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Assess the Generalship of Robert E. Lee

In the South for many years after the civil war, Lee was a hero and a great symbol of Southern strength. In recent years, however, his ability as a commander has come under great attack, from all sides. Since the publication of Nolan’s essay, “Lee Dissected”, huge arguments have arisen over whether or not Lee was the symbolic hero he has been previously made out as. Nolan and other “revisionists” have suggested that Lee was overly aggressive, and was unable to view the bigger picture. Nolan and other like-minded historians have some founding in this claim, with examples such as Pickett’s charge. On the other hand, Lee was vastly outnumbered, and his aggressive policies gained him victories that would otherwise have been lost had he not been in control. The south was outnumbered and outsourced colossally by the North, for instance, the North’s firearms production outstripped the South by 32:1!

With this in mind, Lee from the outset had an uphill struggle in winning the civil war and his overly aggressive strategy gained him huge victories that would otherwise have been lost. On the other hand, as Nolan and Bonekemper suggest, had he kept in mind the larger picture, these victories could have been used to greater effect and the humanitarian resource budget could have been better spent. The orthodox view that Lee did the best he could with the limited resources that he had, known as the Lost Cause, is widely shared. Lee was vastly outnumbered in many different ways. For instance, the North’s iron production beat the South’s by 15 to 1, and their Naval ships tonnage was just 1 25th of the North’s. The common view is that the Civil War was a “Lost Cause” and that no General, no matter how amazing could possibly have won the War. The only thing that could be expected from a general in this position is that he won as many battles as possible, and Lee did this very well, winning battles against overwhelming forces and resources.

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Lee himself, when addressing the Army of Virginia on his departure says “The Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources”. For Instance, at Antietam/Sharpsburg Lee forced a stalemate with overwhelming Northern opposition. Although it essentially ended Lee’s strategic campaign, it is a prime example of Lee’s ability to fight aggressively through an overwhelming force. At Fredericksburg, the Northern Army of the Potomac was crushed by Lee’s forces. Burnside, of the North, ordered a full-frontal attacking charge on Lee, who was very well dug in, behind a stone wall and a sunken road. Six divisions of men were sent into the centre of Lee’s defences, where they had to run over 400 metres of open ground. Lee’s men slaughtered the oncoming battalions, and this destroyed the already bruised Army of the Potomac.

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Another example of Lee’s amazing ability to gain victory against overwhelming opposition was Chancellorsville, where the Union forces were over twice the size of the Confederate forces. Hooker, of the North, decided to try and envelope Lee and cut off his supply lines. Most other Generals at this point would have retreated, but Lee’s aggressive personality led him to divide an already dwarfed force and attack at weak points in Hooker’s lines. This worked, and the Union army began to retreat. Yet again, Lee divided his forces and attacked Hooker’s weak right flank. They took over 4,000 prisoners. The Union forces again retreated giving the Confederates the high ground. These two examples of Lee’s aggressive strategy lead me to believe that the Lost Cause theory can be clearly grounded in Lee’s actions. At Chancellorsville, had any other general been in command, the battle would almost certainly have been lost. Lee’s aggressive personality led to this victory, and without his ability to do this, the battle would certainly have been lost.

Even in the last year of the war, as the odds were starting to become clear, Lee held Grant off and inflicted huge casualties upon the Northern forces. Even after Grant had moved to the Eastern theatre to take control over the Army of the Potomac, Lee still manages to keep him at bay, and it was only until the battles reached Richmond, that Lee’s strength began to crumble. As Benet called him, Lee was the “marble man”, and McPherson suggests that he was the only realistic chance of winning the war for the South. It is true to say that Lee really was the man that saved the South from crumbling earlier. Although he was an aggressive attacker, these attacks gained vital ground towards crumbling Northern Morale and overstretched supply lines. To suggest the “revisionist” theory that Lee was responsible for the loss of the war is hard to support. Lee was vastly outnumbered on all fronts, yet he still managed to crush the Army of the Potomac’s morale. One could say that Lee’s disregard for the loss of life could have lost him in the War.

After all, the South had many fewer men than the North, and for Lee to send them unequipped and unprepared into situations which would certainly cause massive loss of life. He turned to a war of attrition, and there was no way in which he could win a war of attrition due to the smaller size of his forces. Lee, however, can hardly be blamed for the loss of the War, the simple fact was that the North were better supplied, equipped and vastly outnumbered the South. They dwarfed the South, with as Shelby Foote said “One arm tied behind their back”. The War was a Lost Cause from the start, with or without Lee. The revisionist view of Lee is that he is the cause of the loss of the Civil War. Bonekemper suggests that the war was lost in the West due to Lee’s refusal “to part with troops for this critical theatre”. Bonekemper is convinced that Lee played directly into the Union forces’ hands by constantly attacking.

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An ally of his, J.F.C. Fuller once said “the more we inquire into the generalship of Lee, the more we discover that Lee, or rather the popular conception of him, is a myth”. Both Bonekemper and Fuller blame Lee for continuing the War after the onset of the Petersburg siege, and this view that he played too aggressively is shared by Alan Nolan. The revisionists suggest that Lee was a great battlefield commander, but he was unable to see the bigger picture. This argument could be founded in Lee’s lack of care in the use of men and resources. The revisionists even go as far as to say the loss of the Civil War is solely down to Lee. At Pickett’s charge, Gettysburg, Lee sent six brigade’s of men into a very strongly defended position, over 400 metres of open ground. Thousands were slaughtered, with nothing gained. This kind of uncalculated waste leads the revisionists to their conclusion that Lee was unable to forecast and see the bigger picture. As Shelby Foote said, “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Robert E. Lee”.

This, however, could be down to the fact that with many victories, losses must occur. On the other hand, the kind of wastage that occurred at Pickett’s charge was in no way beneficial and the fallout of which lasted well beyond the battle. Had the charge been effective in routing just a couple of trenches, then the attack could possibly be justified, but little was gained, and a huge amount was lost. Another charge that is brought against Lee is that he too often left the Western theatre to its own devices. He refused to allow many troops to be redeployed to the West, and Bonekemper even suggests that he should have made more of a concerted effort to stop Hood from being given command of the army of Tennessee. The lack of defence of the Western theatre ended the long war strategy that the Southern units should “trade space for time”. Without the vast Western theatre properly defended, the South could not simply disappear and cause an overstretch of the Northern lines, they had to stand and fight at every point, and eventually, the South would run out of steam.

Richmond was really a non-essential part of Southern strategy, and could quite easily have been handed over in order for Lee to continue with the “space for time strategy”. Richmond really stayed as a reminder to the North of the South’s will and the surrender of Richmond in Lee’s mind, went against the Southern honour. This, however, was a national strategy that was up to Jefferson Davis and not a military strategy. McPherson states that “National Strategy, the definition of a nation’s political goals In a time of war; and military strategy, the ways in which armed forces are used to achieve these goals”. Lee’s responsibility fell under the military strategy, and a move such as moving the capital was up to Jefferson Davis, not the decision of a military commander. On the other hand, Lee had a strong influence over the way in which both political and military strategy was decided, so it would not have been out of his reach to encourage Davis to move the capital back to Montgomery.

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Both the orthodox and revisionist views have a good grounding in the history of the American Civil War. Lee was no doubt an extremely able military general, whose victories certainly slowed the Union victory. As the revisionists point out, Lee was poor at seeing the bigger picture. His lack of preservation of men and equipment led to massive wastage. This certainly meant that the already forces lost men that they desperately needed to keep the Union forces at bay. Lee, however, won some amazing victories through this method. His victory at Chancellorsville for instance could never have been done by a different General. The revisionists view that his lack of overview is well-grounded, through his aggressive policies. On the other hand, however, it was not Lee’s responsibility to create a National strategy for the South. That was up to Davis, and his national strategy was to defend the South and stop the Union forces.

The definition of military strategy was to use the armed forced to carry this out. This however was simply an unobtainable target, but it was Lee’s duty to carry it out to the best of his ability. Lee’s aggressive strategies no doubt cost huge amounts of life, many of which were lost unnecessarily but this is to be expected in a war where he is vastly outnumbered. Lee was a fantastical commander with a natural ability to lead, but his poor understanding of the long term no doubt cost lives. Many men were needlessly lost, but Lee was simply doing his best to achieve the “National Strategy”, something which he should have had no part in – he was simply following orders, and that he did very well. Even Pickett, a man sent to slaughter by Lee, when asked to reflect on who he thought was responsible for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg said “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

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Assess the Generalship of Robert E. Lee. (2021, Jun 22). Retrieved September 30, 2022, from