Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Bill Backus.
Perhaps the most famous incident from the Battle of Bristoe Station was the rebuke Robert E. Lee gave to A.P. Hill after both surveyed the human wreckage after the disastrous assault. Before riding away Lee is said to have told an embarrassed Hill “Well, well General, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it”. While exchange is sometimes used to showcase Marse Robert’s gentlemanly character, did it actually happen? There are at least five different accounts of the Lee-Hill exchange. Of the five, four were published in memoirs after the war ended.
The earliest, and contemporary version of the Lee-Hill exchange, was recorded by Captain William Seymour of the famed Louisiana Tigers. Seymour claimed in his October 15th diary entry that while his brigade was posted nearby he saw both Lee and Hill. “The General seemed to be in no good humor and casting a glance over the field thickly strewed with dead Confederates sharply rebuked Gen. Hill to send immediately for his pioneer corps to bury his unfortunate dead. Gen. Hill recognized a rebuke in the tone and manner of his commander and replied, ‘this is my fault, General.’ ‘Yes,’ said Lee, ‘it is your fault; you committed a great blunder yesterday; your line of battle was too short, too thin, and your reserves were too far behind.’ Poor Hill, he appeared deeply humiliated by this speech.”
The second version of the exchange between Lee and Hill after the battle was included in an undated article about A.P. Hill written by Jedediah Hotchkiss. After arriving on the battlefield, Hotchkiss related that “Gen. Lee and staff, accompanied by Gen. Early and staff, rode up to the vicinity of the engagement, where Gen. Lee, ascertaining what had happened, reproached Gen. Hill in most bitter terms for the manner in which he had brought on this engagement, and for the horrible results that had followed, displaying a great deal of bitter feeling in what he said to Gen. Hill.
Another variant of Lee rebuking his Third Corps commander in a less than cordial manner appeared in William Poague’s military memoir. In his account of the Lee-Hill exchange, Poague remembered Hill trying to explain his blunder and advocate for a resumption of the campaign. “On who was near enough to hear what passed told me that General Lee’s reply was ‘General Hill, I think you had better attend to the burying of your dead,’ and that he was evidently not pleased with Hill’s management of the affair”. Poague’s account is noteworthy because instead of placing him with the generals like other authors did, Poague noted that it was an unnamed person that overheard the Lee-Hill exchange.
Perhaps the most famous version of Lee recommending Hill about burying, and then forgetting, his men appeared in Armistead Long’s Memoirs of Robert E. Lee. Long had served on Lee’s staff during the war and was in a unique position to write about Lee’s wartime service. However there are two major problems with Long’s account of Lee at Bristoe. By the time Long’s manuscript was published in 1886, Lee had been dead for nearly 20 years, in which the Lost Cause narrative took ahold of Southern literature of the war. The Lost Cause narrative stressed the gentlemanly ideal of Lee as the ideal Southern officer and Long’s account fit perfectly within this framework. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, by the time the Bristoe Station Campaign had started, Long was promoted from Lee’s staff and placed in command of General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps artillery. While Long may have indeed had the good fortune to have been close enough to Lee to hear his exchange with Hill, the likelihood that Long just happened to be near Lee instead of his command during at a time when it appeared that the Confederates would renew their assault casts doubt upon the veracity of Long’s account.
The final variation of Lee telling Hill to bury his men is found in Henry Heth’s memoirs. According to his memoirs ,Heth, Hill, and Lee were all riding over the battlefield. In Heth’s account, Lee’s only remark to Hill’s explanation of the failed assault was “General, bury your dead”. Like Long there are problems with Heth’s verison of the post battle exchange. The major problem is that no other account has Lee, Hill, and Heth together. Heth had a tendency to elevate his importance in the Army of Northern Virginia throughout his memoir and this exchange seems to be yet another instance of Heth attempting to improve his postwar reputation. Since Heth’s memoirs were published after Long’s book, it appears that Heth used Long’s account as a basis for his recollection.
With five different versions of the Lee-Hill exchange, how can we make sense of it? While we will probably never be able to reconstruct the exchange with total accuracy, it is more than likely that the Lee reacted to Hill similar to the one that appears in Seymour’s account. Not only is it more contemporary than the other accounts, but from other events during the war historians know that Lee had a habit of berating his staff and generals during times of great stress. Soldiers near the generals quickly spread exchange, as stated by Poague, so that Lee’s rebuke of Hill was probably well known within the Army of Northern Virginia by the end of the Bristoe Campaign. After the War, authors such as Long and Heth edited the exchange to project a more gentlemanly image of Lee, one which he still have today. Regardless of the exact phrase that Lee used, Hill indeed buried his men, many of whom are still buried at Bristoe Station today.