Panel Discussion on Lee’s Generalship

Here’s a panel discussion from 2000 with Gary Gallagher, Joseph Harsh, Alan Nolan, and Bevin Alexander on the generalship of Robert E. Lee.

I have to say I completely disagree with Bevin Alexander and Alan Nolan.  I really don’t think they understand Lee.  I also completely disagree with Alexander’s understanding of the Civil War, and I don’t think Nolan really understands military strategy and tactics.  I think Professors Gallagher and Harsh have it right.

This discussion was sponsored by the Museum of the Confederacy.



  1. Does Alexander teach at the College of Wishful Thinking? Man, this seems old, scholarship-wise. I’m only at minute 12:05, and I’m itching to hear GG tear this guy apart.

    1. I know what you mean, Chris. I read his book, How Great Generals Win, several years ago. My reaction to reading that book is why I still haven’t read his book, Lee’s Civil War. I didn’t expect much from his presentation, and he failed to deliver that.

      1. I mean, the notion that Lee’s actions killed proportionally more men, therefore he’s not as great a general, was one of the main theses ten years ago, when I stepped away from Civil War studies. But GG has pretty much exploded that now, hasn’t he? As you can tell, I’m still not completely caught up on the historiography (for which I appreciate your patience and resources, Al).

        But it seems to me that GG’s thesis of “Lee as nationalist,” which I find convincing, must have been pretty new when this panel met. It occurred to me that this exchange might have been one of the first shots in that battle, and GG seems to have left these guys in a crater.

        1. I think Nolan and Alexander definitely have the weaker case. Looking solely at casualties as the be-all and end-all determinant of great generalship is very poor methodology. As Gallagher has explained elsewhere, Lee was indeed a bloody general, but he was a bloody general because he had to win victories quickly before the industrial power and greater resources of the Union side ground the confederates down. The blood of his men was the investment he was making in order to depress the morale of the populace of the Union side. The investment didn’t pay off, but that doesn’t mean the strategy was bad or that Lee was a bad general. I agree completely that Gallagher [and Harsh] just blew them apart.

  2. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    Nice to see and hear these four discussing Lee — or any other topic — especially Joseph Harsh and Alan Nolan who are no longer with us. Thanks for posting.

  3. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    FWIW, I think it might be well to remember that this presentation was done almost fifteen years ago at the end of the 20th century. Christopher wrote, “Does Alexander teach at the College of Wishful Thinking? Man, this seems old, scholarship-wise.” IT IS OLD, scholarship-wise. I don’t know about you, but many of the “facts” and opinions I regarded back then as gospel I no longer accept or believe. There has been one [edit] lot of new research and scholarship since 2000 (need I add a lot of new books) which has dramatically changed/altered my thinking on the CW. Much of that IMO is due to the Internet. Want to know what Jefferson Davis wrote immediately after First Manassas? Go to Google Books and you can read it right there in your study with the click of a mouse and a manhattan in your hand. You couldn’t do that in the 1990s. If I’m still around in 2029, I suspect my ideas/opinions will have changed once again. Or maybe twice.

    1. Let me remind you that both Gallagher and Harsh were aware that Alexander’s views were outdated.

  4. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    Of course they did. As do we when we watch such as this from 15 years ago. The same may be said, I think, for Nolan. Certainly now, fifteen years later.

    1. But they were there at the time. Alexander and Nolan were behind the times at the time of the program.

  5. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    Yes, they were behind the times but they were also considerably older. Nolan was 77. I can’t find a bio of Alexander but know he graduated from the Citadel in 1949, which would put him in his early 70s. Harsh and Gallagher were both in their 50s when this presentation was recorded in 2000. As I watch it for a second time, I am struck by the image of two older men from a previous generation of historians passing the torch, as it were, to a new, younger generation who with new research and scholarship were interpreting the CW in different ways than they had.

    1. Being older isn’t an excuse. Bevin Alexander served in Korea, so he was probably around a decade older than Harsh.

  6. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    Oh sure it is, Al. It would be like me at 71 who retired fifteen years ago as superintendent of schools sitting on a panel with a couple of guys in their 50s who are still working talking about what needs to be done to improve the public schools in Michigan. And some day guys like GG will pass the baton on to a whole new generation of historians and the cycle will continue.

    1. It sounds like you wouldn’t do that. These guys did it. If they’re going to go public with their views, then age is no excuse. They need to keep up with the current scholarship.

      1. Bob Nelson · · Reply

        No, I wouldn’t do that. I know that I am out of step with the current generation. I suspect that Nolan and Alexander knew the same thing. Perhaps they needed the stipend from the appearance. Perhaps they needed to feel important again.

        1. You suspect that they’re completely unprofessional, then, and didn’t care about doing preparation for the panel. No, that’s not likely.

          No, they didn’t need any stipend. That’s just utterly wrong.

          1. Bob Nelson · ·

            I never said or even hinted that they were unprofessional. They said what they said based on what they had said and written during the previous 20 or 30 years, which simply put them out of step with newer thinking on the matter.

          2. Yes, you did. “I know that I am out of step with the current generation. I suspect that Nolan and Alexander knew the same thing. Perhaps they needed the stipend from the appearance. Perhaps they needed to feel important again.” That’s the clear import of your comment. You suspect they knew they were out of step and only appeared because they either needed the stipend [which they didn’t] or they needed to feel important again. In other words, they were ego-driven and unprofessional in that they knew they were out of step and didn’t bother to update their knowledge. Your whole line of comment was either to excuse them because they were older than Harsh and Gallagher or that they were unprofessional. Rather than that, why not consider that they were simply wrong because their understanding is faulty?

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