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Another Look at the Generalship of R.E. Lee

Tony Daly welcomed 84 members who attended Dr Gary Gallagher's talk at the National Army Museum in London. For Gary, a Professor of History at the University of Virginia, it was his first visit to Britain.

Gary focussed on recent work which suggested that Lee was too aggressive, too Virginia-oriented and overall probably a detriment to the Confederacy. Gary began by considering the criticism that was started several years ago by J. F. Fuller, to the effect that Lee was too parochial, with no appreciation of the Trans-Appalachian region of the Confederacy. More recently, these views have been taken up by other writers. Some of these have queried whether Lee understood the geography of the West, and argued that Lee sent Longstreet's troops west to save Knoxville only in order to allow supplies to continue to reach the East! Another criticism made was that Lee was too aggressive. Again, recent writers have expounded on this, from ideas originating with Fuller, to the effect that Lee had casualty rates of 20%, and that his victories were only of 'fleeting advantage'.

American Civil War Round Table UK / Battles & Campaigns / R E Lee

Gary said that these were serious questions regarding Lee's generalship and Confederate chances of success. However, Gary reminded his audience to keep in mind that armies do not act in a vacuum that there is a relationship between the army and civilian morale. Also that armies have an impact not only on their own society but also that of the enemy's. Lee was well attuned to the hopes and fears of civilians, and hoped that spirits in the North, dampened by an expensive war, might lead to war weariness there.

To the argument that the West was crucial and Lee's unwillingness to send troops there hastened defeat, Gary asserted that Virginia was more important because of the impact the East had on morale, both North and South, as well as the impression it made in London and Paris, foreign observers tending to focus on the fortunes of Virginia rather than elsewhere. Europe in fact was more impressed by Union defeats in the East than by their successes in the West. Grant recognised the truth of this, and when he became Commander-in-Chief resolved to pursue the war in the East.

Gary said that whilst there was usually no good news for the Confederacy in the West apart that is from Chickamauga - an opportunity wasted by Bragg - it was better in the East. In his view, the Seven Days Battle was more important than Gettysburg or the Maryland Campaign of 1862. McClellan, he said, was viscerally incapable of advancing, Joe Johnston incapable of anything but retreating: and had he continued to do so, this would have ended in a Union siege of Richmond and perhaps the end of the war. Lee however, took over from a wounded Johnston before that could happen and managed to extend the war by at least two years. Thus, following the Second Battle of Manassass, the Army of Northern Virginia again stood on the banks of the Potomac.

According to Gary, Lee understood perfectly well the impact his operations had in Virginia. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, and in 1862 accounted for 40% of its industrial capacity. Lee felt that victory in Virginia was more attainable, and also more likely to lead to greater results for the Confederacy. For this reason therefore, he refused a request for Pickett's troops to be sent west to assist John Pemberton at Vicksburg, because of "uncertainty of its application".

As to whether Lee was too aggressive, Gary conceded that he should not have launched his frontal attacks at Malvern Hill or on the third day of Gettysburg, going on to add however that all the generals had made similar attacks, including Sherman, Grant and even Joe Johnston. In Gary's opinion the critics had not given Lee his just due.

In Gary's view, what the South wanted were victories, which was just what Lee gave them by taking the war to the enemy. Some critics thought he was too old fashioned, whereas Grant looked to the future, adopting a modern, relentless approach to war. Lee was a gentleman who did not make war on civilians, an attitude which Gary contrasted with the behaviour of Grant and Sherman. Lee however, did realise that complete mobilisation was necessary for the war to be prosecuted fully, and that Blacks should also be enlisted for this purpose; additionally, that state's rights should be subordinated to the needs of the Confederacy. In this way it would then become a matter of which society, North or South, would be the first to say, "enough is enough".

We now had the first of two Question and Answer sessions, the first relating to whether the South could have won despite the strengths of the North. Gary thought it could indeed have done since it only had to resist defensively the onslaughts of the North, whereas the latter needed to physically invade. Even after Gettysburg, he maintained, the war was still winnable by the South. As to the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation prejudicing European recognition of the Confederacy, Gary conceded that this certainly hurt the South. Nevertheless, some European support still remained, whilst self-interest would also have dictated that Britain and France continued to buy Southern cotton. Besides which he added, the Union itself was not entirely clear of the stain of slavery.

So far as Lee's innate aggressiveness was concerned, Gary agreed that in certain circumstances the South would have been better off if Lee had been rather less so, something even the General himself recognised in the aftermath of the third day of Gettysburg.

A member next referred to Stephen Sears' book on Chancellorsville, quoting Sears to the effect that Jackson would have been repulsed had Sedgwick carried out Hooker's orders. Also that on day three of Gettysburg, Lee had been foolish in the extreme, perhaps because generally so far he had been lucky in those who had opposed him. Gary's reply was that every successful general looks good against bad ones, citing 'The Three Stooges' who had faced Grant at Fort Donelson! As for Sears' argument regarding Sedgwick's conduct at Chancellorsville, Gary thought this was bizarre. By way of explanation, he proceeded to draw a diagrammatic plan of the battle on the board in order to clarify the role of Sedgwick (the holding element) and Hooker (on the move), reminding the audience that it had been Hooker who had ordered his men back to Chancellorsville. Gary therefore thought it outrageous for Hooker to criticise Sedgwick. He also thought that Chancellorsville had made Lee overconfident in the military capabilities

of his troops, and agreed that Lee had made a bad decision on the third day of Gettysburg.

Another member of the audience then suggested that Lee held "too tight a rein", to which Gary replied that Longstreet, Jackson and Stuart had been Lee's perfect team, and he trusted them because they 'delivered'. The problem was however, that at Gettysburg, Jackson was gone, Longstreet was sulking and Stuart had let Lee down as also had Generals Ewell and A.P. Hill. On the Union side too, there were problems however, with Grant unhappy with certain of his corps commanders including Warren and Sedgwick.

In reply to further questioning about Lee, Gary maintained that the general was the only successful army commander in the South, and that whilst Jackson had his successes in the Shenandoah Valley, he really only ever commanded a corps, some 7,000 men, unlike Lee. As to their differing personalities, Lee was a gentleman who would quietly remove poorly performing subordinates in contrast to Jackson who would have them arrested! Jackson it seemed lacked diplomatic skills.

Referring to Lee's audacity, one person suggested that one of the drawbacks to this was that the less talented would try to emulate him, men such as John Bell Hood. Gary thought that we were too hard on Hood because of what happened at Franklin and Nashville. Hood, he went on, had poor subordinates and had also probably been promoted twice past his limits. Nevertheless, in his opinion Hood did display mindless aggressiveness at Franklin and perhaps treated his troops too harshly, insisting that his men needed to be better disciplined (rather like Sherman at Kennesaw Mountain). Asked why Lee was not given overall command (until, that is, in Feb 1865), Gary replied that the answer was Jefferson Davis who thought himself as able a military man as anyone. He had after all been at West Point and, said Gary, a good Secretary of War. Davis though did at least ask Lee for his advice. The rest of the session touched on the leniency of Grant's surrender terms to Lee (really Lincoln's terms), the arguments within the Confederacy about using Blacks as troops, Lee's use of only a limited staff and some further observations on the performance of A.P. Hill's Corps at Gettysburg.

Gary's tour de force earned him a warm applause from an appreciative audience. Eileen, his wife, kindly made the draw for the raffle prizes.

© ACWRT (UK) 1999 & 2001


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