Sustaining Motivations and the General Officer: Robert E. Lee and the Death of John Augustine Washington III

Sustaining Motivations and the General Officer: Robert E. Lee and the Death of John Augustine Washington III

Today we share our first post from new correspondent Barton A. Myers, who will be writing on soldiers, veterans, and military history broadly defined. Myers is Class of 1960 Professor of Ethics and History and Associate Professor of Civil War History at Washington and Lee University and the author of the awarding winning Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865 (LSU Press, 2009), Rebels Against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists (Cambridge University Press, 2014), and co-editor with Brian D. McKnight of The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War (LSU Press, 2017).


In his now classic work For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, historian James M. McPherson utilized the framework of initial, sustaining, and combat motivations to probe the letters and diaries of hundreds of Civil War soldiers, Union and Confederate, to determine what they fought for between 1861 and 1865. McPherson borrowed an important scholarly framework from John Lynn, the great French Revolution military historian, to help readers better understand the common soldier’s three phases of motivation. Today, we have an incredibly rich scholarship on the motivations and thinking of the enlisted or common soldier, from Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank to Peter Carmichael’s deeply penetrating work The War for the Common Soldier.

Yet, surprisingly, one of the areas where the scholarship remains limited in this discussion of soldiers’ motives (beyond the illiterate African American soldiers of the Union Army, irregular soldiers of both sides, and Native American warriors in the west and far west) is in closely examining the sustaining and combat motivations of general officers after they enlisted. Searching their private letters offers a different window into what fueled the regular, conventional battlefield’s raging violence. Further, a comparative study of general officers’ sustaining motivations would be fascinating for either Northern or Southern armies.[1]

What if we consider that the motives that kept a general officer fighting in the field were often, even while couched in ideological language, driven more and more by the even more visceral reasons of the moment, including the death of a fellow comrade? Where does that take our scholarly debate over the meaning of the general’s experience or the causation/escalation of Civil War violence in a more holistic sense? When generals are driven by both rational calculation and emotional reasons, how does it impact their waging of civil war? It is a question worth contemplating on an individual and collective basis as we consider the escalation and deescalation of wartime violence across the United States and the Confederacy.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Consider this one moment from the life of General Robert E. Lee, whose own initial motivations have been well examined by scholars from Douglas Southhall Freeman and Elizabeth Brown Pryor to Allen Guelzo and Emory Thomas, coming to divergent conclusions about Lee’s reasons for resignation from the U.S. Army, personal secession in support of Virginia, and his ultimate support of the Confederacy, a slaveholders’ rebellion.

A remarkable series of letters housed in the Special Collections library at Washington and Lee University point toward other personal motives fueling the general officer on military campaign. In September 1861 during the Cheat Mountain Campaign in present day West Virginia, General Robert E. Lee lost one of his closest friends to Union bullets. His tentmate, the lineal descendant of George Washington, Washington’s great-grand-nephew, and the last private owner of Mount Vernon, John Augustine Washington III, was killed while on a scouting mission. John Augustine was also Lee’s distant relative via his marriage to Mary Anna Randolph Custis. Though not a military man, Washington became aide-de-camp to Lee and a Lt. Colonel in the Confederate Army, when he zealously signed on to support Virginia’s secession and the cause of Confederate independence. Douglas Southall Freeman described him as “a gentleman of the highest type and a true aristocrat.” The controversial circumstances surrounding his death fueled some of the anger over it, since it was not clear who among the Union army soldiers was responsible for killing him.[2]

Scouting was a dangerous and liminal military activity. John Augustine Washington lost his life seeking intelligence on the Union army’s position. He almost certainly never saw the face of the person who fired the fatal volley. The concern that the fight had not been fair was a common feeling among the friends and relatives of those men who lost their lives when a concealed detachment took the life of a beloved soldier.

John Augustine Washington III. Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association Collection.

On September 14, 1861, Lee wrote: “Before they were aware they were fired upon by a concealed party who fired about 40 shots at four men. He [Washington] was the only person struck and fell dead from his horse.” Washington “met his death by the fire from the enemy’s picket.” Three balls struck Robert E. Lee’s son William Henry Fitzhugh Lee’s horse during the incident as well. After expounding the specific circumstances of his friend’s death, Lee described what the loss meant to him personally. “His death is a grevious [sic] affliction to me, but what must it be to his bereaved children and distressed relatives,” Lee lamented. “The Country has met with a great loss in his death. Our enemies have stamped their attack upon our rights with additional infamy by killing the lineal descendant and representative of him who under the guidance of Almighty God established them and by his virtues render our republic immortal. I enclose a note for his daughter. May God have mercy on them all.” This death, and the near death of his own son in the same incident, had made Lee’s war not just an abstract political question, but a personal war.[3]

Fascinatingly, Lee carried another letter, the final letter Washington ever wrote, with him for the remainder of the war. Ostensibly this was to give it to his daughter, but the letter could have been easily carried by an aide to the young woman earlier. Lee kept this memento arguably because it was a reminder of what the war cost him and his family and what the Union army had done to him personally.[4] So close was Lee with the family of John A. Washington III that in 1868 his daughter Louisa inquired as to Robert E. Lee’s preference on the text for the grave marker of her late father. Lee explained that he preferred simple descriptions and language on the monument. Lee suggested the inscription: “It is honorable and glorious to die for our Country.” But, he also cautioned that “In the present state of affairs it would not be well I think to state more particularly his devotion and sacrifice to his State.”[5]

At least for a period, Lee’s sustaining motives were fueled by avenging the death of an obviously beloved friend and family member. Clearly, the death of his prominent friend lingered with Lee, as he kept the final letter of his friend with him in the command tent among his personal papers during the entire war. Loss of a soldier under confusion or shrouded circumstances inflamed the anger of both Union and Confederate commanders. This was especially true when alleged bushwhackers might have been the culprits. In this case, it was likely a picket line that the party stumbled upon. The suddenness of losing a friend in such a way could shake even the carefully comported like R.E. Lee. As scholars examine the individual motives of officers and enlisted soldiers on campaign during the Civil War, using the wider lens of compounded personal loss to understand the conditions of the battlefield is another question that is worth raising consistently.

 

[1] James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Bell I. Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943); Bell I. Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952); Peter S. Carmichael, The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[2] R.E. Lee to Edward Turner, September 14, 1861, “Robert E. Lee letters on death of John Augustine Washington III and follow-up letters to Louisa A. Washington,” Manuscript Collections, James G. Leyburn Library Special Collections and Archives, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia (hereafter WLU); Douglas Southall Freeman, R.E. Lee (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), 1:489, 530, 541, 554-555, 568-569, 574, 639-640.

[3] Ibid.

[4] R. E. Lee to Louisa Washington, August 31, 1865(?), “Robert E. Lee letters on death of John Augustine Washington III and follow-up letters to Louisa A. Washington,” WLU.

[5] R. E. Lee to Louisa Washington, December 11, 1868, “Robert E. Lee letters on death of John Augustine Washington III and follow-up letters to Louisa A. Washington,” WLU.

 

Barton A. Myers

Barton A. Myers is Class of 1960 Professor of Ethics and History and Associate Professor of Civil War History at Washington and Lee University and the author of the awarding winning _Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865_ (LSU Press, 2009), _Rebels Against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists_ (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014), and co-editor with Brian D. McKnight of _The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War_ (LSU Press, 2017).

2 Replies to “Sustaining Motivations and the General Officer: Robert E. Lee and the Death of John Augustine Washington III”

  1. I have to disagree with this supposition. It’s a reach to say Lee was driven by vengeance, even for a short time. Lee’s sustaining motivation was his sense of duty. He was a professional soldier. Duty drove him to stay and endure. His professionalism drove him to strive to do his best.

  2. I’m more interested in the motivation of Ambrose Wright when he turned around on the crest of Cemetery Ridge thinking he’d literally won the war. Second thoughts maybe?

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