restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


From “Granny Lee” to the Greatest General Ever

 David Alan Black

A heavy mist hung over the battlefield on the morning of July 2, 1862. At first it was impossible for General Robert E. Lee to tell whether the enemy still held Malvern Hill or had retired. As it grew lighter, however, it became evident that the Federals had disappeared. The Union army under George McClellan was retreating down the River Road in the greatest demoralization. The Army of Northern Virginia, at the close of the Malvern Hill action, had gained a historic victory.

The whole plan of Federal operations in Virginia had been completely disrupted after its success seemed inevitable. On June 26, the Union army of 105,000 soldiers had been ready to sweep over Richmond. Yet after the Seven Days fighting Lee could report to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, “The siege of Richmond was raised, and the object of the campaign, which had been prosecuted after months of preparation at an enormous expenditure of men and money, completely frustrated.” The Richmond Dispatch wrote, “The operations of General Lee were certainly those of a master. No captain that ever lived could have planned or executed a better plan…. Its success places its author among the highest military names.”

Lee’s victory in the Seven Days fighting elevated him from the dubious status of “Granny Lee” and the “King of Spades” to the most revered military leader in history. A career that had begun in relative obscurity and even defeat in the western Virginia campaign had been completely transformed. In defending Richmond, Lee had been given a well-neigh impossible assignment. Public confidences in his qualities as a commander were at an all-time low. When he was called upon to replace a wounded General Johnston, Lee commented in a letter to his daughter-in-law, “I wish the mantel had fallen upon an abler man.” Most of Johnston’s lieutenants resented the selection of a “staff officer” to lead them. Yet God had blessed Lee’s generalship, and the Confederate soldiers knew that they had a leader they could resolutely count on. Theodore Roosevelt, of New York, truthfully wrote, “The world has never seen better soldiers than those who followed Lee, and their leader will undoubtedly rank as, without any exception, the very greatest of all great captains that the English speaking peoples have brought forth.”

In Exodus 3:1 we read, “Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.” Moses, the once mighty prince in Egypt, was now tending sheep on the backside of the desert for his father-in-law. The one who had been trained in all the ways of Egyptian plutocracy had now become something that was loathed by the very people he lived among—Moses was a shepherd! He was destined to lead the nation of Israel out of captivity, but the timing was in God’s hands, not his own. His first forty years were spent in Egypt in Pharaoh’s court. For the next forty years he was an obscure shepherd in the land of Midian. During his final forty years he was leading the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land!

There are many examples in the Bible whom God gives us who have weathered long periods of obscurity and whose usefulness in the Kingdom of God seemed over. But the truth is that God had good things in mind for them even before they were created.  As Ephesians 2:10 explains, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” God always moves us into His position at the right time. But often we must first go through a wilderness experience before we can be useful. He prepares His chosen people by trials. The greater the trial, the more God is working to produce a greater effectiveness in ministry. Paul experienced years of obscurity, but out of that obscurity came a great apostle. He had become a man truly emptied of himself who had not a wit of confidence that he could perform anything.

What was true for Paul and Moses needs to be true for us. Are we willing to accept the humiliation of failure, allowed by God Himself, despite our best intentions? It is only out of the debris of that failure, and the mortification of pride that accompanies it, that a man can be formed whom God can use. There is something about failure, especially when it is born out of the best intentions to serve God, that produces a depth of work in the human soul like nothing else.

The lesson of General Lee is that no man is more qualified than the one who believes in his deepest heart that he is without qualification. The whole preliminary work of God is to disqualify us before we can be qualified. How many of us are itching to go out and make our mark for God? Let us remember that God did not think it wasteful to give Moses forty years of waiting in the wilderness until he was completely emptied out—and then He called him!

June 25, 2003

David Alan Black is the editor of

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