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Getting Right With Robert E. Lee
How to know the unknowable man
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
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.
If Chancellorsville can be considered Lee’s tactical masterpiece, his strategic masterpiece was the Second Manassas (Second Bull Run) campaign in August of 1862. In it, demonstrating an unerring sense of time as an element in warfare, he broke John Pope’s army, one of the two arrayed against him, before the other one, under McClellan, could join it to overwhelm him. His margin in accomplishing this feat was a matter of only a few hours, but Lee was unruffled. When asked if he was not worried that his advance, under Stonewall Jackson, might be destroyed before he came up with the rest of the army, he replied calmly, “Not at all. I knew he could hold on till we came, and that we should be in position in time.” Second Manassas, too, demonstrated how well he had learned the lessons of tactical command during the Seven Days. Now, as Robert Frost put it, “his dispositions for battle were beautiful. His two great divisions under Longstreet and Jackson were like pistols in his two hands, so perfectly could he handle them.”
Lee’s decision after the victory at Second Manassas to cross his country’s northern frontier (as he called the Potomac) and march into Maryland toward Pennsylvania has been much debated. Was it intended as an invasion? A raid? What could he hope to gain by changing the Confederacy’s overall posture from defensive to offensive? Lee’s rationale was simple and straight-forward: Crossing the Potomac was the only way to retain the initiative, and marching north offered the best way toward victory. General McClellan, he had learned, was once again his opponent, and he considered McClellan “an able general but a very timid one.” Looking back on the campaign, Lee put the case with nice brevity: "1 went into Maryland to give battle,” and had all gone as intended, "1 would have fought and crushed him.”