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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Lubliner

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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
I agree, and they did a very good job of coordinated efforts with Perryville and Antietam, and even Gettysburg had it's moment for relieving the constant pressure in the west. In the winter of 1864, Longstreet and Wheeler and Morgan were claiming as many horses they could gather up before the Yankees got hold of them. Maybe their thinking wasn't on the multiple front war, but their responses belie that assumption.
Lubliner.
 

rpkennedy

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Lee's strategy had a chance to work. But the US strategy was steadily shrinking the Confederate territory and Confederate economy. It was going to work in the end.

IMO, the window for military victory (or, at least, military victories leading to negotiations) was narrow at best and quickly closed in the aftermath of the fall 1862 campaigns.

Ryan
 

Pat Answer

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Sigh. This has kind of become the just as tiresome anti-trope to the “Marble Man.”

In agreement with all those who point out:
(1) Once Lee is an army commander, he is not responsible for Confederate grand strategy;
(2) He fully understands his ‘long-shot’ circumstances, what he has to work with, and how best to try to counter what his opponents can throw at him;
(3) His consistent target, whether he sees an offensive or a defensive stance warranted by the situation - is Union morale and he plans accordingly;
(4) Perfection is given to no mere mortal, and certainly none engaged in the very chancy business of real war.

Sun Tzu would have been proud.

“Now, let us speak no more of this.”
:smile:
 

jackt62

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Lee was faced with a dilemma. He could keep the ANV ensconced behind the protective barriers of the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers and fend off Union attempts to breach that line. That approach proved successful for a limited time when faced with federal commanders such as Burnside and Hooker, but could not withstand the likes of a Grant, and the build-up of northern manpower and resources. Alternatively, Lee could assert a more aggressive strategy, in which he attempted to derange federal armies and northern morale by striking beyond his base and into northern territory. This strategy also made sense because Lee understood that simply maintaining the ANV in fixed positions would allow the Union to bring to bear multiple forces from southern Virginia, eastern North Carolina, and elsewhere to slowly strangulate his own slowly starving army. So in effect, Lee relied on a combination of both strategies when convenient. But part of Lee's problem was that Confederate political leadership in Richmond could never decide on a consistent strategy to accomplish what were ambiguous war aims.
 

Quaama

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Lee's strategy had a chance to work. But the US strategy was steadily shrinking the Confederate territory and Confederate economy. It was going to work in the end.

As Lee said in his farewell address to the ANV:
"After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources."
 

rpkennedy

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He was to his credit when serving as an advisor to Davis pretty good and the confederacy would have been well served if he had remained in that post.

On that point, I agree. Having Lee as his advisor may have kept Jefferson Davis from making some of his more questionable decisions. He certainly couldn't have given him worse advice.

Ryan
 

rpkennedy

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Lee was faced with a dilemma. He could keep the ANV ensconced behind the protective barriers of the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers and fend off Union attempts to breach that line. That approach proved successful for a limited time when faced with federal commanders such as Burnside and Hooker, but could not withstand the likes of a Grant, and the build-up of northern manpower and resources. Alternatively, Lee could assert a more aggressive strategy, in which he attempted to derange federal armies and northern morale by striking beyond his base and into northern territory. This strategy also made sense because Lee understood that simply maintaining the ANV in fixed positions would allow the Union to bring to bear multiple forces from southern Virginia, eastern North Carolina, and elsewhere to slowly strangulate his own slowly starving army. So in effect, Lee relied on a combination of both strategies when convenient. But part of Lee's problem was that Confederate political leadership in Richmond could never decide on a consistent strategy to accomplish what were ambiguous war aims.

The major problem is that even if Lee can fend off the Army of the Potomac in the Eastern Theater by means of a defensive strategy, he's unlikely to inflict a large enough defeat to really affect larger interests and, in the meantime, other Union armies are picking apart the rest of the Confederacy. Lee had to strike the decisive blow before things got too out of control elsewhere and before the AotP could muster enough strength that he just simply would not be able to effectively counter it.

Ryan
 
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wausaubob

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The major problem is that even if Lee can fend off the Army of the Potomac in the Eastern Theater by means of a defensive strategy, he's unlikely to inflict a large enough defeat to really affect larger interests and, in the meantime, other Union armies are picking apart the rest of the Confederacy. Lee had to strike the decisive blow before things got too out of control elsewhere and before the AotP could muster enough strength that he just simply would not be able to effectively counter it.

Ryan
Confederate General Thomas Jackson noted the problem before he was wounded and died. Without an effective reserve, the Confederates could not exploit their tactical victories. The attempts to achieve the big breakthrough always fell a bit short. The US advantage in artillery usually was part of enforcing a draw in the outcome.
 

Lubliner

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Confederate General Thomas Jackson noted the problem before he was wounded and died. Without an effective reserve, the Confederates could not exploit their tactical victories. The attempts to achieve the big breakthrough always fell a bit short. The US advantage in artillery usually was part of enforcing a draw in the outcome.
Jackson also proved that without an effective officer pool to draw from the confederacy was doomed.
Lubliner.
 

Pete Longstreet

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Alternatively, Lee could assert a more aggressive strategy, in which he attempted to derange federal armies and northern morale by striking beyond his base and into northern territory. This strategy also made sense because Lee understood that simply maintaining the ANV in fixed positions would allow the Union to bring to bear multiple forces from southern Virginia, eastern North Carolina, and elsewhere to slowly strangulate his own slowly starving army.
Yes. Lee went north to be aggressive. Some argue he went north for supplies, which his army was in desperate need of... but he planned to convert his trip north into his Cannae and end the war.
 

jcaesar

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This is a difficult question on some levels as Lee was neither the Commander in Chief nor the commander of all the armies of the South until the last few months of the war.

Arguments that he didn't share enough of his divisions and generals with other southern armies would hold more water if his military responsibility was to those theaters. However, even if he was responsible I think he made the logical call that what happens in the Eastern theater mattered more to the outcome of events.

The South could not win the war, but the North could lose the war. The North had the South outgunned in just about every area and had a good strategy to make sure their advantage only grew with time. What the North had to do was avoid a moment of panic where they throw in the towel without thinking it through.

Lee could also see that the North was employing the slaves of the South as a military asset. He had brought up employing slaves as soldiers once before in 1862, but was shot down and made a bigger push in 1864. His argument and he lays it out is to win over that part of the population of the South by issuing their own emancipation proclamation and giving freedom to slaves who serve and their families. It is clear from his letter he thought this would help them near and long term as in if they lose the war could end with the South significantly more united in defeat with real impacts on the post war occupation.
 
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dwarflord

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Lee was a very good general, but his tactics were becoming out of date. He often did not take into account the better rifles and speed of firing the union army became capable of. His fighting at Gettysburg was a complete mistake. Pickett's charge was the final showing of this lack of willing to consider the advantage of more modern weapons. There was no way the CSA forces charging could hold up against the withering fire from the Union forces. His only opportunity had been to strike hard and invade earlier in the war. His invasion should have occurred much sooner. To much time had been already spent defending and reacting to the Union army. By the time he chose to invade the north it was already to late.
 

jcaesar

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From what I have read, one of Lee's purposes was to relieve Virginia soil and populace from the constant battles and take it North, so the crops could be raised and brought in.
Lubliner.

That was a factor in that Virginia was starving that year and there were food riots in Richmond. The ANV eating off the North's food stocks meant the population of Virginia could eat off food that would have otherwise gone to the army.
 
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Dead Parrott

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Good thread, folks.

In answer to the OP's question:

No, Lee was a very good strategic thinker. It is not his fault that Grant was better.

Think of it this way (not trying to change the question): given the same options, what would a GREAT STRATEGIST have done differently?

Based on that, I look at Lee's strategic decisions and, while he can be faulted for a few things, he understood strategy.
"If he crosses the James..............."
 

Irishtom29

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Lee was a very good general, but his tactics were becoming out of date. He often did not take into account the better rifles and speed of firing the union army became capable of. His fighting at Gettysburg was a complete mistake. Pickett's charge was the final showing of this lack of willing to consider the advantage of more modern weapons.

Had Pickett been attacking Wellington's Peninsulars armed with Brown Bess the slaughter would've been just as bad and maybe worse.
 
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