Lee’s Search for the Battle of Annihilation

This is an essay by Peter Carmichael in the book he edited, Audacity Personified: The Generalship of Robert E. Lee. In the essay, Pete assesses Lee’s generalship throughout the war, providing both positives and negatives in Lee’s performance. For example, he tells us, “Unlike many Union officers, such as Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, and Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia never recognized that Civil War armies were virtually indestructible. Lee’s failure to grasp this crucial point, coupled with his belief that attacking satisfied popular will, translated into costly strikes. In the final analysis, Lee violated Freeman’s maxim that all generals must understand what is practical. Early in the war, when his army possessed sufficient numbers, excessive aggressiveness mattered little against second-rate Union generals. Lee in fact emerged as the innovative tactician who could seemingly accomplish the impossible. Once his ranks had been depleted and his logistical base nearly exhausted, however, the Virginian needed to reevaluate his fundamental strategic assumptions. Instead he continued the elusive search for the battle of annihilation, which forced him to take chances, seize the initiative, and when possible, pursue the offensive.” [pp. 1-2]

Lee wasn’t the only one who preferred having the confederates take an aggressive stance in the war. The confederate populace wanted to see offensive victories–at least in the first half of the war. “Lee responded to the voice of public opinion throughout the war. While the Southern people had demanded offensively driven victories before 1864, the mood of civilians gradually softened after Gettysburg. Most Confederates recognized the value of the defense and the necessity of conserving manpower. Even those who did not understand the interplay between tactics and grand strategy acknowledged that the defensive would likely spare family members in the army. Lee, unlike most Civil War officers, recognized the war as a conflict between democracies, that the general population would play a crucial role in determining military success. Despite this sophisticated view of war, Lee failed to appreciate that defensive victories could sustain Southern morale in 1864 while serving to dishearten the North.” [p. 2]

Over the years, scholars and other writers attributed Lee’s aggressiveness to various motivations, including “his fighting blood,” and in one bizarre example, as a release for his pent-up sexual frustrations. “Those who see Lee’s offensive proclivities as a consequence of his warlike spirit unwittingly turn the general into an unthinking creature, a man governed by animalistic impulses. Upon closer inspection, this argument does not hold up. Aggressiveness is not a biological trait. It is a cultural value whose meaning and importance continually change in relation to society’s expectations. Lee came of age when courage and aggressiveness defined manhood at the most fundamental level. Without these qualities, no Southerner could ever gain community acceptance as a man. On a personal level, Lee probably believed that aggressiveness, if properly channeled and governed responsibly, was the defining characteristic of manhood.” [p. 4] I have no doubt Pete’s interpretation fits what he’s uncovered in his research; however, I think it misses the mark when it comes to why Lee preferred to take the offensive to attribute it to his definition of manhood and his search for community acceptance. Much better, in fact what I believe hits the nail on the head, is what Pete writes in the next paragraph: “The Virginian’s academic courses at West Point, particularly his own studies of Napoleon’s campaigns, made him an advocate of offensive action in the abstract. The practicality of this doctrine was confirmed during his Mexican War service with Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott. Emory Thomas has observed that Lee, after witnessing Scott’s successful assaults against the poorly armed Mexicans, was convinced of ‘the efficacy of the offense.’ Lee admired ‘Scott’s bold strategy and probably developed a confidence in attacking that made him miscalculate against an enemy well led and armed with rifles instead of much shorter-range muskets.’ By 1861 Lee firmly believed in the offense, not because it suited his aggressive impulses but because it offered the best chance for military success. He applied this philosophy after careful thought and deliberation, not as a natural reflex of his personality or an outlet for a repressed Freudian desire. He did not fight the war based on instinct.” [pp. 4-5] That, I think, nails it.

Pete next considers Alan Nolan’s criticisms of Lee in his book, Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. Nolan believes Lee fought the wrong type of war, that Lee should have maintained the defensive and only attacked in specific, isolated instances where conditions were right for the attack. Pete deals effectively with this argument. “In the final analysis Nolan’s interpretation suffers from a timeless approach that does not account for the Confederacy’s changing military and political needs. Nolan insists that a defensive posture suited the Confederacy throughout the war. If Jefferson Davis and lee had adhered to such a conservative policy in 1862 and 1863, they would have squandered amazing opportunities to strike a blow for independence. Furthermore, the Southern people demanded bold action from their armies, as Gary W. Gallagher conclusively demonstrates in The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat. They denounced passive generals like Joseph E. Johnston, whose constant retreating during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign unleashed a storm of public criticism. Lee himself came under fire early in the war when Southerners perceived him as passive and weak. North Carolinian Catherine Edmondston worried when she heard reports that Lee had assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia after Johnston’s wounding at Seven Pines. Earlier she had condemned Lee as an officer who was ‘too timid, believes too much in masterly inactivity, finds ‘his strength’ too much in ‘sitting still.’ ‘ ” [pp. 8-9]

He continues, “his condemnation of the Virginian’s aggressive generalship does not make sense when looking at the Confederacy’s specific strategic and political needs between 1861 and mid-1863. offensive campaigns as implemented by Lee offered the South its best chance for success during this period. Beginning with the Seven Days and culminating with his tactical masterpiece at Chancellorsville, Lee emerged as the South’s premier general by relying on offensive action. During the Pennsylvania and Maryland raids, lee took calculated risks, both strategically and tactically, but these actions had a reasonable chance of securing either a peace settlement with the North or European recognition. A defensive posture would not have achieved these war aims, a crucial point that Nolan tends to diminish. At that stage of the conflict, when the South’s manpower and resources were relatively plentiful and civilian morale was intact, Lee’s aggressiveness complimented [sic] Confederate grand strategy. Gallagher and Joseph L. Harsh have assumed this position in their counterattack against Nolan and the ‘too much offense’ school. Both historians stress the need to look beyond Lee’s high casualties by focusing on the political effect of his victories. Lee’s exploits damaged Northern morale while creating a Lee mystique that sustained Southern morale to Appomattox.” [p. 9] Pete has a critique of Gallagher and Harsh regarding their view of Lee, though. “Both Gallagher and Harsh also overlook how Northern and Southern expectations changed in 1864. Offensive victories were no longer necessary to bolster the South and depress the North. Moreover the Army of Northern Virginia lost the capacity to achieve a victory of annihilation after the crushing losses at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. By the spring of 1864, the time had come for the Confederacy to try to outlast the North through a defensive strategy geared toward stirring political turmoil before the pivotal presidential election. Defensive victories not only preserved precious Southern manpower but also intensified Northern war weariness and dissent at a time when Lincoln desperately needed good military news. Offensive failures, particularly Early’s Valley Campaign, had a devastating effect on the South while reviving Northern hopes that the end was near.” [p. 11]

Pete points out Lee didn’t appear to have ever reassessed his assumptions about the best course of action and that while other generals realized Civil War armies were remarkably resilient and incredibly difficult to destroy, Lee doesn’t appear to have had that realization.

“In the end the Southern people wanted victories that were bought by conservative, defensive measures because such tactics saved their loved ones’ lives while complementing the nation’s strategic goals at a time when manpower was at a premium. More than anything, they wanted their armies to stay intact, their soldiers to remain behind breastworks, their generals to avoid unnecessary risks, and their despised enemy to continue attacking. Aggressive desires still burned in the hearts of many, particularly those in the ranks but the military reality of the situation undercut any sustained enthusiasm for open warfare or frontal attacks.” [p. 25] “The Army of Northern Virginia,” he tells us, “consequently, sustained battlefield losses at a time when Confederate manpower should have been conserved. This criticism is not an indictment of Lee’s generalship. More than any other Southern general, he came closer to bringing the Confederacy to the verge of independence. He deserves tremendous credit for trying something in 1864. Most generals in Lee’s situation would have wasted all their energy pleading to the Davis administration that nothing could be done without more men. Still, Lee’s offensive forays during the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns and Early’s mission to the Shenandoah Valley nearly drained all the sand out of the Confederacy’s hourglass. Lee should have avoided expensive battles and assumed a more conservative approach. A defensive operational strategy afforded the best chance to ruin Lincoln’s reelection bid while protecting Southern manpower. No one knows what would have happened if the Peace Democrats had swept the fall elections, but that appears to have been the South’s last legitimate chance to independence. In the spring of 1864, everything depended on breaking the North’s will to fight. Defensive tactics alone could have accomplished this goal.” [p. 26]

Pete’s thesis is intriguing, and has much merit to it. I think, however, it ignores the defensive posture Joe Johnston assumed in Georgia in 1864 and the resultant failure of that posture. Could a defensive posture win in 1864 in Virginia? Why could it not have a similar outcome in Virginia to what it had in Georgia? It seems to me Lee’s known penchant for the offensive made the threat of counterattack highly credible. Had he assumed a strictly defensive posture, would that have made things easier on Grant? There would have been no raid by Early that came to the outskirts of Washington. Grant would have been free to continue to constrict the confederate line, albeit at a quicker pace. A defensive posture, in my view, had as much chance of leading to a faster surrender as it had of exhausting federal will to continue.

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