June 1, 1862
It was around noon on this date that Robert E. Lee took command of the (soon to be named) Army of Northern Virginia. (So I have timed this post to go up on the blog at noon – cute, eh?)
Lee was age 55 at the time, and though known rather well by Jefferson Davis, he was not as widely known and respected by as large a number of other officers as might be expected. This is again one of those occasions where, from a perspective of 150 years later, we have to choose to drop in on the time with a mental blocking of all the “Lee-led” Confederate successes to follow. At this point, the army was sufficiently content with the leadership of the now wounded Joseph Johnston. The expectation at that time was almost surely that this was a temporary arrangement until Johnston could return to them. In these earliest days, Lee had the troops busy with digging in, and he soon became derisively called “the King of Spades.”
Lee’s abilities are now in our age the stuff of legend. He had a great capacity to lead men and work with varied personalities – dealing with both inflated egomaniac types while also moving past the failures and disappointments of others. Lee was able to absorb copious amounts of information from a wide variety of sources and translate that mass of detail into a visionary plan that was most often workable, manageable, and communicable.
A man guided by a deep sense of duty and faith, I as a pastor have to admire and affirm his stated guiding principles: “I think and work with all my power to bring the troops to the right place at the right time; then I have done my duty. As soon as I order them into battle, I leave my army in the hands of God.” This seems to me to be a very rightly measured sense of human responsibility coupled with an appropriate view of Divine providence.
On June 3rd, Lee gathered divisional commanders for an extended meeting to seek varied views of the question: Should the army withdraw even closer to Richmond, remain at the current location for a Federal attack, or take the offensive against McClellan’s forces? Various views were offered, though Lee did not tip his hand in any way. Neither did Longstreet verbalize much, preferring to speak of his views privately with Lee the next day. And early on, Lee took a respectful liking to Longstreet, who was clearly going to be one his main guys.
Also at this meeting was my “favorite least favorite” person – Robert Toombs of Georgia. Of course, in the Antietam story, Toombs is in charge of
the two regiments of Georgians on the hillside defending the Rohrbach (Burnside) Bridge. A pompous but gifted former congressman and senator, Toombs verbalized the opinion that a withdrawal to a higher position was in order. D.H. Hill, who greatly disliked the self-possessed Toombs, reproached him on the matter and turned the session into a more animated discussion. Toombs rather disliked all West Pointers – particularly Jefferson Davis, whom he believed to be his inferior for the position of Presidency of the Confederate States – wrote after the War that the death stone of the Confederacy should have inscribed upon it “Died of West Point.” This meeting may well have been a prime exhibit is his museum of memories leading to such an assertion.
In retrospect, this date of 6/1/62 is a critical moment in the War – particularly in the east. Wars, like life itself, are filled with seemingly small moments and decisions – forks in the road that appear small at the time – yet eventuate as watershed events. This ascendancy of Lee is one of those times.