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Is Lee overrated? - Robert E. Lee - The Participants of the War - Mikitary & Civilian - Civil War Interactive Discussion Board
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 Posted: Tue Nov 6th, 2007 02:05 pm
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PvtClewell
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The interesting Gen. George Thomas thread seems to have evolved into a discussion on Lee, so I thought I'd start a new thread specifically aimed at Lee's generalship.
I understand some of this may have been discussed in the past on previous threads, but then, some of us were not members of this board at that time, and now seems to be a good opportunity for some of us to add to the discussion. Anyway, the theme is timeless and endless.

Besides, how cool is it to see "Is Lee overrated?" on the home page discussion board teaser?

Anyway, a comment that Lee is overrated 'to the point of ridiculousness' was one bite too much even for a Yankee like me to digest. And I like to eat.

As I previously noted, I am currently reading Elizabeth Brown Pryor's 'Reading the Man,' which is Pryor's character interpretation of Lee built around unpublished letters and documents of Lee's found in Arlington House, which survived all these years. It's all explained in the preface of the book. The preface itself is worth the price of the 658 page book (476 pages of text, the rest notes, bibliogpraphy and index).

Anyway, I've just read the chapter, 'Apogee/Perigee' which deals with the Gettysburg Campaign. The last graph of the chapter Pryor offers her summation of Lee's generalship:

'How then are we to assess the famous military prowess of Robert E. Lee? There were sublime moments — and not all of them were delivered at the hands of inferior generals. He stands out for his daring, physical and intellectual, which challenged his opponents into near intimidation. When he allowed his rational training to supercede instinct he was capable of devising some of the most ingenious tactical plans in the history of warfare. Lee's sway over his troops is unsurpassed in military annals. Yet he never resolved the fundamental difficulty facing him — that is, manpower and material — and indeed on many occasions he reacted as if these resources were unlimited. In terms of grand strategy, more questions must be asked. His forays into the North were not only operationally unsuccesful, but politically naive. His penchant for aggression, attack, and the near-impossible annihilation of the Union army may have cost him the war. Many believe that had he remained on the defensive, which the technology of the day favored, he could have conserved his scarce resources and outlasted the ennui of the Yankees. Extended guerilla-type warfare, so admirably executed by his father during the struggle for independence, was another option. It has been the classic tool of revolutionaries for centuries, and in terrain and temperament the South was well suited to it — if the tenacity of the populace could be tapped. Loyal E. Porter Alexander was among those who came to believe this would have been the most fruitful approach. "We could not hope to conquer her," Porter wrote of the Union. "Our one chance was to wear her down." Twentieth- and twenty-first century Americans will appreciate how quickly superior strength can be sapped by unremitting, targeted, and occasionally heinous attacks against a supposedly unbeatable power. But all of this carries the 'what-ifs' and the 'if-onlys' that sometimes threaten to make Civil War history a kind of science fiction. Let us allow Lee to set the benchmark for fine generalship. In 1847, he wrote a letter to his friend Jack Mackay, exuberantly describing the qualities he admired in Winfield Scott. "Our Genl. is our great reliance..." he told Mackay. "Never turns from his object. Confident in his powers & resources, his judgment is as sound as his heart is bold and daring. Careful of his men, he never exposes them but for a worthy object & then gives them the advantage of every circumstance in his power." Later, he added to this the importance of "producing effective results." We can only guess how Lee measured himself against these standards.'

I've read books on Lee from Freeman to Piston to Emory Thomas, along with countless magazine articles and have attended untold numbers of seminars, and this is about as good a description of Lee as I've come across. She's also a captivating speaker.

Last edited on Thu Nov 8th, 2007 03:53 pm by PvtClewell



 Posted: Tue Nov 6th, 2007 03:54 pm
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ole
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Most in our CW community give Lee a very high ranking. There are a few, within and without, that deify him and, in that and that only, is he overrated. (He really, really never walked on water.)

ole



 Posted: Tue Nov 6th, 2007 05:14 pm
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ijontichy
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Have you read Joe Harsh's books on the Maryland campaign? Big recommendation for a deep and scholarly study of Lee's generalship. Would be nice if there was a similar quality study of McClellan during that campaign. McClellan is far more underrated than Lee is overrated. But I need to do more reading to get a firmer idea of Lee as a commander.



 Posted: Tue Nov 6th, 2007 11:19 pm
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Johan Steele
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"...good Corporals, good Sergeants, good lieutenants and Captains... far more important than good Generals." W.T. Sherman

I tend to agree w/ Genl Sherman. That said Lee was an outstanding field commander but I believe as Ole stated that there are those who diefy him which is why I believe there are those who have overrated him to the point of absurdity.

Last edited on Tue Nov 6th, 2007 11:22 pm by Johan Steele



 Posted: Wed Nov 7th, 2007 02:39 am
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booklover
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I think we have to discern as to what Lee you are talking about. Robert E. Lee, the soldier who actually lived, probably wasn't overrated. However, Robert E. Lee, the Marble Man and Icon definitely was. My point is that what we believe of any Civil War (or any historical) figure is dependent on those sources that we choose to read and learn from about him (or her). It seems that a biographer can only either build up (Freeman, et al) or tear down (Alan Nolan comes to mind) his subject and not present him as he really was. In this we lose the man to his essence as that biographer sees the subject. Lincoln is the same way. I mean, can you ever imagine Lincoln sitting in the outhouse taking a crap? Why would you want to? Because it presents Lincoln and a living, breathing person you might have met on the streets of Springfield. Lee (and Grant) suffers from the same syndrome.

Best
Rob



 Posted: Thu Nov 8th, 2007 01:47 am
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younglobo
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Booklover wrote   I mean, can you ever imagine Lincoln sitting in the outhouse taking a crap?

Man what a vivid image to make a point , but still a good point I think some folks rank Lee right under Jesus or maybe even above , these same folks always seem to be the lost cause folks so if Lee was so good why did he loose the war? I know alot of it is resources ie. men and material , I think Lee came to Believe the ANV was undefeatable maybe listening to too much of the hype, Ex. hitting the center at Gburg. I also agree with Johan without the men under him Lee dosn't look near as good.  But Lee represents the south (gentile society) and he did last longer than most would of as commander of a doomed force.



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 Posted: Thu Nov 8th, 2007 03:46 am
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PvtClewell
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Lee lost the war? I thought the war was lost in the western theater. (Just pickin' with you).

Maybe the war lasted as long as it did because of Lee. Maybe the war doesn't last as long under a lesser general.

Also, I'm still waiting for opinion as to whether Lee's men were as good as they were because of Lee or in spite of him. Would the ANV be just as effective under any other commander? I hazard to guess not. I believe there was a symbiotic relationship between the ANV and its commander. Lee was what he was because of his men, and his men where what they were because of Lee.

Rob,

Thanks for an image of Lincoln that, in my 56 previous years on the planet, I never once considered. I fear this vision is now indelibly etched in my wildly misfiring synapses.

For the purpose of this discussion, I am considering Lee the soldier.

Perhaps the joy of Pryor's book is that she prefaces each chapter with a letter or two written by Lee, or a Lee family member or friend, which I think makes it as close to first person as we can get to the man 150 years later. While she offers her own commentary, the letters and documents also open Lee's character to your own interpretation.

True, biographers inherently put their perspective into their work, but how can it be otherwise? That said, even if Lee were alive today to tell us his story firsthand, wouldn't we still be debating whether or not he is overrated? We do this with just about everybody anyway. Is Alex Rodriguez overrated? How about Kobe Bryant? Barry Bonds? Peyton Manning? It's what we do as students of history. And sports.

Last edited on Thu Nov 8th, 2007 04:03 pm by PvtClewell



 Posted: Thu Nov 8th, 2007 04:44 am
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Kentucky_Orphan
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Lee had superb troops, the equal of any in American history I think. But then, so did Johnston, Bragg, etc. Let me get this out of the way- anyone who maintains that the eastern theater troops were superior to those of the west in the confederate armies (or that western theater men were superior to their eastern theater counterparts in the Federal armies) is, frankly, woefully ignorant (like that awfull "Grant comes East" assumption). Like all of the PFI in all armies in the ACW, they killed or died just as well whatever the terrain. 

As for the "defensive" angle, you cannot win a war on the defensive, nor was it even an option really. The Confederacy simply could not defend the amount of territory it had in a purely defensive role. It is not only impractical it is impossible. If an army the size of the AoP masses it forces for an offensive strike, you must mass your forces as well. The enemy will then disengage and manuever or strike at its discretion. This is because, by being only reactive as is the nature of the defensive, the AoP would forever hold the initiative.

Lee made strategic mistakes, to be sure. Yes, his troops were as good as any general could wish for. However, generals probably deserve more credit in this era than they do today because of the more intimate role they played in directing troop movements and battlefield tactical decisions instantaneously (this goes for generals from army commander to brigadier), accessing situations first-hand, etc. Speaking on Generals, let me just add that though  Lee may have lacked corps commander competency at some junctures during the war,  he had marvelous division commanders generally speaking throughout. These men, it can be argued, along with the fine troops they commanded made Lee's job much easier-but an army commander must place them correctly if they are to succeed.

Is Lee overated then? By some, who diefy him, of course (the same as those Generals in the German army of world war 1 vintage who diefied Clausewitz), but generally no, Lee is not overated. He did things, quite frankly, no other general leading forces of that size did (against forces of the size he fought as well)-it can be argued others COULD HAVE, but they didn't have the opportunity to do so and thus never proved irrefutably they could. Does that mean he's the best general of the war? Perhaps, perhaps not, but none can argue there was a better general in the south to lead the AoNV-just as none can argue there was a better suited man to run the AoP than Grant.

There, thats my 10 cents-I am sure old hands like Johan and Ole have heard these arguments before, but why not state them again. Its opinion, and you know what they say about opinions.

Oh well, if my ramblings are incoherent it may be the late hour, and I may wake up in the morning realizing that I just posted twinkie ingredients somewhere, but thats a risk u take at this hour. Preemptive apologies all around if this is the case, etc. etc.

 



 Posted: Thu Nov 8th, 2007 12:37 pm
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j harold 587
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Once again booklover has stated the basic point that Lee was a human with all the normal physical and emotional needs and short commings of us all. The image of the White House privy though realistic is not how I want to think of father Abraham.

Lee was unquestionably a superior military leader, who was able to delegate athority and had subordinates who worked well with his style of leadership. Thank you Bama46 for your list.

However Younglobo at Gettysburg his decesion to hit the Union center was right on for the standard tactics manual for a triangle defense (the fish hook was not heard of untill the 1880s) The theroy was that after hitting both legs of the triangle the center was weakened as reserves were drawn off to meet the threat to the legs. Also the trains and artillary reserve will be more consolidated as the legs are driven in.    I don't have my  reference but some one (from Barksbales bregade I think) actually reported seeing the consolidated trains and the Taneytown Rd. when they broke through the Union lines on day 2. May have been poor intelligence, but would have confirmed that the plan was working.

I also think General Hunt does not get adequate credit for pulling back the US artillary during the pre assault barrage causing the CSA artillary to beleive they had disabled a large number of Union guns that were put back on line once the advance started for the Pickett, Pettigrew, Trimble charge.



 Posted: Thu Nov 8th, 2007 02:38 pm
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David White
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Bama:

His refusal to write his memoirs

FYI, this is not entirely correct, in fact Lee had plans to write his memoirs he just didn't live long enough to start.  Unfortunately he decided to reedit and put out a new edition of his father’s memoirs first, which he did.  Lee’s vision of his father versus the reality is an interesting juxtaposition.   



 Posted: Thu Nov 8th, 2007 05:48 pm
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JoanieReb
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David White wrote:  " Unfortunately he decided to reedit and put out a new edition of his father’s memoirs first, which he did.  Lee’s vision of his father versus the reality is an interesting juxtaposition."  

I was unaware of this, David: thanks for the head's up!  Will be making a special trip to the library this afternoon just to get it - should provide good insight into General  RE Lee, if not his father.

Pvt. Clewell - as regards the header here (yes, very cool!) I don't suppose a simple "no" will suffice?

Joanie



 Posted: Thu Nov 8th, 2007 05:50 pm
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Albert Sailhorst
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Sirs, perhaps there are those among you who believe you are descended from a ape. I suppose there may even be those among you who believe that I am descended from a ape. But I challenge the man to step forward who believes that General Robert E. Lee is descended from an ape.



 Posted: Thu Nov 8th, 2007 05:56 pm
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JoanieReb
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Good recall, Albert!

I had forgotten that one, and it is worth remembering!



 Posted: Thu Nov 8th, 2007 08:19 pm
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Albert Sailhorst
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Thanks Joannie!

I figured it'd be good for a laugh or two!



 Posted: Thu Nov 8th, 2007 08:26 pm
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PvtClewell
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Joanie,

Best answer yet. Simple. Concise. Eloquent. To the point.

Kentucky,

Mostly agree with what you say. I hope you understand that I'm not trying to deify Lee or support Lost Cause mythology, but rather, trying to throw in a little perspective here. Clearly, I don't think Lee is overrated, either.

Not sure why my post drew a salvo about western vs. eastern troops, although I will say I am woefully ignorant on western campaigns. Quality of troops in any theater was never the issue.

Sometimes a defensive war does work. There's still the 38th parallel in Korea. And why is the US no longer in Vietnam? Imagine if the Confederacy had gone guerilla. Even in traditional setpiece warfare, I think the Confederacy, if it had adopted a defensive grand strategy, gives itself a chance if it can frustrate the northern will to continue the fight. It nearly happened that way anyhow.

(It was pointed out to me that Lee would never have accepted guerilla warfare as it was not part of his fibre. I agree. And this might be yet another reason to respect Lee. If he'd gone guerilla, we might still be fighting the war.)

Three other generals did have an opportunity to command the Confederate army before Lee got the job. PGT Beauregard was the commander on the field at First Manassas. Joe Johnston was seriously wounded at Fair Oaks after mediocre performance, and Gustavus Smith, Johnston's replacement, was in command for two days before the burden of responsibility virtually shattered his nerves. Then Lee takes command and, I guess, surprises everybody. Lee then shapes his men, and his men shape him, which is the real point I'm trying to make.

Bama,

This is interesting about the demerit system at West Point. Pryor notes that when Freeman was writing 'R.E. Lee,' historians at West Point told Freeman they doubted anybody could have gone through four years without getting a demerit. Demerits could be erased for good behavior or by working them off. Is that how Lee kept his slate clean? We can only guess.

Lee finished second in his class of 1829, behind Charles Mason. Mason also graduated without demerits on his Record of Delinquencies, and later became a federal judge. He also wrote about Lee in his diary in 1864: 'General Lee is winning great renown as a great captain...Some of the English writers place him next to Napoleon and Wellington. I once excelled him and might have been his equal yet perhaps if I had remained in the army as he did. I sometimes regard his fame as a reproach to myself..."

In other news, I still can't shake that lingering image of Lincoln. Worse, I'm now thinking of Washington, Jefferson, Lee, et al, in that way, ad nauseum. Really.

Last edited on Thu Nov 8th, 2007 09:00 pm by PvtClewell



 Posted: Fri Nov 9th, 2007 12:23 am
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booklover
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Sorry guys, but as Sherman said (while taking a crap, I think) war is all hell, especially when there isn't any Charmin on the roll.

Best
Rob



 Posted: Fri Nov 9th, 2007 02:20 am
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Kentucky_Orphan
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 I hope you understand that I'm not trying to deify Lee or support Lost Cause mythology, but rather, trying to throw in a little perspective here. Clearly, I don't think Lee is overrated, either.

I understand fully the intent behind your posting, never considered that you were either demeaning Lee or building him up to "Ares" status.

Not sure why my post drew a salvo about western vs. eastern troops

Simply felt compelled to list reasons of Lees success, it was implied in some recent fiction by Gingrich that somehow western federal troops were superior to their eastern counterparts and vise versa in the case of the confederacy. This I strongly disagree with, and as it is a variable to examine to explain Lee's success/failures felt it worth mentioning.


There's still the 38th parallel in Korea. And why is the US no longer in Vietnam?

This has as much to do with the U.S.'s refusal to go onto the offensive (due of course to the grander context of the Cold War) as it does the defensive tactics used by the enemy. Also in Korea it was more or less a stalemate brought on by inability of either side to gather sufficiently greater conventional forces (material or manpower) or maneuver in the terrain.

PGT Beauregard was the commander on the field at First Manassas. Joe Johnston was seriously wounded at Fair Oaks after mediocre performance, and Gustavus Smith, Johnston's replacement, was in command for two days before the burden of responsibility virtually shattered his nerves.

As you say, they had the chance but never accomplished what Lee did, and other generals never had the opportunity to try.(first Manasas had little to do with generalship IMO) If you study the seven days, you become acutely aware of the brilliance of his strategy (from the time he took command to 2nd Manasas may be Lees greatest stretch) and the inability/incompetence of the officers under him to coordinate and pull it off with the success possible. Lee really had no right to blame other officers for failures following this-though there were some mistakes made afterwards, for the most part his commanders as high as division command were, IMO, almost absurdly good(and by luck or skill the generals with the best attributes for a particular challenge were in the right place at the right time-just study the maryland campaign, escpecially D.H. Hills and Mclaws roles prior to concentrating at Sharpsburg to see what I mean).

We are more or less on the same page I believe Pvt, maybe a few differences in the logic tree but resulting in the same species in the end.

 



 Posted: Sat Nov 10th, 2007 09:35 pm
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Regina
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Very interesting discussion!!   As I've watched the political career of our current President, I have sometimes thought that certain decisions of his are closely related to some of the decisions of his father, another President (the psychological father/son thing, for lack of a better way to put it).  In some cases, for example, a son may "atone for the sins" of the father.  Or maybe tries to out-succeed the father--sort of "compete" with him.  Anyway, this post is going off the discussion a bit, but Lee did have a military father--renowned in some ways, a failure in others--there must have been some "atoning" and/or "competing" going on for Lee--consciously or unconsciously. 



 Posted: Sat Aug 2nd, 2008 03:31 am
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The Iron Duke
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A Carthaginian general once said to Hannibal, "You know how to win victories but not how to use them!" I think the same could be said of Lee. His tactical victories were often pyrrhic because his army was so worn down that he couldn't turn them into strategic advantages. Lee comes off to me as being a little too impulsive. His entire inclination to every tactical scenario was attack, attack, attack until his army was wrecked just like Foch at the First Battle of the Marne.  However, I do think that Second Manassas, not Chancellorsville, is Lee's true masterpiece. It's the one campaign where he gained a major strategic advantage and won a dazzling tactical victory.

Last edited on Sat Aug 2nd, 2008 03:36 am by The Iron Duke



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