- Historic Sites
Getting Right With Robert E. Lee
How to know the unknowable man
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
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: "I went into Maryland to give battle,” and had all gone as intended, "I would have fought and crushed him.”
Pickett’s Charge is the best argument for critics of Lee’s overaggressiveness. But the order for it came out of everything Lee was.
Of course, all did not go as Lee intended, for chance intervened. A careless courier lost a copy of his campaign plan, and it was found by a Yankee soldier and brought to McClellan. The consequence was the Battle of Sharpsburg (or Antietam), on September 17. Sharpsburg was a battle Lee did not have to fight; so slow was McClellan to act on the lost order that Lee could have slipped back across the Potomac had he wished. Porter Alexander, an artillerist in Lee’s army and a particularly astute observer, was blunt in calling it “the greatest military blunder that Gen. Lee ever made.” However, Alexander offered the further observation that when General McClellan brought his greatly superior army to the banks of Antietam Creek, “he brought himself also.” This was the actual reason Lee blood and fought there. He was certain he could beat the timid, cautious McClellan in any pitched battle, and indeed, he did out-general him that day and gain a narrow tactical victory, inflicting 20 percent more casualties than he suffered. Even at that, his army was too badly hurt to continue the campaign, and he had to fall back to Virginia. The profit of Sharpsburg was not worth the cost.
To say this is not to say that Lee was being overly aggressive in crossing the Potomac and marching north. With his army intact and rested and operating as he intended on ground of his own choosing, facing a general he was supremely confident he could beat, Robert E. Lee had every reason to believe he would win the showdown battle he sought. In these fall months of 1862 his troops and his lieutenants were in good form and good morale, and he was at the peak of his own powers, and when he insisted that without the mischance of the lost order he would have crushed McClellan, his opinion is worth respect.
The wounding of his army in Maryland forced Lee to surrender the strategic initiative for the first time since taking command, but thanks to the two generals who faced him next, this proved to be no disadvantage. “I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find some one whom I don’t understand,” Lee said when he learned of McClellan’s dismissal after Sharpsburg. He need not have worried. He understood these two perfectly.
December saw McClellan’s successor, Ambrose Burnside, hurl his army fruitlessly against the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg in the most senseless attack of the war. Longstreet remarked that so long as his ammunition held out and they kept coming, he would kill Yankee soldiers until there were none left in the North. Five months later, in May 1863, it was “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s turn to challenge. Lee sarcastically referred to him as “Mr. F. J. Hooker” and once again took cruel advantage of the fact that his opponent was commanding an army in battle for the first time.
At Chancellorsville, Hooker lost his nerve and halted. “For once I lost confidence in Hooker,” he admitted, “and that is all there is to it.” Seizing the moment, Lee divided his forces in front of an army outnumbering him almost two to one and sent Stonewall Jackson on one of his patented flank marches. Jackson’s attack sent the Yankees flying, Lee exerted pressure on all points of the line, and Hooker hastily admitted defeat and took his army back to its starting point. For Lee the great victory was marred by the mortal wounding of Jackson; with Jackson gone, he said, he had lost his right arm.