Lee's Psychology--A Fatal Flaw

OpnCoronet

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If more modern technology make it harder to win wars quickly, then why did the Prussians Beat the Austrians in a few weeks in 1866?
And French also pretty quickly in 1870?

I will argue that the size of the armies matter...
If there are more than one field army, destroying one do not end the war. And that is one of the big issues in the west in 1914.

And why the armies are fighting.
In some wars you can beat the one enemy field army and rout it... and that is basically the end of the war.

This is common in wars that are limited where the political issue is a matter that only really matter to the political leadership and maybe the middle class.
1866 is a good example of this. The Austrians Lost the main battle and then they accepted that they where no longer part of Germany... and that was it.

But in wars that are (close to) total wars, then you pretty much need to take control of the entire enemy country with garrisons across the country... and they will still fight you.
Spain during the later part of the Napoleonic wars are an example of this. The French was fighting much of the Spanish population.
And I would say that from 1812 in Russia and to the end its the same in north and central Europe.
By 1813 the war had become a peoples war between the French vs. the Germans and Russians.
Defeating a field army in no longer something that win wars for Napoleon.

The franco-prussian war show both types. The Prussians pretty much destroy all French field armies and expected the French to ask for terms.
But they do not... and it change from a limited war between two states* over an perceived insult to a war between two nations that drag on for much longer than expected. And basically result in a French civil war.

And cavalry. What was the issue in 1861-65 was the lack of proper trained and equipped cavalry...
It took 2-3 years to train a regiment of cavalry. That is why we don't see federal cavalry do proper saber charges until late in the war. And when they start to do so, they are usually very effective.
And the other issue is the terrain. The typical civil war battlefield was simply less open than a typical European battlefield. So even if the cavalry had been there, it would have been harder at most battles to use it like Napoleon or Blücher would.

The rifle musket is irrelevant. Throwing cavalry at infantry in good order was a bad idea in 1805. (and in 1400 for that matter)
and it still was in 1861.
And throwing them at disordered infantry or even better infantry retreating was a good idea in both...
Well you are wandering much too far afield in answer(if that is what you are doing) to my small point.


I am only saying that I believe Lee was psychologically either knowingly or not, to the Napoleonic example of a single campaign or battle deciding the outcome of a war, wherein the deciding factor might be the brilliance, or luck, of a single commander. To the extent Lee accepted such a concept, I say that the increasing complexity of modern weaponry and its production, made such a concept/belief obsolete in the ACW.



P.S. as factoid, I will note that most studies of wars for the Unification of Germany by Prussia in the 19th Century, is usually ascribed to the Prussian Army being better armed and trained than their varied opponents and as a result, IMO, there could be no single stroke of 'genius' but a continuous grinding down of the opposition by steady application of Blood and Iron.
 

Desert Kid

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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.
Basically.

Lee was an old-school general in a new-school war. Napoleon was basically the primary how-to guide for any career Army man and officer class dude of his schooling years in the 1820's-1840's. Be daring, take risks, big payoff. That, and since, everybody back then can't see into the future, Lee was at worst over-confident in the tactics he was proficient in. Which bit him back very hard after both his invasions of the North. After all, 1863-1865 turned into a proto-WWI slog trench warfare, hardly the "Gentleman's War" he was brought up to believe in.

Lee, also grew up in the shadow of two men in his family. First, his dad, who was a legend in the American Revolution that died in a debtors prison which I hardly doubt caused significant insecurity within him. Second of course, was George Washington, his great-uncle by marriage. George Washington, the archetypal Virginian, Aristocrat, American and Revolutionary. Lee idolized Washington to the point of modelling his life and military career after him. So when the day came that Virginia rebelled again, the opportunity to become the Second Washington fell right into Lee's lap. Redeeming his family name from his dad's failures AND taking George Washington's mantle in one swoop? Who could resist?
 

wausaubob

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Part of the problem of Lee's generalship, was that it was too Napoleonic . Although his strategic concepts were filtered through his experiences in the Mexican War his study of Winfield Scott's campaign there, he remained true to the Napoleonic single climactic concept of discrete wars fought and won by winning a single campaign by a bold offensive stroke delivered at a time and place of his own choosing, usually by misdirection and by maneuver, achieving overwhelming advantage in numbers at a chosen weakened part of the enemy position.

But, in modern war, which it is often claimed, that the ACW was the First Modern War, it is usually not possible to win a war by a single bold stroke on the battlefield. Lee kept trying to win the war by single stroke of genius, when, war had grown to big and technologically too complex, to achieve victory by the application of outmoded precepts of a military genius.

As shown, I think, by others on this thread, Lee was psychologically unable to adjust to fighting a modern war, because it was a kind of war, that he was not prepared, psychologically or training to fight successfully.
However, both sides saw that Scott had defeated the Mexican government and forced negotiation in a single campaign in which the US captured Mexico City. They also should have realized that the British and French had avoided Napoleon's problems in 1814, by relying on sea based logistics. It could not have been lost on General Lee that the US had the advantage of being able to land anywhere on the coast, and even by pass some strong points. I think he had to take chances on a one stroke victory, because he knew that McClellan had come very close to solving the puzzle, and someone was likely to try it again, with better support and less risk of British intervention.
General Lee did, from time to time, under estimate the power and mobility the US had on the internal rivers. Why he thought communication cross the Mississippi could be re-established once the US captured all the permanent fortifications there is puzzling.
The theory was that once railroads were part of the large army logistics, it was very hard to disorganize a retreating army whose railroad connection was still operating. The same applied to river transport and coastal naval control. If an army could retreat towards a logistical base, such as Johnston's army retreating towards Atlanta, then it survives to fight another day.
 

OpnCoronet

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However, both sides saw that Scott had defeated the Mexican government and forced negotiation in a single campaign in which the US captured Mexico City. They also should have realized that the British and French had avoided Napoleon's problems in 1814, by relying on sea based logistics. It could not have been lost on General Lee that the US had the advantage of being able to land anywhere on the coast, and even by pass some strong points. I think he had to take chances on a one stroke victory, because he knew that McClellan had come very close to solving the puzzle, and someone was likely to try it again, with better support and less risk of British intervention.
General Lee did, from time to time, under estimate the power and mobility the US had on the internal rivers. Why he thought communication cross the Mississippi could be re-established once the US captured all the permanent fortifications there is puzzling.
The theory was that once railroads were part of the large army logistics, it was very hard to disorganize a retreating army whose railroad connection was still operating. The same applied to river transport and coastal naval control. If an army could retreat towards a logistical base, such as Johnston's army retreating towards Atlanta, then it survives to fight another day.
I am not sure what point you are making, but, in ref. to the Mexican War. It was not, IMO, really a modern war, in that both the countries and their armies were not equally modern; the Mexican soldiers were armed with weapons little different from the Napoleonic Wars. Even then though, Scott and the United States gov't were lucky that the Mexican leadership changed and finally accepted the U.S. Terms.

Scott taking Mexico City, ended the fighting, but it did not end the war. The Mexican leaders refused to accept U.S Terms for surrender. So Scott and his army was stuck in Mexico many mo.'s before internal events within the Mexican leadership allowed them to leave.. Scott, and the U.S., could easily have found themselves in the middle of Mexican Revolutionary War for Independence, almost 20 years before the French did.
 

James N.

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I've only scanned the first page and although there are certainly some well-reasoned ideas about the likely influence on Lee of his father's negative experiences, his West Point instructors, and his interest in Napoleon, there are at least two other men who loomed large in his life: George Washington and Winfield Scott. (If someone has already suggested this on the following pages, please excuse me.) Washington was his own father's personal hero and one to be emulated by the mass of Americans; he was also a military risk-taker who learned during his career just how far he could press his luck. Young Robert likely followed his own father's example of things NOT to do in his personal life, and Washington's as the "proper" role model. Of course the influences of Scott and Zachary Taylor on both Lee and U. S. Grant have been the subjects of many previous threads here in the forums, and I think it's generally agreed that Lee had more of Scott in his character and Grant was more like Taylor on a purely personal level. Both commanders during this most recent war were also risk-takers and always opposed to larger armies they seemingly had little or no trouble besting in the field, and like Washington - but not Napoleon - they were ultimately winners.
 

wausaubob

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I am not sure what point you are making, but, in ref. to the Mexican War. It was not, IMO, really a modern war, in that both the countries and their armies were not equally modern; the Mexican soldiers were armed with weapons little different from the Napoleonic Wars. Even then though, Scott and the United States gov't were lucky that the Mexican leadership changed and finally accepted the U.S. Terms.

Scott taking Mexico City, ended the fighting, but it did not end the war. The Mexican leaders refused to accept U.S Terms for surrender. So Scott and his army was stuck in Mexico many mo.'s before internal events within the Mexican leadership allowed them to leave.. Scott, and the U.S., could easily have found themselves in the middle of Mexican Revolutionary War for Independence, almost 20 years before the French did.
Most of the US casualties in the US/Mexican war were caused by disease, specifically Yellow Fever, if my memory is correct.
 

Piedone

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Basically.

Lee was an old-school general in a new-school war. ..... After all, 1863-1865 turned into a proto-WWI slog trench warfare, hardly the "Gentleman's War" he was brought up to believe in.
That’s convincing - but I’d say he was a extremely fast adopter of this new warfare - especially during this phase of WWI-like warfare the ANV was led nearly flawlessly....
 

Cavalier

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I believe trench warfare, as it is now called, was around long before the American Civil War and that Robert E. Lee and his military contemporaries would have been quite familiar with it. Just an opinion, but I don't think there was anything especially "new school" about it.
 

Cavalier

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@Piedone I assume your referring my post, #51. I believe I am right but I am student of military history, not any kind of expert, as some on here are, so I could certainly be mistaken.

I believe Lee was referred to early on in the Civil War as the "King of Spades" because of his entrenching. No expert on Mahan but I believe he was an advocate of entrenching and Lee would certainly be familiar with him and his theories.

There were instances of entrenching during the Napoleonic War, the famous "Lines of Torres Verdes" comes to mind in that regard. Lee was a student of the Napoleonic wars and would certainly be familiar with the concept as it was applied then, I would think anyway. And siege warfare had been around for centuries if I'm not mistaken.

Hopefully some real experts will chime in and we can hear "the rest of the story", as Paul Harvey was fond of saying.

John
 

Zack

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It really comes down to how you define trench warfare.

The Ottomans dug trenches while attacking Vienna in 1683. They were used by the Ottomans to get close to the walls of Vienna without losing as many men. Is that trench warfare?
0x0-1529621809730.jpg


British, French, and Russian forces engaged in trench warfare for about a year at Sevastopol 1854-1855. That's pretty much the same as what happened at Petersburg ten years later. From the panorama by Franz Roubaud:
sevastople1235459.jpg


Is the Siege of Petersburg any different than one army laying siege to another army during the Middle Ages? In 1216 at Dover the French dug fortified lines around the city from which they launched their attacks. Is that trench warfare? Are guns an intrinsic part of trench warfare? Painting below by Peter Dunn:

DoverReconstruction_PeterDunn_-®HistoricEngland.jpg


Is an opposing series of breastworks different than an opposing series of trenches? Is trenches on one side and a walled city on the other distinct from trench warfare? Do the trenches need to extend beyond simply city fortifications for combat to be considered true trench warfare?

I'm not an expert, but my understanding is, with a few notable exceptions, much of the combat of Petersburg was fought on the flanks. Aside from the Crater, Fort Stedman, and the breakout, you didn't see like one side emerging from trenches to attack the other side dug into trenches. Fighting on the flanks in a mixture of trenches and non-trenches - does that count as trench warfare? Soldiers may throw up fortifications before they attack but is that different from trench warfare? That had been happening since war began. If the soldiers live mostly in tents right behind the fortifications, is that trench warfare? Or do they have to live in the trenches for X amount of time (even in WWI the soldiers rotated quite a bit).

Modern depiction of Fort Stedman:
FortStedmanSidneyKing.jpg


I know this is just a lot of questions, but deciding when trench warfare began is trying to apply a rule to something really messy.
 

Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
The idea of building defensive entrenchments when besieging a fortress is very old indeed and goes back past Caesar.

The idea of field works (i.e. building defensive entrenchments or embrasures while in the field, and not as part of a fortresses's outworks or while besieging one) was definitely over 150 years old at the time of the Civil War. During the War of the Spanish Succession there were the Lines of Ne Plus Ultra built across the France-Low Countries area, which were an expansive set of fieldworks.
Similarly, the Duke of Wellington only dug in a few times in the field (he was actually anomalously reluctant to do it) but he did do it, and other commanders did it as well. It was actually considered to be a fairly "standard" way of improving the effectiveness of troops which could not manoeuvre effectively under fire.

There is a specific type of situation in WW1 which is novel, which is the establishment of a complete set of manned fieldworks stretching across the whole theatre of operations. This means that it is no longer possible to turn the enemy and that attacks on trenches are necessary.
Another factor that's novel in WW1 is that the whole force digs in as a matter of course on both sides, regardless of quality. This is attributable to the spread of very long range high power rifles, the spread of shell-firing artillery with good time fuzes, and in particular the spread of the heavy watercooled machine gun (as this means that even in a relatively "quiet" sector it's not safe to have troops in the open within line of sight for very long at all.)
 

Piedone

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@Piedone I assume your referring my post, #51. I believe I am right but I am student of military history, not any kind of expert, as some on here are, so I could certainly be mistaken.

I believe Lee was referred to early on in the Civil War as the "King of Spades" because of his entrenching. No expert on Mahan but I believe he was an advocate of entrenching and Lee would certainly be familiar with him and his theories.

There were instances of entrenching during the Napoleonic War, the famous "Lines of Torres Verdes" comes to mind in that regard. Lee was a student of the Napoleonic wars and would certainly be familiar with the concept as it was applied then, I would think anyway. And siege warfare had been around for centuries if I'm not mistaken.

Hopefully some real experts will chime in and we can hear "the rest of the story", as Paul Harvey was fond of saying.

John
Well yes. Isn‘t it strange how we take certain notions for granted until we take a second look at them?
I always thought it self-evident that modern trench warfare was „invented“ at Petersburg - but reading your and @Zack ‘s post I am suddenly not so sure about it anymore...
 

Piedone

Sergeant
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Oct 8, 2020
The idea of building defensive entrenchments when besieging a fortress is very old indeed and goes back past Caesar.

The idea of field works (i.e. building defensive entrenchments or embrasures while in the field, and not as part of a fortresses's outworks or while besieging one) was definitely over 150 years old at the time of the Civil War. During the War of the Spanish Succession there were the Lines of Ne Plus Ultra built across the France-Low Countries area, which were an expansive set of fieldworks.
Similarly, the Duke of Wellington only dug in a few times in the field (he was actually anomalously reluctant to do it) but he did do it, and other commanders did it as well. It was actually considered to be a fairly "standard" way of improving the effectiveness of troops which could not manoeuvre effectively under fire.

There is a specific type of situation in WW1 which is novel, which is the establishment of a complete set of manned fieldworks stretching across the whole theatre of operations. This means that it is no longer possible to turn the enemy and that attacks on trenches are necessary.
Another factor that's novel in WW1 is that the whole force digs in as a matter of course on both sides, regardless of quality. This is attributable to the spread of very long range high power rifles, the spread of shell-firing artillery with good time fuzes, and in particular the spread of the heavy watercooled machine gun (as this means that even in a relatively "quiet" sector it's not safe to have troops in the open within line of sight for very long at all.)
So we would have to look at the kind of warfare around Petersburg as something in between those two?

As there they also tried to cover the whole frontline with permanently manned trenches relying on defensive firepower (á la WWI) - while at the same time both sides tried to turn the enemy trench-systems at their terminal points using maneuvre warfare?

Were there any innovations in the use of artillery? I think I read something about howitzers used in a similar way like trench mortars in WWI - but am quite unsure about it....
 

Tony Z

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In a slightly different direction, had Lee not committed himself to the confederacy, had he stayed with the union, had he accepted Scott's offer, how would the rebellion have proceeded, especially since Lee was not primary in the field for the insurrectionists?
 

Saphroneth

Major
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Feb 18, 2017
So we would have to look at the kind of warfare around Petersburg as something in between those two?

As there they also tried to cover the whole frontline with permanently manned trenches relying on defensive firepower (á la WWI) - while at the same time both sides tried to turn the enemy trench-systems at their terminal points using maneuvre warfare?

Were there any innovations in the use of artillery? I think I read something about howitzers used in a similar way like trench mortars in WWI - but am quite unsure about it....
No, because the "WW1" factor is the entire theatre of war. Petersburg is just a pretty classic case of siege warfare, except in that the main difficulty suffered by the attackers was in extending their lines far enough to actually cut the city off. It's the kind of thing you got as far back as Roman times with defenders building walls out to block attackers building walls around the city, and probably considerably further.

The new factor in this period for attacking a fortified position is heavy siege rifles able to offer fire support for the attacker in damaging enemy fortifications and unseating enemy artillery, and the use of these in regular approaches happens in 1862 (Yorktown and Richmond, the latter being emplaced but mostly without time for them to be fired) not Petersburg 1864. It could have been done in 1864 but was not.
 

Saphroneth

Major
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Feb 18, 2017
So to clarify that point about the entire theatre of war.


The thing which made WW1 novel, or one of the things, was that the fighting front was continuous across the whole width of the front line. Before armies had manoeuvred back and forth to try and get at vulnerable positions or block their foes from reaching those positions, and a big part of the question was being able to get your army to a position first.

It was now however the case that the enemy was always already there, and generally speaking so were you.



In the more restricted context of a siege, however, this had often been the case (otherwise the siege would be very short as the attackers would simply march in).
 
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