Robert E. Lee's Headquarters Flag
"General Lee To The Rear!"...........
Generals had the most dangerous rank during The War Between The States. They were killed in a larger percentage than the men under them. "You can't lead from behind" was a common observation. While generals often lead their men directly from the front line, it clearly was not to an army's benefit that its very top commanders expose themselves to direct fire. They belonged where they could direct the overall movements of men numbering sometimes over 100,000. But as you will see, things did not always work out that way.
During The Battle of The Wilderness in Virginia, Lee's army of 40,000 faced 70,000 Yankees. On May 6, 1864, the Federals pushed the Confederates back almost a mile through dense woods arriving at a clearing where Lee had his field headquarters. Writing in his classic Memoirs Of Robert E. Lee, Armistead L. Long, Lee's personal military secretary, describes the action as General Longstreet's reinforcing divisions had begun to arrive:
"It was here that the incident of Lee's charge with Gregg's Texas brigade occurred. The Texans cheered lustily as their line of battle, coming up in splendid style, passed by Wilcox's disordered columns and swept across our artillery-pit and its adjacent breastwork. Much moved by 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. (Italics added.)
When they recognized him, there came from the entire line as it rushed on the cry, "Go back, General Lee! Go back!"....the brave Texans did not pick their phrases: "We won't go on unless you go back...
Just then he 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. I need not say 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. The battle was soon restored and the enemy driven to his position of the night before."
In fact, later that same day General Longstreet was indeed shot from his horse while riding with his staff in front of his advancing line. Like Stonewall Jackson only a year earlier and about three miles from the spot, Longstreet had been shot by his own men who mistook his party for the foe in the thick smoke filled woods. He survived his wound but was out for five months.
Six days later in Spotsylavnia, Lee's position was again threatened when his army was split in two. This time he came forward and took his position at the head of General Gordon's column, which was preparing to charge. This time it was Virginians and Georgians:
"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 telling....The works were retaken, the Confederate line again established, and an impending disaster converted into a brilliant victory."
The stories of Robert E. Lee are worth reading up on. Winston Churchill once described Lee as "One of the noblest Americans who ever lived, and one of the greatest captains known to the annals of war."
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