Part one of three
Much is written on Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s health throughout the Civil War. Possible heart attacks, strokes and fatigue began to take a toll on Lee’s health during the war. Most physicians agree today that Lee suffered a heart attack spring/summer of 1863 and that his death in 1870 was due to intermittent rest angina. But, it was a common soldier’s disease that put Lee in bed at the crucial moment of the Overland Campaign.
The battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania saw massive casualties on both sides, casualties which the Confederates could ill afford. But the biggest problem for Lee was his loss of generals during those campaigns. The most impactful of course was the wounding of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. His replacement, Richard Anderson, was still largely untested; outside his ability to successfully win the race to Spotsylvania from the Wilderness, Anderson had little experience and had not received Lee’s full confidence.
Lee had also begun to lose confidence in Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, who became unreliable at Spotsylvania, first at the Mule Shoe and then at Harris Farm. His other corps commander, Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, suffered from chronic illnesses that stemmed from his West Point days and became frail and weak. Moving forward, Lee had to rely on unproven commanders new to corps leadership. It required more of his time, and he had to change his style of dictating broad orders to his commanders. He had to take on matters that he originally dictated to others. Lee could not afford to be in ill health, but as his army marched southward to the North Anna River that is exactly what happened.
In April of 1864, Lee wrote his son G.W.C. Lee that his health was declining from the rigors of the various campaigns and from the weight put on his shoulders by the hope of the Confederacy. Lee wrote he was “less competent for duty than ever.” The upcoming campaign against Grant required all the fortitude the Confederate commander could muster. From May 5th until May 22nd, Lee barely slept. As his staff officer Walter Taylor noted that Lee worked most nights till midnight and woke up at 3am. This was not a healthy regimen for a man already weakened.
By May 24th, Lee was stricken with what historian Douglas Southall Freeman called “a sharp intestinal ailment.” Lee was so ill that when he met with Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill to go over the previous day’s events at Jericho Mills, the army commander rode in a buggy. After Lee heard of Hill’s management of the Third Corps in face of an opportunity to defeat the Federal V Corps, Lee lashed out at him: “General Hill, why did you let those people cross there? Why didn’t you do throw your whole force on them and drive them back as Jackson would have done?”
A few days before, Lee had admonished Gen. Jubal Early over his failure to have his men prepare defenses. “General Lee is much troubled and not well,” Early reportedly said afterward.
Lee’s health was impacting his demeanor and frame of mind. His frustration with his commanders, the campaign, and his own health began to impact his conduct.