General Lee To The Rear!
By
J. William Jones

        General Lee's affectionate regard for those under his charge, and his tender solicitude for their welfare, were equaled only by their admiration and love for him. Unlike some military chieftains, who would sacrifice thousands of men without scruple if their fame demanded it, he was willing at any time to allow his own reputation to suffer in order to preserve his men. His soldiers knew that he would not expose them when he could avoid it; that it was through no fault of his if their rations were scant and their hardships many; and that he regularly robbed his own poorly supplied mess table of luxuries which friends would send him, in order that they might go to his ragged, suffering boys in the hospital. They knew that their great Chieftain cared for their welfare, and did all in his power to promote it; and their admiration for his splendid genius as a soldier was even excelled by their love for him as a man. Time and again have I seen these brave men, many of them the very elite of Southern society, who had been raised in luxury and never knew what want was before -- ragged, barefooted and hungry, and almost ready to break out into open revolt at the idea that their sufferings were due to the inefficiency of the quartermaster and commissary departments; but a single word from General Lee, assuring the men that the supply department was doing all that it could to relieve their wants, would act like a charm; and the magic words, "Marse Robert says so," would hush every murmur and complaint.
        When he rode among his troops he was always greeted with enthusiastic cheers, or other manifestations of love and admiration. I one day saw a ragged private whom he met on the road (while riding alone, as was his frequent custom), stand with uncovered head, as if in the presence of royalty, as he rode by. General Lee instantly took off his own hat and treated the humble man with all possible courtesy and respect, and, as he rode on, the soldier enthusiastically said: "God bless Marse Robert! I wish he was emperor of this country, and that I was his carriage driver."
        Nothing so pleased the private soldier as to see his officers willing to share his dangers; and among our Confederate soldiers especially, the officer who did not freely go himself wherever he ordered his men soon lost their confidence and respect. But General Lee was an exception to this rule. The soldiers could never bear to see him exposed to personal danger, and always earnestly remonstrated against it.
        On the morning of May 6th, 1864, in the Wilderness, as Heth's and Wilcox's divisions of A.P. Hill's corps were preparing to withdraw from the line of their gallant fight of the day before, to give place to Longstreet's corps, which was rapidly approaching, the enemy suddenly made upon them a furious attack with overwhelming numbers. These brave men were borne back by the advancing wave. General Lindsay Walker with his artillery (superbly served under the immediate eye of Lee and Hill) was gallantly beating back the enemy; but they were gathering for a new attack, and it was a crisis in the battle, when the head of Longstreet's corps dashed upon the field. General Lee rode to meet them, and found the old Texas brigade, led by the gallant Gregg, in front. The men had not seen him since their return from Tennessee, and as he rode up and said, "Ah! these are my brave Texans. I know you, and I know that you can and will keep those people back!" they greeted him with even more than their accustomed enthusiasm as they hurried to the front. But they were soon horrified to find that their beloved Chief was going with them into the thickest of the fight. The men began to shout: "Go back, General Lee! Do go back! General Lee to the rear -- General Lee to the rear!" A ragged veteran stepped from the ranks and seized his horse's reins, and at last the whole brigade halted and exclaimed, with one voice, "We will not advance unless General Lee goes back, but if he will not expose himself, we pledge ourselves to drive the enemy back." Just then General Lee saw Longstreet, and rode off to give him some order, and these gallant Texans rushed eagerly forward and nobly redeemed their pledge. The rest of Longstreet's corps hurried to the front; Hill's troops rallied; the enemy was driven in confusion, and only the wounding of Longstreet at this unfortunate juncture prevented the utter rout, if not the crushing of that wing of Grant's army.
        On the 12th of May, 1864, the Confederate lines were broken near Spotsylvania Courthouse; the Federal troops poured into the opening, and a terrible disaster seemed imminent. As Early's old division, now commanded by General John B. Gordon, was being rapidly formed to recapture the works, General Lee rode to the front and took his position just in advance of the colors of the Forty ninth Virginia regiment. He uttered not a word, he was not the man for theatrical display but as he quietly took off his hat, and sat his war horse the very personification of the genius of battle, it was evident to all that he meant to lead the charge. Just then the gallant Gordon spurred to his side, seized the reins of his horse, and exclaimed, with deep anxiety: "General Lee, this is no place for you! Do go to the rear. These are Virginians and Georgians, sir -- men who have never failed -- and they will not fail now. Will you boys? Is it necessary for General Lee to lead this charge?" Loud cries of "No! no! General Lee to the rear! General Lee to the rear! We always try to do just what General Gordon tells us, and we will drive them back if General Lee will only go to the rear!" burst forth from the ranks.
        While two soldiers led General Lee's horse to the rear, Gordon put himself in front of his division, and his clear voice rang out above the roar of the battle, "Forward! Charge! and remember your promise to General Lee!" Not Napoleon's magic words to his Old Guard -- "The eyes of your Emperor are upon you!" -- produced a happier effect; and these brave fellows swept grandly forward, stemmed the tide, drove back five times their own numbers, retook the larger part of the works, established a new Confederate line, and converted disaster into a brilliant victory.
        General Lee's horse was led back through the color company of the Fifty second Virginia regiment, which was then commanded by Captain James Bumgardner, Jr., who was an eye witness of the scene.
        At the last "Memorial Day," June 9th, 1879, of the Augusta Association, presided over by Colonel James H. Skinner, of the old Fifty second Virginia regiment, Captain Bumgardner made an eloquent address, from which I take the following description of the above battle picture, which I obtained from another eye witness:
        There is one incident in the history of the Army of Northern Virginia, so similar in many respects to an incident in the history of the army of Italy, which occurred during that campaign, conceded to be the most successful and splendid of all the campaigns of Napoleon, which so strikingly illustrates the character and spirit of the Confederate soldier, that I cannot forbear repeating it here, though at the risk of telling a twice told tale.
        The success of the entire Italian campaign turned upon the successful passage of the bridge of Lodi. The Austrian army with its artillery were massed upon the other side, and the narrow pass must be won in the face of the concentrated fire. The French column was formed and ordered to advance. They staggered under the withering fire and retreated; but failure was ruin, the pass must be won. They were rallied, brought back to the charge, but again retreated; yet the pass must be won; when Napoleon himself, and, by his order, Massena, Berthier, Cervoni, Dalmagne and Lannes, placed themselves at the head of the column - - "Follow your Generals!" was the order. They followed their Generals, passed the bridge, pierced the Austrian centre, and won the victory.
        In the earliest dawn of a misty morning, the morning of the memorable 12th of May, 1864, one of those tremendous massed columns, which, from time to time during that frightful campaign, were hurled against the Army of Northern Virginia, dashed against our line with the fury and force of a tornado, and burst it asunder; and, through the breach, poured line after line and column after column, as wave follows wave in ocean storm.
        In that moment hung suspended the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia. In the instant, just on the spot, that rushing, solid, ever increasing mass must be met, stopped, hurled back, or all is lost. Nearly in rear of the breach were two brigades, lying along the line of their stacked arms. In a few seconds after the order to "fall in," they were ready for action, and General Lee rode to their front. And the picture he made, as the grand old man sat there on his horse, with his noble head bare, and looked from right to left, as if to meet each eye that flashed along the line, can never be forgotten by a man that stood there.
        And every soldier along that line knew what that look meant; that it meant -- "Soldiers, follow your General"; knew that work so desperate was to be done, and that interests so tremendous hung upon its successful doing, that everything, even the life of our great Chief himself, must be put to the dreadful hazard, if necessary to secure the result. But those men needed no such order and no such example. They wanted no general or field marshal dismounted in their front to stimulate them to do and dare all in mortal power.
        From three thousand lips at once burst the cry, "General Lee to the rear" -- and not a foot would stir until he was led back through a gap in the line; and then the word was given, and the line moved forward, without pause, or waver, or break, right on up to the very face of the solid opposing mass; on, till sabres clashed and bayonets crossed; on, till the first line was driven back in confusion upon the second, and first and second upon the third; on, into the angle of the salient, where batteries, massed on right and massed on left, poured in a storm of shot and shell upon either flank; and still on, pressing back the stubborn heavy mass, covering the earth in piles with the slain, till the enemy, his organization lost in confusion, retired from the dreadful carnage, yielded back the captured works, and the crisis passed, and the field was saved.
        Of the French engaged in what Napoleon calls the terrible passage of the bridge of Lodi, the loss was one in four. The proportion of loss in the force engaged in that charge on the 12th of May I do not know; but in one regiment -- the centre regiment of one of the brigades, and if more exposed than others I know it not and know not why -- the loss was one in two.
        There was still another account of this scene, but agreeing with the two given above in all of the essential points, written at the time by the now Professor W.W. Smith, of Randolph Macon College -- then a beardless boy serving in the Forty ninth Virginia regiment, which was so graphic that I will publish it so soon as I can obtain a copy.
        A similar scene was enacted on the same day near the "bloody angle," where General Lee was only prevented from leading Harris' Mississippi brigade into the thickest of that terrible fight by the positive refusal of the men to go forward unless their beloved Chieftain would go to the rear.
        These three incidents are all well authenticated; but Miss Emily Mason, in her biography, gives a correspondence between Hon. John Thompson Mason and General Lee, in which the former details the incident as it occurred with Gregg's Texas brigade, and asks the General about it. The reply is characteristic, and is as follows:

Lexington, Va., December 7, 1865.

Hon. John Thompson Mason:

        My Dear Sir, -- I regret that my occupations are such as to prevent me from writing at present a narrative of the event which you request in your letter of the 4th instant.
        The account you give is substantially correct. General Gordon was the officer. It occurred in the battles around Spotsylvania Courthouse.

With great respect, your friend and servant,

R. E. Lee.

        The world's history can produce no more splendid battle pictures than these, and yet so unconscious was General Lee of their bearing that he mingles two into one, and seems to have forgotten the other altogether.

J. William Jones.

Richmond, Va., December 10, 1879.

Source:  Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. VIII. Richmond, Virginia, January, 1880. No.1.

This page last updated 11/25/06

RETURN TO ROBERT E. LEE'S BIOGRAPHY PAGE