Was Lee a Poor Strategic Thinker?

OldReliable1862

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Beginning in the 1970s with Alan Nolan and Thomas Lawrence Connelly, the view of Lee as the unassailable, perfect general has started to be thoroughly taken to task. One of the most charges against Lee's supposed mastery of war was that he allegedly failed to grasp war above the operational, or "grand tactical" level. Lee had strategic "tunnel vision," unable to see the war outside of the Virginia theater of operations.

On the face of it, this seems somewhat substantiated when looking at how pessimistic he was of Longstreet's desire to use his troops in the West.
 
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Pete Longstreet

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Although I agree that Lee was more concerned with the protection of Virginia than he was of the Confederacy as a whole, he was sound tactically on the offensive and defensive. I don't think he had tunnel vision overall, because he saw from the start, that the war was going to be long and of great sacrifice. Lee also understood there was a short window of opportunity for the Confederacy. He knew he had to dismantle the Union will to fight and thus force them to offer peace before that window closed. Lee knew the longer the war went on... the more and more difficult it would become to win independence based on the south not being able to sustain and supply itself with men and material. With that being said, Gettysburg and his failure to see the importance of the western theater are solid cases of possible "tunnel vision". Although Pickett's charge is said by some historians to be the most crucial mistake of the war... and I tend to agree with that... I think by mid 1863, Lee knew time was running out and wanted to destroy "those people" and put an end to the war.
 

jackt62

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Much of the criticism about Lee's military skills come down to his reliance on offensive tactics involving direct assaults. In the beginning of Lee's tenure as ANV commander, this brute application of force during the Seven Days Battles succeeded in sweeping McClellan's AOTP from its commanding position near Richmond. Even though Lee lost most of those battles, it was a strategic success in leading to the withdrawal of the AOTP from the Peninsula. But the Seven Days not only revealed flaws in Lee's executive abilities in terms of communicating and coordinating his various divisions, but the high casualty rate was only the start of the slowly diminishing manpower of the ANV.
 

Irishtom29

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It should be said that thinking in overall terms wasn't Lee's job. But given that, he didn't seem interested in what was going on with other commands and was not very keen on helping them unless he could help by dumping officers he found wanting on them. Since he had Davis's ear I think any thoughts he had on grand strategy would've been welcomed. So either he didn't have many such thoughts or if he did they were of little use.

Lee's tactics have little to do with the OP.
 

leftyhunter

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I would argue that Lee did the best he could with the resources available to him. Someone once said " you go to war with the army you have". Lee had a finite amount of men and the Confedracy is the size of Western Europe so Davis has to spread his troops around.
Wars are with few exceptions won on the offense not the defense so Lee has to be aggressive. Also the CSN is vastly outnumber and nothing Lee can do about that.
Leftyhunter
 

rpkennedy

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Robert E. Lee was an excellent strategist and relied on his subordinates to run the tactical operations. Lee knew that the Confederacy could not afford to remain passive because of the US's advantage in supplies and manpower and had to take an aggressive stance in order to give the CS the best chance for victory. The problem was that he was never quite able to deliver that decisive, crippling blow that would shatter US morale and force Lincoln to the negotiating table. That said, his approach was almost certainly the right one given the circumstances.

Ryan
 

atlantis

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Robert E. Lee was an excellent strategist and relied on his subordinates to run the tactical operations. Lee knew that the Confederacy could not afford to remain passive because of the US's advantage in supplies and manpower and had to take an aggressive stance in order to give the CS the best chance for victory. The problem was that he was never quite able to deliver that decisive, crippling blow that would shatter US morale and force Lincoln to the negotiating table. That said, his approach was almost certainly the right one given the circumstances.

Ryan
By the time Lee assumed command of the ANV that window for aggressive action had closed.
 

leftyhunter

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I agree with what @leftyhunter said and will add on that in my opinion the South's best chance in victory came with foreign recognition/aid and the South needed victories to receive that.

He who defends everything, defends nothing. You have to be strong somewhere and it was probably better to strong in the East vs the West.
And that's the fundemental weakness of the Confedracy. Nations absolutely do intervene in civil wars as France and Spain did in the American Revolutionary War but they need a compelling reason to do so. The Confedracy could never make a compelling argument for foreign recognition.
Leftyhunter
 

leftyhunter

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Yes he was a poor strategic thinker, he bled his army white knowing full well he did not have the resources to take and hold territory. He wanted to fight a campaign his army was not capable of conducting despite their considerable skill an courage.
Unfortunately it's a rather short list of nations that win wars based on fighting a strictly defensive war which would be the Medevial battle of Malta and Napoleon's invasion if Russia.
The Confedracy is not an island and while it snows a bit in the South it's not enough to prevent the Union Army from being prevented from receiving food.
Leftyhunter
 

rpkennedy

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By the time Lee assumed command of the ANV that window for aggressive action had closed.

On that, I disagree. I think that there was an opportunity in the autumn of 1862. With McClellan being pushed back from Richmond, Lee moving north and defeating Pope pretty decisively, and then continuing north into Maryland. In combination with Bragg invading Kentucky, the CSA was in a potentially strong position if Lee and/or Bragg could have landed a major blow to Union forces.

Again, being aggressive was Lee's only real play, otherwise he was not an improvement over Joseph Johnston and Richmond likely falls in the summer of 1862.

Ryan
 

leftyhunter

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On that, I disagree. I think that there was an opportunity in the autumn of 1862. With McClellan being pushed back from Richmond, Lee moving north and defeating Pope pretty decisively, and then continuing north into Maryland. In combination with Bragg invading Kentucky, the CSA was in a potentially strong position if Lee and/or Bragg could have landed a major blow to Union forces.

Again, being aggressive was Lee's only real play, otherwise he was not an improvement over Joseph Johnston and Richmond likely falls in the summer of 1862.

Ryan
Unfortunately McCelllan got to vote on that proposition. Also General Buell got to vote as well.
Confedrate forces were badly outnumbered at Antietam and Perryville.
Leftyhunter
 

leftyhunter

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Beginning in the 1970s with Alan Nolan and Thomas Lawrence Connelly, the view of Lee as the unassailable, perfect general has started to be thoroughly taken to task. One of the most charges against Lee's supposed mastery of war was that he allegedly failed to grasp war above the operational, or "grand tactical" level. Lee had strategic "tunnel vision," unable to see the war outside of the Virginia theater of operations.

On the face of it, this seems somewhat substantiated when looking at how pessimistic he was of Longstreet's desire to use his troops in the West.
In defense of both Lee and Davis defending the Confedracy was has easy as juggling chain saws that were on. To much Territory to defend and no such thing as strategic depth. If the Confedracy looses land then the Union Army not only can and did recruit Southeners but it can now take more territory. There is close to two thousand miles of coast line to protect plus large rivers that the Union Navy can and did utlize.
What the Confedracy really needed was foreign military intervention which the Colonial Rebels received but eighty plus years later the Geo Political situation had changed especially as France and the UK were on much friendlier terms.
Leftyhunter
 

wausaubob

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The policy was to achieve Confederate independence.
The strategy was to win land battles that convinced the US to agree to a stalemate.
Richmond/Petersburg was just about the only place that could produce bread and iron, and hence had to be defended. That was the only place in the Confederacy that could sustain a large army and an industrial work force. While doing that, the Confederates had to win battles, including some battles in which the odds were against them. The US had to make mistakes, and the US generals were obliging.
Decision making at the tactical level is always subject to second guessing. But in June/July 1863, the weather was good, the forage was good. He had his army out of Virginia, and if he did not win at Gettysburg, moral of Texas and Louisiana regiments was going to take a dive in 10 days, regardless.
After July 1863, the US had control of most of the river and coastal locations they wanted. After that it was going to be a railroad war, moving large amounts of livestock and the mountains of forage that the mules and horses required.
There was nothing wrong with General Lee's strategic vision. The outcome was based on the fact that the US had the much larger agricultural economy and also a domestic railroad industry. The US produced its own engines, car wheels, axles, rails and bridging equipment. They demonstrated they could build, repair and operate a rail connection any where.
It wasn't Lee's fault.
 
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