A New Trend Regarding Historians and R. E. Lee

I’ve noticed a new trend appearing among historians and their evaluations of Robert E. Lee. They are out to chip all the marble off the marble man, and in doing so it seems to me they’re hitting the man as well as the marble. In other words, it seems to me they’re going a bit too far. An example is this article. Michael McLean is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Boston College, and I think his article epitomizes the misunderstanding several historians trained in social history have regarding Lee as a general.

Image of R. E. Lee from the article.

Before I get to that, let’s take a look at the areas in which I mostly agree with Mr. McLean.

He starts by pointing out Lee committed treason against the United States. “Robert Lee was the nation’s most notable traitor since Benedict Arnold. Like Arnold, Robert Lee had an exceptional record of military service before his downfall. Lee was a hero of the Mexican-American War and played a crucial role in its final, decisive campaign to take Mexico City. But when he was called on to serve again—this time against violent rebels who were occupying and attacking federal forts—Lee failed to honor his oath to defend the Constitution. He resigned from the United States Army and quickly accepted a commission in a rebel army based in Virginia. Lee could have chosen to abstain from the conflict—it was reasonable to have qualms about leading United States soldiers against American citizens—but he did not abstain. He turned against his nation and took up arms against it. How could Lee, a lifelong soldier of the United States, so quickly betray it?” Lee’s oath actually was not to defend the Constitution. Rather, it was, “I do solemnly swear that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully and against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever; and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States.” Lee accepted a commission from Virginia on his resignation from the U.S. Army, not the confederacy or the rebel army.

His next point concerns Lee and slavery. “Robert Lee understood as well as any other contemporary the issue that ignited the secession crisis. Wealthy white plantation owners in the South had spent the better part of a century slowly taking over the United States government. With each new political victory, they expanded human enslavement further and further until the oligarchs of the Cotton South were the wealthiest single group of people on the planet. It was a kind of power and wealth they were willing to kill and die to protect. … Despite making a few cryptic comments about how he refused to fight his fellow Virginians, Lee would have understood exactly what the war was about and how it served wealthy white men like him. Lee was a slave-holding aristocrat with ties to George Washington. He was the face of Southern gentry, a kind of pseudo royalty in a land that had theoretically extinguished it. The triumph of the South would have meant the triumph not only of Lee, but everything he represented: that tiny, self-defined perfect portion at the top of a violently unequal pyramid. Yet even if Lee disavowed slavery and fought only for some vague notion of states’ rights, would that have made a difference? War is a political tool that serves a political purpose. If the purpose of the rebellion was to create a powerful, endless slave empire (it was), then do the opinions of its soldiers and commanders really matter? Each victory of Lee’s, each rebel bullet that felled a United States soldier, advanced the political cause of the CSA. Had Lee somehow defeated the United States Army, marched to the capital, killed the President, and won independence for the South, the result would have been the preservation of slavery in North America. There would have been no Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln would not have overseen the emancipation of four million people, the largest single emancipation event in human history. Lee’s successes were the successes of the Slave South, personal feelings be damned. If you need more evidence of Lee’s personal feelings on enslavement, however, note that when his rebel forces marched into Pennsylvania, they kidnapped black people and sold them into bondage. Contemporaries referred to these kidnappings as ‘slave hunts.’ ” Veteran readers of this blog will recall I’ve addressed Lee and slavery before. See here and here, for example.

He writes about how Lee was responsible for the large number of casualties in the East. “The Civil War dragged on even after Lee’s horrific loss at Gettysburg. Even after it was clear that the rebels were in trouble, with white women in the South rioting for bread, conscripted men deserting, and thousands of enslaved people self-emancipating, Lee and his men dug in and continued to fight. Only after going back on the defensive—that is, digging in on hills and building massive networks of trenches and fortifications—did Lee start to achieve lopsided results again. Civil War enthusiasts often point to the resulting carnage as evidence that Ulysses S. Grant, the new General of the entire United States Army, did not care about the terrible losses and should be criticized for how he threw wave after wave of men at entrenched rebel positions. In reality, however, the situation was completely of Lee’s making. As Grant doggedly pursued Lee’s forces, he did his best to flush Lee into an open field for a decisive battle, like at Antietam or Gettysburg. Lee refused to accept, however, knowing that a crushing loss likely awaited him. Lee also could have abandoned the area around the rebel capital and allowed the United States to achieve a moral and political victory. Both of these options would have drastically reduced the loss of life on both sides and ended the war earlier. Lee chose neither option. Rather, he maneuvered his forces in such a way that they always had a secure, defensive position, daring Grant to sacrifice more men. When Grant did this and overran the rebel positions, Lee pulled back and repeated the process. The result was the most gruesome period of the war. It was not uncommon for dead bodies to be stacked upon each other after waves of attacks and counterattacks clashed at the same position. At the Wilderness, the forest caught fire, trapping wounded men from both sides in the inferno. Their comrades listened helplessly to the screams as the men in the forest burned alive.  To his credit, when the war was truly lost—the rebel capital sacked (burned by retreating rebel soldiers), the infrastructure of the South in ruins, and Lee’s army chased one hundred miles into the west—Lee chose not to engage in guerrilla warfare and surrendered, though the decision was likely based on image more than a concern for human life. He showed up to Grant’s camp, after all, dressed in a new uniform and riding a white horse. So ended the military career of Robert Lee, a man responsible for the death of more United States soldiers than any single commander in history.” Gary Gallagher points out that Lee is a very bloody general. Grant doesn’t suffer high casualties until he goes up against Lee.

Finally, he gets to the portion with which I disagree. This concerns his view of Lee’s generalship. He writes, “Despite a mythology around Lee being the Napoleon of America, Lee blundered his way to a surrender. To be fair to Lee, his early victories were impressive. Lee earned command of the largest rebel army in 1862 and quickly put his experience to work. His interventions at the end of the Peninsula Campaign and his aggressive flanking movements at the Battle of Second Manassas ensured that the United States Army could not achieve a quick victory over rebel forces. At Fredericksburg, Lee also demonstrated a keen understanding of how to establish a strong defensive position, and foiled another US offensive. Lee’s shining moment came later at Chancellorsville, when he again maneuvered his smaller but more mobile force to flank and rout the US Army. Yet Lee’s broader strategy was deeply flawed, and ended with his most infamous blunder. Lee should have recognized that the objective of his army was not to defeat the larger United States forces that he faced. Rather, he needed to simply prevent those armies from taking Richmond, the city that housed the rebel government, until the United States government lost support for the war and sued for peace. New military technology that greatly favored defenders would have bolstered this strategy. But Lee opted for a different strategy, taking his army and striking northward into areas that the United States government still controlled. It’s tempting to think that Lee’s strategy was sound and could have delivered a decisive blow, but it’s far more likely that he was starting to believe that his men truly were superior and that his army was essentially unstoppable, as many supporters in the South were openly speculating. Even the Battle of Antietam, an aggressive invasion that ended in a terrible rebel loss, did not dissuade Lee from this thinking. After Chancellorsville, Lee marched his army into Pennsylvania where he ran into the United States Army at the town of Gettysburg. After a few days of fighting into a stalemate, Lee decided against withdrawing as he had done at Antietam. Instead, he doubled down on his aggressive strategy and ordered a direct assault over open terrain straight into the heart of the US Army’s lines. The result—several thousand casualties—was devastating. It was a crushing blow and a terrible military decision from which Lee and his men never fully recovered. The loss also bolstered support for the war effort and Lincoln in the North, almost guaranteeing that the United States would not stop short of a total victory.” Here he shows he doesn’t understand Lee’s strategy and doesn’t understand the strategic concepts involved. Lee understood the center of gravity for the United States was the public opinion in the loyal states. He sought to influence that opinion by creating the aura of invincibility around his army, and he almost succeeded in making the populace believe they were wasting the blood of their young men and forcing an end to the war. We have to remember that Lee was a highly intelligent general and knew his business well. The idea that an untrained person today can look at Lee’s performance and think Lee was a bad general is just ludicrous. [See also the series in this blog on Lee’s Generalship]

It’s unfortunate that students today aren’t getting a good grounding in military history and its various concepts. It’s a shortcoming that should be remedied. But Mr. McLean has it mostly right in his article. He just doesn’t understand Lee’s military strategy and how it was the best strategy to accomplish his goals. Lee was the second best general of the war, and the difference between Lee and Grant as generals was very small indeed. This was not a bad general at all. Young historians of today need to be shown the error of their ways in their claims that Lee wasn’t a good general.

3 comments

  1. It’s rare to find a scholar actually put these thoughts to paper. Usually this kind of thing is carried out by academics who are merely “twitter warriors.” The criticisms of Lee as tactician are convenient attempts to lend more historical weight to the slavery and racial charges(which are legitimate.) Driving McClellan from Richmond and Second Bull Run are clearly Lee at his best. Recent Grant revision naturally wants to bolster his much maligned credentials as battlefield leader by disparaging Lee’s.

    1. And yet it doesn’t do Grant’s reputation any good to say Lee wasn’t a good general, so if that’s the motive it’s ultimately self-defeating.

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