The Generalship of Robert E. Lee, Part Eight

An Old-Fashioned soldier in a Modern War? Robert E. Lee as Confederate General” is an article by Professor Gary Gallagher in Civil War History, Volume 45, Issue 4, December, 1999, pp. 295-321 [see also here and here]. He starts by reviewing how Lee is popularly viewed as an anachronism, a throwback to an earlier time. “Lee is cast as a man who thought of the struggle in terms of protecting his own state rather [than] advancing the cause of the entire Confederacy, forged a personal bond with his soldiers reminiscent of feudal relationships, focused on winning set-piece battles without taking in the broader political and social landscape of a modern war, and failed to [understand]  the implications of new weaponry such as the rifle-musket. Historians and other writers have employed an array of images that tie Lee to a knightly tradition and an agrarian age, presenting him as a localist for whom kinship and ancestral place mean everything.” [p. 295] Lee gets portrayed as looking backward while such generals as Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman are portrayed as forward looking and the first of the modern generals. According to Professor Gallagher, “Two very different groups of authors have nourished the anachronistic image of Lee as an old-fashioned general: those who admire him and intend their chivalric portrayal to be positive, and those more hostile who describe a commander out of touch with much of the military reality of his time. There is irony in the fact that these two groups became unlikely accomplices in creating a fascinatingly flawed interpretive tradition.” [pp. 295-296]

Professor Gallagher next goes through a number of writers who portrayed Lee as an old-fashioned general. Beginning with admiring writers like Jubal Early and other former confederates, Douglas Southall Freeman, Clifford Dowdey, and others, he moves onto scholars such as J. F. C. Fuller, T. Harry Williams, Russell F. Weigley, Peter J. Parish, Thomas L. Connelly, and Alan T. Nolan who viewed Lee in a negative light. “Several arguments stand out in their studies: Lee was a localist who thought first of Virginia and often ignored the broader needs of the Confederacy; Lee consistently sought to win crushing battlefield triumphs without understanding that technology and the political character of modern conflicts between democratic societies conspired to render truly decisive victories a thing of the past; Lee focused strictly on narrow military questions without seeing the many ways in which events on the battlefield and the home front intersected; Lee failed to grasp the terrible killing power of rifled shoulder weapons, and consequently pursued the tactical offensive so often that he nearly exhausted the South’s shallow pool of manpower and thus shortened the life of the Confederacy.” [p. 301]

Professor Gallagher also brings up scholars like Charles P. Roland, Albert Castel, Joseph T. Glatthaar, and Joseph L. Harsh who gave Lee credit for a modern approach to war. He then proceeds to show why Lee was neither “a glorious or misguided anachronism.” [p. 305] He tells us, “Lee understood very well the kind of war in which he was engaged and what it would take to win it. He consistently took a nationalist as opposed to a local view, discreetly using his influence to counter localist tendencies in key Southern states. He paid considerable attention to politics and civilian morale in both the Union and the Confederacy, and pursued battlefield victories as a means to undermine Northern national morale in a conflict that pitted the Confederacy against a foe with huge advantages of manpower and material resources. He crafted a strategy based on a careful, if sometimes flawed, reading of the military and political situation, and ultimately saw his best efforts dissolve in absolute defeat. In short, Lee adapted well to the demands of a conflict that far exceeded in scope and complexity anything he or anyone else could have anticipated in the spring of 1861.” [p. 305]

Professor Gallagher tells us Lee’s correspondence shows his national viewpoint clearly. “From the opening of the conflict until the final scenes at Appomattox, he urged Confederate soldiers, politicians, and civilians to set aside state and local prejudices in their struggle to establish a new Confederate nation. … Lee left the United States Army in April 1861 because of Virginia’s actions, but once his state joined the incipient slaveholding republic and he donned a Confederate uniform he operated as a nationalist. As David M. Potter observed more than thirty-five years ago in his pathbreaking essay on Southern nationalism [“The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” Journal of Southern History, 1964, reprinted in Potter, The South and the Sectional Conflict, 1968], individuals hold a variety of loyalties to family, religion, locality, state, region, and nation–any one of which can loom largest at different times according to circumstances. This certainly was the case with Lee, who spoke often of family and place and Virginia but for whom, during the Civil War, the needs of the Confederacy stood paramount. It is crucial to recognize that attachments to state and nation are not mutually exclusive, and Lee, whose correspondence prior to the war revealed loyalty to the South as well as to Virginia and the United States, should not be seen as a localist for whom Virginia meant everything.” [pp. 305-306]

Lee championed several policies that many interpreted as impinging on what others regarded as fundamental civil rights. He was in favor of conscription and full mobilization, for example. And he wanted men drafted to be used for national, not local service. “The practice of diverting men subject to the draft into local service far from the primary military fronts greatly upset Lee. He complained to Jefferson Davis in January 1864 that this ‘evil … is greater in South Carolina than in any other State, though it exists to some extent in all.’ South Carolina units in the Army of Northern Virginia had suffered serious attrition, yet replacements were hard to come by ‘principally, if not entirely, on account of the encouragement given to men to volunteer in regiments engaged in the defense of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and the measures adopted in that department to retain conscripts.’ Lee urged that no new enrollees be assigned to units in the department ‘but that they be equally distributed among those in the armies in Virginia and Tennessee.’ If the Department of War lacked the power to enforce such a rule, Congress immediately should confer it.” [p. 309]

Professor Gallagher next considers the idea that Lee’s strategic vision was limited to Virginia. “Lee exhibited no more localism in his strategic thinking than in his efforts to move the Confederacy toward national mobilization. The argument that he either dismissed or did not understand the military landscape west of the Appalachians, as propounded by scholars such as J. F. C. Fuller, Thomas L. Connelly, and Alan T. Nolan, assumes that because he called for resources in Virginia he must have been indifferent to areas beyond his home state. In fact, Lee monitored the entire Confederate military effort, often commenting on events in other theaters in his correspondence (and doubtless in his unrecorded private consultations) with the president and others. He read both Confederate and Northern newspapers sedulously, exchanged letters that touched on the military and political dimensions of the conflict with a range of people, and discussed the war with foreign visitors. Based on all he knew and surmised, Lee reasonably concluded that the Army of Northern Virginia operated in the most important theater, stood the best chance among all Southern forces of advancing the Confederate cause, and thus should be supported to the greatest possible degree in terms of reinforcements and materiél. The factors that led to these conclusions can be enumerated quickly. He understood the centrality of Richmond–based not on a provincial attachment to his native state’s capital but on the city’s political, psychological, and industrial importance to the Confederacy. He watched the war in the West unfold as a nearly unbroken series of Confederate disasters. Forts Henry and Donelson, Pea Ridge, Shiloh, the loss of Nashville and New Orleans, the loss of Vicksburg and control of the Mississippi River, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and numerous smaller failures paraded across the pages of the newspapers he read and came up in conversation and correspondence. He knew as well as anyone that the equality of generalship in other theaters failed to match that in the Army of Northern Virginia. Too careful with his official opinions to state plainly that other Confederate generals lacked his own ability and might not use resources effectively, he nevertheless occasionally betrayed his true opinion. One such instance came in May 1863, when leaders in Richmond debated whether to weaken Lee’s army to reinforce John C. Pemberton’s force at Vicksburg or Braxton Bragg’s in Middle Tennessee. Lee opposed detaching George E. Pickett’s division for service along the Mississippi, and in a letter to the secretary of war raised the subject of ‘the uncertainty of its application’ under Pemberton. Well might Lee worry about how his troops would be applied to the Confederate defense elsewhere, as Braxton Bragg’s misuse of two divisions under James Longstreet demonstrated later in 1863.” [pp. 313-314]

Professor Gallagher also answers those who claim Lee had no understanding of the political nature of the war. “Lee planned his campaigns with an awareness of their impact within the broader political and social framework of the war. Historians who have propounded the ‘chessmaster’ notion of Lee as a general who could not see past the immediate goal of thrashing the enemy’s armies overlook ample evidence to the contrary. Far from defining the contest as involving only generals and soldiers on the respective sides–a ‘professional exercise’ as T. Harry Williams termed it–Lee knew that it brought entire societies into conflict, and that the key to victory lay in destroying the will of the enemy’s populace to maintain a costly struggle. His correspondence from the spring and summer of 1863 is instructive in this regard. In mid-April, with Northern newspapers devoting considerable attention to Copperhead activities and with no evidence of significant Union military progress in any theater, Lee ventured a cautious optimism in a letter to his wife. ‘I do not think our enemies are so confident of success as they used to be.’ he remarked in a passage that touched on both home fronts. ‘If we can baffle them in their various designs this year & our people are true to our cause & not so devoted to themselves & their own aggrandisment [sic], I think our success will be certain.’ Much hard work and suffering lay ahead, but Lee believed the Army of Northern Virginia could influence the Northern home front. ‘If successful this year, next fall there will be a great change in public opinion at the North,’ he predicted. ‘The Republicans will be destroyed & I think the friends of peace will become so strong as that the next administration will go in on that basis. We have only therefore to resist manfully.’ ” [pp. 314-315] In other correspondence he advised Davis to do what was needed to divide loyal state opinion and to encourage the idea that peace was possible with a change in administrations.

Professor Gallagher next takes on the charge that Lee incurred unnecessary casualties by being too wed to the offense. “Historians who criticize Lee as being old-fashioned because he pursued offensive tactical victories almost invariably give him scant credit for linking such battles to civilian morale. Yet no one knew better than he that the Union possessed ample resources to win a protracted conflict if the Northern people remained resolute. As he told his son Custis in early 1863, nothing could ‘arrest’ the enemy’s power ‘except a revolution among their people’ that would erode Union commitment to prosecuting the war. And only ‘systematic’ Confederate military success would effect such a revolution. Nor did any officer on either side have a better grasp of how quickly civilian spirit rose and fell in reaction to reports from the battle fronts.” [p. 317] Lee had very good reasons for his offensive strategy. “He sought to use the strategic offensive to keep the Federals off balance, find opportunities to bring them to battle under favorable circumstances, and inflict defeats that would bolster Southern morale and weaken that in the North. This admittedly risky strategy was predicated on his ability to craft enough victories to persuade the North to abandon the war. Undeniably costly in terms of casualties, it nevertheless produced battlefield successes in 1862 and 1863 that worked wonders in inspiriting the Confederate people (who almost never accused Lee of wasting lives unnecessarily). Equally important, these victories also inspired the men in Lee’s army, the largest majority of whom remained steadfastly at their posts until very late in the conflict. In the short term, a white South that favored precisely the type of aggressive strategy that Lee pursued elevated him to an unrivaled position as a national hero; over the longer haul, Confederates behind the lines maintained a faith in him and his soldiers that prompted them to continue their resistance despite gathering signs of impending doom. Obsessed with counting casualties and quick to argue that Lee did not understand the relationship between his strategy and the Confederacy’s best interests, a number of historians have revealed a poor understanding of what bolstered Southern national morale. With the unerring precision of hindsight, these critics have emphasized the utterly obvious facts that Lee suffered heavy casualties and eventually lost the war–before moving on to argue that he must have developed a flawed strategy. In fact, Lee conducted campaigns based on his sound evaluation of each side’s resources and his reading of the tempers of the respective populations. He sometimes erred in his judgments, as when he asked too much of his exhausted army on September 16-18 at Sharpsburg or ordered the assault at Gettysburg on July 3, but those errors and his eventual failure should not obscure his fundamentally sound approach to applying the Confederacy’s resources under the most daunting of military and political circumstances.” [pp. 318-319] Professor Gallagher also points out that predominantly defensive operations in the war usually ended in disaster for the confederates. “Lee’s victory at Fredericksburg stands out as a conspicuous exception to this pattern but should not seduce anyone into believing it offered a model that could have brought Confederate independence.” [p. 319] Professor Gallagher also says it’s ludicrous to think Lee didn’t understand the impact of rifled weapons on battles. He points out that other generals usually identified as “modern” generals also conducted frontal attacks on occasion.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think Professor Gallagher understands Lee and has the best interpretation of Lee as a military officer. This is an excellent article and anyone who seeks to understand Lee as a military commander should read it.

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