The Generalship of Robert E. Lee, Part Nine

I found this article from Volume XXII, No. 3 (Autumn, 1992) of Parameters, which is the journal of the U.S. Army War College. Titled, “Lee and the Operational Art: The Right Place, the Right Time,” it’s from the late military historian Jay Luvaas. Page numbers are from the article. In this article we find the source of a very famous quote of Lee’s. “A few days after the battle of Gettysburg, the official Prussian military observer who had accompanied Confederate headquarters during the campaign asked General Robert E. Lee about his command philosophy. ‘I think and work with all my powers to bring my troops to the right place at the right time,’ Lee explained, then ‘I leave the matter up to God ad to the subordinate officers.’ To interfere at this stage ‘does more harm than good.’ ” [p. 2] Dr. Luvaas tells us this is “the essence of the operational art” and gives us the definition from Field Manual 100-5, Operations: “Operational art … involves fundamental decisions about when and where to fight and whether to accept or decline battle. Its essence is the identification of the enemy’s operational center-of-gravity and the concentration of superior combat power against that point to achieve a decisive success.” [p. 2] The operational level of war has been part of U.S. doctrine since 1982. Before that there were only two levels of war, strategic and tactical.

Dr. Luvaas starts by looking at the Gettysburg campaign. He tells us Lee’s motives for beginning the campaign were mixed. He wanted a new food source, he wanted to bring the Army of the Potomac into the open, and he wanted to short-circuit any planned Federal attack against Richmond. We can surmise his ultimate target. “In February 1863 Lee ordered the best topographical engineer in his army to prepare a map of the Shenandoah Valley ‘extending to Harrisburg, Pa., and then on to Philadelphia.’ ” [p. 3] Regarding another motive for the campaign, we learn “Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania lacked a geographical objective. … From this we may infer that he would rely upon what we today would call his operational skills to catch the enemy off balance and defeat him in detail, or to occupy defensible terrain where the enemy would have to attack. Since he read Northern newspapers and was aware of the growing anti-war sentiment in the North, he may also have assumed that the political and psychological effects of a victory on enemy soil would be greater than just another battle won in Virginia.” [pp. 3-4]

As Gettysburg students know, the Army of Northern Virginia got into a battle at Gettysburg against Lee’s wishes. “While Lee was counting on his skill at the operational level to maneuver the enemy into a position where they would have to attack him, circumstances now forced him to function at a lower level. ‘Coming unexpectedly upon the whole Federal army,’ he explained, ‘to withdraw through the mountains with our extensive trains would have been difficult and dangerous. At the same time we were unable to await an attack, as the country was unfavorable for collecting supplies in the presence of the enemy, who could restrain our foraging parties by holding the mountain passes with local and other troops. A battle had, therefore, become in a measure unavoidable, and the success already gained gave hope of a favorable issue.’ Thus limited to decisions at the tactical level, Lee ordered Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, heir to Jackson’s old corps, to follow up his success by assaulting Cemetery Hill ‘if he found it practicable.’ What ‘practicable’ meant under these circumstances probably was not as clear to Ewell as to Lee’s biographers. Ewell, who at the same time had been cautioned ‘to avoid a general engagement’ until the army had concentrated, decided to wait until his third division, which had been guarding the corps trains west of the mountains, had reached the field.” [pp. 4-5] Dr. Luvaas says Lee was standing with Ewell when Ewell made this decision, but that’s not correct. Lee was with A. P. Hill at the time.

After a short overview of the battle, Dr. Luvaas judges Lee’s management of the battle as “not impressive.” [p. 7] “Lee appeared unsure how much latitude to give to his principal subordinates–he gave operational latitude to Ewell, a new corps commander, and issued specific tactical orders to Longstreet, his most experienced subordinate. On 2 July he sent only one message and received only one report, despite the fact that two of his three corps commanders were new at the job. Lee’s theory of command and his conduct at Gettysburg suggest that he felt more comfortable at the operational than the tactical level.” [p. 7] I think this misses the mark. Lee issued specific orders to Longstreet because Longstreet had told McLaws to align in a manner Lee didn’t want. Once the attack commenced, Lee gave Longstreet complete latitude. Lee didn’t need to communicate with Hill because Hill’s forces were under Longstreet’s operational orders. Ewell had been Jackson’s reliable subordinate and had done well at the Second Battle of Winchester.

Dr. Luvaas next traces Lee’s development in the Civil War. Keep in mind he had only led troops in the field for three of his thirty-two years in the army prior to the Civil War. After taking over for the wounded Joe Johnston, “Lee’s first concern was to prepare earthworks for the defense of Richmond, an unpopular activity for which he was dubbed ‘the King of Spades.’ But in fact he did this primarily for operational considerations: these defensive lines ‘would enable a part of the army to defend the city and leave the other part free to cross the Chickahominy and operate on the north bank,’ sweeping down that river to threaten Union communications with the York River. The idea of constructing breastworks to minimize casualties did not occur to him until the end of the year, after the battle of Fredericksburg.” [p. 7] I think this was poor choice of words. Certainly the utility of breastworks to minimize casualties occurred to Lee, but he was going to be on the offensive, not the defensive. Dr. Luvaas continues, “Lee planned also to bring Major General T. J. Jackson’s two divisions from the Shenandoah Valley to turn the Union right flank at Beaver Dam Creek, but Jackson’s operations failed throughout the Seven Days battles (26 June to 1 July 1862). He was often late, occasionally i the wrong place, and sporadically lethargic, leaving Lee no choice but to emphasize tactical activity.” [p. 7]

Dr. Luvaas identifies an organizational problem. Lee’s army consisted of only divisions. “No larger formation was possible under existing Confederate law. But in the following weeks Lee reorganized his nine divisions into two ‘wings,’ which officially became ‘corps’ with the passage of enabling legislation later in the fall. Commanded by Longstreet and Jackson, his two best division commanders, the introduction of the corps now enabled Lee to operate effectively at a higher level.” [p. 8] Lee essentially modeled his corps on Napoleon’s, with one significant exception. Napoleon specified a corps would have a brigade of cavalry, which Lee did not include in his corps.

The next campaign was Second Manassas, which as we know was a success for Lee. “The secret to Lee’s success at Second Manassas was his obvious skill at the operational level. A turning movement by Jackson’s corps, with one cavalry brigade screening his advance, had led to the destruction of Union supply depots and the dislocation of the army and especially of its commander. Jackson’s corps functioned in this campaign the way Napoleon had intended with his organization–it located the enemy army, selected the terrain, gave battle on its own terms, and held on stubbornly until help arrived. On the second day Longstreet anticipated Lee’s orders for a general advance, and his smashing attack against the Union right wing produced the victory. Lee’ operations were better because they were simpler, and responsibility was in the hands of fewer subordinates–Jackson, Longstreet, and Stuart” [p. 8]

After going quickly through the battle of Antietam, Dr. Luvaas next considers the ANV’s success at the battle of Fredericksburg. “Lee’s success at the operational level was the key. When he moved Longstreet’s corps to Culpeper in late October, he left Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley until the enemy’s objective could be ascertained. Lee well understood. what today’s Army doctrine prescribes, that ‘ideally the initial plan for an operation will establish the commander’s intent and concept of operations and the responsibilities of subordinate units.’ ‘Should you find that the enemy is advancing from the Potomac east of those mountains,’ he wrote Jackson, ‘you will cross by either gap that will bring you in a best position to threaten his’ flank and cut off his communications.’ ‘You must keep always in view the probability of an attack upon Richmond … when concentration of forces will become necessary.’ Lee was good at establishing his intent. When scouts reported that the new Union commander, Major General Ambrose P. Burnside [That’s a typo. It should be Ambrose E. Burnside], was moving toward the area between Aquia and Fredericksburg, Lee ordered Jackson to march east of the mountains to Culpeper, and later, on 27 November, to take position south of Fredericksburg along the Massaponax. Meanwhile Longstreet prepared the battlefield by constructing breastworks, rifle pits, and artillery epaulements, and building a road to facilitate lateral movement behind his lines. On 12 December, convinced that the entire Union army was massing in his front, Lee called in Jackson’s divisions. The next day, atop a prominent hill in the middle of his lines, he witnessed the repulse of a serious attempt to break through Jackson’s lines to his right, and repeated efforts to storm Longstreet’s position behind the Stone Wall at Marye’s Heights on his left. Basically he left tactical decisions to his two corps commanders. After the battle Lee ordered a general strengthening of his lines by field fortifications, and as the parapets rose ever higher he reassured authorities in Richmond that the army ‘is as much stronger for these new entrenchments as if I had received reinforcements of 20,000 men.’ ” [p. 10]

We next consider the battle of Chancellorsville, with the Army of the Potomac now under Major General Joe Hooker. “Chancellorsville was won at the operational level. By keeping the two Wings of Hooker’s army separated, Lee successfully fought one battle whereas Hooker mismanaged two. With Longstreet still south of the James with most of his corps, Lee had to deal directly with two of his division commanders who were present at Chancellorsville, and because these were on opposite parts of the extensive battle area, he had to communicate with them at the operational level.” [pp. 10-11]

Dr. Luvaas then asks, ” where did Lee develop his exceptional operational skills? Certainly not as a cadet at the Military Academy, for contrary to popular notion West Point did not produce any Civil War generals. It produced second lieutenants, some of whom later went on to become generals! Nor is a complete answer to be found in Lee’s early experience. His first assignment upon graduation in 1829 was with the Corps of Engineers at Cockspur Island, in the Savannah River, Georgia. This was followed by successive tours on the staff at Fort Monroe, as assistant to the Chief of Engineers in Washington, and finally as an engineer on the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers. In 1840 he began a tour of inspection of three forts in the Carolinas, after which he went to work on the defenses of New York Harbor. In August 1846 he was ordered to report for service in Mexico: 17 years after graduation he finally was going to see a war.” [p. 12] After serving under John Wool Lee transferred to Winfield Scott’s staff. “According to Lee’s foremost biographer, ‘these were probably the twenty most useful months of his training as a soldier. . . . The lessons he learned on the road to Mexico City he applied in much of his strategy. Warnings he read in that campaign he never forgot …. He had acquired his experience under an excellent, practical master …. Even more valuable was Lee’s training in strategy [Le. operations] …. As a member of Scott’s ‘little cabinet,’ he sat in council when the most difficult of Scott’s [operational] … problems were being considered.’ History has been described as ‘a trick played by the living upon the dead,’ and there is a danger in reading too many ‘lessons learned’ into Captain Lee’s Mexican experiences. His foremost biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, probably had these ‘lessons’ more clearly in focus than did Lee. The Mexican War did, however, bring Lee back into the mainstream as a professional soldier, and the insights gained from listening to Scott and his staff discuss military problems and options must have been an invaluable part of his own military education.” [pp. 12-13] I think he’s right about this. Lee certainly learned much from Scott, but I agree not only Dr. Freeman but most biographers have overplayed what Lee may have learned from Scott. What came later was, in my opinion, just as if not more important.

After the Mexican War, Dr. Luvaas writes, “Lee, still a captain, returned to West Point as Superintendent in September 1852. Beyond question the next three years did contribute significantly to his military education. He read widely on geography, military biography, history, and the science of war. He developed a special interest in Napoleon’s campaigns, and the books he is known to have checked out from the West Point library probably contributed more to his military education than any other experience. On the title page of one of the books Lee read at West Point there is this revealing observation in his handwriting: ‘Minute tactics [are] learned from [drill] books which!reat on the various arms; General tactics, from duties of arms. Strategy [operations], from experience and criticisms on Campaigns and battles. Staff duties … executive and administrative … from the march and operations of an army.’ ” [p. 13] This was before there was any formal military education for officers after graduating from West Point. Lee embarked on his own professional education program, and he chose well. “For Lee understood, as did Napoleon, that the best time for real learning is when a mature soldier can relate his own experience to what he is reading. He was now 45 years of age-three or four years older than students today at the various war colleges. When he read a military biography he would have had no trouble identifying with the subject or understanding nuances that would elude the young officer. When he analyzed a Napoleonic campaign he would have tried to understand Napoleon’s motives and reasoning process, asking what were the options and why Napoleon did not choose another. We know that he checked out Montholon and Gourgaud’s Memoirs of Napoleon, which would have revealed Napoleon’s thought process when analyzing the campaigns of the Great Captains. Only by emulating these great models, Napoleon contended, and especially by understanding the basis for their decisions and the reasons for their success or failure, could modern officers ‘hope to approach them.’ ‘There are no precise or determined rules,’ he warned. Everything depends on the character that nature has given to the general, on his qualities, his shortcomings, on the nature of the troops, on the range of firearms, on the season, and on a thousand other circumstances which are never the same.’ ” [pp. 13-14] This is something most biographers either miss or gloss over. Lee learned far more from his own professional military education program than he learned on Scott’s staff because he was able to take the time to deeply analyze and think about what he was reading and apply the perspective of his experience to accept, reject, or modify what he read, and he didn’t forget what he learned.

Dr. Luvaas tells us, “It may be no coincidence that when Lee established the army corps it looked much like Napoleon’s-the same size and composition, except for the lack of an organic cavalry brigade-and he used it in much the same way. Certainly there was no American model to follow, and at Second Manassas Jackson’s corps, supported by cavalry, accomplished exactly what Napoleon had designed his corps to do-hold off the main enemy army until reinforcements arrived. It may also be relevant that Napoleon paid little attention to tactics, which he usually let his subordinate commanders handle.” [p. 14]

Lee’s next stage of development would be the first time he would lead troops in the field. “Promotions in the Engineers were slow, and when Lee left the Military Academy in 1855 he applied for a position in one of the two newly created cavalry regiments. Overnight he jumped from a captain of engineers to lieutenant colonel of the Second Cavalry, and soon after he was promoted to the rank of colonel and given the First Cavalry. When war broke out in 1861 Lee had spent 32 years in the army, 26 of them on the staff and only three with troops. He had never served with infantry or artillery, nor had he ever commanded more than 300 men in the field. His first assignment after resigning his Union commission on 20 April 1861 and offering his sword to his native state was to command the military and naval forces of Virginia as a major general, ‘with authority to direct the organization and operations of the troops, under the governor’s constitutional control.’ ” [P. 14]

With this position, Dr. Luvaas says Lee completed his military education. “Lee now had to think and plan at the operational level. He had to defend his native state against the various invasion approaches, distribute limited forces at suitable points to command railroads and rivers, determine the importance of the Maryland Heights and other key points in future operations, plan to defend Norfolk, contain the Union garrison at Fort Monroe, and keep the western part of the state loyal. He developed an early appreciation for good intelligence and the problems encountered in operating in a hostile environment.” [p. 14] He continues, “When Virginia ratified the ordinance of secession on 23 May 1861 and state forces were absorbed into the Confederate army, Lee was made a full general and given other responsibilities. He was sent to the western regions of the state to prepare the defense of Virginia in that remote theater. This forced him to think at the operational level. Which approaches should be defended? How could he coordinate the movement and actions of two separate columns, both commanded by fools. ‘I hope I have been of some service,’ he would write from this ‘western front’: ‘Things are better organized [and) … we are stronger. The three routes leading east are guarded …. The enemy has been driven back, and made to haul in his horns …. This has been done without a battle, but by a steady advance of positions.’ ” [p. 15]

Some Lee critics contend Lee was only concerned about Virginia. They forget another assignment Lee filled early in the war. “His next assignment was to command Southern coastal defenses along a 300-mile front from northern Florida through South Carolina. Here again he quickly formed a coherent system of defense by giving top priority to strong, strategic positions. Lacking troops to garrison the entire coast, Lee decided that all he could do was ‘to ascertain the points of attack, concentrate the troops in the district to meet the advance of the enemy, and if unable to drive him, to hold him in check until reinforcements can be forwarded from other districts,’ He planned to meet any threat by concentrating rapidly on the most defensible lines.” [pp. 15-16]

In March of 1862, Lee moved to Richmond to be the military adviser to Jefferson Davis. “He was now officially charged ‘with the conduct of military operations in the Army of the Confederacy … under the Direction of the President.’ In this capacity his main effort was to arrange for a coordination of troops under Stonewall Jackson to take the offensive in the Shenandoah Valley and play upon Union fears for the security of Washington. As early as 21 April, Lee suggested that Jackson use Ewell’s division to attack and drive back the forces under Major General N. P. Banks. Later he advised that ‘a successful blow’ against Banks in Strasburg would delay if not prevent Banks from moving to Fredericksburg or the Peninsula to reinforce McClellan. Although he rarely receives credit for it, from the beginning Lee was heavily involved with Jackson’s Valley campaign: He also was in frequent contact with General Joseph E. Johnston, who commanded the main Confederate army during the Peninsular campaign.” [p. 16]

As Dr. Luvaas writes, “when Lee was summoned to replace the wounded Johnston after the battle of Fair Oaks, he had already spent a year coping with threats and problems at the operational level. He had become skilled in assessing enemy capabilities and intentions. He had grown accustomed to accepting a reasonable degree of risk, and he had learned how to communicate his intent to detached commanders. He also understood how to direct operations from afar, when much depended upon circumstances previously unknown and ‘the exercise of discretion and judgment as to the time and execution.’ ” [p. 16]

This is a highly useful article, even if it has a few minor flaws in it. It illuminates Lee’s intelligence and his dedication to developing his ability to operate at the highest levels of military command. It shows important aspects of Lee’s education most students and biographers overlook.

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