The Generalship of Robert E. Lee, Part One

This is another long series of occasional posts considering an aspect of Civil War history. In this series, I’m considering Robert E. Lee as a general. The impetus for this is an article in the Sunday, May 21, 2017 issue of the Washington Post criticizing Lee’s generalship with the headline, “The Truth About Robert E. Lee: He Wasn’t Very Good at His Job.” You can read the article here. A major source for the article was the writer Edward Bonekemper III, who has written a book deeply critical of Lee’s generalship. In the article, we read, “To Edward Bonekemper III, the author of ‘How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War’ and several other books on the war, Lee is not the humble, proud battlefield loser presented by documentarian Ken Burns and other popular works of history, but a bumbling strategist and the central character in ‘the most successful propaganda campaign in American history.’ ” I frankly find Mr. Bonekemper’s effort to be less than satisfying. Suffice to say I think Mr. Bonekemper is nowhere near as good a general as R. E. Lee. Of course, that doesn’t preclude Mr. Bonekemper from evaluating General Lee. Few generals were as good as Lee, and if we used the standard that someone had to be as good a general as the subject they evaluate, then there would be few if any historical evaluations of generalship. In my opinion, Mr. Bonekemper’s evaluation falls short because I don’t think he has a deep understanding of Lee or strategy. That goes double for the journalist who actually wrote the article. All this brings up the question, though, of how good a general was R. E. Lee.

The article starts by referring to an article by historian Thomas L. Connelly in Civil War History, Volume XV, No. 2, June, 1969, pp. 116-132, titled, “Robert E. Lee and the Western Confederacy: A Criticism of Lee’s Strategic Ability.” Professor Connelly was the author of a groundbreaking book on Lee called, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (Louisiana State University Press, 1977). I thought this article would be a good starting point for this series.

Professor Connelly wrote, “No single war figure stands in greater need of re-evaluation than Lee. On at least three major counts, personality, field success, and strategy, he may have been the beneficiary of special pleading. Lee’s personality has been amplified in every biography. His traits of kindness, patience, generosity, and others have become stereotyped. However, has anyone depicted Lee as he actually was? In the post-war writings of his former generals and staff officers, how much of the adulation of his personal qualities was the human tendency to prove one’s closeness and accessibility to a popular hero? Too, in the stress on his virtues noted in late nineteenth-century writings, Lee perhaps has been shaped into a semi-religious symbol of suffering and resignation for a disillusioned, distraught South. There may be some correlation in the obituary in the Halifax Chronicle which declared Lee’s life had seen no wrong doing, in Gamaliel Bradford’s lengthy portrayal in 1912 of Lee’s patience, love for animals, and Christian spirit, and in Douglas Freeman’s later account of the young mother who brought her child to Lee ‘to be blessed.’ Also, in the many writings on Lee which appeared at the turn of the century, perhaps he was amplified above other Confederate leaders because he allegedly possessed traits which fitted well into the trend of nationalistic historical writing, such as his love for the Union, his generosity, and his single-minded concern with duty. Perhaps not by accident did Bradford label his biography, Lee the American. Later, how much were Lee’s personality and reputation enhanced by the literary ability of Douglas Freeman? A balanced treatment of his personality may have been lost in the aura and glamor of the Virginia segment of the war as treated by Freeman, Clifford Dowdey, and others.” [pp. 116-117] Connelly’s made some good points in this setup for his article, and he will continue to make some good points, as befits a fine historian. After showing how there is a double standard regarding Lee’s personality and other generals’ personalities, Connelly gets into Lee’s performance in Virginia.

“Was Lee actually as successful as his admirers have maintained? His penchant for the offensive, at least until the spring of 1864, leaves much open to question. Aside from the repercussions on overall war strategy to be mentioned later, there are other considerations. Was the Confederacy able to afford Lee? From the summer of 1862 until mid-1864, Lee utilized an operational strategy designed to keep the enemy away from Virginia, particular the Richmond area, by offensive maneuvers. Thus the South’s largest field army, contained in the smallest war theater, was bled to death by Lee’s offensive tactics.” [pp. 117-118] I have a minor quibble here in that I would say Lee’s strategy was not designed to keep Union forces away from Virginia, since they were already in Virginia. He has a good point that Lee wanted to keep the Federals away from Richmond, and he further develops his point regarding casualties: “In the Seven Days’ campaign, Lee lost more men in his defense of Richmond than Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of Tennessee possessed the previous fall. In the Gettysburg campaign, Lee lost more men in his avowed purpose to prevent an advance on Richmond than Bragg’s western army possessed in October of 1862. Lee lost more men at Chancellorsville than the Confederates surrendered at Forts Henry and Donelson combined in 1862. In the first three months of his command in Virginia in 1862, Lee lost 50,000 men.” [p. 118] Connelly continues, “Historians have measured Lee’s success in terms of his holding territory in Virginia at whatever the cost. In contrast, P. G. T. Beauregard was judged a failure by his government for his skillful retreat into Mississippi in the spring of 1862 in the face of an enemy of over three times his strength. Likewise, Braxton Bragg was considered a failure because he lost the battle of Perryville in 1862, although by his maneuver he disrupted Federal plans to take Chattanooga, and recovered North Alabama and much of Middle Tennessee.” [p. 118]

Connelly next goes into the question of how Lee would have fared if he was in the West instead of the East. He makes the point that “Lee gained his most spectacular field victories against weaker links in the Union command–John Pope, Joseph Hooker, and Ambrose Burnside.” [p. 118] I note how he left out George B. McClellan. Connelly says Union generals in the West were of a higher caliber. He points to Grant, Sheridan, Sherman, and Thomas. I would add Rosecrans to that list. I think, though, that Connelly doesn’t take into account the Union generals in the West had time to develop their skills. If they faced Lee right off the bat in the West, we can’t assume they would have been the same high quality they were in the latter part of the war. I think his point here is a bit weak because he left McClellan out of his list and because he didn’t account for the learning on the job done by the Union generals. He has a stronger point in my view when he discusses the vast territory with which the western generals had to contend as opposed to the relatively confined territory in the eastern theater. “Lee’s activities were confined to a relatively small area of 22,000 square miles; the western army had to defend a territory of 225,000 square miles, eventually embracing seven states. This difference in the matter of maneuver, which placed an obvious strain on western logistics, was evident on several occasions. The Army of Northern Virginia never traveled more than some sixty miles north of the Virginia border. In contrast, Bragg’s 1862 campaign from Tupelo to Lexington, via Chattanooga, required an 800-mile trek and a consequent drain on his army’s transportation.” [pp. 118-119] He points out the rivers in the eastern theater formed obstacles for the Union army while rivers in the western theater were invasion routes for the Union army. “Too, the primitive western rail system imposed special problems of maneuver on western commanders. After early 1862, the western Confederates possessed only one east-west line, via Vicksburg, Mobile, Montgomery, and Atlanta. Thus, to traverse the east-west limits of his command, Bragg would cover fully ten times the distance Lee marched from Virginia into Pennsylvania.” [p. 119]

Connelly next makes the point that confederate commanders in the western theater faced much larger odds than Lee faced in the eastern theater. “At almost every point in the war, the difference between Union and Confederate strength was far greater in the West than in the East. By November of 1862, the entire Union effective force on the Atlantic, from North Carolina to Delaware, even including the Washington and Philadelphia garrisons, numbered only some 216,000 men. Lee had available 97,000 effectives, including the defenses in southern Virginia. In the West, the Departments of the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland had amassed over 180,000 effectives against only 55,000 effectives in Bragg’s army and that in Mississippi. In August of 1863, some 230,000 Federal effectives faced 67,000 in the Army of Tennessee and Joseph E. Johnston’s defunct Mississippi army. In the East, the total Federal force on the Atlantic coast, from the coastal forts of New England to North Carolina, could amass only 172,000 effectives against 60,000 men under Lee and his allied Departments of South Virginia and North Carolina.” [p. 120] He continues this analysis into 1864 as well. While this is interesting information, it hardly bears on Lee’s ability as a general. Lee had it easier in the eastern theater than he would have had in the western theater, but that doesn’t mean he would have failed in the West, nor does it mean anyone else would have been better in the East, nor does it mean that Lee’s reputation is puffed up.

Professor Connelly next discusses what he terms Lee’s “ideas of grand strategy.” [p. 120] “Either his chroniclers admit that he fostered no over-all strategic design or else they remain silent on the subject. Two reasons, both debatable, have been given for Lee’s not taking a more apparent interest in over-all strategy. It has been argued that his rightful concern was the army of Northern Virginia; thus, Lee had neither the time nor the right to suggest policy. Yet many other commanders and subordinates found such opportunities. Beauregard in 1862, 1863, and 1864 presented several detailed plans. Joseph E. Johnston and James Longstreet suggested policies in 1863 and 1864. Even General Dabney Maury of the Department of the Gulf suggested an over-all strategy plan in the spring of 1863, as did General Leonidas Polk in 1863 and 1864. Lee, however, leading the South’s largest army and possessing probably more influence than most others on the civil authorities, seemed almost aloof from the subject. A stronger reason given for his aloofness was that Lee did not possess the power to suggest strategy.” [pp. 120-121] He says this is one of the biggest myths of the entire war. Connelly tells us all during the war, Lee “exerted powerful influence, both official and unofficial. When the government was moved to Richmond in 1861, Lee already occupied a position described by his son as Davis’ ‘constant and trusted adviser.’ In March, 1862, Lee was summoned to be what his biographers have labeled as a weak military advisor [sic] to the President. Many of these writers use as evidence Lee’s own letter to his wife on March 14, in which he stated that he could see no advantage or pleasure in his duties. But Lee did not deny there–or elsewhere–that he had influence. His orders stated that he was to have charge of the armies of the Confederacy, under Davis’ direction. Later, when General John Magruder congratulated him on being advanced to ‘Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate forces,’ Lee in his reply made no correction. In fact, Douglas Freeman himself admits that during Lee’s three-month official duties in this particular office, he was called upon to pass on operations in every southern state, and that Davis consulted him on larger issues of strategy. However, Freeman argues that Lee was allowed no free hand on any plan of ‘magnitude.’ What plan of magnitude did Lee propose? The question was not a lack of power as much as a matter of selection. His correspondence as advisor [sic] largely concerned matters on the Atlantic slope with scant mention of the West.” [pp. 121-122]

Connelly next details time after time where Lee advised Davis on strategy and command throughout 1862 to 1865. His criticism, though, is that “First, Lee possessed an almost startling lack of knowledge of the West. He seemed somewhat naive concerning both Federal purposes and strength in the West. Lee seemed not to appreciate that the Federals were maintaining a two-front war between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. Lee seemed to believe that only the seizure of Richmond and the control of the Mississippi River were prime Federal objectives. The long-existing Federal plan to seize Chattanooga and eventually Atlanta, initiated in May, 1862, went almost unnoticed in Lee’s correspondence. Too, Lee seemed uninformed as to both Federal strength and Confederate weakness, and thus sometimes assumed that the southerners could do more than they were able.” [p. 124] Okay. Lee was unaware of the conditions in a theater in which he didn’t serve and hadn’t served at any time during the war. If Lee’s suggestions did not take all Federal objectives into account, it seems to me it was incumbent on Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War to point out what was lacking. Not getting feedback to tell him he wasn’t including enough information or taking a wide enough view, Lee no doubt quite reasonably believed he was providing what was needed. Connelly does make a good point that a top great general would inform himself on what’s going on in the entire war, so Lee gets marked down in this respect. But does that mean he’s “bumbling?” I don’t see that. Did it affect his performance in his own theater of operations? I also don’t see how it would have done so.

The remainder of the article is spent developing his next point, “Lee’s strategic policies were colored by a second principle that may explain much of his attitude toward the West. Lee was convinced that the main war zone was in Virginia, and shaped his strategy accordingly. … Lee’s strategy essentially was based on defending Virginia. From the summer of 1862 until the spring of 1864, Lee practiced his well-known policy of maneuver and the offensive–break up the enemy’s campaigns and keep him away from the heart of Virginia, above all away from Richmond. When failing manpower and logistics made this impossible in 1864, Lee reverted to a defensive which was still designed to keep the Federals away from the capital. This was basically Lee’s strategy not only for Virginia but for the entire South. During both of these periods, his interest seemed limited to what the West could do to help Virginia: either the West should contribute troops to the East or take the offensive to improve conditions in the East.” [pp. 127-128]

Left unexplored, though, is the question of whether or not Lee was right. Connelly begs the question of whether Lee was wrong in prioritizing the East over the West. While it may be true the Federals won the war in the West, the possibility was real that they could have easily lost the war in the East. The East was where the eyes of the world were focused, not just the eyes of Robert E. Lee. Both capitals were in the East. Major newspapers were based in the East, and those not based in the East had substantial reporting resources available to them in the East. Foreign nations were focused on what was going on in the East. Lincoln’s biggest headaches came from results in the East. According to Noah Brooks, on hearing of Joseph Hooker’s defeat in the battle of Chancellorsville, “The appearance of the President, as I read aloud these fateful words, was piteous. Never as long as I knew him, did he seem to be so broken, so dispirited, and so ghostlike. Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked up and down the room, saying ‘My God! My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!’ ” In August of 1864, with Grant and Meade stymied against Lee and Jubal Early having almost entered Washington, Lincoln wrote his famous “Blind Memorandum” showing he fully expected to lose the election.

Likewise, with his emphasis on attacking and its accompanying casualties, Lee again may have been right. Connelly also begs the question of whether Lee was wrong in pursuing the offensive. We have to keep in mind Lee was aware of the great disparity in manpower and resources the Federals had, and given time they could bring more and more of those resources to bear. With that in mind, it was imperative to knock the Federals out of the war as quickly as possible before that could happen. That meant attacking and depressing Federal morale to the point where they would give up the struggle, believing they couldn’t win.

While Connelly makes some good points in his article, I think the article has some key flaws with some questions unpursued and assumptions made that aren’t necessarily correct. While Lee can be downgraded for his failure to inform himself and understand what was happening in the western theater and to understand the challenges officers in that theater faced, in my opinion it doesn’t affect one’s analysis of his performance in his own theater.

Subsequent articles in this series will consider other articles and books that bear on Lee’s generalship.



  1. charlie · · Reply

    Rosecrans did stymie Lee in West Virginia but I believe rain and mud had more to do with that than anything Rosecrans did.

    1. I included Rosecrans because of things other than West Virginia, such as the Tullahoma Campaign. He was more than just West Virginia.

  2. charlie · · Reply

    I wonder if there is this pushback against Lee because of the absurd, unrealistic praise of Lee by some professionals and partisans alike. It does seem like this pushback goes over the top on a few different issues about Lee. I do understand why Lee is this huge figure to people who revere the Confederacy today; Lee is far above anyone else in the Confederate ranks.

    1. I think “pushback” is too strong. There is a recognition Lee has not been fairly evaluated over the years.

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