Friday, April 20, 2018

Meeting General Lee

Someone emailed me years ago, looking for a day-by-day account of a specific Confederate ancestor. This correspondent, I imagine, had no idea how far-fetched that request actually was.  Unless your ancestor kept a diary, you might be lucky to have a one-or-every-two-month glimpse into his personal life. And even then, those muster roll sheets don't tell us much about the day-to-day lives of these men.

R. E. Lee
Recently, I was reading Timothy H. Smith's The Story of Lee's Headquarters (1995) and found a brief mention of Brig. Gen. James H. Lane. While the account is very short, it adds a little to the personal story of Lane at Gettysburg. Lane, following the death of Brig. Gen. Lawrence Branch, was promoted to brigadier general and assumed command of the Branch's old brigade. But how many times did Lane and Lee interact during the war? Technically, Lane reported to his division commander (A. P. Hill, then William D. Pender, and finally Cadmus Wilcox). There are only three documented encounters between Lane and his corps commander, Stonewall Jackson - twice during the tearing up of the railroad in October 1862, and then in the dark woods the evening Jackson was mortally wounded by Lane's men. Of course, these men saw each other more frequently. But those encounters seem to have been lost to history.

While working on General Lee's Immortals, I came across a letter by Lane to the editor of the Richmond Times. Lane really just repeats what wrote in his official report, but does add an interesting little tidbit: on July 3, Lane writes, "Gen. Lee appeared in front of my line, reconnoitered the enemy's position, and, when he was about to leave, he remarked that, 'he needed more troops on the right, but he did not know where they were to come from.'" (The Indicator April 23, 1867) This is the second encounter between Lane and Lee.

James H. Lane
Surprisingly, mentions of encounters between Robert E. Lee and Jane H. Lane are few and far between. Lane wrote of dropping by Lee's office in Richmond in May 1862, as his regiment was being transferred from Kinston to Gordonsville, asking about better arms for the 28th North Carolina. They were obviously together on the afternoon of May 12, 1864, when Lee directed Lane to capture the Federal battery enfilading Confederate lines. Lane also records an encounter with Lee twice when Lane returned to the Army of Northern Virginia after his wounding. It was at this second encounter that Lee gave Lane some peaches sent to Lee by admirers. Lane shared the fruit with his own staff.

Then, in Smith's The Story of Lee's Headquarters, we find another encounter: Mrs. Thompson, who lived in the house we all know as Lee's Headquarters, "returned [from the Seminary] unmolested to the bullet-riddled and shell-ripped home, to find General Robert E. Lee, General A.P. Hill, General James Longstreet, General William Pendleton and General James Lane, along with" numerous staff officers." (84)  Wow! That puts Lane with the top brass of the Army of Northern Virginia (save General Ewell). Now, if this account was written about July 1, well, I might have some qualms about its authenticity. There were other brigades between Lane and the Thompson house headquarters. However, if it deals with the evening of July 2, or July 3, or July 4, then it could be true. Lane would have been in charge of the Light Division. I don't really know more about the account except that it appeared in print in 1968 in an account written by Eugene Sickles.

Lee's Headquarters
Robert E. Lee's circle of contacts was both large and small. He would have frequently been in contact with his own staff, his corps commanders, and certain members of their staff. A lowly brigadier general like James H. Lane never would have wandered over to army headquarters just to have a chat. It was against army protocol.

Would I have put the account of Lane being with Lee, Hill, and Longstreet in General Lee's Immortals? Maybe. But it would probably have been in the same place I found it... in a footnote.


Robin Lattimore said...

One of the best ways that I've found to gather first-hand accounts of the war is to scour newspaper articles about the Confederate Veterans reunions in the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s. At that time newspapers loved running stories about individual battles. Sometimes veterans would recall their memories in vivid details there. It would be wonderful if more diaries and journals existed. But, sadly that would have been nearly impossible for most soldiers. - Robin S. Lattimore

Michael Hardy said...

Thanks Robin! I'm a huge believer in scouring newspapers. Google books,, the Making of American, Documenting the American South, and HeritageQuest are also great resources.