Claim: An 1863 statement by Robert E. Lee expressed disdain for newspaper criticism of his military leadership.
Example:[Collected via e-mail, March 2007]
Can you confirm if this is a real quotation — from Robert E. Lee:
"It appears we have appointed our worst generals to command forces, and our most gifted and brilliant to edit newspapers! In fact, I discovered by reading newspapers that these editor/geniuses plainly saw all my strategic defects from the start, yet failed to inform me until it was too late. Accordingly, I'm readily willing to yield my command to these obviously superior intellects, and I'll, in turn, do my best for the Cause by writing editorials — after the fact."
— Robert E. Lee, 1863
Origins: Commenting on a current political or social issue by retroactively putting words into the mouth of a well-known historical figure is a common satirical technique — often the displacement in time and place serves to highlight perceived flaws or foolishness in a particular contemporary attitude. The statement quoted above seems such an apt commentary on a topical issue that one might be tempted to read it as a spoof, as an attempt to make media critics of the U.S. government's handling of the war in Iraq look less sensible by imagining the reaction of a respected military figure from the past (Confederate general Robert E. Lee) to a similar form of criticism in his own time.
However, the example quoted above (although it may feature some embellishment and/or rewording) is based on a statement dating to at least the latter half of the 19th century, long before the war in Iraq. It appears to be yet another version of a statement variously worded and commonly attributed to Robert E. Lee:
"We made a great mistake in the beginning of our struggle, and I fear, in spite of all we can do, it will prove to be a fatal mistake. We appointed all our worst generals to command our armies, and all our best generals to edit the newspapers."
"Why, it appears that we appointed all of our worst generals to command the armies and we appointed all of our best generals to edit the newspapers. I mean, I found by reading a newspaper that these editor generals saw all of the defects plainly from the start but didn't tell me until it was too late. I'm willing to yield my place to these best generals and I'll do my best for the cause by editing a newspaper."
But did Lee actually say this, and if so, in what context? Right away we run into the complication that the very same statement has been attributed to other famous military figures as well, as demonstrated by this example from a 1935 newspaper article:
This ironical vein can also be traced in [the Duke of] Wellington's correspondence, as in the following case of a letter to a London friend, in which he raps his journalistic critics over the knuckles:
"We made a sad mistake in the beginning of this campaign, which may yet prove fatal to us. In the beginning all the worst generals were appointed to command our armies and all our best generals to edit the newspapers. As you know, I have planned some campaigns and fought quite a few battles. I have given the work all the thought I could, and sometimes when my plans were completed, so far as I could see, they seemed perfect. But when I have fought them through, I have discovered defects and occasionally wondered I did not see some of the faults in advance. When it was all over I found, just by the simple process of reading a newspaper, that those 'best editor' generals saw all the defects plainly from the start. Unfortunately, they did not communicate their knowledge to me until it was too late to correct my ignorance."
The overwhelming majority of sources we've turned up so far attribute this statement to Lee, and those sources date back as far as the 1870s, both of which would tend to argue in favor of this being a genuine Robert E. Lee quote. For example, we find the following presentation in the 1875 volume Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee, taken from a speech given by B.H. Hill in August 1874:
There was a quiet humor, and upon occasion a keen wit, in General Lee, which was only appreciated by those who came into intimate contact with him. Hon. B. H. Hill, in the speech from which an extract in the previous chapter is taken, gives the following:
"Lee sometimes indulged in satire, to which his greatness gave point in power. He was especially severe on newspaper criticisms of military movements — subjects about which the writers knew nothing.
"We made a great mistake, Mr. Hill, in the beginning of our struggle, and I fear, in spite of all we can do, it will prove to be a fatal mistake," he said to me, after General Bragg ceased to command the Army of Tennessee, an event Lee deplored.
"What mistake is that, general?"
"Why, sir, in the beginning we appointed all our worst generals to command the armies, and all our best generals to edit the newspapers. As you know, I have planned some campaigns and quite a number of battles. I have given the work all the care and thought I could, and sometimes, when my plans were completed, as far as I could see, they seemed to be perfect. But when I have fought them through, I have discovered defects and occasionally wondered I did not see some of the defects in advance. When it was all over, I found by reading a newspaper that these best editor generals saw all the defects plainly from the start. Unfortunately, they did not communicate their knowledge to me until it was too late." Then, after a pause, he added, with a beautiful, grave expression I can never forget: "I have no ambition but to serve the Confederacy, and do all I can to win our independence. I an willing to serve in any capacity to which the authorities may assign me. I have done the best I could in the field, and have not succeeded as I could wish. I am willing to yield my place to these best generals, and I will do my best for the cause in editing a newspaper."
In the same strain he once remarked to one of his generals: "Even as poor a soldier as I am can generally discover mistakes after it is all over. But if I could only induce these wise gentlemen who see them so clearly beforehand to communicate with me in advance, instead of waiting until the evil has come upon us, to let me know that they knew all the time, it would be far better for my reputation, and (what is of more consequence) far better for the cause."
However, a few factors about these sources give us pause: Their context is inconsistent (e.g., the person to whom Lee supposedly made the
statement varies; it's often cited as B.H. Hill, but other names are mentioned, such as that of Confederate president Jefferson Davis), the accounts contained therein are all second-hand reporting by someone else (i.e., we've found no examples in which Lee himself referenced the statement in question), and they were all published after Lee's death (when he could no longer speak up to correct the record if they were wrong).
On the other hand, B.H. Hill reported that Lee made the statement directly to him, and an 1886 reprinting of his 1874 speech (referenced above) includes a footnote in which he noted that "Since making this address, I find I repeated this same anecdote in the speech at La Grange in March, 1865," indicating that his account was first given while Lee was still very much alive (and indeed, while the Civil War was still in progress). At this point we'd have to say the evidence weighs in favor of a Robert E. Lee attribution, but for now we're still holding out the possibility that further research may uncover additional antecedents.
Last updated: 14 March 2007
Jones, John William. Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
D. Appleton, 1875 (pp. 241-242).
Long, Marcus Joseph Wright. Memoirs of Robert E. Lee.
Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1886 (pp. 400-401).
The Dothan Eagle. "Arliss Portrays England's Major Napoleonic Hero."
5 July 1935 (p. 8).
The Indianapolis Star. "Civil War Fifty Years Ago Today."
6 November 1911 (p. 6).
"Address of Honorable B. H. Hill Before the Georgia Branch of the
Southern Historical Society at Atlanta, February 18th, 1874."
Southern Historical Society Papers (1876-1905). Richmond: Jan-Dec 1886 (Vol. 14; p. 484).
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