RICHMOND, Va.—Come see the Civil War as Robert E. Lee saw it.
Ken Burns' public television series on the conflict, the movie "Gettysburg" and the historical novels of Michael and Jeff Shaara have generated a new birth of fascination with the Civil War in recent years.
But wandering from historical marker to historical marker and watching costumed hobbyists playact at replicating some of the worst slaughters in military history hardly suffices for a full appreciation of what happened and why.
For that, for the clearest understanding of the nation's bloodiest and most consequential military conflict, one should see it through the eyes and deeds of the man most responsible for its conduct: the legendary Gen. Robert E. Lee.
He campaigned in only three Eastern states. All the battlefields where he fought and the landmarks of his life are within a few hours' drive from Richmond or Washington.
Yet within this patch of geography, Lee fought the most pivotal engagements of the war: Seven Days, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the siege of Richmond and Petersburg.
Starting here in what was the Confederate capital, where an exhibition devoted to Lee is on view through the year at Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy, serious scholars, Civil War buffs and vacationers alike will find following in Lee's footsteps an essential and illuminating experience.
Though the chief "liberty" they sought to uphold was the right to treat their fellow human beings as beasts of burden and saleable property, the people of the South liked to view the War Between the States as a second American Revolution. They saw themselves as valiant patriots fighting a regime as oppressive as the British Crown, bent on depriving them of their rights and possessions, including especially African slaves.
Lee was the George Washington of this cause.
Like Washington, Lee was an audacious, often brilliant commander; but one as flawed and reckless as he was ingenious. He excelled most spectacularly in his remarkable ability to read the minds of his all too feckless Union opponents. As with Washington, Lee's chief value to his cause lay in keeping the enemy off balance and avoiding the destruction of his own army. He triumphed most not with such spectacular battlefield victories as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville as he did simply surviving in the field.
The Union ultimately won the war in the West by closing the Mississippi and destroying the Confederacy state by state in crushing advances like Sherman's devastating March to the Sea. But the South was not defeated until Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House in April, 1865.
Born in 1807 to Tidewater Virginia aristocracy, Lee grew up first in plantation grandeur and then, after 1812, when his family moved to Alexandria, Va., in genteel poverty, where he attended a free school founded by Washington. His father, the Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, served under Washington in the Revolution.
Lee won an appointment to West Point, graduating second in his class and achieving the extraordinary distinction of never having received a single demerit. His fanatical devotion to good manners, proper conduct and punctiliousness would later win him the nickname "Old Granny."
In 1831, a lieutenant of engineers, Lee married his wealthy third cousin (and great-granddaughter of Washington's wife, Martha), Mary Anne Randolph Custis, taking up residence in the hilltop mansion at her family's Arlington estate, just across the Potomac from Washington. Lee would later become master of the plantation when her father died in 1857.
His military career prior to the Civil War was exemplary and occasionally illustrious. He oversaw the Corps of Engineers project that prevented the Mississippi from altering its course away from the St. Louis shoreline. During the 1846-1848 Mexican War, Lee served as a staff officer to Gen. Winfield Scott and at one point -- in the dark of night in a pouring rain -- found a route through Mexico City's surrounding lava fields that enabled the U.S. Army to breach the Mexicans' defenses and take the capital. Lee also did duty as superintendent of West Point and, as a lieutenant colonel, commanded the U.S. force that put down John Brown's ill-fated 1859 anti-slavery raid at Harpers Ferry.
With the outbreak of war, Lee, considered the U.S. Army's ablest officer, was chosen by Abraham Lincoln to lead the Union armies. Lee personally disliked slavery and belonged to a society that advocated freeing American blacks and returning them to Africa in colonies.
But he instead chose to serve what he called "my country" -- Virginia. When it seceded, he resigned his U.S. commission and became a major general commanding the state's military forces.
He was initially sent to the mountainous western counties of the state to hold them against the Union, but was confounded by fractious subordinates and the pro-Union sympathies of the local population. Returning to Richmond, he became Confederate President Jefferson Davis' principal military advisor -- a role comparable to today's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.