by Irving Greenfield
Act 1 scenes ii through iv
In the opening scene, General Robert E. Lee, who is dead and who was also the leader of the Confederate Army of America during the American Civil War, describes his upbringing as a Southern plantation owner, raised primarily by his mother and three aunts. He tells how he attended West Point, where he met many of the men he would later fight with and against. He describes his marriage to a sickly wife, whom he respected, and how he, “a simple country boy,” became the leader of Confederate Army.
ACT 1, scene ii
SETTING: same as the previous one, except there is now a sash and a sword in addition to the Confederate officer’s coat and campaign hat.
AT THE RISE: LEE steps out of the darkness at the rear of the stage, puts on his coat and hat and faces the audience.
LEE: With a few words my life was changed. I was fifty-six years old. I held the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and I had just been ordered to give it up.
Whatever emotions I felt, I held in check as I had always done since childhood. But I can tell you they were powerful. Perhaps the most powerful feeling that took hold was not anger, as you might think, but one of loss; tremendous overwhelming loss. And yes, betrayal. So intense were those feelings that I almost stumbled when I left General Scott’s office. I had served my country all of my adult life, and now . . .
I did not immediately return to Arlington. Instead, I rode along the bank of the Potomac. I needed to be alone. I could not let Mary or my children see my grief.
(paces back and forth)
When I finally felt in absolute control of my emotions, I returned home. And that night at dinner, I told Mary what had happened. She did not as why General Scott had asked for my resignation. For several moments she remained silent; then she said, “What is God’s will, is God’s will. We will put our trust in him.”
At that moment, I did not know whether my self-control would shatter; fragment, the way glass does when it is struck with a hammer, or whether I would laugh insanely? But neither of those things happened. Mary and I shared a profound religious belief. It was part of the glue that held us together. It took the place of – –
(stops and faces the audience)
I wanted my pain assuaged by the softness of her womanliness. But that was not going to happen. She came to me, took hold of my hand and kneeling beside, she began to pray. I bowed my head, knelt next to her and joined her in prayer.
I tended my resignation on April twelfth, eighteen sixty-one to Mister Simon Cameron, the Secretary of War, the day before Virginia seceded from the Union. But in my letter to General Scott, I wrote, “Save in defense of my native state, I shall never draw my sword.”
(chuckles with satisfaction)
But I did not remain a civilian very long. In May I was appointed Commander of the Confederate Army and given the rank of Brigadier General. Shortly after I took command, I renamed the army The Army of Northern Virginia. My rank and the army’s name remained the same through out the war. By accepting the post, I immediately committed treason. The enormous weight of that word rested heavily on my shoulders. Had I become another Lucifer? I took time to reread John Milton’s “PARADISE LOST,” and found myself wondering if we – – the Confederacy – – was about to wage “impious war” and like Lucifer, would be cast into hell? I did not believe “it was better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”
During the next four years, I would know hell many, many, many times. The physical hell of battle and the terrible personal torment of doubt.
(begins to pace again, stops and faces the audience)
In retrospect, there were only two battles that mattered. And I lost both.
Gettysburg was the first. That lasted for four scorching July days in eighteen sixty-three. The second lasted for almost two years – – until I surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April ninth, eighteen sixty-five.
(moves behind the table and sits)
Gettysburg . . . Gettysburg . . . Gettysburg . . . I can repeat the name a hundred times, even ten thousand times. And each time would be an incantation to undo what I had done. But that will never happen. It will always be. I had not just blundered; I had blundered badly.
After it, I went to Richmond and offered my resignation to President Davis, but he would not accept it.
Those of you who have read about the battle know that I did not choose to fight there. It happened. I did not know where General Mead’s forces were. By the time I found out, It was too late. He had moved his men into position. Oddly, my army was to the north of his.
It is not my intention to recapitulate the battle. Much was been written about it, and no doubt much more will be written about it. But from my perspective – – the now that I exist in – – there were two major factors that contributed to my defeat. The Union took and held two positions on the left of Cemetery Ridge: Big Round Top and Little Round Top. From them the Union troops could fire into the ranks of the men who were trying to gain the ridge.
Even with enfilading fire from those positions, some of Picket’s men were able to reach the guns on the ridge and were killed in ferocious hand to hand fighting.
Pickett’s charge was my last hope of rescuing my original plan, which was either to capture Washington or surround it, and thereby force the Union to come to terms. At the time, I saw it as the only viable way of achieving my end. I had not counted on the ferocity of the Union’s response, although I had encountered that ferocity in various battles that preceded Gettysburg.
General Longstreet was the only one of my Commanders who counseled against the attack. He reminded me of mu assault on Chest Mountain, which is in now what is known as West Virginia; and a similar attack I ordered on Malvern Hill during the Peninsular Campaign. But assaults failed. I answered Longstreet that I had not forgotten either event; and that I was fully aware of the consequences both good and bad of the action I proposed. But all of the other Commanders were in accord with my view. I also believed in the will of my men to win over insuperable odds.
If I felt that I lacked anything or anyone, it was General Jackson. He was the most aggressive of any of my Commanders until he was wounded by one of his own men at Chancellorsville and died six days later. And, yes; I considered him my strong right arm.
The previous day’s fighting at Gettysburgh in the Wheat Field was so fierce that the water in the stream running through it turned red from the blood of those men who were trying to cross it. The battle seesawed. The advantage passed to us, then back to the Union Forces. And again back to us. It went that way through the long hot afternoon. But as the shadows lengthened Mead’s men gained the ground and held it. We were forced to fall back.
All that stood between me and my goal was the Union Army’s position on Cemetery Ridge. If we could gain it and hold it, General Mead would have to pull his army back toward Washington, and I would follow in hot pursuit. Victory was still within my grasp, or so I believed.
(moves toward the other chair, and looks at the uniform for several moments before he speaks)
I did not know at the time that the Confederacy had suffered a stunning defeat at Vicksburg, and that the Union and gained control of the entire length of the Mississippi from St Louis to New Orleans.
Oh yes, I knew that General Grant was in Command of the Union forces at Vicksburgh, but in truth I believed that General Johnston would out maneuver him.
(walks slowly to the center of the stage, clears his throat)
I ordered General Pickett to move forward and take the Union position. The distance between Pickett’s men and ridge was about eight hundred yards, about half a mile sloping gently upwards until it became very steep, indeed, near the top.
(beat, then in a stage whisper)
It was surprisingly quiet. Just the sounds of thousands of men moving, their footfalls. I do remember hearing any small arms fire. Traveler, my mount, was oddly nervous and I had to steady him down.
(beat, in a normal voice)
Pickett’s men walked very slowly, almost strolled. Then, a few began to lope. By the time they were half way up to the ridge, they began to run and yell.
Traveler pawed the ground and snorted.
(with even more excitement)
The men, now, were three quarters of the way to the top. I allowed myself to think that General Mead, like so many of the Union Commanders I had faced, turned tail and pulled back.
Almost as quickly as thoughts of a bloodless victory entered my head, the Union guns blazed out their deadly fire. The first volley tore apart the ranks of the running men.Volley after volley smashed into Pickett’s men. The rifle fire from the Big and Little Round Tops was just as deadly.
I wanted to shout, Fall back . . . Fall back . . . Fall back! But I remained silent.
Slowly, I realized the Mead must have reinforced his position during the night; and that he had more stomach for a fight than I previously believed he had.
Again and again the Union guns fired. The dark angel of death hovered over that slope, and like a demented farmer harvested his crop. The dead and the dying, like so many grotesques, were scattered everywhere.
Suddenly through the pall of smoke, I saw our flag raised above the ridge. Others saw it too, and a huge shout rose from those who watched the carnage. But almost as soon as we saw it, the flag vanished.
Pickett’s men could do no more. They turned and fled the field.
(beat, the with sadness)
I rode out to meet them. I went alone. Over and over again to those who stopped to look at me, I said, “I am sorry . . . I am sorry.” An old timer with a gray beard and fierce blue eyes stopped and looked up at me. “You done hurt us bad, General. Done hurt us bad.” And then he ran with the others.
In their eyes, I read their feelings of betrayal. They had trusted me, and I had violated their trust for my own purpose. My words were scarce comfort to their pain. In less than an hour, half of Pickett’s division had been killed or wounded. I wanted to weep, but I could not show my pain. I lowered my head and rode back to our lines.
That night it rained. I ordered the Army of Northern Virginia to retreat. Mercifully, General Mead did not pursue us. Had he, the war would have been over. My men were too exhausted to fight. We had been badly mauled, and now we were going back to Virginia to lick our wounds.
(removes his coat and hat and walks back into the darkness at the rear of the stage).
ACT 1, scene iii
SETTING: Same as the previous one.
AT THE RISE: LEE repeats his previous actions.
LEE: So, now you know something about what happened at Gettysburg. And yes, I purposefully left out left out important details because, though they were important, they were details. For that matter, any battle or any war is made up of those details. And they are at their best boring and at their worst very boring. Only the outcome of any battle counts. The outcome of Gettysburg counted more than all the battles that preceded it; it was the death knell for the Confederacy but no one south of the Mason-Dixon Line heard it ring.
For a short while, I returned to Arlington to rest. I was exhausted physically, and what you folks now call psychologically. With or without Mary, I prayed a lot hoping that the good Lord would give me guidance. I believed our cause was just. But nothing Divine came; I was left to my own devices. That is to say, I started on a particular road and would follow it to its end. Perhaps that I did not receive any answer from the Almighty was in itself an answer, a test of my faith and fortitude.
As I already told you, I wanted to resign and turn my Command over to another general. But President Davis would have none of it. I went to him immediately after the battle, even before I returned to Arlington. And he ordered me to rebuild the Army of Northern Virginia, to make it into the formidable fighting force that it had been. Its role would be to stop the Army of the Potomac from moving south.
(moves toward the chair with the Union uniform on it and stands in front of it.)
While I was in Arlington, I received word from President Davis that General Ulysses S. Grant was given command of The Army of the Potomac. Mead had been removed for not pursuing and destroying my army. Had the situation been reversed, I would have done exactly what he did.
But over the next two years, I would face the only man who would have followed me to hell if that was what it would have taken to destroy my army.
(moves back to the table and sits on its edge in its center)
Understand my feelings. I had lost a major engagement. He had won an important victory. My army had to be rebuilt. His was fresh and waiting for him. I could not even refer to him by his name. When I spoke about him, I would use the euphemism that man. I did the same when I spoke about the Union Forces. I referred to them as those people.
It was, I admit, petty. But I ached in a way that I had never ached before. Ulysses was the son of a tanner, a man of no breeding. And yet he not only distinguished himself on the battlefield, he was made my adversary.
It was an insult.
(double beat, then calmer in a moderate voice)
Still, I saw in us a reflection, albeit a distorted one, of Hector and the wily Ulysses; especially during the siege of Richmond. Perhaps I should have surrendered then, as soon as the siege began. But – – But I thought I would be able to get terms.
No. That is not true. I knew that General Grant would not stop until the Confederacy was totally destroyed. And the truth is, I came to want nothing less than its total destruction because I knew out of that destruction, we who fought would live and become the myth we are. And those who won would become less than they were. At least we would have that.
I was confident that I could fight that man to a draw, who rose from anonymity to become my adversary. I did not realize that everything in his life, all of his failures, had prepared him for what he was about to undertake.
(removes his coat and hat and moves into the darkness at the rear of the stage).
ACT 1, scene iv
SETTING: Same as the previous one.
AT THE RISE: LEE repeats his previous actions before facing the audience.
LEE: General Grant set his army in motion. I put mine in what we called the Mule-Tree, but the Union newspapers referred to it as the Wilderness. It was a piece of worthless real estate, overgrown with bushes and – – I suspected that Grant would seek me out, and that is what he did. I had every advantage: my men knew the area, and my supply lines were short. I baited the trap and he took the bait.
The fighting was savage. My men held. The union forces kept coming. His army suffered appalling casualties. I believed he would break off and pull his army back to Washington. But he did not; he continued to fight.
My own losses were extremely heavy. Some units lost more than half their strength.
(beat, then with fierce anger)
He bled me. I thought I had baited a trap, and he had obliged me by sending his troops into it. But he fought his own battle; not the one I expected him to fight, not there; not anywhere.
In an attempt to attack him on his left flank, I ordered my army to break off contact, and began my movement east.
He turned his army east and met me at Spotsylvania.
And so it was, battle after battle. Up north he was called a Butcher by his enemies in the northern press. But he kept pressing me; fighting in a way that horrified me. His losses were always high, but mine were higher. he could replace the men he lost; I could not. Like Moloch, he feasted on the blood of my men.
Tens of thousands of men were killed and wounded. At the Battle of Cold Harbor, I thought I might have stopped him, at least for a short time. His losses were so high that after the war he wrote that he regretted the launching of the assault on June the third . . . I took no satisfaction in that when I was told about it or when I read it. At the time it occurred, I was in a fury. An impotent rage against that man, as I referred to him, consumed me.
After a day of hard fighting, the space between the two armies was littered with the dead, the dying and the wounded from both sides. Under a flag of truce, he sent emissaries to ask me if I would allow Union corpsmen to gather their wounded and ours and minister to them.
(beat, then with sarcasm)
A generous offer you might say from one who was labeled The Butcher.
(beat, then vehemently)
Not so. Not so. Rather, it was an enormous insult, a slap in my face. Had I agreed, I would have admitted that I had neither the men nor the facilities to care for my own wounded.
That was the hidden text.
I refused the offer. By morning most of them were dead; and those who were still alive would soon die as the heat of the day became more intense.
Do I regret my actions? No. I acted as any gentleman of honor would have acted. I would not accept charity from someone less than myself.
I expected Grant to make another frontal assault against Richmond. That would have been in keeping with his hammer-like attacks. But he moved his army south. And by the time I realized his intentions, it was too late; he had out flanked me and besieged Petersburg.
On April the second, eighteen sixty-five, I was forced to leave the city to the mercy of that man and his army.
(moves to the center of the stage)
By this time, the other one of Satan’s minions, General William Techumsa Sherman had completed his infamous march to the sea and joined forces with Grant’s army. Later, I learned the entire operation was Grant’s plan; that he had personally chosen Sherman to command the other army because they shared the same views about the nature of war.
They made their own rules. And yes, God help us, war would never again be the same. Honor, civility and gentlemanliness would not matter . . . Sherman burned the city of Atlanta; and in his march to the sea destroyed everything for fifty miles on either side of line of march. That was what Grant wanted his lieutenant to do. That was total war. And now the two were joined.
My last assault, foolhardy as it was, was against Fort Steadman; a fortified height much like Cheat Mountain.
Again I was reminded about what had happened at Cheat Mountain, Malvirn Hill and, yes, Gettysburgh by various commanders.
The attack failed.
On April ninth, under a flag of truce, I sent my delegates to ask General Grant for terms.
(the lights go down as LEE moves back into the darkness at the rear of the stage)