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“Damage them all you can,” the patrician Lee exhorts, and his Southern army, ragtag in uniform and elite in spirit, responds ferociously in one battle after another against their Northern enemies—from the Seven Days and the Valley Campaign through Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania to the final siege of Richmond and Petersburg. Lee knows that the South’s five-and-a-half million white population will be worn down in any protracted struggle by the North’s twenty-two million. He is ever offensive-minded, ever seeking the victory that will destroy his enemies’ will to fight. He uses his much shorter interior lines to rush troops to trouble spots by forced marches and by rail. His cavalry rides on raids around the entire union army. Lee divides his own force time and again, defying military custom by bluffing one wing of the enemy while striking furiously elsewhere.
But this book is more than military history. Walsh’s narrative digs deeper, revealing the humanity of Lee and his lieutenants as never before—their nobility and their flaws, their chilling acceptance of death, their tender relations with wives and sweethearts in the midst of carnage.
Here we encounter in depth the men who still stir the imagination. The dutiful Robert E. Lee, haunted by his father’s failures; stern and unbending Stonewall Jackson, cut down at the moment of his greatest triumph; stolid James Longstreet, who came to believe he was Lee’s equal as a strategist, the enigmatic George Pickett.
These men and scores of others, enlisted men as well as officers, carry the ultimately tragic story of the Army of Northern Virginia forward with heart rending force and bloody impact.
As the war progresses we wonder above all else, had orders been strictly obeyed here or daylight lasted an extra hour there, what might have been. Only Appomattox brings an end to such speculation, when the tattered remnants of Lee’s army, both the still living and the shadowy dead, stack their arms at last.
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George Walsh is the former editor-in-chief of the General Books Division of the Macmillan Publishing Company and a longtime journalist. Walsh has been a Civil War buff since he published the mass market edition of The Killer Angels, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975. Damage Them All You Can is the culmination of eight years of research and study.
THE SOUTHERN COMMANDERS
In both North and South the early months of 1861 clearly signaled the onset of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency, viewed as a decisive victory for the abolitionists on the slavery issue, had splintered the traditional political parties and divided the nation as never before. Emancipation had become a creed, states’ rights a dogma. By February 1, all the states of the Deep South—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas—had seceded, and soon would form the core of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, like many Southern leaders, vowed he would fight for secession if necessary. "I glory in Mississippi’s star," he declared. "But before I would see it dishonored I would tear it from its place, to be set on the perilous ridge of battle as a sign around which her bravest and best shall meet the harvest home of death."1 Yet as late as March 4, making his inaugural address, Lincoln pressed for reconciliation. "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies," he implored. "Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living hearth and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." 2
The shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12 changed all that. Davis, now president of the Confederacy, ordered Pierre Beauregard, newly named brigadier in its army, to make the attack when the North tried to reinforce its garrison. The seceded states had occupied most of the Federal property within their borders, but a few strongholds remained, and Fort Sumter was one of them. Its surrender escalated hostilities. When Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, Virginia and the states of the Upper South moved closer to secession themselves.
No one watched these developments with more concern than Colonel Robert E. Lee, called back to Washington that spring by 75-year-old Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican War and long his mentor. On April 18, Lee crossed the long bridge over the Potomac from Arlington to the capital and kept two fateful appointments. The first was with Francis Preston Blair Sr., former editor of the influential Congressional Globe and a power in Washington politics since the days of Andrew Jackson. Blair had already become a confidant of Lincoln, and had been authorized to offer Lee command of the force being mobilized to invade the South. "I told him what President Lincoln wanted him to do," he would say. "He wanted him to take command of the army." 3 After more than thirty years in service, inching his way up the promotional ladder, Lee must have been tempted; but he only shook his head. "If I owned the four million slaves of the South I would sacrifice then all to the Union," Blair would quote him as saying. "But how can I draw my sword against Virginia?"4 Lee later affirmed the conversation, saying, "I declined the offer, stating as candidly and as courteously as I could, that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States."5
Lee’s next call was on General Scott, who was awaiting news of his decision. Scott, a Virginian but a staunch Unionist, would have liked nothing better than for Lee to accept field command of the embryonic army and later to succeed him. Known as "Fuss and Feathers" because of his attention to detail, he was ailing and obese, and wanted the troops in good hands. "Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life," Scott said. "But I feared it would be so."6
Only after these interviews were over did Lee learn that the Virginia Convention, in closed session, had voted to secede. Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee would follow, while Kentucky and Missouri remained torn. On April 20 he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army. "My husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war," Mary Custis Lee would write, "but as a man of honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his state." 7 Two days later Governor John Letcher named him commander of the military forces of Virginia, with the rank of major general, entrusting him to ready the state’s militia for battle. This essential but thankless task would temporarily take Lee out of the war’s mainstream. Regardless, he would do his duty. That was the way he had been raised.
* * *
Robert Edward Lee, a scion of the aristocracy, was born in Stratford, Virginia, on January 19, 1807, one of five children of Ann Hill Carter and Henry ("Light-Horse Harry") Lee, a gallant figure of the Revolutionary War and a favorite of George Washington. Henry Lee went on to become a governor of Virginia and a member of Congress, but a weakness for land speculation plagued his private life, and eventually plunged his family into near bankruptcy. Young Robert was only six when his father sailed for the West Indies, hoping to recoup his fortune. The boy never saw him again.
Though the numerous members of the Carter clan were wealthy, her husband’s improvidence forced Ann Carter Lee to raise her own children in straitened circumstances. Money was always a concern. Robert and his siblings would visit or holiday with their many cousins, at their Stratford or Shirley plantations, but home for them was a small, modest house in Alexandria, just outside Washington. There his semi-invalid mother, honoring her husband’s memory but conscious of his failings, imbued in her son the religious beliefs and moral convictions that stayed with him all his life. "Her unquestioning faith as transmitted to her son implanted in him that total acceptance...of working the best he could within the design of God," a commentator would say. "Whatever action duty assigned him, implicit in the duty was the need to do it the best he could. Nothing he wrote or any recorded word indicated that he ever presumed on any course of action, large or small, which did not assume its accordance with God’s will. If his aim fell outside the divine design, then ‘God’s will be done.’ Without articulating his attitude, it was as unreflectively assumed as breathing."8
Lee entered West Point in 1825, and during his four years of training compiled a distinguished record, finishing second in his class and never receiving a single demerit. "All his accomplishments...appeared natural to him," wrote Erasmus D. Keyes of Massachusetts, a fellow cadet who would become a Union general, "and he was free from the anxiety, distrust and awkwardness that attend a sense of inferiority."9 Soon after his graduation Ann Carter Lee died, and the newly commissioned second lieutenant found himself in the Engineer Corps, building fortifications in Savannah, Georgia. But his leaves were spent back in Virginia, where he began courting Mary Custis, the only child of Mary Fitzhugh and George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington. Though Custis, the owner of a vast estate at Arlington, expressed reservations about Lee’s ability to support his daughter, Mary and Robert were married in July 1831. She would bear him seven children, and continue to live at Arlington for long periods when, during the coming years, he would be assigned to posts outside Virginia.
For Lee, as for all the officers of his generation, the 1846-47 Mexican War was a testing ground. Southerners w
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