(This blog is in remembrance and in honor of the love between a commander and his men. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13, King James Version.)
For the past ten years I have been researching and writing on General R. E. Lee’s grand strategy and strategic leadership in preparation for an upcoming book. When working on a long-term project, for relaxation I prefer to read books un–related to the Civil War. In doing so, I sometimes stumble upon topics that apply to Lee but may not be the focal point of my current study. Lately, I have been thinking about his emotional bond to his Soldiers, how he felt about ordering them into battle, how he dealt with the news of casualties, and how he processed those memories in the post-war years. What triggered this reflection was an incident in Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead by former Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis (Gen. USMC, Ret) and Bing West.
During Desert Storm (August 1990–February 1991), then Lieutenant Colonel Mattis was battalion commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. Before the big push to kick Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait, intelligence predicted that the Marines would suffer heavy casualties. As a student of the Civil War, Mattis remembered in Killer Angels General Lee saying: “To be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love.” Now the Marine battalion commander was facing the same conundrum. He knew he would soon be ordering the men he loved into battle where some would make the ultimate sacrifice.
Mattis also realized that if he received casualty reports or heard about the death of one of his Marines during the fighting, the news could endanger the mission as it could very well throw off his “emotional equilibrium.” He thus instructed his staff to withhold the names and numbers of killed or wounded while the battalion was engaged. Due to capable leadership, at all levels, the battle was over in 100 hours, and the Marines counted much fewer casualties than predicted. A decade later, Mattis lost many more of his “Devil Dogs” in subsequent battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it was not until many years later that he was able to “sort it all out” on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State.
There are definite similarities in the way Lee approached this aspect of warfare. Though he never said “. . . to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love,” he would have said it. There was a strong bond between Lee and his men. He loved his Soldiers, and while a career officer, he despised the fact that his orders resulted in the death and suffering of his men. When Lieutenant General Thomas Jackson was wounded, Lee wrote to him: “Could I have directed events I should have chosen for the good of the country to have been disabled in your stead.” Lee would have taken Jackson’s place if he could have. He would have taken the place of all his suffering Soldiers, but Providence had other plans for him.
Remarkably, Lee was never seriously wounded; however, the same cannot be said for thousands of his soldiers. The way he reacted to casualties depended on the context in which he received the news. Aggregate casualty reports arrived months after a campaign. He regretted the endless lists of names yet maintained his composure while continuing to plan his next operation. This was not the case if news arrived during a battle. After hearing that Jackson had been wounded at Chancellorsville (May 2, 1863) and Lieutenant General James Longstreet (May 6, 1864) had been wounded in the Wilderness, Lee allowed his emotions to control his decision-making. He positioned himself at the head of an attacking line and led the men into the thick of the fight—a brave response, but combat was no place for the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Conversely, when receiving news of the loss of a comrade in arms in a fairly peaceful context, Lee unabashedly wept, sometimes in public. After the chaplain told him that Jackson would succumb to his wounds, Lee mourned, and after hearing that Major General J.E.B. Stuart had been mortally wounded, he could barely speak or hear the cavalryman’s name without breaking down. When Lieutenant General A. P. Hill was killed, Lee was visibly distraught. No doubt, when Longstreet was wounded, Lee asked God to spare his “War Horse.”
Some may think it is out-of-place or unprofessional for a commanding general to weep in front of his men, yet Lee’s tears were sincere and empathic. One should remember that these men knew each other on a personal level, and he looked upon them as his military family. Jackson and Longstreet were loved and respected as brothers. Lee had known Stuart since he had been a boy; Lee loved him like a son. A. P. Hill also had been like a son to Lee. Loosing someone you love in such a violent manner is traumatic.
Robert E. Lee dealt with the memories of his war like many retired generals. He moved to a peaceful town (Lexington, Virginia), and he kept busy as the President of Washington College. When he was not working, he took horseback rides with his daughter. If alone, I can imagine him taking a horseback ride and finding a peaceful creek or river bank to pray and “sort it all out.” He probably thought about the camaraderie of sitting around the campfire with Longstreet and Hill, along with their staffs, or teasing his staff officers. Then, as is the case, the general’s mind would have reflected on those lost in the prime of their lives: Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, Thomas Jackson, Major John Pelham, “The Boy Major” Joseph Latimer, Major General William D. Pender, J.E.B. Stuart, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton, and A. P. Hill—and so many more.
When students examine military legends, like Generals Lee and Mattis, we tend to focus on their strategic thinking or decision-making processes, etc., but we must also consider the emotional cost: the pain they suffered knowing they had to order the thing they loved into combat, the way both loved their Soldiers/Marines, and the way their Soldiers/Marines loved them back. It is a melancholy subject but at the same time, this side of leadership is just as important to tell. It is in their relationship with their men we see some of the purest love stories war has to offer.
 Jim Mattis and Bing West, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (New York: Random House, 2019), 31.
 Robert E. Lee, Jr., ed., Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (New York: Doubleday, 1904), 93. Lee also agonized over seeing the animals suffer, and he even pitied the Northern Soldiers.
Williams Jones. Christ in Camp: Or Religion in Lee’s Army. Richmond, VA: B. F. Johnson & Co., 1887.
———. Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee: Soldier and Man. New York: Neale, 1906.
———. Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. New York: D. Appleton and Company,1875.
L. Long. Memoirs of Robert E. Lee: His Military and Personal History, Embracing a Large Amount of Information Hitherto Unpublished. New York: Stoddart, 1887.
Walter H. Taylor. General Lee, His Campaigns in Virginia, 1861–1865: With Personal Reminiscences. New York: Braunworth and Company, 1906.