Interview: Longstreet says Lee had a "dangerous confidence"

lelliott19

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On the occasion of Longstreet's visit to Antietam in 1893, a correspondent of the Washington Post recorded the General's opinions on a number of topics. In this part of the interview, General Longstreet says that General Lee did not usually underestimate his opponent, but may have tended to overestimate the abilities of his own army.

"Do you think general, as has been alleged, that General Lee's low estimate of the Federal commander was the reason for his extraordinary dispositions in the Harper's Ferry campaign?"

"Perhaps so. Lee's experience with McClellan on the peninsula certainly must have tended to give him confidence in any collision with that officer. General Lee, as a rule, did not underestimate his opponents, or the fighting qualities of the Federal troops. But after Chancellorsville he came to have unlimited confidence in his own army, and undoubtedly exaggerated its capacity to overcome obstacles, to march, to fight, to bear up under deprivations and exhaustion. It was a dangerous confidence. I think every officer who served under him will unhesitatingly agree with me on this point."​

Interview: Reprinted from the Washington Post of June 1893, the interview appeared in The Times Dispatch. (Richmond, VA.), November 12, 1911, page 3.
Image: https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/robert-e.-lee-and-the-army-of-northern-virginia.html

Note: This post is Part 18 of a series on Longstreet's opinions of various Generals, expressed during an interview with a Washington Post corespondent in 1893. Longstreet's opinions on various generals are posted in separate threads so they can be easily located - Bragg, Jackson, A P Hill, Early, Ewell, Pickett, Sheridan, Joe Johnston, Beauregard, Hood, Jeff Davis, Lee, Meade, McClellan, and more. Here are the links to Parts 1-17, posted previously:
Part 1 - Intro to the article
Part 2 - Longstreet on Bragg
Part 3 - Longstreet on Jackson
Part 4 - Longstreet on AP Hill
Part 5 - Longstreet on Ewell & Early
Part 6 - Longstreet on Pickett, Sheridan, Five Forks & the Timing of the Surrender
Part 7 - Longstreet on Joe Johnston
Part 8 - Longstreet on Beauregard
Part 9 - Longstreet on Hood
Part 10 - Longstreet on Lee's military attributes
Part 11 - Lee's Best Battle
Part 12 - Lee's Poorest Generalship
Part 13 - Lee's greatest weakness as tactical commander
Part 14 - Lee's tactical weakness at Gettysburg
Part 15 - Meade's Lost Opportunity
Part 16 - Gettysburg Controversies
Part 17 - Post-Gettysburg Relationship with Lee

<Up next - Longstreet on McClellan>
@Eleanor Rose @Union_Buff @FarawayFriend @War Horse @novushomus @GELongstreet @LeesWarhorse @Tom Elmore @Coonewah Creek @Yankeedave @Andy Cardinal @PeterT @Zella If you aren't tagged and would like to receive notification when these are posted, let me know and Ill tag you in future ones.
 

leftyhunter

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On the occasion of Longstreet's visit to Antietam in 1893, a correspondent of the Washington Post recorded the General's opinions on a number of topics. In this part of the interview, General Longstreet says that General Lee did not usually underestimate his opponent, but may have tended to overestimate the abilities of his own army.

"Do you think general, as has been alleged, that General Lee's low estimate of the Federal commander was the reason for his extraordinary dispositions in the Harper's Ferry campaign?"

"Perhaps so. Lee's experience with McClellan on the peninsula certainly must have tended to give him confidence in any collision with that officer. General Lee, as a rule, did not underestimate his opponents, or the fighting qualities of the Federal troops. But after Chancellorsville he came to have unlimited confidence in his own army, and undoubtedly exaggerated its capacity to overcome obstacles, to march, to fight, to bear up under deprivations and exhaustion. It was a dangerous confidence. I think every officer who served under him will unhesitatingly agree with me on this point."​

Interview: Reprinted from the Washington Post of June 1893, the interview appeared in The Times Dispatch. (Richmond, VA.), November 12, 1911, page 3.
Image: https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/robert-e.-lee-and-the-army-of-northern-virginia.html

Note: This post is Part 18 of a series on Longstreet's opinions of various Generals, expressed during an interview with a Washington Post corespondent in 1893. Longstreet's opinions on various generals are posted in separate threads so they can be easily located - Bragg, Jackson, A P Hill, Early, Ewell, Pickett, Sheridan, Joe Johnston, Beauregard, Hood, Jeff Davis, Lee, Meade, McClellan, and more. Here are the links to Parts 1-17, posted previously:
Part 1 - Intro to the article
Part 2 - Longstreet on Bragg
Part 3 - Longstreet on Jackson
Part 4 - Longstreet on AP Hill
Part 5 - Longstreet on Ewell & Early
Part 6 - Longstreet on Pickett, Sheridan, Five Forks & the Timing of the Surrender
Part 7 - Longstreet on Joe Johnston
Part 8 - Longstreet on Beauregard
Part 9 - Longstreet on Hood
Part 10 - Longstreet on Lee's military attributes
Part 11 - Lee's Best Battle
Part 12 - Lee's Poorest Generalship
Part 13 - Lee's greatest weakness as tactical commander
Part 14 - Lee's tactical weakness at Gettysburg
Part 15 - Meade's Lost Opportunity
Part 16 - Gettysburg Controversies
Part 17 - Post-Gettysburg Relationship with Lee

<Up next - Longstreet on McClellan>
@Eleanor Rose @Union_Buff @FarawayFriend @War Horse @novushomus @GELongstreet @LeesWarhorse @Tom Elmore @Coonewah Creek @Yankeedave @Andy Cardinal @PeterT @Zella If you aren't tagged and would like to receive notification when these are posted, let me know and Ill tag you in future ones.
No doubt Lee felt that way. On the other hand what choice did Lee have but to feel that way? As noted before on our countless Gettysburg threads the Confederacy was in dire straits by the summer of 1863. Lee knew that General Pemperton was not likely to prevail at Vicksburg. General Lee knew that eventually General Rosecrans would mount an offensive in Tennessee. General Lee knew it was always a possibility that Union troops could reinforce General Burnside in New Bern, North Carolina and March north into Virginia.
Not a lot of good options for General Lee.
Leftyhunter
 
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War Horse

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The army of Northern Virginia was a formidable force. A force that inflicted considerable damage to the Union army. Could the ANV been managed to even better results? Possibly. Any of us who think so today would be no more correct than Longstreet was at the time of this interview. The truth is, it’s only speculation, then and now. The fact is, the ANV did pretty darn good under Lee’s Generalship. No one can take that away.
 

lelliott19

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I'm kind of curious to know if others agree with Longstreet's assessment that General Lee had inflated/exaggerated faith in his army? And if so, was it so extreme to be a "dangerous confidence"?
 

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Lee certainly had great confidence in his army, even to the very end at Appomatox. But was it "exaggerated" or "dangerous?" I don't think it was exaggerated but it could be considered dangerous in the sense that without new reserves of manpower, the fighting capacity of the ANV ultimately dwindled to the point that it could no longer carry on the struggle.
 

ErnieMac

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I think that most good commanders have a strong faith in their troops and in themselves. Would anyone suggest Grant did not have faith in his men? Sherman - he probably had more faith in his soldiers than in himself. We know of two cases where that faith was lacking. Burnside protested he was not a good choice for command of the AoP and only took the position when told it would go to Hooker. Fredericksburg followed soon afterward. Hooker would say Chancellorsville was lost because he "simply lost faith in Joe Hooker."
 

War Horse

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Lee certainly had great confidence in his army, even to the very end at Appomatox. But was it "exaggerated" or "dangerous?" I don't think it was exaggerated but it could be considered dangerous in the sense that without new reserves of manpower, the fighting capacity of the ANV ultimately dwindled to the point that it could no longer carry on the struggle.
Dangerous also in his successes. Dividing your army in the presence of superior forces could only be described as dangerous. Lee did it on more than one occasion. Dangerous is an accurate description. It’s the “over exaggerates fath that concerns me. I’d agree with this statement concerning July 3rd however there are plenty of those who would not.
 

jackt62

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Dangerous also in his successes. Dividing your army in the presence of superior forces could only be described as dangerous. Lee did it on more than one occasion. Dangerous is an accurate description. It’s the “over exaggerates fath that concerns me. I’d agree with this statement concerning July 3rd however there are plenty of those who would not.

Although Lee was either lucky or skillful in his dividing of forces on numerous occasions. Maybe audacious is a better term than dangerous?
 
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I'm kind of curious to know if others agree with Longstreet's assessment that General Lee had inflated/exaggerated faith in his army? And if so, was it so extreme to be a "dangerous confidence"?

I think General Lee himself concurred with this judgment. He wrote to President Davis, "No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me, nor should it be censured for the unreasonable expectations of the public—I am alone to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess and valor." This wasn't just dangerous - it was deadly at Gettysburg!
 
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lelliott19

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It’s the over exaggerated faith that concerns me.
Can you expand on this? I would think that unbounded faith in your army would be a good thing - up to a point. Once assumptions exceed capacity, ability, resources, and human endurance, then prior expectations suddenly become unrealistic. At that point you'd need to rethink what can realistically be accomplished with what you have. (Learn to make chicken salad out of chicken poop .....maybe without the benefit of mayonnaise and pickle relish. :D)

So it seems to me, the most successful commander would be quick, adaptable, and flexible. Were those characteristics necessarily associated with/included in 1800's military training?
EDIT TO ADD: What CW general do you think was especially good at adaptability?
 

War Horse

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Can you expand on this? I would think that unbounded faith in your army would be a good thing - up to a point. Once assumptions exceed capacity, ability, resources, and human endurance, then prior expectations suddenly become unrealistic. At that point you'd need to rethink what can realistically be accomplished with what you have. (Learn to make chicken salad out of chicken poop .....maybe without the benefit of mayonnaise and pickle relish. :D)

So it seems to me, the most successful commander would be quick, adaptable, and flexible. Were those characteristics necessarily associated with/included in 1800's military training?
I would say the best commanders were, well trained, confident and objective oriented. Having good commanders with competent subordinates is essential.

Lee never changed from the Lee that failed miserably in the early years in Western Virginia. What changed was the army he now commanded. I’ve said it many times. The ANV consisted of a cast of uncommon talent all brought together through some act of Providence. Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Stuart. I fondly refer to as the 4 giants of the ANV. Now throw in a cast of quality subordinates. A.P Hill, Alexander among others. You have the foundation for greatness. It’s rare, but when all the stars become aligned, it happens.
 

War Horse

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That’s why I love this print by John DeMott. “Defenders of the Cause”. All 4 Giants are present. It’s rare in portraits. I’m really not sure if anyone else has done one. If so I haven’t seen it.

02F4206F-5CB2-42C7-B217-770DC83F26B5.jpeg


[edit] Sorry for going off topic. I’ll return now.
 
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byron ed

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I think General Lee himself concurred with this judgment. He wrote to President Davis, "No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me, nor should it be censured for the unreasonable expectations of the public—I am alone to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess and valor."...

Pretty clear, yet Lost Cause (and now "Lost Cause Lite") has rejected this very thing -- Lee's own assessment of it, issued from the very ground and from the very person who was in the best position to know at the time.*



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* instead LC / "LC Lite" mantra has it that it was just about anything else, most especially the "unfair" else, that resulted in the Confederate defeat. They will, by god, have the Lee of their own construct to spite the way the man himself would've had it. Witness Lee Chapel; in which the Mrs. originally intended to amend with a memorial to her husband on one end, but which was later integrated in its entirety as a place of worship to her husband.
 
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James N.

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I think that most good commanders have a strong faith in their troops and in themselves. Would anyone suggest Grant did not have faith in his men? Sherman - he probably had more faith in his soldiers than in himself. We know of two cases where that faith was lacking. Burnside protested he was not a good choice for command of the AoP and only took the position when told it would go to Hooker. Fredericksburg followed soon afterward. Hooker would say Chancellorsville was lost because he "simply lost faith in Joe Hooker."
Unfortunately, this is now believed by modern authors to be an apocryphal statement.
 

James N.

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That’s why I love this print by John DeMott. “Defenders of the Cause”. All 4 Giants are present. It’s rare in portraits. I’m really not sure if anyone else has done one. If so I haven’t seen it...

Although not my favorite, here's Mort Kunstler's I Will be Moving Within the Hour; Longstreet with his back to the viewer is especially stiffed, though. This is the beginning of the Second Manassas Campaign as Jackson takes his leave of the other three to begin his flank march around Pope's army. (I don't own this, but do have a copy of it on a collectible plate and coffee mug.)

I%20Will%20Be%20Moving%20Within%20The%20Hour_frame.jpg
 

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