General Robert E. Lee’s Military Ideas & Abilities Essay
We may, at last, be able to carry out these obligations in regard to the Civil War. One of the central figures of the war was General Robert E. Lee. Indeed, in our collective consciousness he looms almost as the figure of the war, rivaled only by Abraham Lincoln. There is little need to belabor the fact of Lee’s heroic, almost superhuman, national stature, which has steadily enlarged since the war years. “Robert E. Lee was one of history’s most distinguished generals and commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. His qualities of intellect and character made him a legend even during his lifetime. Florida has honored him by naming one of its counties in his memory” (peeples 2002)
Writing in 1868, Fanny Dowling described Lee as “bathed in the white light which falls directly upon him from the smile of an approving and sustaining God” (Nolan 25: 1991). The image is, of course, that of a saint. William Garrett Piston remarks accurately that during the 1870s Southern publicists set Robert E. Lee on the road to sainthood.
The apotheosis of Lee is not confined to the generation that immediately followed the war. Speaking in 1909, Woodrow Wilson said, “Lee was unapproachable in the history of our country” (Nolan 22: 1991). In 1914 Douglas Southall Freeman told that “noble he was; nobler he became” (Nolan 22: 1991). In 1964 Clifford Dowdey titled a chapter in his study of the Seven Days “The Early Work of a Master”. Writing in 1965 about the same campaign, Dowdey told of Lee’s emergence as “a people’s god”. According to Piston, for “Dowdey the Civil War was a passion play, with Lee as Christ” (Nolan 23: 1991).
Thomas L. Connelly summed up the situation when in 1977 he wrote that Lee became a God figure for Virginians, a saint for the white Protestant South, and a hero for the nation who represented all that was good and noble. Many books have dealt with the development of the Lee tradition: Connelly’s The Marble Man, Piston’s Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant, and Gaines M. Foster’s 1987 study Ghosts of the Confederacy all trace its evolution.
Born in 1807, a Virginia aristocrat of the plantation society, Lee graduated with great distinction from the United States Military Academy in 1829. He married Mary Custis, the daughter of Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who was also George Washington’s adopted son. The marriage produced four daughters named Agnes, Annie, Mary, Mildred and three sons, George Washington Custis Lee, Robert Edward Lee, Jr., and William Henry Fitzhugh (“Rooney”) Lee, all of whom were to serve in the Confederate army. General Lee’s continuous and distinguished service in the United States Army included action in the Mexican War and the superintendency at West Point from September 1, 1852, to March 31, 1855. He was considered the protégé of Gen. Winfield Scott, the country’s most distinguished soldier and general-in-chief of the United States Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. These facts are well known. Indeed, because so much has been written about Lee, it is tempting to believe that nothing more need be said for we already know all about him.
To be sure, professional historians and other writers have not neglected Lee. In 1950 Marshall W. Fishwick, professor of history at Washington and Lee University, wrote what was essentially a critical bibliographic essay on writings about Lee. Published in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography under the telltale title “Virginians on Olympus II, Robert E. Lee: Savior of the Lost Cause”, the article discussed the literature prior to 1950. Since Fishwick’s catalog, additional biographical materials have appeared regularly, including eight major works: Gray Fox by Burke Davis (1956); Lee after the War by Fishwick (1963); Lee by Clifford Dowdey (1965); Robert E. Lee, a two volume work, by Margaret Sanborn (1966 and 1967); Lee — The Last Years by Charles Bracelen Flood (1981); Lee and Grant by Gene Smith (1984); Robert E. Lee by Manfred Weidhorn (1988); and The Generals by Nancy Scott Anderson and Dwight Anderson (1988).
Both in being accepted on his own terms and in not being subjected to conventional historical questions Lee is unique. No other actor in the drama of Western history has enjoyed such immunity: from Caesar to Napoleon to Roosevelt, they have been questioned far more closely and judged far more strictly than Lee. In the case of Lee, history’s inquiry is unaccountably curtailed. If he said something was so, it is accepted as so. Analysis of his activities stops with a determination that he did what he thought was right. Having established this motivation, ordinarily because Lee himself said it was his motivation, history stands mute.
General Lee was a true leader, Douglas Southall Freeman has stated the case for the tradition. He recounts the situation before Richmond when Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, and his saving of the capital at that time. Noting the repulse of four major Federal offensives against Richmond and the delay of a fifth such effort by means of the Pennsylvania campaign, Freeman recites Lee’s ten major battles, Gaines’s Mill through Spotsylvania, explaining that six of these he won but only at Gettysburg had he met with definite defeat, and even there he clouded the title of his adversary to a clear-cut victory. During the twenty-four months when he had been free to employ open maneuver, a period that had ended with Cold Harbor, he had sustained approximately 103,000 casualties and had inflicted 145,000. Holding, as he usually had, to the offensive, his combat losses had been greater in proportion to his numbers than those of the Federals, but he had demonstrated how strategy may increase an opponent’s casualties, for his losses included only 16,000 prisoners, whereas he had taken 38,000. Chained at length to the Richmond defenses, he had saved the capital from capture for ten months. All this he had done in the face of repeated defeats for the Southern troops in nearly every other part of the Confederacy. These difficulties of the South would have been even worse had not the Army of Northern Virginia occupied so much of the thought and armed strength of the North. Lee is to be judged, in fact, not merely by what he accomplished with his own troops but by what he prevented the hosts of the Union from doing sooner elsewhere.
In contrast, the term “strategy” is used in two ways. It has, in effect, two different definitions. On the one hand, within the context of a particular campaign or battle, it refers to the plan or idea of that campaign or battle, as distinguished from the tactical factor of employing and directing military forces in the combat activities of that campaign or battle. Thus, it can be said that strategy in this sense regards the theatre of war and forms the plan and arranges the general operations of a campaign. But strategy has a more profound meaning in the context of war as a whole, as distinguished from the context of a campaign or battle. In this larger sense, Clausewitz defines it as “the use of engagements to attain the objects of war” (Nolan 55: 1991) An expanded modern version of this definition says that strategy is the art and science of developing and employing in war military resources and forces for the purpose of providing maximum support for national policy.
An understanding of this distinction between the two meanings of strategy is critical for understanding the abilities of General Lee. In order to minimize the risk of their being confused, different terms will be used. Strategy in the context of a campaign or battle will be called “operational strategy”. Strategy in the more profound sense as related to the “objects of war” and the employment of military forces to carry out national policy will be identified as “grand strategy”. Much, perhaps most, of the writing about Lee’s generalship never asks what seems to be the critical question in any military analysis of his generalship, that is, how his direction of military forces related to the national policy of the Confederacy and its object in the war. His campaigns and battles are typically considered almost as disembodied, abstract events, unrelated to the necessities and objectives of the war from the standpoint of the South, and without regard to whether they advanced or retarded those necessities and objectives. It is as if a surgeon were to be judged on the basis of his skillful, dexterous, and imaginative procedures, incisions, and sutures, without regard to whether the operation actually improved the patient’s chances for survival. This is another way of saying that Lee is traditionally viewed as a performer, like the surgeon, or like an athlete participating in a competition or an exercise. The critical purposes and issues of warfare are not even acknowledged. Freeman and the other previously quoted sources are simply representative of this general phenomenon.
In evaluating Lee or any army commander, however, the key consideration is not the brilliance or boldness of his performance in a tactical or operationally strategic sense. These are surely matters of interest and importance, but the key consideration must be whether the general’s actions helped or hurt the cause of his government in view of that government’s grand strategy. In short, the appropriate inquiry is to ask whether the general’s actions related positively or negatively to the war objectives and national policy of his government. The issue addressed is not, therefore, Lee’s tactics and operational strategy in any given campaign or battle. His brilliant direction of his forces during the fighting at Antietam and what happened at Gettysburg are not the point. At Gettysburg he suffered a decisive defeat, a defeat that did not alone decide the war but in which his losses, on the heels of other casualties, were so great that his army’s subsequent ability to maneuver was severely restricted. The evaluations of Lee include the traditional view that this defeat was the fault of his subordinates. Contemporary students of the battle disagree on this point. Some persuasively contend that Lee’s subordinates, especially Longstreet, are unfairly blamed for the Gettysburg loss. But, whatever may be said about the factors that determined the outcome of this or any battle, the issue here is more profound than explaining Lee’s campaign or battle failures or successes. The issue is to understand the grand strategy of the Confederacy and to appreciate Lee’s contribution to the larger success or failure of that strategy.
Lee’s role as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, a role he assumed on June 1, 1862, and retained for the duration of the war, is the critical area of inquiry in evaluating his generalship. It is true, of course, that he was military adviser to President Davis beginning on March 13, 1862, and continuing until February 6, 1865, on which date he became the Confederacy’s general-in-chief, but the relevant consideration of his generalship is concerned with his army command. Among other things, this statement of the issue means that the inquiry does not involve the familiar contention that Lee concentrated too much on his own army and the Virginia theater and paid insufficient attention to other parts of the country.
It is necessary to acknowledge an underlying factor that is bound up with any consideration of Lee’s generalship. For almost one hundred years after the war, the conventional view was that the defeat of the South was inevitable. Part of the romance of the Lost Cause was the assumption that it literally could not have been a successful cause. It was, in short, the impossible dream. One of the premises of this inevitable loss tradition was that the South was fatally handicapped from the beginning because of the relative manpower and material resources of the two sections. The North, and historians generally, seemed to accept probably apocryphal statement by a former Confederate: “They never whipped us, Sir, unless they were four to one. If we had anything like a fair chance, or less disparity of numbers, we should have won our cause” (Nolan 112: 1991). Much has been casually written about the risk of British or French recognition of the Confederacy. Such a diplomatic act, not an unlikely prospect, at least until the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, would surely have changed the nature of the war in terms of international law and custom. Whether this change of status would have led to European military intervention is quite another question. Although those who discuss recognition seem sometimes to assume military intervention as a consequence of recognition, this is simply an assumption and is speculative at best. Naval activity at the expense of the North might have occurred. But given the distances and their logistical implications, and in view of the always fractious state of relations among the European powers, it is far from certain that either Great Britain or France would have committed naval forces, let alone ground forces, to the contest. Lee himself did not expect European assistance to the Confederacy, and he was a realist in this respect.
It seems plain that the traditional premise that the South simply could not have won the war, has had much to do with establishing Lee’s reputation as an almost perfect general. Indeed, the entire direction of one’s inquiry into Lee’s generalship depends on whether one accepts the tradition of the inevitable loss of the Lost Cause or alternatively sees the success of that cause as a possibility. If the cause was from the beginning simply a forlorn hope, the criteria in the evaluation of its military leadership are immediately lowered because advancing the objective of victory is read out of the case. As in the situation of the hypothetical surgeon or the athlete, the war is reduced to a forum in which the performance of the general is considered outside of the context of his government’s war objective. The criteria of evaluation then pose such questions as, did the general put up a good fight? Did he inflict significant losses on the enemy? Did he win battles? On the other hand, if the evaluator believes that the war could have been won, a sterner test arises: did the general maximize the chance for victory?
Lee’s task as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was not to put on a martial show, a performance; it was to make the maximum contribution toward the South’s chances of winning the war. Meaningful consideration of his generalship must refer to this task. Evaluating Lee’s generalship in this context is not to say that the South would necessarily have won the war had Lee conducted himself differently. Had Lee been fully effective in the Virginia theater, the Union’s military victories and inexorable advance in the West, and then from the West to the East, might ultimately have caused the collapse of the Confederacy. It is nevertheless fair to examine Lee’s generalship with reference to his contribution to the South’s chances of winning the war.
It may be argued that these examples of Lee’s military thinking concern his concepts of operational strategy or his tactical views, having in mind, as stated earlier, that a defensive grand strategy can involve offensive operational strategy or the tactical offensive. However, it is impossible to read the documents in The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee, the dispatches from Lee to Davis and the War Department, and Lee’s communications in the Official Records without being struck by the fact that they bristle with offensive rhetoric and planning: striking a blow, driving the enemy, crushing the enemy. In short, they are consistent with Lee’s expressed theory that peace would come when the Confederates defeat or drive the armies of the enemy from the field. This was an idée fixe with Lee. Porter Alexander was witness to the ultimate flash of Lee’s predilection for the attack. He writes of April 5, 1865, and the Army of Northern Virginia’s “last mile” en route to Appomattox. Elements of the army had stopped at Amelia Court House that morning. As reported by Alexander:
“About 1 P.M. . . . we took the road for Jetersville, where it was understood that Sheridan with his cavalry was across our path, & Gen. Lee intended to attack him. I rode with him & his staff & Gen. Longstreet, & we were not long in coming to where our skirmish line was already engaged. I never saw Gen. Lee seem so anxious to bring on a battle in my life as he seemed that afternoon, but a conference with Gen. W. H. F. Lee in command of the cavalry in our front seemed to disappoint him greatly” (Harsh 144: 1999).
Any doubt that Lee was committed to the offensive as the South’s appropriate grand strategy is presumably eliminated when one considers the third source for identifying his grand strategic thinking, the campaigns and battles of the Army of Northern Virginia. Consistent with the grand strategy that he said he believed in and repeatedly planned and advocated, Lee from the beginning embraced the offensive. Appointed to command the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, he turned at once to the offensive, beginning with major engagements on the Peninsula Mechanicsville, Gaines’s Mill, Frayse’s Farm, and Malvern Hill. Following on the heels of the Seven Days, the Second Bull Run campaign was strategically offensive in an operational sense, although except for Longstreet’s August 30 counterattack it may be classified as defensive from a tactical standpoint. At Antietam Lee stood on the defensive, but the Maryland campaign was strategically offensive. His moving into Maryland assured a major battle in that state. At Chancellorsville, he chose not to retreat when confronted by the Federals’ pincer movement. Instead, he repeatedly attacked, and the Federals retreated back across the river. Gettysburg was, of course, the most daring of Lee’s operationally strategic offensives, and he attacked repeatedly there all along the admirable Federal defensive line. As indicated by his communications set forth above, he maneuvered so as to attack after Gettysburg and failed to attack only because Meade would not accept battle. And in the Wilderness, although Grant was initiating the final Federal offensive, Lee again attacked. Even during the final days of the war, Lee attempted the offensive. On March 25, 1865, he ordered an attack on Fort Stedman, a Federal stronghold in the Richmond-Petersburg line. Having described the overwhelming odds that faced the attackers, Alexander rationalizes the effort as “worth all it cost merely as an illustration of the sublime audacity of our commander. It was very characteristic of Gen. Lee . . . one of the greatest instances of audacity which the war produced” (Harsh 198: 1999).
The point is not that each of these campaigns and battles represented an error by Lee. As has been said, the grand strategic defensive may at times translate into the operational or tactical offensive. Thus, driving the Federals away from Richmond in 1862 may have been required in view of Southern morale and the practical consequences of the loss of the capital. Going on the offensive in the Wilderness may have been strategically or tactically justified. The point is that the offensive pattern is plain. Lee believed that the South’s grand strategic role was offensive. He had consistently planned and advocated the offensive. He had told President Davis that the way to peace was to drive the opposing army from the field, and this is what he sought to accomplish. Thus, Manarin asserts that “Lee never seems to have forgotten that although on the defensive the only way to win was by attacking and driving the enemy” (Nolan 202: 1991). And Connelly and Jones conclude that “Lee’s frequent offensive thrusts and his almost invariable assumption of the offensive in battle” (Nolan 210: 1991) suggest that he believed the war was to be won by annihilation of the enemy army.
Harsh J.L. (1999). “Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862”, Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.
Nolan A.T. (1991). “Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History”, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Peeples V. (2002). “Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee Explored S.W. Florida for Military”, Sarasota Herald Tribune.