Lee's Psychology--A Fatal Flaw

Joined
Jun 27, 2017
I know we've all read about Lee, the man of impeccable honor. In fact all too often we've come across authors who seem unable to distinguish between Lee and Jesus.

Well let pose a supposition. Go back to Lee's childhood. What was the single greatest impact on his young life? And I believe on his entire life as well. Undoubtedly the shame of his father's imprisonment for debt and his flight to the Caribbean. Lee in fact never saw his father after he absconded. So for almost his entire life he was essentially fatherless. I believe that as a result his entire life was dedicated to never being criticized for any impropriety, any failure at all even.

Secondly he as well as almost any military man in the Western World of the day was thoroughly and intimately familiar with Napoleon's campaigns. The great Bonaparte, being the greatest general of all time would be the measure to compare himself with.

At the time the general conception was that Napoleon was able to engage with his opponent, find a weakness which he could exploit and shatter the enemy sending them in headlong flight and essentially ending the campaign/war with one fell stroke.

Looking at his early career in the CW, I believe that he felt his victories were 2nd rate or achieved on the cheap. The 7 Days battles just managed to shove his opponent off the Peninsula away from Richmond. 2nd Bull Run was not much better. Likewise Fredericksburg. Even the great accomplishment at Chancellorsville left his opponent temporarily checked but still able to resume the offensive.

You notice I've left out two battles--Antietam and G'burg. We all know that those 2 battles are where Lee has been most roundly criticized. To me they have one thing in common. Neither HAD to be fought to achieve his strategic goal. At Antietam suppose he had made every obvious preparation to fight but at the first sign of an attack had simply slipped back across the Potomac. Similarly at G'burg given the inevitability of Day one or even Day Two, having failed to take Cemetery Ridge he had simply disengaged. In both cases he could have swung around his opponent's flank rampaging through Union territory seemingly at will. Especially after Antietam and possibly in both the failure of the Union to defend its own territory could well have presaged British and French intervention to recognize the South and dictate and end to the conflict.

It seems to me that Lee's failure to recognize this obvious fact leads to the conclusion that his preference of the offensive and his seeming bloody mindedness was an attempt to live up to the Napoleonic model. His attempt to create a "Napoleonic" victory.
 

Lubliner

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I follow you pretty well, but at the end; which obvious fact did Lee not recognize? His army almost got chopped to pieces after both Northern excursions, trying to fall back across the Potomac to safe ground. Both he and Davis were also aware of the possibility of foreign intervention with a winning campaign. His whole strategy, IMO was to get the Union army off the soil of Virginia, and move the war up north of the Potomac so, in his words, "Those people..." could feel the devastation of conflict upon their own hearthstones.
As far as his childhood goes, he knew his mother wasn't well off, financially, due to his father's flightiness, and those vows and commitments to do better solidified, gaining him an impeccable service record through West Point until 1861, when he resigned. About his Napoleonic beliefs, I would believe whatever was studied at the academy took root. How much these battles influenced him, I really can't say. I have never studied Napoleon due to the strangeness of all the names. One more time, which obvious fact did Lee not recognize?
Lubliner.
 

jackt62

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It seems to be well considered that Lee's personality was heavily influenced by his father's original heroic exploits in the Revolution, and his subsequent downfall into debt and abandonment. So Lee made great efforts to remain a role model to friends, family, and his patrician Virginia background. He was certainly successful in that regard. As far as the Napoleonic influence is concerned, Lee and all his West Point colleagues were inculcated with the teaching of Denis Hart Mahan, who combined Napoleonic and Jomini strategies with his own knowledge of military engineering. I would guess that Lee was more influenced by Mahan, especially since Lee's pre-war career was heavily oriented to fortifications and engineering.
 

Fairfield

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Well let pose a supposition. Go back to Lee's childhood. What was the single greatest impact on his young life? And I believe on his entire life as well. Undoubtedly the shame of his father's imprisonment for debt and his flight to the Caribbean. Lee in fact never saw his father after he absconded. So for almost his entire life he was essentially fatherless. I believe that as a result his entire life was dedicated to never being criticized for any impropriety, any failure at all even.
As distressing as his father's abandonment was, I suspect that there was an even deeper impact made by the fact that he was virtually homeless as a child was more telling. Had it not been for an extremely strong mother who leaned on her own family and on the Lees to make sure that her children had food & shelter as well as inclusion in family/society events, the general would have been little more than a pauper with an impressive name. Add to that childhood the fact that, materially, as an adult he owed everything to his wife: Custis money and the Custis estate of Arlington.

The Custises had initial misgivings about the young Robert Lee and even his future wife kept putting off the wedding until he insisted. That had to hurt.

His almost obsessive attachment to Virginia (in general) and to Arlington (in particular) perhaps is rooted in the fact that he owed everything to these two women rather than his own inheritance or creation.
 

Andy Cardinal

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I happen to agree with several points of your analysis of Lee's generalship. Most particularly his fighting a battle when one was not necessary to achieve his strategic aims. I believe his greatest flaw -- as well as his greatest strength -- was his nearly unshakeable believe in himself and his army.

Take Antietam as an example. When Lee withdrew on the night of September 18 he intended to recross at Williamsburg and resume his campaign. He still believed this was possible Don September 19. Ironically it was only after the fighting at Shepherdstown that he realized his plan was not practicable.

But it might have worked on September 17. If he withdrew his army in the 16th, joined Jackson at Shepherdstown on the 17th and marched to Williamsport and regressed on the 18th or 19th? McClellan probably wouldnt have reacted to quickly to such a development.

The point is, if all that us true, it is even harder to understand whumy Lee was so anxious to fight at Sharpsburg.
 
Joined
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I happen to agree with several points of your analysis of Lee's generalship. Most particularly his fighting a battle when one was not necessary to achieve his strategic aims. I believe his greatest flaw -- as well as his greatest strength -- was his nearly unshakeable believe in himself and his army.

Take Antietam as an example. When Lee withdrew on the night of September 18 he intended to recross at Williamsburg and resume his campaign. He still believed this was possible Don September 19. Ironically it was only after the fighting at Shepherdstown that he realized his plan was not practicable.

But it might have worked on September 17. If he withdrew his army in the 16th, joined Jackson at Shepherdstown on the 17th and marched to Williamsport and regressed on the 18th or 19th? McClellan probably wouldnt have reacted to quickly to such a development.

The point is, if all that us true, it is even harder to understand whumy Lee was so anxious to fight at Sharpsburg.
I happen to agree that the best course of action for Lee was to avoid battle at Antietam. He should have appeared to prepare for battle but slip away at the last possible moment and reinvade east or west and make the Union look like fools.

We know that France was already willing and able to recognize the Confederacy and that England was poised and ready to do so when Antietam was fought. Had Lee won or at least held his position against repeated Union assaults. Would European intervention almost certainly occurred--almost certainly. Could Lincoln have issued the Emancipation Proclamation, almost certainly not. But had Lee avoided battle and reinvaded the North would we have seen European recognition again almost certainly and could Lincoln have issued the Emancipation Proclamation, not without looking like a total fool.
 

Jamieva

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I happen to agree with several points of your analysis of Lee's generalship. Most particularly his fighting a battle when one was not necessary to achieve his strategic aims. I believe his greatest flaw -- as well as his greatest strength -- was his nearly unshakeable believe in himself and his army.

Take Antietam as an example. When Lee withdrew on the night of September 18 he intended to recross at Williamsburg and resume his campaign. He still believed this was possible Don September 19. Ironically it was only after the fighting at Shepherdstown that he realized his plan was not practicable.

But it might have worked on September 17. If he withdrew his army in the 16th, joined Jackson at Shepherdstown on the 17th and marched to Williamsport and regressed on the 18th or 19th? McClellan probably wouldnt have reacted to quickly to such a development.

The point is, if all that us true, it is even harder to understand whumy Lee was so anxious to fight at Sharpsburg.

Antietam, Malvern Hill, the 3rd day at Gettysburg all fall into that category.
 

Joshism

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I believe that as a result his entire life was dedicated to never being criticized for any impropriety, any failure at all even.

Lee lived in an era of Southern gentlemen. Many of them were hypocrites, but no doubt some of them tried to really live up to the ideal.

But it might have worked on September 17. If he withdrew his army in the 16th, joined Jackson at Shepherdstown on the 17th and marched to Williamsport and regressed on the 18th or 19th? McClellan probably wouldnt have reacted to quickly to such a development.

If Lee moves east before recrossing he would be trying to slip the ANV between the AOTP and the Washington defenses, which were well-manned.

If Lee moves west and McClellan is slow to react what is Lee's goal? Race for Harrisburg and the Susquehanna? Keeping in mind the ANV was having serious straggling problems in Maryland before Antietam and Lee would be essentially cutting free of his supply line. It also depends how the AOTP pursues - which side of the mountains.
 

Lubliner

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If he had dodged the Union Army at both Antietam and Gettysburg and retreated to the southside of the Potomac, he could possibly have defended more Virginia soil. His main purpose should be to rid Virginia of the Union Army. His attacks at Malvern Hill were necessary. The others proved exponential losses to his army. After Gettysburg, their only hope still stood for foreign recognition.
Lubliner.
 

wausaubob

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The trouble is that the lessons of the Napoleonic war were not correctly learned.
The British frustrated the French by achieving naval superiority. Napoleon engaged in a campaign that far exceeded his logistical capability.
And by 1857 Napoleonic warfare was even more irrelevant. Naval power was even more dominant by the time of the Crimean War, and artillery was becoming more powerful, year by year.
Farragut and Samuel Lee were correct in the adherence to the US. Robert E. Lee invited a disaster for Virginia by throwing in with the Confederate cause.
 

Piedone

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Oct 8, 2020
The trouble is that the lessons of the Napoleonic war were not correctly learned.
The British frustrated the French by achieving naval superiority. Napoleon engaged in a campaign that far exceeded his logistical capability.
And by 1857 Napoleonic warfare was even more irrelevant. Naval power was even more dominant by the time of the Crimean War, and artillery was becoming more powerful, year by year.
Farragut and Samuel Lee were correct in the adherence to the US. Robert E. Lee invited a disaster for Virginia by throwing in with the Confederate cause.
But wasn‘t Napoleon generally relying heavily on artillery also?

May I ask why it was particularly Lee siding with the Confederacy to invite disaster to Virginia - pIease excuse me but at the moment I just cannot grasp exactly what point you are stressing here.
 

Piedone

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...
His almost obsessive attachment to Virginia (in general) and to Arlington (in particular) perhaps is rooted in the fact that he owed everything to these two women rather than his own inheritance or creation.
I found it always hard to explain why Lee swapped sides suddenly - after having expressed some doubts about the secession movement. More than that also his critical stance toward the Union (he had long felt deeply attached to) quite surprised me.

I am currently following just the same idea like you.
I think the loss of Arlington (and it’s turning into a cemetery which made any hope of regaining it illusory)
and especially it‘s impact on Mary Custis had quite an influence on how Lee saw the North - and (consequentially) the Confederacy.
 
Joined
Jun 27, 2017
Antietam, Malvern Hill, the 3rd day at Gettysburg all fall into that category.
I won't even begin to argue with about Antietam and G'burg, but Malvern Hill is different. What was the result of Lee's murderous assaults on the hill. McClelland and the AoP decided to abandon the Peninsula and the attacks on Richmond. What was the result? Instead of the war ending in 62' or early 63', it lasted until 1865. Lee's willingness to accept enormous casualties absolutely convinced Lil Mac that he was facing tremendously superior forces and had to retreat. Remember Lil Mac was firmly convinced that Lee tremendously outnumbered him. I have often wondered why no journalist after the war ever confronted him with the information that he had the numerical advantage every time he faced Lee. It would have lead to an interesting colloquy not least of because it might have lead to a dead journalist!!!

Lee on the other hand knew that given the Union's tremendous advantage is manpower and supplies, given a foothold near Richmond could expand and begin siege operations. Something he could not overcome. Witness the end of the Overland Campaign when Grant got close enough to Petersburg (read that southern Richmond). Once any Union CinC could achieve that position the end of the war with a Union victory as a mathematical certainty.
 
Joined
Jun 27, 2017
Antietam, Malvern Hill, the 3rd day at Gettysburg all fall into that category.
I won't even begin to argue with about Antietam and G'burg, but Malvern Hill is different. What was the result of Lee's murderous assaults on the hill. McClelland and the AoP decided to abandon the Peninsula and the attacks on Richmond. What was the result? Instead of the war ending in 62' or early 63', it lasted until 1865. Lee's willingness to accept enormous casualties absolutely convinced Lil Mac that he was facing tremendously superior forces and had to retreat. Remember Lil Mac was firmly convinced that Lee tremendously outnumbered him. I have often wondered why no journalist after the war ever confronted him with the information that he had the numerical advantage every time he faced Lee. It would have lead to an interesting colloquy not least of because it might have lead to a dead journalist!!!

Lee on the other hand knew that given the Union's tremendous advantage is manpower and supplies, given a foothold near Richmond could expand and begin siege operations. Something he could not overcome. Witness the end of the Overland Campaign when Grant got close enough to Petersburg (read that southern Richmond). Once any Union CinC could achieve that position the end of the war with a Union victory as a mathematical certainty.
 
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