Is Robert E. Lee Overrated?
Paul Zummo, the Cranky Conservative, and I run a blog on American History: Almost Chosen People. Yesterday Paul raised the question: Is Robert E. Lee Overrated?
Yeah, the post title is somewhat deliberately provocative, but it’s also meant to be a serious question that I hope will spark some discussion. I was going to ask it in the comments to Donald’s post below, but thought it might be useful fodder for debate in its own right.
I should emphasize that by asking the question I am not assuming an answer either way. I am a Civil War buff. I have studied this era in American history for years, and have traveled to multiple Civil War battle sites, and have read countless biographies and general histories of the era. Having said that, I will admit that my weakness when it comes to this period – and really history in general – is military tactics. I’ve read about the Battle of Gettysburg more times than I can count, and visited the battlefield just about a year ago to the day. Yet I probably would have difficulty right now recounting exactly how the battle shook out. This is one of those areas where something just doesn’t click for me – kind of like biology and, well, most science topics to be blunt.
So I throw this out because I am genuinely curious, and I’d like to hear from those in the audience with some more familiarity. I’ve heard it suggested by more than one historian that Lee was overrated, and that perhaps his aggressive forays into the North were foolhardy adventures that doomed the Confederacy. I’m not sure I agree with this, but as I said, I’d like to hear from folks who are better acquainted with military history, tactics, etc.
My response from the comboxes:
I can’t imagine the Confederacy surviving for four years without Robert E. Lee. The Union was knocking on the gates of Richmond in 1862 when Lee took command. Without his Seven Days offensive I think it is beyond doubt that Richmond would have fallen. His offensive into Maryland took the pressure off Virginia until Burnsides’ winter offensive which Lee smashed at Fredericksburg. In the Spring of 1863 Lee routed at Chancellorsville an army which outnumbered his two-one, something I can’t imagine any other general in that war accomplishing. His offensive into Pennsylvania was a roll of the dice. If he had been able to heavily defeat the Army of the Potomac on northern soil, support for the war in the North may well have crumbled. As it was, Lee’s offensive once again took the pressure off Virginia for almost a year, except for Meade’s Mine Run Offensive in the Fall of 1863 which a heavily outnumbered Lee defeated through pure maneuver. In 1864 Lee faced Grant, the best general in the Union army. Grant outnumbered Lee in total troops in the theater close to 3-1, and usually had battlefield odds of close to 2-1. Grant’s men were superbly supplied, while Lee’s men were dressed in rags and near starvation rations. Even so Lee fended Grant off and inflicted over 50,000 casualties on Grant in one month, which resulted in cries of Grant the Butcher ringing throughout the North, almost costing Lincoln the election. At last, when all hope was gone, Lee and his army held the trenches at Petersburg for nine months, extending the life of their country for that same time period. I have no doubt that Robert E. Lee is by far the greatest general in American history.
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