By Colin Woodward, Editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive
Are you a student looking for a thesis or dissertation topic? Look no further! The LFDA has you covered!
The hanging of Williams Orton Williams. William Orton Williams was a strange and tragic character. He was a friend of the Lee family and even dated one of General Lee’s daughters for a short time. But it appears Williams was unstable and/or had a drinking problem. Whatever the cause of his erratic behavior, he had no future with the Lees. And in the summer of 1863, Union forces hanged him after capturing him as a spy in Tennessee.
Was Williams really a spy? His story was shrouded in mystery and controversy. Williams never admitted to being a Confederate spy. In any event, the hanging saddened and infuriated Robert E. Lee, who was still angry about the incident after the war.
The Strange Career of Henry Lee, IV. Light Horse Harry Lee’s son (Robert E. Lee’s half brother) Henry Lee, IV, was an interesting, intelligent, and controversial figure in Lee family history. It was Henry (sometimes referred to by scholars as Henry, Jr.) who lost Stratford Hall after he sold it to a friend to cover his debts. As was true of his father, Henry was horrible with money and ended up in exile (though Light Horse Harry returned to the U.S. shortly before his death).
While Henry’s wife was recovering from the death of their child, Henry had an affair with his sister in law, Betsy McCarty. The scandal rocked the Lee family and forced Lee and his wife out of Virginia. Henry later befriended Andrew Jackson and obtained, albeit briefly, a post as ambassador in Algiers. However, Henry’s position was never approved by the Senate, and Harry eventually settled in Paris, where he died in the 1830s.
Henry was an able writer, who penned a biography (never finished, though one volume was published) on Napoleon as well as a book length political screed against Thomas Jefferson. He also issued a reprint of his father’s wartime memoirs. Henry was of a gifted intellect and was known as a great conversationalist. His wife never disowned him, even though she had every right to (and given the social norms of the time, she probably had to make the best of a bad situation). Henry became known as “Black Horse Harry” or “Black Harry” because of his personal transgressions. But he remains one of the more compelling of nineteenth century Virginians. Harry: American scoundrel or fallen Romantic? A little of both? Whatever he was, he needs a biographer.
Traveller: A Social History. As was true of his master, Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller reached iconic status after the war. For years, his bones were kept on display at Washington and Lee University, and it became the custom for students to autograph the skeleton. Eventually, the practice was stopped and Traveller’s bones were put to rest.
Lee was a Virginian. Virginians love horses. And Lee loved his trusted mount. Given all the Civil War biographies out there, it seems unfair that some hard working and celebrated animals should get one, too.
Sidney Smith Lee: Robert E. Lee only had one brother who served in the Confederate military: Sidney Smith Lee, better known as Smith. Smith wasn’t much of a writer, so he doesn’t have many papers in the archives. However, Smith served in the U.S. and C.S.A. navy, survived the war, and worked a modest farm near Fredericksburg afterward. Smith’s son Fitzhugh served as a cavalryman and later as governor of Virginia.
A study of Smith could hopefully answer some questions: what did he think of secession? How good of a commander was he? Was a staunch Confederate or was he just “along for the ride?” Any biographer of Smith, however, will have to endure reading his horrendous handwriting.
Robert E. Lee, Slavery, and Race. General Lee is the most famous of the Lees and the most controversial. He has been in the news much lately, and scholars and the general public continue to debate, often hotly, Lee’s racial views. How many slaves did Lee ever own? What were his feelings toward slavery and African Americans? Did his views change: if so, how? Historians have answered these kinds of questions before, but the subject of Lee and race deserves book length treatment.
The Lee Boys: A Tale of Three Brothers: All of Robert E. Lee’s sons were in the Confederate army. One of them, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee (aka Fitzhugh, aka Rooney), saw major combat and was wounded in 1863 and sent to a POW camp in New York. Lee’s other sons also served, though they did not see as much action as Rooney.
As is true of their uncle Smith, an exploration of the Lee brothers could shed much light on the story of the Lees during the Civil War. What did these men think of secession and slavery? How did their views change over the course of the war?
The Civil War is often cast as a conflict that was brother vs. brother. But more common were the brothers who fought together on the same side. Think of the Earp brothers on the Union side or the James brothers on the Confederate.
The Homes of the Lees: A Story of a 19th Family on the Move. Robert E. Lee moved around. A lot. Stratford and Arlington. Alexandria. Richmond. West Point. Baltimore. New York City. St. Louis. Fort Monroe. And last of all, Lexington. When reading the Lee family letters, one will come across references to the White House, Romancoke, Ravensworth, and other homes that the Lees lived in or visited. When, where, and why were the lees in certain homes at any given time? What does it tell us about their history and circumstances?
This is just a sampling of some of the topics that might interest anyone thinking about writing on the Lees–one of the most important and fascinating families in American history.
Last month, historian Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and other history books, wrote a piece in the Washington Post on Robert E. Lee. The article attempted to extinguish the historical fire that began after White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly spoke about Robert E. Lee and his legacy. Many historians and pundits were critical of Kelly, who said that the Civil War happened because of a “lack of compromise,” and he praised Lee as an “honorable man.”
Rather than examine Kelly’s statements (the man is not a historian after all), I would like to address some aspects of the Lee debate and what people seem to keep getting wrong about Lee, despite all that has been written about him since his death in 1870. I will also address the incorrect statements Winik made in his article.
Lee the Aristocrat?
Winik states that Lee’s “lineage was impeccable” and that he “descended from two signers of the Declaration of Independence.” In fact, Robert E. Lee was not a blood relation of any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was born at Stratford Hall, which was the home of Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, both of whom signed the Declaration. But Lee’s father was Light Horse Harry Lee, who descended not from the Stratford line but the Leesylvania (located in northern Virginia) line of Lees. Light Horse Harry’s connection to Stratford was through his first wife, Matilda Ludwell Lee, the niece of Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee.
Matilda died in 1790. Light Horse Harry remarried. His second wife was Ann Hill Carter of Shirley plantation. She was Robert E. Lee’s mother. Did Lee have connections to the wealthiest and most prominent families of Virginia? Yes.
And no. It was Lee’s connections to his wife, Mary Custis, whom he married in 1831, that kept him relevant in Virginia’s social circles. By the time Robert E. Lee was ready for West Point, the Lee family was in tatters. His father, Light Horse Harry, a gifted commander during the Revolution, was dead and had lived the last ten years of his life in disgrace.
Light Horse Harry served several terms as governor of Virginia, but by the time Jefferson became president, Light Horse Harry was the kind of person you wouldn’t trust with money. Nor was he much of a father. We will never really know the psychological impact of this, but Light Horse Harry never knew Robert. Rather than act like a responsible father and husband, he frittered away the family fortune on bad land deals, spent time in debtor’s prison, and was disfigured and left for dead by a Baltimore mob during the War of 1812. Such disasters not only ruined him, they made sure he was virtually invisible to his family.
While Robert completed his schooling in northern Virginia, Harry went to the West Indies in a futile effort to restore his health. Harry died in 1818 in Georgia. Three years later, Robert E. Lee’s half brother, Henry Lee, IV, wrecked by a personal scandal and financial ineptitude, sold Stratford to a friend. The Lees never got the house back.
People often refer to Robert E. Lee as an “aristocrat,” but as a young man, Lee had no wealth or status to fall back on. He was on his own. What he made of himself was more in the mold of the “self-made man” than the result of an “impeccable” lineage.
Winik says that by 1861, Lee was “an avowed Federalist.” First, let’s put aside Winik’s confusing conflation of the Federalist party of Lee’s youth and the supporters of the federal government during the secession crisis. Lee’s father, Light Horse Harry, was a Federalist: the party of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. But the Federalists were all but dead by the end of the War of 1812. During and after the Mexican War, Robert’s political leanings were with the big government, pro-business Whigs until the Whigs dissolved in the mid-1850s.
After the Whigs dissolved, Lee threw his lot in with the Democrats, who dominated antebellum southern politics. As was true of most southerners, Lee feared the rising Republican Party, which was firmly opposed to the extension of slavery. Lee was no ideologue. He was never a politician, not a planter (not for long, anyway), and he disliked talk of secession. Lee was no Fire-eater, but he ultimately he threw his lot in with the Confederacy.
Lee and the Enemy
The war tested Lee’s political moderation. Winik claims that Lee was “never much of a hater” and that he referred to the Yankees as “those people” rather than the enemy. He also cites Lee’s often quoted line, uttered at Fredericksburg in 1862 December about it being well that war was so terrible, “lest we grow too fond of it.”
The idea of Lee not referring to his enemy as “the enemy” gained currency in Ken Burns’s 1990 Civil War documentary. But as the late Alan Nolan and others have pointed out since then, Lee often referred to the Yankees as “the enemy.” Lee called them that as early as April 1861. Over time, the war became far worse than most Americans could have imagined it, and the conflict horrified and embittered Lee. As I have noted in a previous blog post, Lee expressed disgust at the slaughter at Fredericksburg. Lee was not a callous monster, but more often he expressed disdain for the Yankees than sympathy. “The Federal Army should have been destroyed” Lee noted in his report of the Seven Days campaign. Lee’s job was to kill, wound, or capture as many Union troops as he could.
Lee was shocked at the destruction of his beloved Virginia, and in response, he sometimes sounded much like his most aggressive general, Stonewall Jackson. In a March 1863 letter, Lee wrote to his brother Carter and quoted the verse from Psalms: “Through God we shall do great acts; & it is He that shall tread down our enemies.” As was true of Jackson, there was a lot of the Old Testament in Lee. And by November 1864, he was worried about the “Philistines”–the Yankees–further destroying his beloved Virginia.
A letter written by Lee in August 1864 ably reflects his attitude toward the Federals later in the war. “I have been kept from church to day by the enemy’s crossing to the north side of the James river & the necessity of moving troops to meet him,” the general wrote to his wife. He described the destruction of churches in the Culpeper area, and his reaction was worthy of Stonewall Jackson. “All are razed to the ground,” he said of the churches, “& the materials used, often for the vilest purposes.” What those purposes were exactly, he did not say. But what is clear is that by then, Lee had become embittered against the “cowardly persecutors the Yankees.”
Lee and Emancipation
Winik also is misleading when it comes to the details of Lee emancipating the Custis family slaves. Lee was executor of the estate of George Washington Parke Custis, the man who built Arlington and had owned its many slaves. When Custis died in 1857, Lee, his son-in-law, sorted out the estate. Custis wanted his slaves freed once his debts were paid, but the emancipation of the slaves was not to take more than five years.
By December 1862, Lee was prepared to free the Arlington slaves, per the Custis will. However, the Arlington slaves had in effect already been freed by the Union army, which occupied the plantation, located on the high ground just outside Washington. Executing Custis’s estate gave Lee fits, and he was glad when it was finally accomplished. The freeing of the Arlington slaves was not an act of philanthropy, but an instance of Lee executing a legal duty and freeing himself of a personal burden.
In the heated political climate of 2017, Lee’s defenders and detractors want Lee to be more committed on matters of race than he was. Lee never owned more than a few slaves himself. His attitude toward black people was mostly one of indifference or condescension. Lee was a soldier, not a planter. He also shunned politics. In an era when men like Jefferson and Lincoln wrestled with the slavery issue, Lee rarely wrote on the subject. When Lee tried his hand at running Arlington in the 1850s, he hated it. Were it up to Lee, he would’ve been happy to see black people disappear from the South.
Lee had problems with slavery, but he was in the gradual emancipation school of thought: slaves should be freed some day, but not soon. In the context of his time, Lee took a mostly practical view of slavery: the institution should survive so long as it worked to white people’s advantage.
Robert E. Lee was no racial ideologue, but he was no abolitionist either. Winik cites Lee’s December 1856 letter as an example of his anti-slavery attitudes. But it is far from an abolitionist document. Lee never diverged from an attitude of white supremacy, and he had nothing original to say about slavery. What he did say was done infrequently and with reluctance.
Lee’s reasons for joining the Confederacy were not based on the perpetuation of slavery for all time, but neither did he want emancipation. Defenders of Lee like to say that the general was a “man of his times.” But it is a meaningless statement. Everyone is a man or woman of his or her times. Lee’s times were filled with abolitionists and others opposed to slavery, both black and white. More relevant to the discussion is to acknowledge that Lee was at neither extreme of the slavery debate.
Later in the war, Lee supported the enlistment of black troops into the Confederate army. Before March 1865, African Americans were only allowed to serve in the Rebel ranks in support roles: diggers, teamsters, and body servants. With Lee’s backing, the Confederacy passed a bill in mid-March 1865 that allowed black men to serve as soldiers. The bill did not emancipate black men who wanted to fight. Seeing the problems of such a bill, Jefferson Davis changed the law so that black Confederate troops would not have to fight as slaves. But they could not serve without their masters’ permission. The war ended before any African American recruits fought in battle.
Lee’s attitude toward black men in the Rebel army followed the pragmatic course he had taken toward the subject of slavery all of his life. So long as he thought the Confederacy could win the war without the help of black labor, he did so. Lee, however, eventually saw that the Confederacy needed tens of thousands of black workers in order to survive. As the Union succeeded in freeing tens of hundreds of thousands of slaves and arming many of them, Lee realized that every slave that left his master for the Union lines added one more fighter to the Union as it subtracted one from the Confederacy. However, only until the last few months of the war did Lee publicly ask for black troops, because the Confederacy was unraveling and desperate for manpower.
Lee and Guerilla Warfare
Just as Winik gives Lee too much credit as an emancipator, he also gives him too much credit concerning his ability to prevent a large scale guerrilla conflict. The Army of Northern Virginia certainly did not dissolve into small bands dedicated to shooting at any Yankee that showed his head. But Lee never had any intention of fighting a guerilla war.
The Confederacy’s hopes rested on winning a conventional conflict. Lee did not know how to fight any other kind of war, and diplomatic recognition depended on major Confederate victories against the Union’s largest armies. By April 1865, Lee eschewed a guerrilla war because it would further wreck Virginia and southern society. Guerrilla warfare was also uncertain. Lee had no assurance that an irregular war would succeed.
That said, Winik wrongly suggests that southerners went home in 1865 and never again disturbed the peace. Thanks to Lee’s efforts, Virginia did not suffer the kind of bloodshed and chaos after the war that beset Louisiana or South Carolina. Despite Lee’s acceptance of defeat at Appomattox, however, many southerners fought on and waged a bloody campaign to overthrow Reconstruction. Lee advocated reconciliation, but his word alone was not enough to make peace in the South after the war. And his talk probably had little resonance outside of Virginia.
Lee and Reconciliation
Winik sees Lee as a symbol of reconciliation. And Lee certainly was that in many ways. Winik, however, accepts without criticism the early 20th century story of Lee kneeling beside a black church attendant at St. Paul’s in downtown Richmond in June of 1865. Richmond historian Philip J. Schwarz has written about the event–if it indeed happened at all–as open to interpretation concerning Lee’s supposed selfless, egalitarian attitude toward African Americans.
Lee’s loyalties after the war are also a problem for those who see him as a humbled, honorable American. “Now he spoke as a U.S. citizen,” Winik writes in his Post article concerning Lee’s postwar status. But in fact, Lee was no longer a citizen, and he never had his citizenship rights restored. Despite Lee’s advocacy of reconciliation, he eventually came to see himself as a southerner first. “As a citizen of the South,” he wrote in December 1866, “I feel deeply indebted to you for the sympathy you have evinced in its cause,” he wrote Sir John Acton.
In 1868, Lee signed his name to the White Sulphur Statement, which spoke of the “deep seated conviction that at present the negroes have neither the intelligence nor other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.” Lee might have advocated for national reconciliation, but it was on the condition that the supposed “bottom rail” stayed on the bottom.
Much remains to be said about the controversial figure of Robert E. Lee. For historians to move scholarship forward, however, they must dispense with the Lee of the Lost Cause and “Marble Man” myths. Rather than recycle old ideas about the general, historians must put Lee in a context that is both historical and relevant to the heated political climate of the 2010s.
As the cliché goes, the Civil War was a conflict that pitted “brother against brother.” But that was not true for most American families, and it certainly wasn’t true for the Lee family. All of Lee’s brothers supported the Confederacy. His brother Smith served as a Confederate naval officer. All of Lee’s sons, furthermore, served in the Confederate military. The war, nevertheless, took an enormous toll–even on those who survived it with their lives and limbs intact.
One did not have to lose a son, brother, or husband in battle to experience tragedy during the Civil War. All three of Robert E. Lee’s sons survived the war. But the Lee family suffered tragedy all the same. The Lees lost their home Arlington early in the war to Federal troops. After four years of horrendous fighting, Robert E. Lee lost the war and his citizenship.
Long before the guns at Appomattox fell silent, General Lee lost a sister and daughter to illness as well as several grandchildren. Lee also nearly lost his son, William Henry Fitzhugh, in 1863. Fitzhugh languished for months in a Union prisoner of war camp before being released.
Called Fitzhugh for short and often referred to as simply “F” in his father’s letters, Fitzhugh also went by the nickname “Rooney.” He was Robert E. Lee’s second son (Custis was the oldest) and he served as a cavalryman during the war. Rooney rose to the rank of major general. Custis was a brigadier general, though most of his time in the army was not spent in field command. Robert, Jr., began the war as a private and ended the war as a major in charge of troops defending Richmond.
Against the odds, all of Lee’s sons survived the war. Generals and other officers had a better chance of getting killed than privates did, but none of Lee’s sons suffered such a fate. Nevertheless, it was the rare officer who did not get killed, wounded, or captured, or suffer the loss of a loved one.
Fitzhugh was wounded in the fighting of June 9 at Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle of the war. He was sent to Ashland, Virginia, to heal, but this did not stop Yankee troops from seizing him. Union officials eventually sent him to Fort Lafayette prison camp in New York, where he stayed until 1864.
This letter of June 1863 describes the circumstances surrounding Fitzhugh’s capture:
By then, the 26 year old Fitzhugh had already lost two young children to disease. While in captivity, he suffered another loss: his wife, Charlotte Georgiana Carter Wickham Lee, who was only 22. She died the day after Christmas in 1863. She is buried in Shockoe Cemetery in Richmond, where her grave has the epitaph, “How Sweet Her Memory.”
Ann Kinloch Lee Marshall, Unionist
Robert E. Lee survived the war. But as head of the South’s most aggressive army, he saw death all around him. Soldiers died by the thousands from battle and disease. But those behind the lines also suffered.
Lee’s older sister Ann died in 1864. Unlike Robert, she was supported the Union–the only one of Robert’s siblings to do so. She married Louis William Marshall, a judge and native of Maryland. When he resigned from the United States army, Robert E. Lee wrote to his sister Anne about his reasons for siding with Virginia in the secession crisis.
“With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home…I know you will blame me; but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right.”
The war effectively ended their relationship. Anne died on 1864 February 20. Few of her letters survive and no photographs. Historians are not even sure where she died, though it most likely seems to have been Baltimore.
Annie Lee, the General’s Daughter
Probably the deepest loss General Lee suffered during the war was his daughter, Anne. She died of an illness in October of 1862 in North Carolina at the age of 23. She had moved to North Carolina to escape the ravages of the war in Virginia. Her death was a great blow to the family, but it happened at a time when Robert E. Lee had little time for mourning.
Over the course of the war, Robert E. Lee’s letters become increasingly fatalistic. The general never lost faith in the healing power of Christianity. In fact, the war strengthened his views that the dead were enjoying a better life in the hereafter.
The Lees also lost people close to them, such as William Orton Williams, who befriended Lee’s daughter Agnes. The controversial and perhaps mentally unstable Williams was not killed in battle but hanged in July 1863 for being a traitor. The incident, which happened a few days after Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, further embittered General Lee against the Yankees.
By the end of the war, General Lee was a man without a home or a country. When he had heard of the death of A. P. Hill at Petersburg, he said, “He is now at rest, and we who are left are the ones to suffer.” That fairly well summed up the general’s view as well as that of many near and dear to him.
Cold Harbor has always been one of my favorite battles to study. For those who know about the war, 1864 June 3 is a day that lives in infamy. For on that day, Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all the Union armies and accompanying and overseeing the Army of Potomac as it battled Robert E. Lee in Virginia, launched his own personal Pickett’s Charge. And like Lee’s charge at Gettysburg the previous year, it was a grand and bloody failure.
I had visited Cold Harbor ten years ago during a history conference in Richmond. I wanted to revisit the place on or near the anniversary of the battle (but not at 5:30 a.m., when Grant’s June 3 charge took place!). In early June, however, I was too busy and put off making my return visit.
Thankfully, the weather for my trip last week was summery. The sky was clear and temperatures hovered in the upper 80s. It was a nice day to be out and at a park, even one with such a dark history. With me was my daughter, who I hope is a budding Civil War scholar.
7,000 Men in 7 Minutes?
My fascination with Cold Harbor began in high school in the early 90s. When I watched Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary for the first time, I was shocked to learn that 7,000 Union men fell in 10 minutes on 1864 June 3. Since then, I’ve learned from Cold Harbor scholars that the first ten minutes of June 3 were not that bloody. But it was a mess. Grant certainly lost about 7,000 men by lunch time. And he wrote in his memoirs that he regretted that he ordered the fateful charge of June 3.
By June 1864, Grant was gaining an undeserved reputation as a butcher. Whatever the exact butcher’s bill for June 3, the battle of Cold Harbor has come to epitomize the violence of the Overland Campaign. Frontal assaults in the Civil War were always costly, and never more so at Cold Harbor.
The assaults of three Union corps on June 3 were born of Grant’s frustrations with Lee’s stubbornness. Grant and Lee had torn each other apart for weeks at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. And at the North Anna, Grant could not lure Lee out of his entrenchments. Grant thought one more all-out attack would succeed. But even with 60,000 men thrown into the fray on June 3, he could not crush Lee’s lines. Some Federal troops managed to break through the Rebel defenses, but they were not well supported and could not hold their ground.
The Union’s failure did not lie with its combat troops. Grant and George Gordon Meade, who was commander of the Army of the Potomac and Grant’s tactician, failed to reconnoiter Lee’s position in detail. Lee’s defenses were formidable, and the fighting at Cold Harbor resulted in one of the most lopsided Confederate victories of the war, and it was the last such lopsided victory for the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant suffered 12,700 casualties. Lee suffered 5,300. For the Union, it was the battle of Fredericksburg all over again.
Most of the casualties at the battle did not occur on June 3. Fighting at Cold Harbor began on May 31 and last until the 12th of June. After Grant’s botched attack of June 3, the opposing armies lay low. The killing fields of Cold Harbor became a sniper’s heaven, and mortars rained death from the sky.
By the time the battle began, the Union and Confederate armies had been engaged constantly for nearly a month. Both sides were battered and bloody and scrambling to find replacements. Some units barely survived Cold Harbor. Engaged on June 1 were hundreds of “heavies,” troops who had previously manned heavy artillery defenses outside Washington. Grant had pulled the “heavies” from the capital’s defenses and put them in the Army of the Potomac’s front lines. Men from Connecticut suffered heavily on June 1, and they are honored with monument, located not far from no man’s land.
“The Name Alone Sounds Bad”
After visiting the battlefield, I told my brother about it in an email. He lives far from Virginia and is not a Civil War buff. “I don’t think I ever heard of that battle,” he told me, “but the name alone sounds bad.” Indeed, it was bad. Civil War scholars have long known about the carnage at Cold Harbor. But what does the park offer for those interested in Civil War battlefields?
Well, for one, the park is relatively compact. The Confederate line stretched seven miles around Cold Harbor. But a walk through the park today would not cover nearly that much distance. Privately owned homes are within view of the park’s core. One can get off the beaten path, but the trails are not exhausting.
What is most noticeable about Cold Harbor is the large amount of entrenchments that are still visible. In contrast to the parts of the North Anna battlefield that I visited earlier in the summer, many of the earthworks at Cold Harbor are not obscured by heavy woods.
The battle went on for nearly two weeks, and most of it involved trench warfare. By walking the park, it is easy to see how close the Federal and Confederate lines were to one another. The area between the lines is dotted with many trees, but no earthworks: this was the no man’s land that separated the two armies, which were, in some cases, only yards apart.
Lee offered a vicious resistance to Grant’s attempts to break through his lines at Cold Harbor. And the battle exemplified Grant and Lee at their most stubborn. After Grant’s bloody assault of June 3, Grant, the Union’s top general, would not ask for a formal truce so that he could bury his dead and recover his wounded. To do so would admit he had lost the battle. Lee, furthermore, was intentionally slow to respond to Grant’s efforts to arrange a truce, knowing that the Federals were suffering worse than he was.After Grant’s failed attack, Lee was on guard for another major Union offensive, and he issued a circular to that effect.
Not until June 7 did Lee allow for a truce so that the Union could recover men still suffering between the lines. During the truce, Union soldiers found only two men still alive between the lines. The rest had died or managed to get to safety.
One could spend a good amount of time at the battlefield. But for those interested in a quick tour of several battlefields in a day, Cold Harbor is close to other important Civil War sites. The entrance to the Gaines’ Mill battlefield, the bloodiest of the Seven Days battles, fought two years before, is only about a mile away. Also nearby is the Beaver Dam battlefield in Mechanicsville, also the scene of fighting during the Seven Days.
Battlefields serve as a grim reminder of the horrible moments in our nation’s past. But if you can put aside the details of what happened there, they are enjoyable place. As I drove out of the park, I saw a deer. And at the gift shop, I made sure I bought my daughter a souvenir. It was her first bag of toy soldiers. The package featured some interesting artwork, including a Confederate cavalryman who looked like Robert E. Lee (who certainly never hacked at any Yankees with his sword).
For those concerned about “erasing history” in Virginia and elsewhere, one way to assure that history is not erased is to support our national parks. Visit them, and spend some money. It is one of the best ways we can learn, preserve, and relive history.
Central Virginia is, appropriately enough, Civil War central. Yes, the war spanned all the southern states and even some northern ones (hello Vermont, this is a stick up!). Anyone interested in Robert E. Lee and the Civil War will have hit the major sites: Antietam, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Petersburg, but that just scratches the surface.
When living in Richmond back in the years 2005-2010, I didn’t have a car, and so I didn’t visit many battlefields. I did manage to see the Stonewall Jackson Shrine at Guinea Station and to walk the grounds of Spotsylvania. I also visited Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor (briefly). But trips to battlefields were rare for me.
Now, in my second year of residing again in Virginia, I have had the chance to walk more in the footsteps of Robert E. Lee and the Lee family. Of my list of Robert E. Lee sites, I can check off Stratford, where he was born and where I work, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Antietam, just to name a few. In my last post, I talked about visiting Petersburg again, which included a stop at Lee’s headquarters at Violet Bank.
But today I’m going to talk about the “lesser” Civil War sites around Richmond. These are places that don’t get the vast numbers of visitors that the big battlefields do, but are nonetheless part of the epic story of the Civil War/War between the States/Second American Revolution/War of Northern Aggression/War of the Rebellion/Late Unpleasantness/War of Southern Independence.
Last week, I drove to the North Anna and Milford Station battlefield. Milford Station is obscure by Civil War standards. To get to the battlefield, you have to turn off of Route 3 in Caroline County. Milford is what you could call a “wide place in the road.” It had a store and houses, but things were quiet when I visited on Friday morning. The loudest thing I heard was a train pass nearby.
The site is a historical bridge between the slaughter-filled battle of Spotsylvania and the far less bloody movements at the North Anna. On 1864 May 21, Union commander Winfield Scott Hancock drove Confederates across the Mattaponi River (not to be confused with the Po, Ni, Poni, Mat, Ta, or Matta rivers). Hancock’s efforts forced Lee to change his base of operations further south at Hanover Junction. The Union victory at Milford Station broke the stalemate that had developed at Spotsylvania Courthouse. The North Anna became the scene of the next round of fighting.
The North Anna
The North Anna was part of the Overland Campaign, which was the bloodiest of the Civil War. After failing to destroy each other at Spotsylvania, the armies of Grant and Lee moved further south. They met again at the North Anna in the third week of May 1864.
I drive over the North Anna every time I go up I-95 to get to work. On the day I visited the battlefield, however, I took the more leisurely Route 1. In Doswell, I took a left off of Rte. 1 at the Civil War Trails sign. Another two miles or so brought me to the North Anna battlefield park.
The park is not part of the National Park System. And by NPS standards, it is rustic. A gravel road leads to the battle site. You then have to walk a good distance along a dirt trail before you see any interpretive panels. The area is heavily wooded: quite a contrast to how it looked in 1864. Farmers don’t like trees, and many parts of 19th century Virginia, as was true of the country at large, was less wooded than it is now. This photo, nevertheless, gives a good sense of how Civil War armies could turn a battlefield into a desert. Men needed wood for fires and entrenchments. From Virginia to Georgia, in 1864, soldiers could strip an area bare in order to keep fighting.
The losses at the North Anna were slight compared to what had gone before: 30,000 casualties at the Wilderness and an additional 30,000 men killed, wounded, and captured at Spotsylvania. But by today’s standards, the clash at the North Anna was a bloodbath. Grant suffered roughly 4,000 casualties before he moved to Cold Harbor. Lee suffered about 1,500 killed, wounded, and missing.
An Ailing Robert E. Lee
At the time of the battle, Robert E. Lee was not feeling well. He was suffering from diarrhea and not getting much sleep. He felt so lousy that he spent much of his time in a wagon rather than on horseback.
The fighting at the North Anna is interesting not only for what happened, but what did not. At the battle, Lee had constructed one of his strongest defenses of the war. As Emory Thomas has written, “Lee’s defensive position on the North Anna was ingenious.” Thomas suggests that Lee might have dealt Grant a major blow had he been feeling better and had Grant fallen into the Confederate trap. Unfortunately for Lee, Grant did not.
And yet, the North Anna was important, not just because it was part of the Overland Campaign, but because it contributed to Grant’s decision to make an all-out assault at Cold Harbor about a week later. By the time the Union army had arrived at Cold Harbor, Grant was tired of running up against Lee’s entrenchments and thought a massive frontal assault would break the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant was wrong. He was rash at Cold Harbor, and Lee made him pay dearly for it on 1864 June 3.
As Douglas Southall Freeman has noted, Lee’s stand at the North Anna forced Grant away from a direct attack on Richmond from the north. It also kept Lee connected to his supply lines in the Shenandoah Valley. “No achievement,” Freeman wrote in his biography of Lee, “meant more in prolonging the struggle.”
Closer to Richmond, I stopped at two sites close together along Route 1, not far from where Hilliard meets Brook Road. There, the nineteenth century meets the twentieth: remnants of the Civil War are overshadowed by a strip mall with a recently abandoned Martin’s store as its anchor.
Nearby is Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which was built in 1860. It has a beautiful old cemetery, where, sure enough, I came upon some Confederate history. One marker memorialized Confederate soldiers. Another was a large tombstone for Captain John William Drewry, an officer in the Southside Artillery.
Six Degrees of Lee
As is often the case, there’s less than six degrees of separation when one wants to make a connection between a minor Civil War figure such as Drewry and the Lees. John Drewry’s artillery unit fought in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Another connection: John William Drewry was the brother of Augustus Drewry (1817-1899), who owned the land on which the battle of Drewry’s Bluff was fought in May 1862. At the battle was Sidney Smith Lee, who commanded naval forces. Augustus and John were the sons of Martin Drewry, whose other son, Clay, was also an officer in the Confederate army. Clay served with Ransom in the Army of Northern Virginia.
Near Emmanuel Church, I found earthworks that were used during the war to defend the Confederate capital. The works were one of the countless military projects during the war that used slave labor. The Confederate army used tens of thousands of African Americans to protect its troops and strategic locations, though none of those black men (until March 1865) were considered soldiers. The area I visited was where Jeb Stuart launched his famous ride around McClellan’s army in 1862. The fortifications remaining are the only such works I have seen in the Richmond area.
The site was also in the vicinity of where Gabriel Prosser planned his slave uprising in 1800. But that’s a story for another time.
Allen Guelzo is a three time winner of the prestigious Lincoln Prize and a professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College. But as he tells Colin, he began as a scholar of colonial religion and philosophy. In their talk, they discuss religion, Abraham Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee (about whom Dr. Guelzo is writing a much anticipated biography). Colin also asks about Dr. Guelzo’s appearance on The Daily Show during the 2008 presidential campaign.
July 30 marked the 153rd anniversary of the battle of the Crater, one of the bloodiest battles of the nine month long Petersburg campaign, which became the lengthiest siege in American history. The Crater battle, fought on 1864 July 30 was historic for many reasons, but only recently have historians examined it at much length. Of the Confederate victory there, Robert E. Lee said of the enemy, “I trust he will succeed no better in his next than his last attempt.” The battle was arguably the last real victory for the Army of Northern Virginia.
On my trip to Petersburg last week, I revisited the Crater battlefield, which I had seen about ten years ago. I had the chance to reevaluate the place. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been there, and I wanted to check out some sites I had not known about the last time I visited the “Cockade City.” As is true of so many places, with PVA (to quote 19th century French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphone Karr), the more it changes, the more it stays the same.
Petersburg is a city with major problems. It has had long standing issues with crime, financial solvency, political dysfunction, and public education. A discussion of these things goes beyond the scope of a fluff blog piece. When it comes to history tourism, though, anyone interested in the Civil War should visit the city.
Last week, I wanted to hit two museums I had not been in before: the Siege Museum, which is downtown, and Violet Bank, used by Robert E. Lee as his headquarters for a few months of the siege. My trip again highlighted for me the pleasures and frustrations involved in visiting Petersburg.
Unfortunately, my good camera’s battery went dead upon my arrival, so I was forced to take pictures with my Verizon flip phone.
To say Petersburg is historic is an understatement. Old Towne has a rich history that includes major events in the Revolution and the Civil War. The house on Bank Street, where Edgar Allan Poe stayed, still stands. Steven Spielberg chose Petersburg to film parts of his 2012 film Lincoln.
As is true of anywhere, I suppose, Old Towne follows national economic trends. When I taught college in Petersburg back in 2005-06, the economy was doing great and Petersburg’s downtown seemed to be coming back. But when I visited a few years after the economic depression of 2008-09, Old Towne had taken a noticeable turn for the worse. One coffee shop I had loved had closed.
Yet, based on what I saw on Tuesday, Old Towne seems on the rebound, and I hope it continues to improve. I had a “Dirty Banana” (a banana shake with a shot of espresso) at Demolition Coffee on Bank Street, a nice cafe that I want to revisit for breakfast with the family.
It’s easy to get around Old Towne on foot, and when I was last there, it was a good day for walking. The weather was warm, dry, and sunny. I had a good lunch at Longstreet’s, but unfortunately the Siege Museum (apparently still being renovated) was not open for visitors.
A short drive over the Appomattox River bridge brought me to Violet Bank, where Lee lived for several months in 1864. Lee often liked to live in a tent when he should have been indoors, but in Petersburg, he apparently came to his senses. His last headquarters was located at Edgehill, further west, but that building burned down a long time ago.
Violet Bank is next to an enormous magnolia tree, which is as impressive as the building itself. Since Violet Bank Violent Bank was not open, that left me with time to visit the battlefield again.
The Crater Battlefield
Getting to the Crater wasn’t easy. The area along Crater Road was a mess of roadwork, and there seemed no way to get inside the park without making a major flanking maneuver. I ignored the park’s Do Not Enter road sign. No ranger was there to arrest me, though, as I drove illegally onto the battlefield. Luckily, it didn’t take me long to get to the Crater site. I hope any Civil War buff would have forgiven me for butting my way into the park.
It is easy to see why Petersburg was so vital. Grant attacked Petersburg in June 1864 because of the city’s importance as a rail juncture. And sure enough, the railroad is still prominent. After being there only a few minutes, a train drove through the park, a few hundred yards away, along the Norfolk & Petersburg line.
The infamous Crater is not nearly as large as it was in 1864. Time and erosion has filled it in with earth and grass. As it is true of all the national parks, you have to use your imagination when viewing the grounds. The Crater is a shadow of its former self, but it’s clearly marked and you can still see the depressions in the ground where the Federals blew a huge hole in the Confederate defenses. I was one of only a few people in the area that afternoon, but one of them was English (as I could tell when he asked about the UDC). Like me, he was interested in exploring hallowed ground.
The battle signified a shockingly bad missed opportunity for the Union, whose commanders botched the assault and allowed the Rebels to win the day. Federals, chief among them Pennsylvania coal miner soldiers, spent weeks digging under the Confederate fortifications. They managed to get 500 feet under the Rebel lines and pack the mine with tons of explosives.
The explosion was felt in Richmond and blew a huge hole in the Confederate line. The blast could have been fatal to Lee’s army. And yet, the Federals took an hour to mount their assault. The delay gave the Confederates time to regroup. Poorly led Yankees went into the Crater rather than around it. Rebels under William Mahone (a Petersburg native) poured a withering fire into the huddled Yankee masses in the Crater. As Mahone noted, it became a “turkey shoot.” The film Cold Mountain features a fairly good recreation of the Crater battle, which featured vicious hand to hand combat.
The Union might have won the battle and the fight for Petersburg in July 1864 were it not for incompetent leadership. General Ambrose E. Burnside’s corps made up the attacking force. But at the last minute, the decision to let African American troops lead the attack was changed for political reasons. Union commanders feared a debacle might suggest northern generals were using black troops as cannon fodder.
Black troops fought well, but they charged into the fray after white forces had already been halted in the Crater. Union Colonel James Ledlie, who was supposed to manage the attack, chose to stay in a bombproof bunker with a bottle of booze rather than direct his men. The slaughter at the Crater became a no quarter fight.
Aftermath and Legacy
The fighting at the Crater was horrid and was the scene of the greatest massacre of African American troops of the war. Rebel troops were enraged at the sight of charging African Americans and they vowed to take no prisoners. Amid the carnage, even some white northern troops killed their black comrades in order to avoid Confederate retribution.
The debacle resulted in General Ambrose Burnside losing his job. Colonel Ledlie was dismissed from the army a few months later. The siege dragged on. And only in the past few years have historians such as Kevin Levin have examined the Crater battle at length: what it meant in the larger story of the Peterbsurg siege, our racial past, and Civil War memory.
The Petersburg siege was, as Shelby Foote once said, a “rehearsal for World War I.” During World War I, the Crater battle was repeated, so to speak, at the Somme and during the 1917 battle of Messines, where Allied miners blew a hole in the German defenses in Belgium. The shock was felt in London, and the explosion at Messines was the loudest man-made sound in history up to that time.
Many historians have walked the grounds of Petersburg, but one in particular stands out. In 1940, Life magazine featured an insightful story on Virginia born Civil War historian and Lee disciple Douglas Southall Freeman. Of all the battlefields Freeman could have chosen for the shoot, he went to the Crater. Freeman went into one of the tunnels, and one photo shows how much more of the original Crater was still there.
When I visited last week, I didn’t have any reporters with me (let alone a servant), but it was another enjoyable visit to the NPS and one that further educates me on the terrain, geography, and landmarks of the Civil War.
Some sources on the Crater and the Petersburg siege:
Axlerod, Alan. The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, the Civil War’s Cruelest Mission. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2007.
Greene, A. Wilson. Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
Hess, Earl J. Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010.
Levin, Kevin. Remembering the Battle of the Crater: Was as Murder. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.
Slotkin, Richard. No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. New York: Random House, 2009.