There is a story
told about General Lee: After the battle of Second Manassas, General Lee was
seated on Traveller at the Groveton crossroads, watching his soldiers digging
graves for the burial of their pals. A drummer boy from the 40th Virginia Regiment, Field’s Brigade, Hill’s division approached him, trembling
and in tears. Two days before, the boy had been at the railroad cut and had
witnessed his regiment’s bloody struggle with the bluecoats of
Leasure’s brigade, Kearny’s division, Heintzelman’s corps. And the day before
he had steadily beaten his drum, despite the terrifying whine and explosion of
the shells, advancing with the pitiful few left of the regiment after Pope’s
final attack had failed.
Now, the drummer boy, his shock of sandy hair caked with greasy
dirt, his shallow face black with smudges of powder, his homespun clothes in
tatters, came up to Traveller’s stirrup and, laying a hand on the big
stallion’s moist shoulder, said to General Lee, in a quavering voice: “Please
sir, why must the men fight?”
For a moment, General Lee’s dark eyes fell full on the
drummer boy’s face; then his gaze swept away over the dismal battlefield, and he
raised a gauntleted hand and rubbed the back of his neck wearily, thinking of what
With the horrible field in front of him, he knew it would be
a waste of words to recount the political history of the Union: the eighty
years of rising tension between the sections—the political storms in the
congress that produced the Missouri Compromise in 1820, and its repeal in 1850;
the incessant harangues of the abolitionists, made in the Senate, the pulpit
and the press; the violent, bitter struggle for control of the Kansas territory;
the wanton murders John Brown committed seizing Harper’s Ferry in 1859; even Lincoln’s
instigation of the war, using Fort Sumter like a stone thrown into a hornet’s
nest, was too abstract, too ambiguous an answer.
General Lee looked down at the drummer boy. He might say, he thought, catching the brightness in the boy’s eyes, that the
men must fight for slavery—must fight to keep the institution secure, that
Cotton is king, and with African negro slaves, the South owns the king—but
that, too, was still too abstract an answer. And that Cotton was king certainly
had nothing to do with Virginia. For Virginia it was simply a matter of refusing
Lincoln’s call to suppress secession.
But how to tell the
boy what caused the civil war?
“How old are you, son?” General Lee asked, shifting his seat
in the saddle and reaching down to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
General Lee sighed, straightened, and looked away again; his
thoughts embracing the blackness of his generalship: The war was being fought
by boys. Almost one tenth of the soldiers in his army had enlisted at fifteen,
half were seventeen or younger, most of the rest no older than twenty-one. All
their future was like a dark corridor reeking of misery and death,
its door at the end a pin-point.
For an instant, a flash of lamentation swept through General
Lee’s mind, his wasted calling, his hopeless future, already burdening him with
dreams of souls streaming from the battlefields he had created. He
breathed in suddenly with all his might the sweet smell of death that rose from
the battlefield and it deepened his sadness. And he could think of nothing to
say, except the truth, felt nothing but the urgent need to give the boy the
answer, soothing the turmoil in his mind.
“Where do you hail from, son?” he queried, looking down at
the boy with a quiet smile of affection, as though he were a favorite friend.
“From Loudoun County, sir,” the boy replied, his heart
“Do you have brothers?”
“Yes,” the drummer boy answered; “my brother,
sixteen years old, was first of the family to enlist, and then I followed.”
General Lee looked off again toward the battlefield, nodding
his head slowly. The boy could see a crease show on Lee’s smooth brow. A moment passed and still looking at the field,
bathed now in the glow of twilight, Lee said, “Suppose Pope had beaten
us here and Richmond was now falling, and the war was ending. How would you
The drummer boy looked up at General Lee earnestly, his
hands gripping suddenly Traveller’s black mane. “Beaten you mean?” the
boy said incredulously, “Beaten?” His eyes were like deep wells of light
searching Lee’s face for confirmation.
“Yes, that is what I mean,” Lee replied softly.
A look of bewilderment came over the drummer boy’s face. He
stared fixedly at Lee, his eyes widened, and the muscles of his face were
quivering, as though he were struggling in confusion to comprehend. His flashing
thoughts were of his mother and sisters at home, in Middleburg—he saw the
column of bluecoat soldiers marching in the main street, squads breaking off down
the lanes and one of them invading their home, the soldiers jeering at the
women, jostling them aside, rummaging about breaking things, taking things. He
felt suddenly more miserable than he could imagine possible. His powder-smirched
face flamed red with blushing, as his pounding heart rushed blood through his
veins. He felt a terrible impotency and, suddenly, he withdrew his hands from
Traveller’s neck and balled them into fists in a rage. He felt an intense shame,
self-contempt, loss of self-respect; realizing the whole world would be
laughing if the battle had been lost.
remained silent, watching the boy. He saw that the boy was gaining the light, that he
was gaining control of himself, settling his emotions with a cold countenance, with
an inner spring of steel welling up. The boy saw now that the war was a dire necessity,
costly but worth the cost to hold out to the last, that every nation needs men
willing to die for its survival, and Virginia and her allies must prove
themselves no less a nation than the Union.
The drummer boy’s eyes cleared and the muscles of his face
became chiseled as in brown stone. He hitched up the straps of his drum cradle
and, folding his arms across his chest, stepped back a pace. The wafting sound
of a bugle faintly echoed Tattoo over the field. Both he and Lee turned their
heads to the sound and listened. They could see the soldiers in the field had finished with
their digging and the day was done.
:”We will fight
them!” the boy suddenly exclaimed; “we will drive them from Virginia, General,
I’m sure of it. We’ll teach them how hard it will go for them, making war on
The sound of horses galloping came to their ears and their eyes turned from their mutual look of warm understanding, and they saw the bobbing figures of a crowd of riders coming
toward them on the pike.
“You see my staff officers have found me,” Lee said,.looking
down at the boy, “and no doubt your sergeant is worried about you.”
“Yes, sir!” the drummer boy said and he raised his hand in
salute, sad it was the end of his time with Lee.
General Lee raised his rein-hand just an inch and Traveller
pranced forward a step, his head coming up with his ears pricked. “Well, then,
go son,” Lee said as he returned the boy’s salute. “Your regiment will need you
in the ranks.” And he put Traveller to the trot and moved to meet the cavalcade.