredericksburg, In May of 1863; he once again defeated the Army of the Potomac—this time under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker—at the Battle of Chancellorsville. It was his most heralded victory, but it came at great cost: his invaluable subordinate, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, died of pneumonia from wounds suffered at Chancellorsville.  “I know not how to replace him,” Lee admitted. Shortly thereafter, despite the loss of Jackson, Lee began seriously contemplating and planning a campaign to take the war to the North. It would be risky, but Lee had the confidence and support of his superiors, his officers, and his soldiers. While he was respected and feared in the North, he was revered in the South—for his character and devout faith as well as his military genius. Typical of the Southern attitude toward Lee was a description of him recorded in 1863—not by a Southerner, but by a British military observer, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur L. Fremantle.





General Lee is, almost without exception, the handsomest man of his age I ever saw. He is fifty-six years old, tall, broad-shouldered, very well made, well set up—a thorough soldier in appearance; and his manners are most courteous and full of dignity.

He is a perfect gentleman in every respect. I imagine no man has so few enemies, or is so universally esteemed. Throughout the South, all agree in pronouncing him to be as near perfection as a man can be. He has none of the small vices, such as smoking, drinking, chewing, or swearing, and his bitterest enemy never accused him of any of the greater ones. He generally wears a well-worn, long, gray jacket, a high, black felt hat, and blue trousers tucked into his Wellington boots.

I never saw him carry arms; and the only mark of his military rank are the three stars on his collar. He rides a handsome horse, which is extremely well groomed. He himself is very neat in his dress and person, and in the most arduous marches he always looks smart and clean.

In the old army he was always considered one of its best officers; and at the outbreak of these troubles, he was lieutenant-colonel of the 2d cavalry. He was a rich man, but his fine estate was one of the first to fall into the enemy’s hands. I believe he has never slept in a house since he commanded in the Virginian army, and he invariably declines all offers of hospitality, for fear the person offering it may afterwards get into trouble for having sheltered the rebel general. . . .

It is understood that General Lee is a religious man, though not so demonstrative in that respect as Jackson; and unlike his late brother in arms, he is a member of the Church of England. His only faults, so far as I can learn, arise from his excessive amiability.

Rod Gragg is the author of The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader, historian, and a former journalist.  Rod Gragg is director of the Center for Military and Veterans Studies at Coastal Carolina University, where he also serves as an adjunct professor of his­tory.

Sign Up
  • caspar

    The War of Southern Sedition …

  • caspar

    Dream on, loser …

  • caspar

    And the drunkards win every time … I guess God wasn’t on the Southern side. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

  • Donna Kepler

    I’m a westerner descended from northerners who currently lives in the south. And I think this country, and consequently most of the world, is better off because the north won the war, so I’m glad it happened. At the same time, I think the South was in the right, because I’m a believer in states’ rights. I came to this opinion in 1990 when the Baltic States were trying to break away from what was then the Soviet Union, and I decided they should have the right to self-determination, and that’s when I realized the Southern states should have had the same right.

    In any case, I have read extensively about Robert E. Lee, and I have the highest respect for the man. He was opposed to slavery. At the time the war began, he owned a few slaves that he had recently inherited as part of an estate on the death of his father-in-law; and he succeeded in freeing the last of them, even taking a short trip away from his army to do so, shortly before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. He cast his lot in with the south because he considered himself first and foremost a Virginian, and he wanted to protect his state from invasion.

    And incidently, I also have the highest respect for Abraham Lincoln. He also was a great man, and it is one of history’s tragedies that Lincoln and Lee ended up fighting each other.

  • morganfrost

    Well, you’re wrong. The South was living in an economically backward state that was the next thing to the feudal system. It was predicated on the exploitation of slave labor. And, believe, me, I admire a number of Confederates (above all, Lee), and even have great sympathy for the notion of states’ rights. Having said that, I must also acknowledge that slavery was an inexcusable wrong, and the insistence on its preservation and perpetuation undermined any moral claims the South may have had in that war.

  • morganfrost

    I think the South was not in the right, for the sole reason that one cannot make (as the South sought to do) a claim of liberty and rights when one’s entire system is predicated on the denial of the liberty and rights of others. You simply cannot escape this; and the Southern cause– whatever romance may attach to it in retrospect– is irredeemably tarnished from this.

  • pearl mcelheran

    And Lee sacrificed Pickett and his command at Gettsburg for a loss.

  • Jason Johnson

    You’re absolutely right about that. The slavery angle was used only as a PR ploy, both at home and to convince countries like England to saide with the self-righteous, smug Federals.

  • jsmithcsa

    Correct: for example, Lee did not own slaves, but Grant did. Those who post here the war was about slavery are clearly not students of history.

  • Jason Johnson

    I would say God was more on the side of the South than He was the North; after all, The South DID manage to beat the stuffing out of the Union Army into 1863. As late as 1864, the South still had a god chance of winning. I would submit that had Stonewall Jackson survived, the South WOULD have won.

  • toebo1

    You may want to check the secession of VA,NC,TN,and AR,all which seceded because Lincoln called for all states to invade the already seceded 7 Cotton States. Those 4 seceded because they refused to take up arms on any state that had used theirConstitutional right to leave the Union. “dreamed up along the way”?? You mean like “state’s rights”? So I guess States Rights Gist,a Confederate general,who was born in the mid 1800′s,had a father that knew one day the Confederates would “dream up” an excuse for the war. Right. Only slavery was non-negotiable? How about the 10th AM to the Constitution and the debate over who is sovereign,states or the Feds. We know the 10th says states are sovereign,AKA-no power above them,yet that went out the window in 1865. The only negotions were on the battlefield because in a Constitutional Court,the states win.

  • toebo1

    Good thing they didn’t go thru with it after their Hartford Convention because the South would have invaded New England and killed them to keep them loyal. (it’s a joke)

  • toebo1

    VA,NC,TN,and AR “made it clear” in their declarations that they refused to march South or allow any army to march thru their states to invade the already seceded 7 Cotton States. Telling half the story is borderline lying.

  • toebo1

    I take it you meant Abe freed the slaves in territory controlled by the South. Areas in the South that were Union Occupied,as well as Union states of MD,DE,MO,and KY were exempt. FYI- 6 months after Abe’s proclamation, West VA became a Union state.And they had slaves! Look it up.

  • toebo1

    Do tell us about Abe’s attempts at “colonizing” the freed Blacks.And how he stated on numerous occassions about Whites being superior to Blacks. And his eradicating of the Red man in the West.How does that fit?

  • David Funk

    If Jackson had lived, and if somehow Grant had died, the South would have won.
    If the South had had McCellan and the North had Lee, the war wouldn’t have gotten much past 1863.

  • David Funk

    Mr KnowItAll. To try to force modern concepts of right and left into the 1860′s requires even more of a suspension of disbelief than using them to understand today’s differences.
    And there certianly were Jeremiah Wrights in the 1860′s. Jackson was not one of them. Jackson was unquestionably a flawed man. But he was a far better man than any of our politicians or generals today. We could use such a man today.

  • ^TDO^

    Then what was it about?

  • ^TDO^

    Dred Scott was a decision made because Southerners did not like the ‘states’ rights’ of the northern states that declared amnesty for slaves that crossed their borders. They went to the Supreme Court to overturn those rights.

    As for economic issues, tariffs and duties were very low at the time the Civil War began – historically low. The continued statement that the war was NOT about slavery is wrong. It was not about the abolishment of slavery, it is true, but it WAS about the importation and expansion of slavery into the new territories.

  • Dan Hankemeier

    I have heard so much about Lee being the perfect man. He was
    also the top of his class at West Point only one other man scored equivalent, I
    understand, Douglas MacArthur, their two birthdays were only a week apart. If Lee was such a great man, why did he choose the South? Had he become the Northern General, the war would have been over earlier and he could have been President. Certainly fewer lives would have been lost.

  • Judy Deaton Simmons

    and he advocated sending them back to Africa. There was never a slave ship that sailed under the Confederate flag, only the US flag!

  • Judy Deaton Simmons

    He felt loyalty to his family, friends, and state. And there is no “if” about his being a great man–he was! Start by comparing his time at West Point with Grant’s. What a difference!

  • 2War Abn Vet

    The dust-up was not a civil war but a revolution. A civil war occurs when separate factions are fighting for control of a single government. The War Between the States was conducted due to the Southern states desire to depart from the Union. It can be equated to the American colonists desire to depart from British domination.

  • Not_in_Denial

    Could it have started over the Northern army’s invasion of South Carolina and that state responding to it? The vision of the “union” at that time adhered more to the concept of state’s rights since the ‘union’ was an agreement between the states to exist in that configuration. But it was also understood that their sovereignty continued to rest with them.

  • Not_in_Denial

    So, the Southerners were the only ones who had based their economics on slavery? First of all, literally no one that I know or have known had ancestors that were wealthy enough to own slaves. You obviously ignore the numbers of slaves present in the North, prior to and during the war. Are you aware that some, probably not all, in the North sold their slaves to Southerners to keep from losing that investment? Also, in this country the anti-slavery advocates expected Southerners to simply free all the slaves regardless of the impact to the entire economy, both for the cost and the impact to production, but it’s my understanding that Wilberforce succeeded after so many years at purging slavery from the British system by the offer of compensation for the owners investment.

  • Not_in_Denial

    You mean, The War for Southern Independence. To be guilty of sedition one has to be trying to overthrow the government, but the WSI was for independence from the federal tyranny. The first invasion after all, was by federal troops into So. Carolina’s territory.

  • J. Dale Weaver

    The North was NOT practicing “free market” economics! They passed a Tariff that disproportionately punished SOUTHERN ports just before Lincoln took office, to the extent that 87% of the revenue it produced came FROM Southern States. That’s not “free market economics,” that’s trade PROTECTIONISM. The major reason the war started was because the Federal Government didn’t want to lose that revenue source to the Treasury to fund their plans to centralize, expand, and back pet Industrial interests.

  • Steven Mark Pilling

    I might suggest that the reason that many of the Southern states mentioned slavery in their Ordinances of Secession is because they had long been so demonized by Northern abolitionists. It was, I maintain, the North that had made this an emotional issue in order to increase its sway over natiional affairs. The tariff was another. But the true source of the conflict was (as almost always in matters of war) economic. Southern planters of cotton and tobacco had long established markets in Britain and France. Naturally, they resented being economically forced to deal with the new mills in the North for less return- even when transportation was factored in. Slavery was a non-factor for the bulk of the Southern population, being used mostly on large plantations or for warehouse labor.
    It should also be noted that, after Independence, the slave trade was carried on mainly by Northern shipping concerns; often out of the same cities that were hotbeds of abolition! The South didn’t invent slavery. They inherited the “peculiar institution” from colonial days. Ironically, the war itself would have likely ended the practice had the South prevailed. 30-50 thousand black Southerners served under Confederate colors with freedom as the prize. As the inevitable second president of the Confederate States, Lee would have seen to slavery’s eventual abolition on that basis.


    It’s still called “The War of Northern Aggression” by many !

  • Scott Reed

    It was unconstitutional. None of the colonies were states before entering the Union; therefore, how can you secede and declare independence from something that created you? Also, the Confederate states benefitted from the trade laws and protection of the federal government.

  • Scott Reed

    Yep. He did in order to save the Union.