Part of the cluster of assumptions that form the concept known as ‘the lost cause’ is the oft-repeated claim that the Confederacy had the better generals.
When you think about the USA’s infamous B team it’s tempting to accept this statement as fact. The B team was made up of generals Banks, Butler and Burnside. Banks got so throroughly thrashed by Confederate general Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson anno 1862 and lost so many supplies in the process that the Confederates started referring to him as ‘commissary Banks’. Later he would be humiliated in the strategically pointless Red River campaign. Butler somehow managed to be completely blocked by an inferior Confederate force under PGT Beauregard as late as 1864. Burnside, the least incompetent of this triumvirate of military ineptitude, managed to hurl his forces headlong against Lee’s strong position at Fredericksburg, but also managed to bungle an original plan in the summer of 1864 of digging a tunnel towards the Confederate lines at Petersburg, detonating a huge mine under their fortifications and splitting their line with a strong assault. The explosion was massive and tore a gap in the Confederate breastworks, but the assault that followed was disastrous. The Union men somehow charged straight into the crater they had created and got butchered in what some called ‘a turkey shoot’. The affair lead Lincoln to lament: ‘Only Burnside could have managed such a coup, wringing one last spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory.’
Aside from the B team there is of course also the almost comical case of general George B. McClellan. Although extremely popular with the troops and a skilled organizer, he was also strangely paranoid. He always assumed the Confederates heavily outnumbered him, and although he had arguably the best equipped army in the world at that time under his command he failed to use it.
When these four names come to mind it’s indeed tempting to think the Confederacy had the better generals. But what about Confederate generals such as John B. Floyd and Gideon Pillow, who early in the war lost Fort Donelson and were too cowardly and too vain to go into captivity along with their men? There was John Bell Hood who proved that an army could commit suicide in a series of insane frontal assaults at a time he should have known that succesfully attacking fortifications was a near impossibility. There was Braxton Bragg who even when victorious managed to waste any strategic advantage and was such a poor leader that his own officers practically mutinied against him. There was Joseph E. Johnston who, although skillful at retreating, did not do much else than retreat or complain he did not have the resources to do anything. There was John C. Pemberton who was clueless as to how to respond to Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg, the Confederacy’s Gibraltar.
So where are these great generals? There is the celebrated Stonewall Jackson of course whose valley campaign in 1862 is still studied at military academies, but he was up against some of the poorest Union commanders, and at other times he could be unreliable, such as during the seven days’ battles around Richmond. Beauregard was probably a little underused by the Confederacy because of personal tensions between him and president Jefferson Davis, but his suggestions on the strategic level were often simply impossible to execute. Although he was correct in wanting to concentrate a large force instead of distributing Confederate forces into small pockets. James Longstreet proved to be a dissapointment in independent command. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was a brilliant cavalry commander, but never commanded a large army. He probably could not have done worse than Hood or Bragg, but we will never know how he would have handled a force of about 60,000 men, he usually commanded only a couple thousands. General Albert Sidney Johnston died too soon to be appraised, but since he left the planning of the battle of Shiloh to Beauregard, one may assume he was not a military genius either. None of the Confederate generals in the trans-Mississippi stand out, except for general Richard Taylor perhaps. There were plenty of excellent, hard-hitting divisional commanders in the Confederacy, but the Union had plenty of those as well.
That leaves us general Robert Edward Lee. Many view him as a military genius and one of the greatest commanders who ever lived. However, these ideas were significantly amplified after the war by one of his staunchest supporters, general Jubal Early. He was revered so much that he became a popular icon on both sides of the Mason-Dixie line. Because of his almost exalted status it has fairly recently become a trend to try and dethrone the man. You can now easily find descriptions of Lee by authors who try to bash and villify the general. Let us try to come to a fair evaluation of his generalship during the war of the rebellion.
A lukewarm start
His first campaign in the western part of what was then still Virginia was far from brilliant. Historians agree on that. You could argue that he had rather poor officers under this command there in rugged terrain in a region that did not really support the Confederacy all that much. After this short period in which he accomplished little, he was sent to Charleston to bolster the defenses of this important harbor. Everyone agrees that he was a talented engineer who boosted Charleston’s defenses. After that he served as Jefferson Davis’s advisor. A thankless job since Davis preferred to be in control of all military matters. When general Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded at the battle of Seven Pines Davis gave the army defending Richmond to Lee. Historians tend to agree that what followed is one of the most brilliant campaigns ever fought. McClellan’s splendid army had crept all the way from the eastern Peninsula to but a couple miles away from Richmond. Lee divided his army, he had a small part dig in to keep McClellan in check and launched a massive flank attack. In a series of assaults that came to be known as the Seven Days he drove McClellan back. At great cost however. Lee’s smaller army lost about 20,000 men while inflicting 15,000 casualties, 5,000 of which were prisoners. That was not the casualty ratio the South could long sustain. A more aggressive general than McClellan could very well have counter-attacked and driven Lee back into the entrenchments at Richmond. To Lee’s credit it must be admitted that he understood McClellan’s psychology and he correctly assumed McClellan would be timid and would run if pressed. Still, McClellan won all battles safe one and was mainly defeated in his mind alone. His officers urged him to counter, but he refused.
Soon after, while McClellan was extricating his men from the Peninsula, Lee whipped general John Pope. Pope was a braggart who liked to write lenghty, flowery dispatches, but who failed to understand the strategic or tactical situation. Jackson with his outnumbered force held off Pope’s attacks at Second Manassas, some of his men even throwing rocks when they ran out of ammunition, and the next day Lee let the rest of the army under Longstreet counter-attack. It was a clear Confederate victory, but Lee failed to destroy Pope’s army. The North had plenty of resources to recover. Pope got reassigned and the North’s quest for a general to beat Lee continued. For the time being Lincoln again had to rely on McClellan, beloved by the soldiers, but lacking the confidence of the adminstration.
An almost surreal stroke of bad luck
Lee decided to invade the North. His motives were that his army could resupply up North and give farmers in Virginia a break, more importantly he thought that a victory on northern soil would lead England and France to recognize the Confederacy. England and France were considering such a step. Then he had the incredible, almost surreal, bad luck of having his marching orders fall into the hands of McClellan. Even worse, they quickly ended up in the hands of a northern officer who recognized the handwriting of the southern officer who had written them. There could be no doubt that the orders were real. For once the young Napoleon acted more swiftly and went after Lee, eventually coming to blows near Sharpsburg, in what is now known as the battle of Antietam. It is still considered to be the bloodiest day in American history. Amazingly McClellan outnumbered Lee two to one but failed to pressure him simultaneously all along his front line. This allowed Lee to shift troops from one sector to the next threatened sector. Here you do see how competent Lee’s officers were at the brigade and divison levels. Lee neglected to entrench his men, as at the time it was still considered to be a demoralizing move to order your troops to dig in… Not exactly the decision a military genius would make, given how hard it was at the time to attack entrenched troops. At Antietam Lee really toyed with total disaster. After the fighting on the 17th of September 1862 all the commanders who reported to him painted a picture of thinned, decimated ranks. Many parts of the line were now only held by a thin skirmish line. To show he had not been dislodged from his position Lee again courted disaster by staying put one more day. McClellan did not throw his large reserve of fresh troops into the fray and Lee could eventually march away virtually unopposed. A exasperated Lincoln would later visit McClellan in Maryland and would eventually sack him.
Brilliant Pyrrhic victories?
Lee then had it very easy, since the command of the army of the Potomac went to Ambrose Burnside. Lee practically got a victory thrown in his lap when this general failed to make effective use of his superior artillery and simply smashed his infantry against Lee’s crack troops covered by a stone wall… The command then went to Joseph Hooker who at first stole a march on Lee and succeeded in outflanking the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee responded by splitting his army not once, but twice. He left some of this troops at Fredericksburg and attacked Hooker by again splitting his army. The move worked, but largely because Hooker, by his own account, lost his nerve. A Union general again failed to put all of his troops into the fight. Lee’s losses were painful. More than 13,000 troops lost, against the Union’s 17,000. Percentage wise you might start to see this Confederate victory as a Pyrrhic victory. Shortly afterwards Lee’s cavalry barely managed to fight off the Union’s cavalry at Brandy Station. A hard fought battle that showed everyone that the Union’s cavalry was slowly becoming a match for Confederate horsemen.
The great gamble
After this costly victory Lee again decided to invade the North. This was a risky move at best. It would have made far more sense to send part of Lee’s army to Tennessee to recover key points in that crucially important state. Control of western Tennessee would have come with lots of benefits. The Confederacy would eventually do this in the fall of 1863, leading to the only big, strategic Confederate victory out west. A victory Braxton Bragg failed to exploit and then threw away in a series of erratic moves. One wonders what would have happened if Lee had come along to take control in Tennessee, leaving the Army of Northern Virginia temporarily in the hands of Beauregard or Johnston or perhaps even Longstreet. It seems that Lee was not very interested in having any impact outside of the eastern theater of war. One could argue that he did not have the responsibility to care much about anything outside of his command area, but a military genius would have studied the overall picture more, not just his own area.
What’s come to be known as the Gettysburg campaign did not have clear objectives. At times it seems to have been conceived as a raid up north to re-supply at the expense of northern farmers, whereas at other times it seems to have been a deliberate quest for a decisive victory on northern soil. In all fairness, after having defeated the Army of the Potomac on numerous occasions one can’t blame Lee for thinking that the morale of this slapped about army was at an all time low. Equally true however is that anyone can guess that an enemy will feel invigorated if you invade his territory. War weariness in the north was peaking. At least one northern politician, Clement Vallandigham, got to be so popular with his anti-war convictions that Lincoln would eventually ban him… To invade at such a time could only spur the north to bigger exertions and have them unify to oppose the threat. It also put the ANV at risk – once again – of being bagged in its entirety.
Politically there was much to be gained. If Lee had indeed won a major battle on northern soil he would certainly be hailed as a military genius by almost anyone today. In hindsight it’s easy to see how risky that objective was. The army of the Potomac still outnumbered Lee’s army, it had far superior artillery and its men were better supplied. The north’s cavalry was getting better and was steadily being equipped with the best weapons available at the time. Lee had also just lost one of his most talented subordinates, general Stonewall Jackson and had reorganized his army into three corps. Two of the three corps commanders had no experience in handling such a large body of men, both would prove to be dissapointments. Later on John B. Gordon would prove to be better corps commander material, but at this point Lee could not know that.
The invasion of Pennsylvania was probably doomed from the start. It is unlikely Lee could have occupied any major city permanently without being either attacked by a large force, or being cut off and finding himself besieged some place up north. Attacking strongly fortified Washington was impossible as long as the army of the Potomac was an effective fighting force. Raiding up north, gathering supplies without fighting any major battle was perhaps the best option Lee had once accross the Potomac, but even such a bloodless raid would have had negative effects on Confederate morale, once he invaded the north everyone was expecting a big, positive outcome. Fair to note is that Jefferson Davis ignored two of Lee’s requests. He wanted to have Beauregard in Northern Virginia with an effigy army just to scare the north a little more and he wanted to take all available men with him. Jefferson Davis deprived him of some men to defend Richmond against a threat that never came. These were sound requests and Jefferson Davis is to blame for not folloying Lee’s suggestions.
Lee’s greatest miscalculation at this point was the idea that one more victory could end the war. Union resolve was far stronger than this and even a setback on northern soil would not have driven them to the negotiating table immediately. Even after a victory Lee would have been dangerously low on ammuntion, Vicksburg would still have fallen and Bragg would still be facing a strong force under general William S. Rosecrans in Tennessee. A victory would have prolonged the war of course and yes, might ultimately have led to Confederate independence, but certainly not the day after the battle. Even a victory would have cost the Confederates dearly. At Gettysburg Lee had already lost more than an quarter of his army even before ordering the tragic frontal assault known as Pickett’s charge. Speaking of Gettysburg, it would be hard to argue that Lee showed any tactical brilliance during this battle. The battle erupted against his wishes, his forces were spread out when the fighting started, already on the night of the first day it was clear to everyone that the Union had been driven to one of the strongest defensive positions of any civil war battle field, and he knew full well he was outnumbered. His smaller army was wrapped around the larger Union army, which gave Meade a huge tactical advantage. A large portion of Lee’s cavalry was missing and not all of his infantry had arrived. Yet his blood was up and he wanted to strike the enemy. No matter how you turn this, Gettysburg was not the work of a military genius. His own failed and bloody attack at Malvern Hill a year earlier and the battle of Fredericksburg half a year earlier should have taught him that attacks like the ones he was ordering had no virtually no chance of succeeding. He must have thought that his opponent was entirely demoralized. The stubborn defense of the first day should have convinced him otherwise. Lee was gambling and the odds were very much against him. That the Confederate infantry came so close to breaking the Union’s line indicates that Lee did indeed have the best infantry and the best shock troops, but if there was a horrible place to send them in, it was at Gettysburg… The rest of 1863 he spent jockeying for position against George Meade. Meade was not brilliant, but at least he was capable enough to sort of contain Lee without getting a bloody nose himself.
A vicious defense, but with the clock against him
In 1864 Lee understood the situation he was facing, but did not know how to handle it. He knew that if Grant could get below the James river it would turn into a siege and it would be a matter of time. At this point the Confederacy probably only had one option left: to unite the army of Tennessee and the Army of Northern Virginia and to at least try and destroy either Sherman or Grant. They had the benefit of what is called ‘interior lines’ and Johnston could have reinforced Lee before Sherman could have reinforced Grant. This opportunity was not considered until it was way to late and the situation had forced it on them. The worst mistake was to send the Army of Tennessee off to Nashville leaving Sherman free to cut open the Confederacy’s underbelly. Lee could have held out against Grant for quite a bit longer if the western front hadn’t collapsed. Lee was not defeated at Petersburg, he was defeated out west. One can’t blame Lee for this, although, when asked for his advice, he was not very clear and, for example, didn’t object to replacing Joseph E. Johnston by the overly aggressive John Bell Hood.
Tactically he was brilliant in this phase of the war, blocking Grant every step of the way and making him pay dearly for every yard closer to Richmond. He very nearly lost Petersburg and Richmond when Grant slipped past him, below the James, and the vanguard of Grant’s army could have marched into Petersburg. At this point Beauregard had arguably his finest moment of the war when he held Petersburg with a skeleton force he had somehow scraped together.
As soon as both armies settled in for a siege at Petersburg, Lee made a smart move and created a serious diversion by sending Jubal Early and a substantial force to the Valley. Although Early eventually failed very badly this diversion helped to lighten the pressure on Petersburg. It did not alter the strategic situation however. At no point during the siege did Lee have any plan as to how to defeat Grant, he was mostly just desperately trying to keep his supply lines open. The desperate assault on Fort Stedman in March 1865 had little chance of accomplishing any good. Either Johnston would have had to reinforce Lee or Lee would have had to retreat while his soldiers were still in any shape to do some hard marching. After nine months of siege warfare his soldiers were simply exhausted and morale on the home front had collapsed. The soldiers, Lee’s miserables as they came to be known, had subsisted on a diet of 1,200 calories a day… During the Appomattox campaign they somehow still inflicted some 12,000 casualties on their enemy, but they were in no shape to outdistance Grant’s army and slip away.
Note that the war did not necessarily have to end with the fall of Richmond and Petersburg. Plenty of territory was still not under Union occupation and even late in the war a unification of the army of Tennessee and the army of Virginia would have posed a serious threat. Lee also rather overstated the odds he was facing at this point. Even in late March 1865 he was not more outnumbered than he had been in, say, early September 1862, the truth was that his retreat from Appomattox was poorly prepared – the supply for his army inexplicably failed to be delivered – and he failed to destroy key bridges and was retreating along a line that was not exactly made for easy going. It was simply too late to attempt to escape. The only right time for this would have been before the men had endured a harsh winter in the trenches of Petersburg facing an enemy with superior artillery and excellent supply. As soon as Petersburg was under siege Lee grew weaker with each passing day while Grant grew stronger. Grant himself mentioned that Lee never did anything that took him by surprise. Grant was convinced that if he had been in Lee’s position he could have escaped with at least part of his army. Of course, some envy of Lee’s reputation may have been at play here. Both Sherman and Grant claimed they feared Joseph E. Johnston more than they feared Lee, but this may have been just a way of snubbing Lee and not the truth. Lee also later claimed ‘without hesitation’ that McClellan had been the best Union general. On a tactical level Lee never soundly whipped McClellan, but it is hard to believe Lee. If McClellan had been left in command of the Army of the Potomac the Confederate States might very well have been an existing country today.
Worth adding when we determine whether Lee was a military genius or not is his opinion of repeating weapons. He was against them because he feared soldiers would not take aim anymore and just waste tons of ammunition. To the modern civil war enthusiast this seems to be a rather bizarre idea. Repeaters would soon prove to be far superior to muzzle loading rifles. His reliance on frontal assaults throughout the war also doesn’t point to military genius, and his ignoring of Tennessee and the western theatre in general in the summer of 1863 also points more to impatience than any cunning. Instead of trying to make the war too costly for the north to sustain, he wanted a big, final confrontation to settle the matter once and for all. In his defence we must of course also be aware of his many disadvantages, his army was always scantily supplied at best, his health was failing, his enemies had superior numbers and superior weapons, far superior logistics, a less vulnerable capital and a large navy which made things a whole lot easier for them in many ways.
Something more vital even than military brilliance
Apart from his value as a military commander there was perhaps something far more important. Although he was not a military genius, he was one of the most inspiring symbols any army has ever produced. Starting in 1864 Lee was the Confederacy and The Confederacy was Lee. As long as Lee was in the field enough people believed in the cause to keep the Confederacy going. When Lee surrendered the Confederacy ended. This is odd given that there were still plenty of other Confederate armies in the field capable of fighting. Yet all hopes of a southern victory were pinned on Lee. This symbolic value, his inspiration leadership is hard to measure, but it is not the same as military genius. His mere existence prolonged the life of the Confederacy, not so much his decisions on the battlefield. He was certainly above average as a general, certainly as a tactician. He was not a brilliant strategist, and he was lucky enough to face some of the poorest generals in military history. It was his personality, his charisma and his inspirational leadership that prolonged the war, not so much his military genius. His two invasions of the north did some irrepearable damage to the Confederate war effort, at times when other, less risky options were available. Did he do the best possible thing with the resources he had? Probably not, but his aggressive assaults did endear him so much to the Confederate people that he came to symbolize their only hope of success.