It was during Lee’s 34th year as a military officer. The date was May 6, 1864, and the Battle of The Wilderness was raging. The Wilderness is an area of dense forest in northeast Virginia. It was there that Lee had an army of 40,000, facing a Union force of 70,000.
A Texas brigade was advancing forward in a counter-attack. Lee was there as they passed, atop his iron gray horse Traveller. Present with Lee was one of his aides, Colonel C.S. Venable, whose description we have today:
“The Texans cheered lustily… Much moved by the greeting of these men and their magnificent behavior, General Lee spurred his horse through an opening in the trenches and followed close on their line as it moved rapidly forward. The men did not perceive that he was going with them until they had advanced some distance in the charge. When they recognized him, there came from the entire line as it rushed on the cry, ‘Go back, General Lee! Go back… We won’t go on less you go back.’ “
Lee did not turn back, but Colonel Venable intervened:
“Just then I turned his attention to General Longstreet, whom he had been seeking, and who sat on his horse on a knoll to the right of the Texans directing the attack of his divisions. He yielded with evident reluctance to the entreaties of his men, and rode up to Longstreet’s position. With the first opportunity I informed General Longstreet of what had just happened, and he with affectionate bluntness urged General Lee to go farther back.”
It was fortunate for Lee’s army that the general did turn and ride to Longstreet. The Texans “went forward in their charge and did well their duty. They were eight hundred strong, and lost half their number killed and wounded on that bloody day.”
Civil War generals were not known for leading from the rear, and suffered injury and death at a greater rate than the average soldier. In fact, later that same day General Longstreet was shot while riding in front of his advancing line. Only a year earlier General Stonewall Jackson had been killed, three miles from the same spot.
Not a week later Lee’s army was in another battle. His men in severe trouble, Lee advanced to the front, where General Gordon’s troops were preparing to charge. Gordon’s men also rushed to protect their commander. We have this report from General Long:
” ‘No! No! General Lee to the rear! General Lee to the rear!’ cried the men. ‘We will drive them back if General Lee will only go to the rear.’ As Lee retired, Gordon put himself at the head of his division and cried out in his ringing voice, ‘Forward! Charge! And remember your promise to General Lee!’ The charge that followed was fierce….and an impending disaster converted into a brilliant victory.”
General Dwight Eisenhower, a man who ultimately wore five stars on his uniform, wrote: “From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul.” After Eisenhower became President of the United States he kept a photo of Lee on the wall of his Oval Office in the White House.