Is Robert E. Lee overrated?

Yeah, the post title is somewhat deliberately provocative, but it’s also meant to be a serious question that I hope will spark some discussion.  I was going to ask it in the comments to Donald’s post below, but thought it might be useful fodder for debate in its own right.

I should emphasize that by asking the question I am not assuming an answer either way.  I am a Civil War buff.  I have studied this era in American history for years, and have traveled to multiple Civil War battle sites, and have read countless biographies and general histories of the era. Having said that, I will admit that my weakness when it comes to this period – and really history in general – is military tactics.  I’ve read about the Battle of Gettysburg more times than I can count, and visited the battlefield just about a year ago to the day.  Yet I probably would have difficulty right now recounting exactly how the battle shook out.  This is one of those areas where something just doesn’t click for me – kind of like biology and, well, most science topics to be blunt.

So I throw this out because I am genuinely curious, and I’d like to hear from those in the audience with some more familiarity.  I’ve heard it suggested by more than one historian that Lee was overrated, and that perhaps his aggressive forays into the North were foolhardy adventures that doomed the Confederacy.  I’m not sure I agree with this, but as I said, I’d like to hear from folks who are better acquainted with military history, tactics, etc.

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Published in: on June 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm  Comments (15)  
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15 Comments

  1. Since he chose the wrong side, I’d say yes.

  2. His invasions of the North may have been foolhardy but that is hindsight, at the time they seemed to be having the desired effect on Northern politics & morale.

    What IS overlooked is the huge amount of Southern resources Lee & the AVN soaked up like a sponge that might have been better used elsewhere.

  3. I can’t imagine the Confederacy surviving for four years without Robert E. Lee. The Union was knocking on the gates of Richmond in 1862 when Lee took command. Without his Seven Days offensive I think it is beyond doubt that Richmond would have fallen. His offensive into Maryland took the pressure off Virginia until Burnsides’ winter offensive which Lee smashed at Fredericksburg. In the Spring of 1863 Lee routed at Chancellorsville an army which outnumbered his two-one, something I can’t imagine any other general in that war accomplishing. His offensive into Pennsylvania was a roll of the dice. If he had been able to heavily defeat the Army of the Potomac on northern soil, support for the war in the North may well have crumbled. As it was, Lee’s offensive once again took the pressure off Virginia for almost a year, except for Meade’s Mine Run Offensive in the Fall of 1863 which a heavily outnumbered Lee defeated through pure maneuver. In 1864 Lee faced Grant, the best general in the Union army. Grant outnumbered Lee in total troops in the theater close to 3-1, and usually had battlefield odds of close to 2-1. Grant’s men were superbly supplied, while Lee’s men were dressed in rags and near starvation rations. Even so Lee fended Grant off and inflicted over 50,000 casualties on Grant in one month, which resulted in cries of Grant the Butcher ringing throughout the North, almost costing Lincoln the election. At last, when all hope was gone, Lee and his army held the trenches at Petersburg for nine months, extending the life of their country for that same time period. I have no doubt that Robert E. Lee is by far the greatest general in American history.

  4. [...] I know that quite a few of our readers are interested in the Late Unpleasantness, and many have strong opinions on the subject!  If you would care to participate in the discussion, go here. [...]

  5. [...] is the question I pose over at Almost Chosen People.  And before you plot ways to kill me, I ask the question out of genuine historical curiosity [...]

  6. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Lee is overrated, but I do think people tend to overlook his flaws as a commander. Not so much the decisions like Pickett at Gettysburg, but rather his approach to visualizing the battlefield. Back in the Mexican War, Lee gained a sterling reputation for always scouting out the terrain and knowing the physical features of where he was going. He knew the battlefield better than the Mexicans did, and it showed.

    For whatever reason, during the Civil War, he relied on more of a general understanding of the region and let his cavalry commanders freewheel too much. Sure, most of the time they ran the Yankee horsemen ragged and made them look stupid, but it definitely neglected the scouting function. If it hadn’t been for the actor Harrison, the ANV might have been destroyed in detail before it reached Gettysburg.

    As to the invasions of the North, they made perfect sense strategically, politically and diplomatically. He had to keep the ANV mobile–for its sake as well as to continue living rent-free in the skulls of every Union AOP leader. Once Grant moved east, the intimidation factor was gone. Once he pinned the ANV down, it was over.

    I also disagree that the ANV ate up too much of the South’s resources. Losing Richmond would have snuffed out any hope of recognition by France or England. The Army of Tennessee was well-provisioned and not starved of troops. The problem was that it was led by a series of brain-impaired clods (save Joseph Johnston) and the Western Union armies were not.

  7. I do not agree that Lee was overrated. He was merely on the wrong side. Had he been in charge of the Union Army, I firmly believe the war would have been ended much more quickly with the Union as victor. He was moderately successful despite being outnumbered, out supplied, and saddled with incompetent subordinates. In general, I believe it is Lee’s subordinates who have been largely overrated.

  8. And one more thing: a good candidate for the most consequential two words in American history are “if practicable.”

  9. one could argue that he lacked the genius of washington, who kept his army intact during the revolution by NOT commiting to fixed battles. Limited resources and limited manpower

    both sides kept using men as fodder by fighting in formations designed for the brown bess in the age of the rifle….

  10. Mind you, these are people still relying primarily on reptile brain functions, so they start out handicapped by their antiquated way of life.

  11. “[Lee] lacked the genius of Washington, who kept his army intact during the revolution by NOT commiting to fixed battles.”

    Washington’s infant nation did not face the sort of annihilation that was staring the Confederacy in the face, either. Washington would not have been able to avoid pitched battle were he in Lee’s place, except by simply giving up the Confederacy.

  12. I would hardly say Lee was overrated, but in my opinion, when Jackson died, so died any hope of the Confederacy battling to a negotiated settlement.

  13. I will never understand the uphill charge against a stronger enemy at Gettysburg. That is the chief argument for anyone who argues that Lee may have been overrated. Lee himself immediately knew that he had screwed up. Other than that, his performance was excellent; few commanders could survive three years of war with an enemy who routinely outnumbered them two to one and was constantly better supplied.

  14. One of the great attributes of Lee was his ability to coordinate his attacks, not easy to do in a period when battlefield communications consisted of scribbled notes transported by horseback. At Gettysburg this ability seemed to desert him temporarily after the first day. Jackson, of course, if he had been alive would have made all the difference. One can just imagine Jackson on the first day driving forward with a twilight attack to hurl the Union forces off the high ground, or launching a huge flanking manuever against the Union rear on the second day. As Lee truly said after Chancellorsville, Jackson had lost his left arm and Lee his right arm.

    • You make me think. Napoleon’s performance at Waterloo was untypical both in the stupidity of his frontal charge against Wellington (which left Wellington himself astonished as well as horrified) and in the lumbering, irresolute actions of Field-Marshal Ney, which ended up leaving the door open for Bluecher to smash the French. Experts think that the lack of Berthier, Napoleon’s former chief of staff and right-hand-man, had a lot to do with the bad performance and confusion of the day. Perhaps the lack of Jackson had the same meaning.


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