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Robert E. Lee occupies a special place in the American pantheon. He fought against the United States but is an American hero. Lee's fame comes from his actions as commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War. His generalship permitted this army to hold off the main strength of the immensely more powerful Union from June 1, 1862, when he took command, until April 9, 1865, when he surrendered at Appomattox.
This record of leadership and the inspiration and determination to perform against incredible odds which he aroused in his men encouraged people everywhere, but especially in the South, to elevate Lee into a military genius. At the same time, Lee's personal attributes caused most Americans to see him as a beau ideal incorporating practically all of the elements Americans value in human character---loyalty, integrity, compassion, charity, honor, dedication to a cause, sense of duty, and courage.
This book is concerned with Lee's actions as a military commander, and deals with Lee's magnificent human attributes only as they related to his generalship. However, the book does address briefly at its close another, less well known, contribution of Robert E. Lee which commenced at Appomattox and guided the remainder of his life.
This contribution emerged from Lee's realization that the Civil War had convinced the Southern people that slavery was wrong. Lee told Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox that the South now was as opposed to human bondage as the North. Lee at once recognized that this removed the only fundamental issue dividing North and South. There was now no reason remaining for the South to want independence.
As a result, Lee urged his soldiers to be as good citizens of a united nation as they had been good soldiers in war. Coming from Lee, the most revered and admired man in the South in 1865, this admonition had immense and lasting power. It removed much of the rancor and animosity that affected many people, and caused them to think of cooperation with the North, not continued resistance to the North.
Lee, sooner than any other American leader, recognized that the people of the North and the South shared identical ideals and aspirations. He also saw that he, and perhaps he alone, had the trust of the Southern people to the degree that they would heed his calls to rejoin the nation as faithful, dedicated citizens.
From Appomattox until he died in 1870, Lee devoted himself to the reconcilation of the two sections of the country. He became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, now Washington & Lee University, and commenced a conscious program of educating a new generation of Southerners to be patriotic, loyal citizens of a once-more united nation.
Lee did more than any other American to make this reconcilation come about. For this, he should be honored by future generations.
However, Lee's place in history rests on his performance as a military leader. That is the principal subject of this book. It argues that Lee's high military reputation deserves a complete reappraisal.
Lee's soldiers revered him because of his personal attributes and his dedication, but also because the Confederacy held out so long against a Union with three times the population and eleven times the industrial strength of the South. It was apparent to his soldiers that Lee was superior to the Union commanders he faced.
However, it was only after the war that Lee was acclaimed as a general without fault. The defeated South desperately sought to find some purpose for the enormous losses in lives and treasure it had suffered. It was natural to rationalize the Confederacy's defeat as the inevitable result of overwhelming odds, and to conclude that Lee, who had held off the North for so long, had to be a great general.
There are two errors in this reasoning. The years taken to defeat the South can just as well be ascribed to the missteps and blunders of Union commanders as to the genius of Robert E. Lee. And, most important, the North was not bound to win, whatever its strength. There is nothing preordained about military conquest. The size, power, and wealth of a state do not guarantee it success. Alexander the Great's Macedonia was poor and puny compared to the great Persian Empire it destroyed. Hannibal Barca's Carthaginian army was small and ill-supplied, yet defeated Rome's immensely larger, well-supported legions for seventeen years.
It was not the states Alexander and Hannibal represented or the armed men they led that made them great. It was the brilliance of the generals themselves that transformed their modest forces into conquering armies. These examples offer an argument that, if the Confederacy had indeed possessed a military genius in command of its principal army, he could have delivered a victory irrespective of the North's material superiority.
The key to understanding Lee as a commander is that he sought from first to last to fight an offensive war---that is, a war of battles and marches against the armies of the North. This offensive war, though it produced many spectacular clashes and campaigns which arouse fascination to this day, ultimately failed because Lee's methods and his strategy were insufficient to overcome the South's weakness in arms and manpower.
Lee endeavored to avoid the defensive war that President Jefferson Davis wanted to conduct. Davis was little interested in winning battlefield victories. His principal aim was to keep the Union from winning, in the hope that the Northern people would become weary and grant the South its independence.
Davis weakened his strategy by scattering military forces throughout the South to shield nonvital regions or protect against small-scale Union incursions from the sea. These attacks could not be decisive, but large numbers of Confederate troops were sent to contain the landings or to protect territory that was not essential. Davis refused to concentrate strength into two extremely powerful armies, one in Virginia and another northwest of Chattanooga, which could have prevented the penetration of Northern armies into the heart of the South.
Even without two huge armies guarding the portals, a defensive strategy would have exploited the South's advantages: its great size, its difficult mountains, forests, and swamps, and its inadequate railway system. These could have inhibited Northern movements into the South, and allowed the Confederacy to pursue a long war, preserving its resources, especially its limited manpower. In time the North might have become weary of its inability to end the war and stop losses. Ironically, this is how the Communists defeated the United States in Vietnam. The American people at last become so disillusioned that they demanded the withdrawal of their forces.
Although Lee did not want to fight a defensive war, he was in fact far more gifted in conducting it than offensive war. His 1864 campaign in Virginia was one of the most brilliant holding actions in military history. Though he commanded an army with only a shadow of its former power, Lee neutralized the attacks of Ulysses S. Grant, destroyed half of Grant's army, forced the Federals into a stalemate in front of Petersburg, and permitted the Confederacy to survive into 1865.
If Lee had embarked on such a defensive strategy from the outset, while he still had strength to make temporary strikes to keep Federal armies from penetrating into Virginia, the North might have been stymied and might have agreed to a negotiated peace.
Although Lee thought in offensive terms, he did not truly understand offensive warfare. Like the majority of generals on both sides, Lee believed he could win by striking at the enemy directly in his path.
History had shown that this was not true, except in unusual cases. But the idea had gained doctrinal status because scholars studying Napoleon Bonaparte thought the great master had won his battles by bringing superior force against some decisive point of the enemy. While this was strictly true, it missed the subleties of Napoleon's genius. Napoleon in fact had succeeded in his earlier campaigns by maneuver and surprise, and had won his later battles by breaking a hole in the enemy's line with canister---or a lethal cloud of metal balls or fragments---fired by massed batteries of artillery.
This latter solution was not available to the generals in the Civil War. Infantry now were armed with the Minié-ball rifle possessing a range greater than the effective range of canister. Cannons no longer could be rolled up close enough to shatter an enemy line because sharpshooters could pick off gunners and horses before the guns could do much damage.
Since the Minié-ball rifle also had a range four times that of the infantry smoothbore musket used in Napoleon's day, direct attacks were almost certain to fail against resolute troops, and, in fact, did fail five out of six times.
Lee never understood the revolution that the Minié ball had brought to battle tactics. However, two of his senior lieutenants, Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet, did. They came up with an antidote to direct assaults---a defensive posture---and urged this policy upon Lee.
Jackson in addition saw that, since Union forces were likely to fail with great losses if they attacked Confederate positions, the South should induce the Union commanders to make such attacks. Confederate forces then might swing around the flanks of the demoralized Union soldiers, cut off their retreat and line of supply, and force them to surrender.
Although Lee accepted Jackson's argument in principle, he failed to carry it out in a timely fashion at Second Manassas in August 1862, and lacked space on his flank to undertake it at Antietam the following month. On only one occasion did the strategy work in part---at Chancellorsville in May 1863---and there it failed to destroy the Union army because Jackson was mortally wounded.
Thereafter, Lee returned to his earlier practice of frontal assaults into the heart of enemy resistance. In nearly all cases, they failed.
This tendency to move to the direct confrontation, regardless of the prospects or the losses that would be sustained, guaranteed Lee's failure as an offensive commander.
None of Lee's victories resulted in the destruction of a Federal army, and none caused so many losses that the North was induced to quit. Both Lee's victories and defeats produced such heavy casualties that the South was bled white in only a year of battle, from the Seven Days in June-July 1862 to Gettysburg in July 1863. These losses destroyed the offensive power of the Confederacy, and foreshadowed the South's defeat.
Nevertheless, Robert E. Lee was so superior as a military commander to the leaders of the North that the Confederacy's inherent weaknesses were not apparent until nearly the end of the war. Time after time---not by greater power but by aggressive action and movements forcefully and confidently carried out---Lee defeated or neutralized superior Union forces.
The North never actually conquered Lee. The Civil War is practically unique in military history in that a single man, Lee, by determination and resolve, was able to stymie over a period of years the greatest efforts of an extremely powerful state, the Union.
The North wore down Lee's army only after grueling, agonizing, deadly marches and maneuvers, by desperate attacks, and by even more desperate defenses. The Northern Army of the Potomac never won a decisive war-ending victory over Lee. It always limped away sorely wounded, battered, and depressed from every engagement, even the battles it won. Overall, it lost far more men than Lee, and the seeming futility of overcoming Lee's Army of Northern Virginia led the North almost to despair more than once.
The North forced Lee to give up only when his forces had been reduced to a frail flicker of their former glory. The surrender at Appomattox was the moment when a great and splendid army, that had endured far more than most armies in history have had to endure, gave up its life and ascended into legend.
Yes, it could have been otherwise. The Confederacy made fatal mistakes. It scattered its forces, protected unnecessary places, and failed to fight a defensive war. Robert E. Lee himself made many errors. But these facts cannot take away from the remarkable, brilliant, extraordinary war that he fought over the hills and fields of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania a century and a third ago.<< More on 'Robert E. Lee's Civil War' << Back to top