Is Robert E. Lee Overrated?

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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.

I know that quite a few of our readers are interested in the Late Unpleasantness, and many have strong opinions on the subject!  If you would care to participate in the discussion, go here.

9 Responses to Is Robert E. Lee Overrated?

  • Personally, I think that the General Lee was in fact overrated.

  • I agree Lee was by far the best general of that war and probably in American history.

    Overrated? Some in perpetuating the Lee legend have tended to overstate Lee’s abilities. Longstreet, for instance, after the war flirted with Republicans, became a Catholic, and hob-knobbed with President Grant. The Lost Cause folks and especially Lee’s hagiographers in Virginia stepped up their criticisms of Old Pete, beginning a slander against him that is referenced even in the movie from which the clip headlining this post is taken. That is, that Longsteet’s reluctance vigorously to execute Lee’s orders on the second and third days at Gettysburg led to that defeat (and hence, to the ultimate fall of the Cause). Never mind that this slur was uttered only after Lee’s death, for Lee himself acknowledged many times that the fault for Gettysburg lied with him, not Longstreet. Never mind, too, that Longstreet was just plain right, no confederate army could successfully have dislodged Meade from the heights outside of Gettysburg. That battle was lost when Ewell neglected to do what Stonewall certainly would have, and that is press the broken Federal army on day one to capture Cemetery Hill and Culp’s.

    So the moral of the story is that while our greatest general, even Lee has been oversold somewhat. He was only mortal after all, and did make other mistakes (e.g., Malvern Hill, North Anna).

  • It depends.

    A read of Lee’s Terrible Swift Sword tells of his string of decisive victories from Antietam through Second Bull Run. Chancellorsville was the most dramatic drubbing of the Union army. If the Sun stayed up as it did for the Israelites, he’d likely have destroyed that federal army. Other federal armies would have been raised.

    Lee lost it at Gettysburg and it was mostly downhill from there. This is not to say that the South had an even chance. Without Lee the South likely would have been defeated much earlier.

    Tom is correct in all respects. IF Ewell had taken the Union lines before they could bring up the entire seven (was it five?) corpses (Obama!). That’s a big IF. The armies would yet have been in close proximity and a fight would have been fought; probably with a different outcome, assuming Lee lured Meade into doing for him that which Burnside did at Fredrucksburg or Hooker at Chancellorsville.

    Gettysburg seems the battlefield where Lee departed from his “modus” at very high cost. I believe it was that Lee abandoned the tactical defensive and made the same mistakes Burnside made at Fredericksburg. In fact the Irish Brigade soldiers at Picket’s Charge said, “It was Fredericksburg in rivarse.” And, the Union troops chanted “Fredericksburg” as Picket’s broken men retreated.

    Given the Confederacy’s limitations (compared to Union resources) the only salutary tactics available were tactical defenses (maybe guerrilla warfare) even if they went over to strategic offense.

    Another factor, the generals were just learning how to employ 19th century weapons and railroad supply movements. Attackers nearly always suffer higher casualties against a well-emplaced, well-led, prepared army.

    I believe George Washignton was the greatest American general. He cannot be overrated.

    “Late Unpleasantness”, “Lost cause”?? How about calling it what is was: the war of northern aggression? Is that in the Constitution?

  • In my view, Lee was a brilliant strategic and operational commander. He was also normally a very successful risk-taker. One of his problems during the Gettysburg Campaign was that he had grown accustomed over the last couple of years to the rabid aggressiveness of Stonewall Jackson. He had not really adjusted to the initiative and drive he lost when his most brilliant Corps commander was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville.
    Some have attributed the loss (with good reason) to muddling Corps commanders, others to Stuart’s absence (again, with reason), still others to Lee’s inability to compensate for the lack of his Cavalry’s scouting and screening functions), and many others to Longstreet’s reluctant and even tardy obedience to orders.
    Having retired as a mere Captain in Air Defense Artillery, I am unqualified to offer recommendations to one of the nation’s Great Captains. That being so, neither will I offer criticism as if I could and would have done better. Lee was aging and suffering from heart disease at the time. These factors may have contributed to Lee’s seeming inability to communicate his intentions and vision with accuracy and timeliness to his subordinates.
    I am profoundly grateful to God that there was a Robert E. Lee in the South. Without his leadership, however it may have failed at Gettysburg, Lincoln’s 75,000 volunteers may have been enough to suppress the rebellion within a year and a half. As it is, Lee gave the Union both the time and the necessity (more political than military) to re-tool public opinion of the war by casting it as being one of emancipation, rather than mere oppression. Without Lee’s leadership, all the world would have seen Lincoln for the Constitutional disaster that he was (and intended to be), and would have robbed many in both north and south of the comforting fiction that so many fought and died to free the slaves because that was the only way to get it done.

  • “Personally, I think that the General Lee was in fact overrated.”

    I am ashamed to admit how much time as an undergrad I wasted watching the Dukes of Hazard!

  • I would not say that Lee was overrated as a commander. Overrated I would apply to the following commanders:

    USA
    Major General John C. Fremont
    Major General Daniel Sickles
    Major General Ambrose Burnside
    Major General John Pope
    Major General Irvin McDowell
    Brevet Major General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick
    Brevet Major General Alfred Pleasonton

    CSA
    General Braxton Bragg
    Lieutenant General James Longstreet
    Major General John B. Floyd
    Major General John Bell Hood
    Major General Lafayette McLaws
    Major General Earl Van Dorn
    Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow

  • Lee recognized prior to the ‘Gettysburg’ offensive that the South would eventually lose a war of attrition in which it stayed on the strategic defensive, growing weaker as the North grew stronger. A Southern victory on Northern soil was the only chance to bring the war to a favorable conclusion. Fighting not to lose worked fine for the Yankees, but the Rebels had take the riskier course, and fight to win.

  • Robert E Lee probably lost the war for the South. One contribution he did make, however, was to encourage and end to violence at the end of the war.

    However, Lee often wrote that God fully intended the negro to be treated cruelly and painfully, in order to teach the negro his place. The letter most people assume shows Lee is anti slavery, is actually one of the most amazing pro slavery letters ever written.

    Lee claims its fine to pray for an end to slavery — someday. But God has to end slavery, he said, not man. And God might take 2,000 years or more. Meanwhile any man who would try to end slavery is evil. He equates owning slaves with spiritual liberty.

    But what about Lee’s supposed military genius?

    Shelby Foote said (paraphrasing) “Losing Gettysburg [and therefore the war] was the price the South paid for having Lee in charge.”

    Lee had remarkably able generals under him — Stonewall Jackson for one, Johnston for another. Lee’s speciality was taking credit for their daring successes. Lee shamelessly “brown nosed” Davis, while most other generals refused.

    Davis was known for his favoring people who flattered him — and Lee flattered Davis shamelessly. Few people today understand that Lee had virtually NO military battle experience at the begining of the Civil War — he was an engineer, and a good one. He was not a battle tested general.

    In fact, he wasn’t even a full colonel, until Lincoln made him one. This persistant myth that Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union forces is nonsense, –often repeated, but never by Lincoln, or Lee, or Scott, the person who supposedly offered it.

    Lee’s generals were very capable, particulary Jackson and Johnston. When Lee spurned their advice, or when they were not available, was almost criminally stupid. Lee got most his “true believers” killed off, and these men were irreplacable.

    The men that took their place were far different from those Lee sacrificed in stupid moves. The new men were eager to desert — in fact, over 2/3 of the rebel soldiers deserted. As early as Lee’s inept handling at Shaprsurg, out of 19,000 men who were suppposed to refor, only 5,000 did. A desertion ratio of 2/3– Davis himself went on a speaking tour later to beg, shame, and frigthen deserters to return. It didn’t work. Desertion is by far the biggest reason the war ended. And Lee’s ineptness is a big reason they deserted.

    Lee sincerely thought God should sort out who got killed– it was his job to send men to battle, God’s job to decide who died. But notice when Lee faced any personal danger, he wasn’t going to let God decided anything — he was going to run.

    Lee left Richmond on the FALSE rumor of a breach in the line. (By the way, Lee personally led the construction of the earth works around RIchmond and Petersburg — all done by slave labor, probably the biggest construction job in the South to that point — he used 100,000 slaves, under penalty of death or torture)

    He left the citizens without notice, without a word, and worse, ordered fires to be set to warehouses. With no men available to put out the spreading fires, the mayor of Atlanta had to ride out to the Union troops, under a white flag, and ASK FOR HELP to put out the fires.

    The Southern apologist have been forced to pump Lee into some kind of hero, militarily and personally. Yet Lee was all too human on both counts.

    We know now, from Elizabeth’s Pryors book “Reading the Man” that Lee did in fact have young women tortured, screaming at them during their torture. He also apparently regularly sold the infants from these young girls.

    We know Lee kept a “Hunting List” in his own account books of slave girls he most wanted captured. We know his slave almost universally hated him, and rebelled before the Civil War, to which Lee hired bounty hunters and paid extra for the torture of at least one young girl.

    We know Lee had sharpshooters in the rear of his own soldiers — killing those who would run away during battle, a tactic later mimiced by Stalin. (Page 410 of Pryors book). We know Lee’s soldiers hated him, and were deserting en masse.

    The real picture of Lee is almost directly opposite of the nonsense that has so far been deliberatedly fabricated about the man.

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