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 Posted: Tue Aug 5th, 2008 09:51 pm
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I must also mention Lee's post-war actions (in addition to character and tactical genius) to help understand the mythic figure, I believed earned, he rose to in the war's aftermath. A time when the South certainly needed heroes. C.B. Flood's, Lee: The Last Years, is a very informative study.



 Posted: Tue Aug 5th, 2008 11:12 pm
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Pards,
As so much has already been said, I will only add that Robert E. Lee, warts and all, was a man we could use more of today!



 Posted: Wed Aug 6th, 2008 02:16 am
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It's an interesting question about Lee, asking if he was overrated. I guess it depends on what we're measuring him against. If it's his ability to win battles, then I doubt most people would say he was overrated. if it's his ability to walk on water, then despite his historical reputation, I'm afraid the answer is yes, he is indeed overrated. As would we all be. I do know that anytime someone offers a criticism of Marse Robert though, they risk a serious backlash. But I guess I'll risk it. :)

I have a hard time deciding exactly how I view Lee. The best I can come up with is that he was something of a star-crossed commander. Brilliant, even amazing victories, combined with some astonishingly reckless and costly decisions. Did he prolong the life of the Confederacy, or help doom it to failure? That's another interesting question. I seem to go back and forth on the answer, but I tend to lean more toward "prolong" than "doom." Perhaps he did a little of both. Maybe that could be the subject of a different discussion.

On the whole, I think Lee was an exceptional commander. There is no doubt about that. But there are times when I honestly wonder, what on earth was the man thinking? For instance, the decision to stand and fight at Sharpsburg. Especially on the 18th. If there is one single, mystifying decision in the war, above and beyond all others, that would probably be it for me - Lee's decision to stay put and offer battle again on September 18th, at Sharpsburg. If McClellan had had the killer instincts of a Lee, Jackson, Grant, or Sheridan, the war in the East would have ended right then and there. Then how would we view Lee as a commander?

Lee did a truly masterful job of handling his army in that battle. But even given that, his army's survival was due in large part to hesitation and incompetence on the Union side, mainly in the form of McClellan and Burnside. Lee’s decision to offer battle there in the first place was reckless, and his decision to remain on the field and offer battle again on the 18th bordered on military suicide. It may have been a calculated decision based on his famous ability to get an accurate read on McClellan, but even if so, I think it was an incredibly foolish gamble. He was risking his army in return for...what? What could he possibly hope to gain by staying there?

Was he betting that McClellan wouldn’t attack again? That's difficult to believe. Even given how long it took him to finally do so, Mac had already shown he was willing to attack. There was no reason to believe he wouldn’t do so again. And while I forget the exact number, he still had thousands of reserves. At least one entire corps that had not seen battle the previous day. Still more nearby. I don’t know what Lee’s reasoning was, but if he was gambling that McClellan would not attack again, it’s beyond my understanding. The fact that McClellan didn't attack was sheer luck on Lee's part. His men would not have held. They would have tried for all they were worth, and they were worth a great deal. But they would not have held.

Or did Lee opt to stay because he honestly believed his army was still capable of winning the battle? If that was the case, then he was deluding himself. His army had not been pushed to the breaking point the day before. They had been pushed beyond the breaking point. Despite everything that Lee and his magnificent army did in that battle, their line was broken in the center, and their right flank was turned. Either event should have spelled the end of the battle and the end of Lee’s army. Both times, it was mainly incompetence in the Union leadership that saved the day for them.

Yes, I realize the importance of A.P. Hill at the end of the day, and he and his men deserve every bit of praise they receive. But to me, the point is that Hill's men never should have had the chance to do what they did. The battle should have been decided before they arrived. Even after they attacked and pushed Burnside back, he still could have turned the tables on them. He had Hill outnumbered by something like two-to-one, possibly more. But as with McClellan, the fight had gone out of him by that point. If it was ever in him to begin with.

As for Lee himself, there were times when his aggressiveness worked absolute wonders, and other times - such as the battle of Antietam - when it came near wrecking his own army. Perhaps at Antietam he was blinded by that same belief of invincibility in his own men that possessed him at Gettysburg. A belief that wherever a southern army commanded by Robert E. Lee went, no Union army or Union commander could defeat it, or him. In that he was wrong. He finally learned that bloody lesson, as he admitted himself, on the third day at Gettysburg. He was fortunate indeed that he did not learn it on the second day at Antietam. That's the way it seems to me.

Perry



 Posted: Wed Aug 6th, 2008 02:31 am
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Perry that is an excellent post.

I think if Lee were crushed at Antietam history would view him as insanely foolish. I believe Lee did indeed prolong the Confederacy but I tend to view him as way too impulsive. Others generals like Washington, Wellington, and Thomas seemed to have understood when it's proper to attack and when it's proper to defend.

Lee's reaction to every situation was to attack if he was able to. After all the thousands that got butchered at Mechanicsville, Malvern Hill, and Fredericksburg it's absolutely mind boggling to me that he would attempt Pickett's Charge. An excellent example of his impulsiveness, IMO, is when Longstreet had to talk him out of attacking prematurely at Second Manassas.

I don't see what Lee had to gain at fighting at Antietam either. He lost 10,000 men and to what purpose? The Confederacy couldn't throw away men like they were plastic soldiers. They had to husband their resources and be more clever than their enemy. Like Longstreet said about Gettysburg, the Confederates tried to pit force against force in a head to head match-up and they lost. The Union could afford to rely on brute force; the Confederacy couldn't and I'm not sure if Lee ever understood this. Lee bled his army to death.

Last edited on Wed Aug 6th, 2008 02:34 am by The Iron Duke



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 Posted: Wed Aug 6th, 2008 09:02 pm
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David White
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Lee read the northern papers, he knew McClellan was constantly feeling outnumbered. When your opponent believes in a fantasy that hurts him-- never, never do something to make him doubt that fantasy.



 Posted: Wed Aug 6th, 2008 11:23 pm
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Everyone alive during that time is either over- or under-rated. Pick Lee or Grant on any day and he was either brilliant or grossly mistaken on that day. Taken as a four-year military stint. both acquitted themselves very well and both are justifiably heroes. Neither, however, is in line for worship.

ole



 Posted: Thu Aug 7th, 2008 12:39 am
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The Iron Duke wrote: Perry that is an excellent post.

I think if Lee were crushed at Antietam history would view him as insanely foolish. I believe Lee did indeed prolong the Confederacy but I tend to view him as way too impulsive. Others generals like Washington, Wellington, and Thomas seemed to have understood when it's proper to attack and when it's proper to defend.

Lee's reaction to every situation was to attack if he was able to. After all the thousands that got butchered at Mechanicsville, Malvern Hill, and Fredericksburg it's absolutely mind boggling to me that he would attempt Pickett's Charge. An excellent example of his impulsiveness, IMO, is when Longstreet had to talk him out of attacking prematurely at Second Manassas.

I don't see what Lee had to gain at fighting at Antietam either. He lost 10,000 men and to what purpose? The Confederacy couldn't throw away men like they were plastic soldiers. They had to husband their resources and be more clever than their enemy. Like Longstreet said about Gettysburg, the Confederates tried to pit force against force in a head to head match-up and they lost. The Union could afford to rely on brute force; the Confederacy couldn't and I'm not sure if Lee ever understood this. Lee bled his army to death.

Hi Robert,

Some good points you make. In Lee's defense, he wasn't the only commander in the war with an attack-first mentality. Grant was like that as well I think. But in Lee's case it was often very costly, and as you point out, the South could not afford to pay that kind of a price. Certainly not for very long.

Speaking of Grant and Lee, I'm not sure I can think of a moment in the war where Grant made a decision that totally mystifies me the way Lee's decision at Antietam does. Even when I find myself disagreeing with a decision that Grant made, I think I can understand, or figure out, his reasoning behind it. (And I don't fancy that I could have done better than Grant, Lee, or anyone else. I'm an armchair general in the truest sense.) But Lee holding his army in place after the carnage on the 17th, I just cannot understand. I've seen explanations, but for me at least they just don't hold up, especially when you judge it on a risk/reward scale. What Lee was risking, that's easy to see. But what he had to gain, and how it balanced the risk he was running, that's where my understanding hits a dead-end.

I remember Shelby Foote saying that Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Robert E. Lee. Even though he was speaking directly of Gettysburg, it could be he meant that in a broader sense. Even if not, it certainly applies. Final victory might well be acheived with a commander like Lee. But the price of that victory could be high indeed.

Perry



 Posted: Thu Aug 7th, 2008 12:51 am
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David White wrote: Lee read the northern papers, he knew McClellan was constantly feeling outnumbered. When your opponent believes in a fantasy that hurts him-- never, never do something to make him doubt that fantasy.
But David, if we take that argument to its logical conclusion, doesn't it mean that Lee never should have retreated at all at Sharpsburg? That he should have stayed until McClellan finally did attack him? I understand the point you make, but I just can’t agree that he made a good decision, even in light of his unquestioned mental edge over McClellan. I keep coming back to that same question - what did he have to gain by holding his ground on the 18th? And balanced against that, what did he have to lose?

It’s amazing to me that he was still there after the punishment his men took the previous day. Lee’s army was simply in no shape to fight on the 18th. They inflicted serious damage on McClellan’s army the day before, but took a 30% hit in return. When you’ve been pushed right to the brink, one-third of your army is dead or wounded, the rest are beyond exhausted, your opponent is still stronger than you, poised to renew the attack, and you’re back is against a river with only one good route of escape, it’s time to leave. Now.

Lee would have made one devil of a card player, I’ll say that. Sitting there with absolutely nothing at all in his hand, the life of his army and his new country literally on the line, and he apparently convinces McClellan that he’s holding a full house. Whatever word surpasses “gutsy,” that’s the one to describe what he did. Because if Little Mac calls his bluff, the men in his army will have to ante up their lives, and the war in the East is over.

That’s a jaw-dropping risk, especially when you can’t win the hand even if your opponent folds. Which is what McClellan did. He folded. And Lee still lost. That’s why I have a problem with his decision. It’s all downside and no upside. If what you say about Lee is the real reason why he was still there on the 18th  David, then to me it means that he risked literally everything he could possibly lose on the chance that his psychological advantage over McClellan would hold. If it doesn‘t, he loses everything. If it does - he gets to retreat. It’s all risk and no reward.

I’ll say again that Lee won some truly remarkable victories in the war, and speaking to your well-considered point, David, quite often did so by running psychological rings around his opponents. With the exception of Grant, he usually forced them to dance to his tune. But in my opinion his decision to stay and offer battle again on the 18th at Antietam is simply not defensible. Lee was beyond lucky that day. So far beyond it as to nearly be out of sight.

Perry



 Posted: Thu Aug 7th, 2008 05:43 pm
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My point can be made by an historic conversation between Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg:

“But the enemy is there,” said Lee, gesturing towards the ridge across the valley, “And if he is there tomorrow I will attack him.” “If he is there tomorrow” replied Longstreet, “it will be because he wants you to attack him; in my mind a good reason not to do so.”

Ultimately by staying Lee scared McClellan away from attacking, so the next night and morning he could slip away unmolested. If Lee had retreated immediately, even McClellan might have smelled blood in the water and attacked promptly (okay maybe not). By staying put, Lee puts doubts in McClellan's mind and ensures his ability to slip away unmolested. A brilliant move on Lee's part.



 Posted: Fri Aug 8th, 2008 12:26 am
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David,

If you saw someone you respect run a red light, without causing a wreck, would you say they made a brilliant decision? Or would you say they made a foolish decision and got away with it?



 Posted: Fri Aug 8th, 2008 06:13 am
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I agree with you about Lee's overagressiveness. See my 2 reviews of Edw. Bonekemper's new book on Grant and Lee on this board. The most stunning statistic is that in his first 14 months of command, Lee lost (KWM) as many men as he started out with with the ANVA: 80,000 when the North had a 4:1 manpower advantage. The math was never going to add up.

I disagree with you that Lee or any Confed. was ever gong to gain any real strategic advantage. Their job was not to win the war but to win the defense, wear down the North and gain European recognition. Any territorial advantage they gained would ultimately be lost because the North would just flood in more troops. When Gettysburg started, Lincoln called out the militias from 4 states: the Reserves!! After a point for Davis, he was like Leigh-Mallory during the battle of Britain when he was looking at a flight board that showed all the RAF planes that were up. He asked the CO: how many reserves do we have? The CO replied: Sir, there are no reserves. As one wag said about the final draft call: Davis was robbing both the cradle and the grave.

CKL



 Posted: Fri Aug 8th, 2008 05:47 pm
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Bad analogy, Lee didn't break the law he made a calculated risk and won, as he usually did. A better analogy would be he and McClellan were walking down a crowded NY street toward each other. Little Mac's eyes were darting side to side and he was manuvering to get out of people's way. Lee decided to barrell on ahead because he knew Little Mac would give way.



 Posted: Fri Aug 8th, 2008 07:37 pm
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David I laughed right out loud reading that.  i had a very visual picture in my head of Lee and Little Mac on that New York Street.  Good analogy .

Susan



 Posted: Fri Aug 8th, 2008 11:01 pm
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cklarson wrote: I agree with you about Lee's overagressiveness. See my 2 reviews of Edw. Bonekemper's new book on Grant and Lee on this board. The most stunning statistic is that in his first 14 months of command, Lee lost (KWM) as many men as he started out with with the ANVA: 80,000 when the North had a 4:1 manpower advantage. The math was never going to add up.

I disagree with you that Lee or any Confed. was ever gong to gain any real strategic advantage. Their job was not to win the war but to win the defense, wear down the North and gain European recognition. Any territorial advantage they gained would ultimately be lost because the North would just flood in more troops. When Gettysburg started, Lincoln called out the militias from 4 states: the Reserves!! After a point for Davis, he was like Leigh-Mallory during the battle of Britain when he was looking at a flight board that showed all the RAF planes that were up. He asked the CO: how many reserves do we have? The CO replied: Sir, there are no reserves. As one wag said about the final draft call: Davis was robbing both the cradle and the grave.

CKL


Yes, those are very good points. I agree that the only way the South could win the war was by wearing down the will of the North. In fact, I think the northern will to continue fighting was probably the single most crucial factor of the war. As long as the people in the North were willing to keep going, sooner or later they were going to win. There is simply no two ways about that. The South was not going to militarily defeat the North. But they did not need to do so, as you suggest.

I think Lee's victories were something of a double-edged sword (no pun intended). If you look at the situation in the spring of 1864, just before the start of the Overland Campaign, the relative position of the two armies isn't much different than it was in 1861. The overall result has been a stalemate, which works in favor of the South. Contrast that with the situation in the West, where the Union clearly has the upper hand by the spring of 1864. So Lee, in the East, is helping the Confederacy do what they needed to do to win the war, and he is about the only one who is. But as you point out, the toll it took on his army was astonishing.

So I suppose the question is whether Lee could have accomplished the same result at a lower cost. I don't think there's any question that he could have. But Lee seems to have been fixated on the knock-out blow. Anytime he sensed an opening, he was all-in, seeking the kill. In some cases it's an understandable decision. But at other times, you have to wonder what he thought he saw.

I also wonder if after Gettysburg he didn't honestly come to feel that he was the wrong man for the job. I've seen a lot of speculation as to just how sincere was his resignation request that he sent to Davis. What does everyone think?

Perry



 Posted: Fri Aug 8th, 2008 11:26 pm
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David White wrote: Bad analogy, Lee didn't break the law he made a calculated risk and won, as he usually did. A better analogy would be he and McClellan were walking down a crowded NY street toward each other. Little Mac's eyes were darting side to side and he was manuvering to get out of people's way. Lee decided to barrell on ahead because he knew Little Mac would give way.
What? A bad analogy? And here I thought it was spot-on. I'm crushed. ;)

That's an interesting image about Little Mac and Lee. Sort of like a stare-down at the NY Corral. But here's my problem with it. (You realize of course that I can't let such a wonderful image pass without a contribution. :) ) Little Mac is coming down the street armed with a fully-loaded AK-47, and Lee is carrying a toy gun painted to look like an AK-47. All Mac has to do is pull the trigger - once - and the stare-down is over. And darting eyes or no, he never did step aside. He simply failed to pull the trigger. That's what Lee was gambling on. But here's the real kicker - Lee wasn't there out of necessity. All he had to do was duck down an alley and safety was his. Instead, he elected to march down the middle of the street, unarmed and unprotected, on the chance that the other guy won't actually pull that trigger. If he does, it isn't Lee who will get killed. It's the thousands of men trusting him with their lives who will be killed. And to what purpose?

Some folks might say it was a brilliant move, to walk down that street armed with a toy gun toward an opponent with a fully-loaded automatic rifle. I say he got away with making an incredibly foolish choice.

He ran a red light and no one got hurt. So we call him brilliant. I don't see it.

But my main point is simply this - The fact that Lee escaped unmolested doesn't automatically mean he made the right decision. And I'm not convinced that he did, in fact, elect to remain on the field during the 18th with the intention of bluffing McClellan into inaction once he actually did retreat. I think he stayed there intending to give battle, and expecting that Mac would likely oblige him.

I'll have to go back and do a little re-reading about some of this, but I don't recall coming across anything suggesting that Lee was deliberately trying to bluff McClellan so that he could retreat. As well, does it really make sense to think that Lee felt safer in the presence of the enemy, with an exhausted and battered army, and a rather tenuous escape route, than he did by putting that river between he and his opponent as soon as possible? I just don't see that he did what he did with "safety" in mind. He wasn't still there on the 18th to bluff. He was there to fight. If someone can show conclusive proof to the contrary, I'm all eyes. But it won't change the overall point. It was a rash decision that easily could have cost him his army.

Perry



 Posted: Sat Aug 9th, 2008 06:20 am
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Dear Perry,

Excellent point about the most crucial factor of the war was that the Northern people were willing to keep on going, especially in the East with the A. of P., whose morale seemed good for a long time, amazingly.

Lee's best chance of succeeding in his aggressive tactics was in the first year of the war. If he had achieved a knock out blow to the Army of the Potomac at a time when Grant and Rosecrans had not yet achieved victories in the West, the "soft" policy Unionists like McClellan may have prevailed with a negotiated peace or England or France might have intervened. Otherwise, by 1864, the geographic attrition of the South had mostly been achieved and VA was one big mopping operation in a way. Lee also failed in sending reinforcements to other commands. If he had sent some to Johnston or Hood before Atlanta, it might not have been taken before the Nov. elections and Lincoln may have lost.

But you do have to worry about someone, that is Lee, who never understood or was in denial about the strength of the defensive given the long range of rifles and muskets at the time and no one had developed tactics to deal with it early on.

One commentator has noted that when the war started there were about 6 or 7 "star" generals of the Union army. At the end, not one was still in this pantheon. So it was in the first year of the war that the Union was most vulnerable, when it hadn't sifted and winnowed its general in combat yet. In a way, you can say, the South never did that. Lee stayed in VA and Davis stuck with his personal favorites whether they were victorious or not.

BTW, let us not forget, it was Meade at G-burg, not McClellan. I have heard a good defense of Meade--that is, for not following up on Lee's defeat. As I remember, it was basically that his army was too pooped out.

CKL



 Posted: Sun Aug 10th, 2008 03:40 am
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Hi CKL,

Good points once again. You seem to make a habit of that. :)

That's probably true about Lee. All things considered, it does seem as if his best chance to win in the East was the first year or so. It's funny, here I've been hammering him for Antietam, but I also think his decision to cross the Potomac in 1862 was a good option. Much better than 1863 when he made the same decision. In the East, the Union had been rocked back on its heels by the setbacks on the Peninsula and at Second Manassas, and it was the perfect time to seize the initiative. Under the circumstances a victory on Union soil could have dealt the Union war effort a severe blow. So I think I can understand why he acted as he did, even though staying on the strategic defensive was also a viable option. But then again, maybe not for Lee. About the only time he ever went over on the defensive was when he had no other choice, as in his duel with Grant.

I don't really fault the Maryland Campaign per say, although I'm really not sure he had any definite goal or plan in mind. I think he was going to be governed by circumstances. But what I do have a problem with is his decision to stand and fight at Sharpsburg. The situation by that point had changed radically, and all things considered, he had little or nothing to gain by offering battle. But I guess that's what you got with Lee. He had a terribly hard time curbing his aggressive instincts, even when doing so would have been a good idea. They served him well at times, much less so at other times.

That is an interesting point about the Union generals vs. the Confederate generals. You have a whole new cast in the North by the war's last year compared to 1861, but in the South the faces are about the same from start to finish. An interesting side note about that is Joe Johnston. It's often said that Davis could hardly stand him, yet he keeps turning up with important commands.

I've read some about all that, and how and why Davis seemed to stick with certain commanders so often, but it's been a while now, and the brain cells aren't what they used to be. But I remember the contrast with the North, and how the Union command went through a wholesale change during the war, whereas that of the South did not. That's a pretty intriguing subject.

Getting back for a moment to the subject of Lee's decision to remain on the field on September 18th, I haven't scowered the earth far and wide or anything, but so far everything I've come across indicates that Lee acted as he did with the intension of fighting, not bluffing McClellan into holding back. Lee's own report on the battle makes no mention of any such idea. In fact, his words suggest he was ready to fight if McClellan was. What finally decided him to retreat was the fact that McClellan wasn't going to attack right away combined with the added fact that Mac was receiving reinforcements.

Lee even says in his report that his own army was "too weak to assume the offensive," suggesting that he may have considered this idea at some point. D.S. Freeman, on page 262 of the abridged version of his biography of Lee, says this - "When the last of the reports had been received, Lee concluded that an offensive was out of the question the next day, but he was confident that the army could and would defend its position if McClellan again attacked."

This is something those faulty brain cells had forgotten. The fact that Lee actually thought about going over on the attack on the 18th, after his army had been all but blasted apart on the 17th. If that doesn't leave a person shaking their head in disbelief, I'm not sure what will.

Perry



 Posted: Sun Aug 10th, 2008 04:52 pm
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Good point, Iron Duke.

Just now reading these posts, great discussion.

 

Last edited on Sun Aug 10th, 2008 04:56 pm by browner



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