Addressing Washington and Lee University’s annual “Remembering Robert E. Lee” talk on Monday, Oct. 8, historian Jeffry D. Wert told the Lee Chapel audience that Lee had no choice but to make bold moves in the early days of his command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The title of Wert’s speech was “Lee and the Rebirth of an Army: From Seven Days to Gettysburg." A former high-school history teacher who is a renowned scholar of the Civil War and author of nine books, Wert focused on two years of Lee’s Civil War career, from June 1862 to July 1863. His most recent book is “A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863.”
Wert told the audience of about 100 people how Lee’s public reputation in June 1862, when he took over the Army of Northern Virginia, suffered from a public perception that he was timid and afraid to fight. He had a talented group of officers waiting for him, however, as well as determined soldiers. “There was something about the men in the ranks,” said Wert. “They were just waiting for somebody.”
Lee immediately took the offensive against the Union troops, driving them away from Richmond during the Seven Days’ Battles. “Boldness was the only course,” said Wert.
That audacity continued to spur Lee and his forces as they pushed northward into Maryland and fought the Battle of Antietam. There, Lee’s lost orders tipped the North to his plans, and he faced an opponent twice his size. The Confederates fought hard and well against the able Army of the Potomac. Despite their loss and retreat, “Lee was right,” said Wert. “It was the greatest day in the history of his army.”
Wert then took the audience to Chancellorsville, which he called “arguably Lee’s greatest battle,” and on to Gettysburg. Wrapping up the talk, he pointed out that when Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, what mattered to the South was that it was Lee’s army that had laid down its arms. Other commanders trying to continue the fight in other parts of the country were of no consequence.
In sum, said Wert, “figuratively and literally, the Army of Northern Virginia was reborn on a June Sabbath in 1862,” when Lee took command.
The annual “Remembering Robert E. Lee” lecture commemorates the death on Oct. 12, 1870, of Lee, who served as the president of Washington College, as it was then called, from 1865 to 1870. The event was held in Lee Chapel, which houses a museum, Lee’s presidential office and the Lee family mausoleum.
Watch Wert's lecture:
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