“Lee to the Rear!”

In the annals of military warfare, it was so extraordinary. There is no record of this happening to Julius Caesar, Hannibal or Napoleon. In May 1864, in a Battle known as the Battle of the Wilderness, Gen. Robert E. Lee tried to lead the charge of the Texas Brigade. Commanding generals do not typically attempt to lead a charge themselves. It just is not done. The commanding general has to keep the entire battle in mind. He has to forecast chess moves three or four moves in advance. He must respond to aides hurrying back and forth with urgent messages seeking aid, warning of supply shortages, and he must press recalcitrant commanders. The heat of battle is “prime time” for a commanding general. Yet, when the Texas Brigade moved up to block a penetration by Union General Winfield Scott’s forces, he knew the moment was dire. He knew too that the Confederates were being pressed in ways they had never been pressed. He wanted to be sure the charge succeeded.

Gen. Lee cheered as the Texans moved into position to plug the gap created by Gen. Scott. The Corps Commander, Gen. Longstreet planned to move one brigade into the gap, followed by a second brigade and then a third. When the Texans first arrived, Gen. Lee urged them, “We must drive these people back.” A man not given to frequent displays of emotion already showed more emotion than his soldiers were used to. “The Texans always drive them,” he added.  The commander of the Texas Brigade, Gen. Gregg, told his men, “The eye of Gen. Lee is on you.” The Texans responded with cheers. With a shout of “Forward,” the Texans and Arkansans started forward with a yell.

Immediately, the men noticed Gen. Lee was moving with them. Capt. Bedell noticed the general advancing with them well into the enemy fire. Dozens would later insist they were there and they held the reins of Traveller, pulling Lee back to the rear. Traveller was the name of Lee’s horse, named after the horse used by Gen. Washington during the American revolution. Gen. Washington was Gen. Lee’s step-grandfather.

Capt. Bedell had been wounded twice in prior battles. He was one of the original recruits into Co. “L” of the Texas Brigade. Co. “L” came from Galveston. Capt. Bedell implored Lee to stop. Gen. Lee responded, “I want to lead the Texas Brigade in this charge.” From commander to his men, bypassing three or four layers of command was unusual in itself. But, the overall commander was negotiating with his men. He could have simply told them to shut up and let him do his job. But, he was negotiating, asking them to let him do what he thought he needed to do ensure success.

It is hard for civilians to understand this remarkable military relationship during war. There is an unspoken understanding that each person, male or female, will do his/her best at all times to ensure success of the military unit. That principle is a sacred duty. It stays with you all your life. In this instance, the Commanding General was asking his men to let him do what he believed he had to do to plug this gap. His men were telling him, “no.” They were assuming the responsibility for the success of this charge. They were saying, “sir, we got this.” They were not just assuring him they would ensure the success of this charge, they were insisting. They were telling their boss, “no,” in terms that did not allow for negotiation.

The tender feeling in that moment cannot be overstated. They were also saying the possibility of losing Gen. Lee was too high a price to pay for the success of one charge. That is an extraordinary honor, one probably never made to a general of Robert E. Lee’s caliber. Napoleon’s soldiers respected the general, but they did not love him. I am happy to say my soldiers generally liked me. But, I am very doubtful they would have insisted I minimize risk. It just isn’t done.  

Other soldiers joined in. “You will get killed dad[d]y.” “We won’t go forward until you go back,” said another. One soldier watching this unheard of display remarked years later, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.” One soldier in a friendly way kicked at Traveller, saying, “Get out of the Wilderness with General Lee, you old looney!” That alone would merit court martial in today’s army. In the Confederate army, assaulting the general’s horse in other circumstances would have resulted in lashes or worse.

The general finally turned toward the rear, as the Texas Brigade surged forward into the fire. Dozens of Texans fell. But, Gen. Lee lived.

See more about the Battle of the Wilderness here.

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade (LSU Press 2017), pp. 212-213.

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