Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
We left off in January with General Grant’s three corps of about 30,000 soldiers advancing westward toward Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant had just defeated General Johnston, who was in overall command of rebel troops in the west, at the state capital, Jackson. On May 16, 1863, Grant had McPherson’s corps on or near the railroad line with McClernand’s corps south of McPherson’s. Following close behind was Sherman’s corps after carrying out Grant’s orders to destroy the military and manufacturing value of Jackson – he burned the city so badly to the ground that henceforth it became known as “Chimneyville.”
Editor’s note: This review was originally published in The Charger in January 2016.
James McPherson has done it yet again: published an insightful, fair, and very readable book on the Civil War. This time his subject is the wartime presidency of Jefferson Davis, a man whose reputation over the years has had more ups and downs then a stretch along the Appalachian Trail. In his introduction McPherson acknowledges the challenges of writing about a person who has occasionally been portrayed as a tragic hero, but more often has been a target for scathing criticism.
It is reassuring when an author discloses early on the potential biases that he seeks to overcome. Perhaps unnecessarily McPherson tells us that “My sympathies lie with the Union side in the Civil War,” not that we would expect any neo-Confederate nonsense from a serious scholar like him. McPherson is also careful not to be unduly influenced by some of Davis’ disagreeable personal characteristics, a temptation which many Davis contemporaries and subsequent biographers have been unable to resist. Another pitfall which McPherson detours around is a comparison between Lincoln’s and Davis’ leadership, to which the “apples to oranges” cliché was never more true.
“The Memories of Those That to Us Rendered It Sacred”
After the Civil War, the Lee family had two significant encounters with Arlington. The first occurred in June 1873, when Mrs. Lee visited the place that had been her home for 53 years, from the day she was born until she was forced to leave it in the face of an imminent occupation by an enemy military force. Mrs. Lee had written to a friend in 1868 of her desire to visit Arlington and acknowledged, “The longing I have to revisit it is almost more than I can endure.” Other words that Mrs. Lee wrote prior to her visit make clear that the frail woman recognized both her need to visit Arlington and the dwindling time yet available for her to do so. “Life is waning away, and with the exception of my own immediate family, I am cut off from all I have ever known & loved in my youth & my dear old Arlington I cannot bear to think of that used as it is now & so little hope of my ever getting there again. I do not think I can die in peace until I have seen it once more.”
Mildred Childe Lee, who was born on February 10, 1846, was the fourth daughter and the seventh and youngest child of Robert E. and Mrs. Lee. Mildred was named after Robert E. Lee’s younger sister, Catherine Mildred (Lee) Childe. At a young age, Mildred displayed such a lively and effervescent personality that Lee nicknamed her Precious Life. Even when Mildred became an adult, Lee referred to Mildred in his letters as Precious Life or sometimes simply as Life. Like her older sisters, Mildred was born at Arlington. At the time of her birth, Lee was stationed at Fort Hamilton in New York City, and he remained there after Mrs. Lee and the children went to Arlington for Mildred’s birth. In a letter that Lee sent to his wife shortly after the family left Fort Hamilton, he wrote about his feelings of separation. “I am very solitary, & my only company is my dog & cats.” Lee did not see his youngest child until several months later when he went to Arlington to rejoin his family. Lee had only a few days to spend with the family’s most recent addition before he departed for Mexico and his first experience in combat.
Eleanor Agnes Lee, the third daughter and fifth child of Robert E. and Mrs. Lee, was born at Arlington on February 27, 1841. She was named after Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis, one of G.W.P. Custis’ sisters. This sister, along with G.W.P. Custis, was adopted by George Washington after the death of their father, John Parke Custis. Throughout her life, Eleanor Agnes Lee went by the name Agnes. Shortly after Agnes’ birth, Lee left for his new assignment in New York City, and the family joined him there a few months later after Mrs. Lee had recovered from the delivery of her latest child. During the family’s stay in New York City, Mrs. Lee wrote in a letter to her mother that young Agnes “scarcely eats enough to keep a new bird alive,” which suggests that Agnes was a fussy eater.
Anne Carter Lee was born on June 15, 1839, the second daughter and fourth child of Robert E. and Mrs. Lee. Annie, as she was called by the members of her family, was named for Robert E. Lee’s mother. In May 1839, the Lee family left St. Louis, which was the location of Lee’s assignment at the time, and traveled to Arlington. Mrs. Lee, who was pregnant with Annie, preferred to give birth there, if only because after the birth of Annie, Mrs. Lee’s parents could help her with the three older children, Custis, Mary, and Rooney. Lee was able to obtain a leave to accompany his family to Arlington, but he soon returned to St. Louis and was not present when Annie was born. He received a letter from his mother-in-law shortly after Annie’s birth, in which he was informed that his second daughter had a prominent reddish birthmark on her face. In his reply, he expressed concern about this and went on to say about the birthmark, “We must endeavor to assist her to veil if not eradicate it by the purity and brightness of her mind.” The method which Lee proposed to deal with the birthmark shows his belief in the power that can be wielded by a vigorous and virtuous intellect. In Lee’s reply to his mother-in-law, he also made a prayer-like statement in which he expressed his hope for the safety of his children. “God grant that they may all be preserved to us.” The way that Lee worded this plea indicates that he wished for his children’s well-being not only for their sake, but also for himself so that he would be able to have them with him for a long time. Lee had no way of knowing that this prayer would not be answered for the latest addition to his family.
Mary Custis Lee, the first daughter and second child of Robert E. and Mrs. Lee, was born on July 12, 1835 in a small room on the second floor of Arlington House. Mary was the first of the Lee children to be born at Arlington, and all of Mary’s five younger siblings were also born there. Mary’s older brother, Custis, was born three years earlier at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. This was the location of Robert E. Lee’s military assignment at the time of Custis’ birth, which occurred on September 16, 1832, although Mrs. Lee and her infant son went to Arlington soon after the birth so that Mrs. Lee’s parents could help their daughter with her recovery. Late in 1834 Lee received a new assignment in the Chief Engineer’s Office in Washington, which allowed the Lees to live at Arlington. This would have permitted Lee to be present at the birth of his first daughter, Mary, but Lee received an assignment shortly before Mary’s birth to be a member of a survey party, which was sent to survey the border between Ohio and Michigan because of a border dispute. Because of this, Lee was not at Arlington when Mary was born.
Prior to the Civil War, the four daughters of Robert E. and Mary Lee lived idyllic lives in a home with beautifully scenic surroundings, and they looked forward to a tranquil, secure future. All of that changed on April 20, 1861 when their father made a decision that drastically altered the lives of every member of his family. For the next four years Lee’s daughters, like daughters throughout the warring sections of the country, lived lives of sacrifice, hardship, and deep personal loss. When a country engages in war, many if not most people on the home front are adversely affected, particularly for a large-scale war like the Civil War. Such was the case for the women of the Lee family. During the Civil War all four of the men in the Lee family went into combat, but everyone in the Lee family, including the women, went to war. When the war ended, the Lee daughters were without a home and without a future, in one case literally. The lives that the Lee daughters lived after the Civil War in no way resembled their serene pre-war existence.
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
We left off last December with General Grant having advanced from his Mississippi River Bruinsburg landing south of Vicksburg. From there, he went on to win a small but sharp battle in front of Raymond, just west of the Mississippi capital, Jackson. However, before we progress I would like to pause and thank our president, Steve Pettyjohn, for providing modern photos from his extensive collection of some of the places mentioned in these history briefs last month and going forward.
Noted Civil War author Shelby Foote used a picturesque phrase to describe William T. Sherman’s repeated maneuvering around Joseph E. Johnston during Sherman’s drive through Georgia toward Atlanta. Foote called this a “red clay minuet.” It was at the first battle of Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, that the Union general devised the dance steps that he employed for his minuet with Johnston. At the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, Sherman used a coordinated series of maneuvers to compel Johnston into abandoning his strong position and give ground toward Sherman’s ultimate objective: the city of Atlanta. Except for the disaster at Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman sent his forces on similar coordinated maneuvers throughout his thrust toward Atlanta and thereby forced Johnston to fall back all the way to the objective that Sherman was seeking to reach.