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Under the stress and loneliness of war, even the strong can cry

Ned Jilton II • Apr 3, 2019 at 4:10 PM

They called Gen. Ulysses S. Grant a “butcher.” They called Robert E. Lee the “Marble Man.” They called Gen. Thomas Jackson “Stonewall.”

Yet all three of these tough, strongwilled generals broke down and wept at some point during the Civil War.

I think we tend to forget the mental stress that comes with the burden of command.

Think about it: The mere act of putting your finger on a map can send a thousand men to their graves, robbing a thousand families of their sons, fathers and husbands.

In the cases of Lee and Grant, not only did they have the lives of their men in their hands, but they had the weight, and future, of their countries on their back.

The moments that brought these men to their low points varied.

For Grant, it was the Battle of the Wilderness when he was in overall command of the army and facing Lee for the first time.

Throughout the first day of the battle, Grant kept his cool as his corps commanders kept sending him conflicting messages about Lee’s movements and begging for reinforcements. He finally had enough and snapped at them “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

When that frustrating day ended and the battle was over, Grant received the casualty reports. He had lost 17,500 men.

Grant went to his tent and broke down weeping.

Author and historian Shelby Foote said, “Grant, after that first night in the Wilderness, went to his tent, broke down, and cried very hard. Some of the staff members said they’d never seen a man so unstrung. Well, he didn’t cry until the battle was over, and he wasn’t crying when it began again the next day.”

For Lee, it wasn’t the killing and wounding of thousands that brought him to tears. Instead, it was the death of a single soldier.

Lee had known James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart for years.

Lee was the superintendent of West Point when Stuart was a cadet there. When Lee had to deal with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, Stuart was at his side and delivered then Col. Lee’s ultimatum to Brown.

Stuart had been in command of Lee’s cavalry for most of the war and was one of his most trusted officers.

When word came that Stuart had been killed in battle at Yellow Tavern against the Federal cavalry under the command of Phil Sheridan, Lee, who had witnessed the deaths of thousands at Gettysburg and Antietam, wept.

Lee was later quoted as saying, “Stuart had never brought me a piece of false information,” and “I can hardly think of him without weeping.”

But it’s not always the weight of command that can bring a soldier down. Sometimes it’s the loneliness of being away from family.

Take for example Gen. Thomas Jackson, whose calm demeanor sitting on his horse during battle with the dead and dying all around helped earn him the nickname “Stonewall.”

Once during a battle, Jackson asked where a courier was. When told the young man had been killed delivering a message, the general’s response was “Very commendable” and he continued on without pause.

But this strong-willed general who faced death and ordered it with such calm that some referred to him as a “blue-eyed killer” was brought to tears by the death of a 5-year-old girl.

During the winter of 1862-63, Jackson was unable to go home when his wife gave birth to their daughter — an event that surely weighed on his mind.

At Moss Neck Plantation, where Jackson’s winter headquarters were located, lived the Corbin family, Richard and Roberta and their 5-year-old daughter, Janie.

Janie and Jackson became fast friends. Janie would stop by Jackson’s tent to visit, and the general would give the little girl rides on his shoulders around the camp.

When winter camp broke and Jackson had to leave, he went to say good-bye to Janie only to learn the girl had scarlet fever. Jackson left his doctor behind to tend the girl and was told there was a good chance she would recover.

A day later, news reached Jackson that Janie, the little girl who had helped him get over missing his own baby girl, had died.

Jackson broke down and cried in front of his staff, stunning many of them to see this man, calm and fearless in the face of death, overcome with such emotion.

These three moments help prove that Grant, Lee and Jackson were not killing machines, but human beings who had to deal with the stress of battle and loneliness just as soldiers before, and after them, have done.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@ timesnews.net .

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