Lee is a brilliant engineer, and his army career moves him to a variety of posts where his expertise and skill contribute much to the construction of the military installations and forts along the Atlantic coast. He goes to St. Louis and confronts a crisis for the port there by rerouting the flow of the Mississippi River. In 1846 he is sent to Mexico,and his reputation lands him on the staff of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Lee performs with efficiency and heroism, both as an engineer, a scout, and a staff officer, and leaves Mexico a lieutenant colonel.
He accepts command of the cadet corps at West Point in 1851, considered by many as the great reward for good service, the respectable job in which to spend the autumn of his career. But though his family is now close, he misses the action of Mexico, finds himself stifled by administrative duties. In 1855 he stuns all who know him by seizing an opportunity to return to the field, volunteering to go to Texas, to command a new regiment of cavalry. But even that command is mundane and frustrating, and there is for him nothing in the duty that recalls the vitality and adventure of the fighting in Mexico. Throughout the 1850s Lee settles into a deep gloom, resigns himself that no duty will be as fulfilling as life under fire and that his career will carry him into old age in bored obscurity.
As the conflict over Lincoln's election boils over in the South, his command in Texas begins to collapse, and he is recalled to Washington in early 1861, where he receives the startling request to command Lincoln's new volunteer army, with a promotion to Major General. He shocks Washington and deeply disappoints Winfield Scott by declining the appointment. Lee chooses the only course left to an officer and a man of honor and resigns from his thirty-year career. He believes that even though Virginia has not yet joined the secessionist states, by organizing an army to invade the South, Lincoln has united his opponents and the southern states, which must eventually include Virginia. Lee will not take up arms against his home.
In late April 1861 he accepts the governor's invitation to command the Virginia Militia, a defensive force assembled to defend the state. When Jefferson Davis moves the Confederate government to Richmond, the Virginia forces, as well as those of the other ten secessionist states, are absorbed into the Confederate army. Lee is invited to serve as military consultant to Davis, another stifling job with little actual authority. In July 1861, during the first great battle of the war, Lee sits alone in his office, while most of official Richmond travels to Manassas, to the excitement of the front lines.
In June 1862, while accompanied by Davis near the fighting on the Virginia peninsula, commander Joe Johnston is wounded in action and Davis offers command of the Army of Northern Virginia to Lee. Lee accepts, understands that he is, after all, a soldier, and justifies the decision with the fact that his theater of war is still Virginia. Defending his home takes on a more poignant significance when Lee's grand estate at Arlington is occupied and ransacked by Federal troops.
Lee reorganizes the army, removes many of the inept political generals, and begins to understand the enormous value of his two best commanders, James Longstreet and Thomas Jackson, who at Manassas was given the nickname "Stonewall." Using the greatest talents of both men, Lee leads the Army of Northern Virginia through a series of momentous victories against a Federal army that is weighed down by its own failures, and by its continuing struggle to find an effective commander. Much of Lee's war is fought in northern Virginia, and the land is suffering under the strain of feeding the army. The burden of war and of the Federal blockade spreads through the entire Confederacy and inspires Lee and Davis to consider a bold and decisive strategy.
In September 1862, Lee moves his army north, hoping to gather support and new recruits from the neutral state of Maryland. The advance results in the battle of Sharpsburg--known as Antietam in the North--and though Lee does not admit defeat, the outrageous carnage and loss of life force him to order a retreat back into Virginia. But his army is not pursued by the Federal forces, and with new commanders now confronting him, Lee begins a great tactical chess game, and accomplishes the greatest victories of the
Copyright© 1998 by Jeffrey M. Shaara. All Rights Reserved.
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