Lee's Psychology--A Fatal Flaw

GwilymT

Sergeant Major
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Pittsburgh
I too think age was a factor not to be ignored in this discussion. But, IMO, not just age, but also ranking in graduating from West point , i.e., it seems to me, that the better Union commanders to come out of the war, were not in the highest percentile of graduates. It would seem being younger and not too weighted down with too much text book wisdoms, was not always a disadvantage, at least in the Union Army.
Perhaps not so much a problem of “text book wisdom” which would help anyone... maybe more a factor of having to previously struggled in one’s life which teaches invaluable lessons.

Lee lived a patrician life. Though the Lees weren’t wealthy at this time, his mother saw to it in his childhood through connections with the Virginia Gentry that he was brought up an aristocrat- and his new Custis relatives secured it. When you compare this to the childhood and upbringing of Grant who, while gaining an appointment to West Point, had to actually work with his hands for everything he gained, the differences are staggering.

I’ve always wondered why the “pull up your bootstraps” crowd show such a fondness for the aristocratically brought up Lee and such a dismissiveness for the guy who worked in a tannery as a child (Lee had “servants” to do that), physically chopped wood to sell and feed his family (Lee had servants to do that), and worked by winning battles his way up through the rats nest of northern army politics. Talk about using hard work to realize the American Dream.
 
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OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
Perhaps not so much a problem of “text book wisdom” which would help anyone... maybe more a factor of having to previously struggled in one’s life which teaches invaluable lessons.

Lee lived a patrician life. Though the Lees weren’t wealthy at this time, his mother saw to it in his childhood through connections with the Virginia Gentry that he was brought up an aristocrat- and his new Custis relatives secured it. When you compare this to the childhood and upbringing of Grant who, while gaining an appointment to West Point, had to actually work with his hands for everything he gained, the differences are staggering.

I’ve always wondered why the “pull up your bootstraps” crowd show such a fondness for the aristocratically brought up Lee and such a dismissiveness for the guy who worked in a tannery as a child (Lee had “servants” to do that), physically chopped wood to sell and feed his family (Lee had servants to do that), and worked by winning battles his way up through the rats nest of northern army politics. Talk about using hard work to realize the American Dream.
Certainly upbringing is an important factor in the development of Character. But in the case of Generalship, i.e., what makes a good general, of which character is not necessarily an important part.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
But I'm not sure who you even mean by that! Of the four commanders I looked at, who I think would be the ones best understood to be successful top rank Union commanders, three of them are well above the middle and Grant is at the middle.
Who else are you thinking of?
Within the ranks of West Pointers, your academic standing had a great influence on a graduate's choice of field, artillery, cavalry, engineers, etc., and ones ranking on graduation followed one to the end ones career.

I believe the top graduates got to choose their field of service, the rest were assigned by need. By skill and desire Grant wanted to be cavalryman, but his grades did not allow it

Being in the middle of your graduating class is where ones career gets lost in the crowd. When the War Dept. looked for officers to promote, they first checked where a candidate ranked at graduation and the top grads got first consideration, the ones in the bootom were, of course, ignored. Those in the middle it was hit or miss, depending how well known they were personally to those making the decision for promotion.

It has been noted many times by many, that the most notable names of Union Generals during the ACW, were out of the army when the war began, which curiously, was not true of the Confederate Army's corps of officers.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Within the ranks of West Pointers, your academic standing had a great influence on a graduate's choice of field, artillery, cavalry, engineers, etc., and ones ranking on graduation followed one to the end ones career.

I believe the top graduates got to choose their field of service, the rest were assigned by need. By skill and desire Grant wanted to be cavalryman, but his grades did not allow it

Being in the middle of your graduating class is where ones career gets lost in the crowd. When the War Dept. looked for officers to promote, they first checked where a candidate ranked at graduation and the top grads got first consideration, the ones in the bootom were, of course, ignored. Those in the middle it was hit or miss, depending how well known they were personally to those making the decision for promotion.

It has been noted many times by many, that the most notable names of Union Generals during the ACW, were out of the army when the war began, which curiously, was not true of the Confederate Army's corps of officers.
But this post isn't actually answering the question I asked? It's about a related topic.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
What, exactly, are you trying to understand?
What you said was that:

But, IMO, not just age, but also ranking in graduating from West point , i.e., it seems to me, that the better Union commanders to come out of the war, were not in the highest percentile of graduates. It would seem being younger and not too weighted down with too much text book wisdoms, was not always a disadvantage, at least in the Union Army.
I've bolded the specific phrase.

What I'm wondering is who you are basing that off.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
What you said was that:


I've bolded the specific phrase.

What I'm wondering is who you are basing that off.
I am basing my view on the rankings of the graduating class of West Point graduates, i.e., Lee's in his class, Grant in his, Sherman in his, etc.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I am basing my view on the rankings of the graduating class of West Point graduates, i.e., Lee's in his class, Grant in his, Sherman in his, etc.
But Sherman came sixth, and would have been fourth if he'd had fewer demerits (so it clearly wasn't his academic performance that was at question).
 

GwilymT

Sergeant Major
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Aug 20, 2018
Location
Pittsburgh
Certainly upbringing is an important factor in the development of Character. But in the case of Generalship, i.e., what makes a good general, of which character is not necessarily an important part.
I would respectfully disagree. When one holds countless lives and the fate of nations in their hands, character is of the utmost importance. I would say that it is one of the most important factors in determining good generalship.
 

Cavalier

Sergeant Major
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
Wouldn't that somewhat depend on your definition of character? Not everyone agrees on what constitutes a man of good character, in my experience anyway.

For instance there are many historians who disagree on the character of Napoleon, but most agree he was a great general. I think the same could said of Frederick the Great, maybe to a lesser extent perhaps.

John
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I would respectfully disagree. When one holds countless lives and the fate of nations in their hands, character is of the utmost importance. I would say that it is one of the most important factors in determining good generalship.
I think when someone makes the right decisions it doesn't matter what their character is, not much anyway. Were I to criticize a commander for errors of character I would have to tie it directly to errors of their command... Patton's a flawed general not because he was an ornery son of a *****, but because that directly impacted his command (like the slapping incident).
 

GwilymT

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Aug 20, 2018
Location
Pittsburgh
I think when someone makes the right decisions it doesn't matter what their character is, not much anyway. Were I to criticize a commander for errors of character I would have to tie it directly to errors of their command... Patton's a flawed general not because he was an ornery son of a *****, but because that directly impacted his command (like the slapping incident).
Which betrayed a lack of character, and thus affected his ability to lead troops.

Right or correct decisions are made by folks of character. Incorrect decisions usually are made by those lacking character. McClellan comes to mind.
 

GwilymT

Sergeant Major
Joined
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Location
Pittsburgh
Wouldn't that somewhat depend on your definition of character? Not everyone agrees on what constitutes a man of good character, in my experience anyway.

For instance there are many historians who disagree on the character of Napoleon, but most agree he was a great general. I think the same could said of Frederick the Great, maybe to a lesser extent” perhaps.

John
I would think a definition of “character” is in order. I would define it as an understanding that one is an instrument of a greater cause or objective while still taking into account the safety of those under them and balancing those opposing goals in an ethical way. I think Lee did this up until 1865. I think Grant did this the entire time. McClellan had delusions of grandeur, as did many other commanders on both sides, this is the opposite of character.
 
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leftyhunter

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
May 27, 2011
Location
los angeles ca
Contrast that with Samuel P. Lee, who I think was a cousin of Lee's. After sailing around with the world and conversing or American and English naval officers, Captain Lee knew the practice was an anachronism in the 19th century world.
Unfortunately Samuel P.Lee was dead wrong
as slavery even in the US post ACW in a different form would be around for many decades.Slavery never really ended.
Leftyhunter
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Which betrayed a lack of character, and thus affected his ability to lead troops.

Right or correct decisions are made by folks of character. Incorrect decisions usually are made by those lacking character. McClellan comes to mind.
Except that we need to point from the problem of character to the error of command. Wellington was a serial adulterer and yet this does not affect his command, which remains consistently good.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
No real argument with this. West Point of that time, of necessity, studied the wars of the past.

I can agree that age is necessarily an impediment, it is just that I think that in general, the younger a commander the easier it is to shake off dead wood of what they were taught, and put to effective use of what they did learn that actually applied to their experience of the war in which they were engaged.


P.S. I think one of the reasons for this, is that younger students in the military schools, like those of many universities, is that they end to be gored by stale recounting of facts dates statistics and do not pay very close attention their details. This would, I think, be especially so, during a relatively long period of peace.
West Point, in the days before the Civil War, did not teach cadets an awful lot of military history and theory. Classwork was on other subjects for the most part (Grant did very well in drawing, which was a requirement). There are also records of the books cadets took out of the library (Beauregard took out several books in French on Napoleon; Grant liked the popular "romance" novels of the day, including one by Bulwer-Lytton, IIRR). Sheridan graduated 34th of 52 in 1853 (suspended for a year after chasing a classmate across the plain at the point of a bayonet).

The top students in a class tended to be from the Northeast (better school systems) because they arrived much better prepared. This drove an 1850s split into 4-and-5-year programs to let the many southerners and westerners get an extra year to catch up.

Stonewall Jackson, for example, arrived woefully educated and only managed to survive by prodigious effort and self-discipline. He was close of failing in his Plebe year and graduated 17th of 59 in the Class of 1846 (McClellan was 2nd at age 19). His classmates said Jackson might have graduated first if he had another year to catch-up.

Class sizes were also growing as the years went by and the country expanded. Finishing in the top five of the class of 1831 (33 graduates) is not the same as graduating in the top five of 1846 (59 graduates).
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
@GwilymT Saproneth's post #155 above on Wellington kind of sums up where my thoughts are on character among army commanders. He makes his points much better than I do mine.

John
The character that matters isn't about philandering or gambling or any other attribute of average lives. It is the character a commander needs to lead in battle, to overcome difficulties, to win.

Example: Austrian field marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radetz (1766-1858). Radetzky crushed opposition ruthlessly. He is known for battles like Custoza (1848) and Novara (1849) in Italy, but he also fought through 20 years of the Napoleonic Wars. He could serve as the caricature for the womanizing, gambling, hard-drinking Austrian officer class. I think it was the third time the Emperor paid off his gambling debts that a courtier asked him why he was doing it again: the Emperor replied that it was cheaper than losing a war.

So when a Grant (who certainly had some flaws) is at Shiloh or Wilderness, the important part of his character is the one that allows him to hold up and fight on. When a John Paul Jones is fighting Serapis from Bon Homme Richard and the British hail to ask if he has surrendered, the important part of his character is the one that replies 'I have not yet begun to fight!" When a Robert E. Lee is at Antietam or Chancellorsville, the important part of his character is the one that allows him to defy the enemy and impose his will on the battle.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Whatever flaws existed were inconsequential. Pres. Davis and General Lee insisted the war be conducted as between two contending nations. When the US Civil War was going to breakdown into an insurgency and a guerilla war, Lee tendered the surrender of the army before it dispersed into partisan bands. Whatever wrong he had done through misjudgement was modified by this one decision. They fought as a national army and they surrendered as a national army.
 
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