Getting Right With Robert E. Lee

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The corollary to this battlefield selfconfidence is equally important to any understanding of Robert E. Lee the soldier: He invariably fought to win. Not every Civil War general fought that way. The Federals’ Henry W. Halleck, for example, was primarily interested in gaining territory when in field command. General McClellan was notorious for fighting, when he did fight, so as not to lose. Joseph E. Johnston, when he opposed McClellan in Virginia and later Sherman in Georgia and the Carolinas, constantly retreated in order to avoid defeat. Lee’s critics T. Harry Williams and the Englishman J. F. C. Fuller charge him with being both overly aggressive and strategically parochial, interested only in the Virginia theater of war. Williams terms him un-modern, “the last of the great old-fashioned generals.” In fact Lee was neither parochial nor old-fashioned. He understood exactly where the South might win this war and what was required to win it, and he singlemindedly bent every effort to that victory. It was a decidedly modern concept.

Southerners might win the war through foreign intervention, as their forefathers had won the Revolution, or they might win on the battlefield and so force the North to the peace table. Militarily the best the Confederacy could hope from any Western victories was simply to arrest the Federal advance there and gain a stalemate. On the other hand, the Confederacy could win its independence at a stroke by winning victories, or just one great victory, in the East. The destruction of the Union’s principal army and guardian of Washington, the Army of the Potomac, at a Sharpsburg or a Gettysburg or perhaps at Washington itself, offered the best chance to force the Lincoln administration to sue for peace. Even achieving a bloody stalemate against that army, as Lee nearly accomplished in the summer campaign of 1864, might go far toward gaining at least a negotiated peace and status quo antebellum—the South’s return to the Union with its “rights” and its peculiar institution intact.

While Lee did not discount the possibility of British and French intervention, he was realistic in warning against relying on it. “We must make up our minds to fight our battles ourselves,” he wrote in December 1861. “Expect to receive aid from no one. … The cry is too much for help.” There was nothing at all parochial in his outlook. One of his staff recorded his observation that “since the whole duty of the nation would be war until independence should be secured, the whole nation should for the time be converted into an army, the producers to feed and the soldiers to fight.” Toward this end Lee strongly endorsed a Confederacy-wide manpower draft, and the conscription bill that passed the Confederate Congress in Richmond in April 1862 was largely of his making.

That Lee frequently acted very aggressively in his strategy and often in his tactics is beyond dispute. That he often had no other practical choice is not always appreciated by those critics who, viewing Civil War battles through the lens of hindsight, rule them inherently indecisive because of the new weaponry and the old tactics of that day. It is true that Lee never gained the great war-winning battle, like Hannibal’s Cannae, that he sought, but that result was not foreordained. In 1862 and 1863, before the two armies became locked in the trenches before Petersburg, Lee fought battles that were decided by chance or by fate or simply by human frailty.

He grasped the enormous advantage in war of holding the initiative, of forcing the enemy to march to his drum, especially so since his was always the smaller army. At every opportunity he aggressively seized the strategic initiative, as he did on taking field command for the first time in June 1862 during the Peninsula campaign.

In fighting McClellan for Richmond in the Seven Days’ Battles, which opened in the last week of June, Lee adopted the offensive tactically as well as strategically. While his overall strategy was excellent, his tactics reflected his inexperience: his battle plans were too complicated, his staff work was poor, his orders were too demanding. The closest he came to a Cannae was at Glendale on June 30; Malvern Hill, the next day, was a disaster. Yet Lee had no real alternative to playing the role of aggressor in this week-long battle. To remain on the defensive was to allow McClellan to besiege Richmond, and to lose Richmond was a blow the Confederacy could not have survived, armchair generals to the contrary. In the event, Lee’s offensive, flawed as it was, was relentless, and his opponent gave way before it. This was also McClellan’s first experience of field command, and he broke under the strain. Lee took note of that lesson.