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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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.
Pete I agree in total with your assessment including Pickett’s charge.I also would like to add the following though on Pickett’s charge.:
In addition to your assignment that Lee probably ordered it because he felt time was running out ..... I think he also felt a similar charge at Gaines Mill worked in ‘62 and it might at Gettysburg too. He unsuccessfully tried a similar frontal assault at the Wilderness with 15 brigades thrown at Hancock along Brock road.
Just something to think about
 

Dave DuBrucq

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Like all great men, Lee had his faults. Not every decision, tactical or strategic was the right one. Moreover, I have often wondered if he had faced decent and aggressive Federal Commanders instead of a parade of less than competent hand-wringers early in the war, how his legacy may have been much different. This is all speculation of course. Lee was surely a highly competent tactical commander. He may have erred strategically by not simply fighting a defensive war.
 

GwilymT

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Like all great men, Lee had his faults. Not every decision, tactical or strategic was the right one. Moreover, I have often wondered if he had faced decent and aggressive Federal Commanders instead of a parade of less than competent hand-wringers early in the war, how his legacy may have been much different. This is all speculation of course. Lee was surely a highly competent tactical commander. He may have erred strategically by not simply fighting a defensive war.

You bring up a good point. I understand that Grant felt Jackson was overrated and if Jackson would have faced the likes of Sheridan in the valley thing would have been quite different.
 

jackt62

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As historians and writers have often said, Lee was certainly "audacious" in his military thinking. I don't know whether Lee ever thought out his actions in terms of strategy (grand or otherwise), but he certainly understood that his army could not simply sit back behind entrenched positions and wait for the enemy to attack. So his audacity is revealed in his consistent use of direct assaults (Gettysburg, flanking maneuvers where applicable (Chancellorsville), risky separation of force (Second Manassas, Maryland), and an underlying belief that the south, given its limited resources, had a short time period in which to derange the northern will to fight, and possibly obtain European intervention. Everything considered, and whether effective or not, I guess that makes Lee a superior "strategic" thinker.
 

leftyhunter

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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.
The above cited letter was written in January 1865 when for all practical purposes the war was already lost for the Confedracy.
Yes segregated societies have employed people of color has soldiers but not slaves at least in the mid 19th Century at least in the America's.
Arming former slaves and not having them to defect to an enemy that can pay them in real money is a very risky proposition.
Leftyhunter
 
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Not sure about the overall concept, but insisting on Pickett's Charge surely was a poor decision.
Absolutely. But that decision was a purely tactical decision.

The question posed refers to decisions leaders make about how to conduct the war itself. Do you go on the offense and attack your opponent. If so is your aim to occupy territory, take his capitol, seize his cities, destroy his factories or do you attack his army directly hoping to destroy it? Conversely you may decide to defend. What do you defend: your capital, your cities, ports. A millennia ago China decided to build a wall the length of its frontier--should the South have adopted that strategy.

In the CW geography had to be factored in decision making. The Appalachian Mts. and the Mississippi effectively into 3 zones. Strategy requires you to decide how you will allocate your resources, how many men to each region. In actuality east of the mountains got the biggest allocation, was given significantly less, and that west of the Mississippi River got the least.

To give a modern example look at WWII. When the US joined the fray, they were faced with fighting a 2 front war. The American public and a large portion of the military wanted to focus on the Pacific front or at least split the resources evenly. It took a lot of cajoling but Churchill managed to convince FDR of the folly of that plan. Germany was the greater threat, more likely to be able essentially win the war in Europe before the Allies could build their forces sufficiently to open an offensive against them. Secondly having prevailed on the first decision, they had to make a 2nd strategic decision of where to attack. Marshall and almost every US military commander wanted a straightforward cross channel directly in to France. The Brits wanted to attack the periphery. Evict the Germans from North Africa; attack the underbelly through Sicily followed by a march up the Italian peninsula and then through the Balkans. Fortunately by the time the Italian campaign was well underway the US had built enough strength in England to insist on its preferred cross channel invasion or D-Day. Once those basic decisions were made every other specific decision was tactical/operation.
 
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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.
Most people seem to not realize that until Joe Johnston's wounding Lee had very little to do with the conduct of the war. He may have had Davis's ear, but did Davis listen. Most people seem to ignore the fact that Davis was himself a West Point graduate, a combat veteran of the Mexican War, a former Secretary of War (and in his opinion a very good one) fully capable of managing the conduct of the war. Where Lincoln from day one was constantly looking for someone to take over managing the war, hence McClelland, Halleck, and finally Grant, Davis was certain he needed nothing but himself.

It was Davis, not Lee who made the strategic decision to defend everywhere instead of concentrating his forces especially in the West. As a result the armies west of the Appalachians always fought at huge numerical disadvantages. And before you blame him too severely, think about this. Had he stripped Southern forces west of the Mississippi and strengthened his army in Tennessee, how would the governors of Arkansas and Texas reacted. Would they have said if we aren't important enough for you to even try to protect us, shouldn't we just revoke our secession and rejoin the Union. Lincoln would welcome us with open arms.
 
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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.
Two things about Lee's conduct of the 7 Days Battles--Lee would have gladly accepted the annihilation of his entire army if it resulted in the withdrawal of Union forces from the vicinity of Richmond. He knew that had McClelland advanced just a few more miles he could have begun investing Richmond and beginning it's siege. From that point the capitulation of Richmond would have been inevitable.

Secondly, put the blame where it belongs. On Stonewall!!! On successive occasions Lee ordered attacks by Stonewall which would have resulted in a modern Cannae--a double envelopment destroying the AoP or forcing its surrender. Both times Stonewall was a no show.

I had the extreme good fortune of listening to the great Bud Robertson (Stonewall's great biographer) on 3!!! separate occasions. I was able to ask him about Stonewall's apparent failure and he said that it was his firm belief that at the time he was suffering from what today we would describe as PTDS.
 
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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.
You mention Perryville and Antietam (and as you say G'burg as well), but your neglect the single STRATEGIC miscalculation. Lee and Bragg, not to mention Davis and in fact almost all of the Southern populace were all convinced that apart from those evil Radical Republicans most reasonable Northerners wanted peace; given the opportunity they would gladly abandon Lincoln and support the Southern cause. Unfortunately for them nothing could have been further from the truth.
 
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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.
I think that's a very myopic view. It assumes that your opponent will simply continue making the same mistakes. What if the commander of the AoP decides to use Union naval supremacy to land south of Richmond (Petersburg or NC) and cut its supply lines from the south. If you look at Grant's memoirs, his own writings state that his preferred approach would to have been a giant right hook around the Rappahannock/Rapidan line and approach Richmond from the west where there were no available riverine defensive lines. My own view is sending at least 2 corps of the AoP down the Shenandoah under a COMPETENT commander. Worst case scenario, is closing the Valley to Southern advances. Furthermore you end the Valley's ability to supply Richmond and the ANV.
 

FPT

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Like all good managers Lee was a sound strategist who relied on good subordinates to implement the tactics. In 1862 Lee weaned the ANV away from the weakest personnel (though for some reason he always kept Pendleton around), however, his best direct subordinates (corps commanders), Jackson and Longstreet, while very good in what they did (Jackson as an independent commander and Longstreet best with Lee looking over his shoulder) failed to develop their direct subordinates, the division commanders. Lee's best division commanders ended up being those who survived their stints as brigadiers and were eventually promoted. By 1864, however, these generals were leading divisions that were the size of the brigades that they had earlier led in the War. In effect, the division commanders were operating as if they still had charge of a brigade. Unfortunately the best ones suffered a mortality rate similar to that of brigade commanders.

After the death of Jackson, Lee did not have strong corps commanders. The corps commanders needed him to micromanage them ( Longstreet did not need Lee's micromanagement, however, he did need Lee nearby to provide the moral support and "atta boy" ego boosting that Longstreet probably required). This required Lee to be both the strategist and tactician. Tough to be both in a large army.

Early on Lee knew what the strategy needed to be, however, the tactics should have evolved sooner than it did by 1864. That it did not was a failure by Jackson and Longstreet to recognize and impress on Lee that Napoleonic tactics no longer worked unless you had an unlimited supply of personnel (cannon fodder). Then again, if success was measured solely by victories, why change?

If Lee had a later subordinate like Forrest, (excellent in an independent role and with the assets that the ANV could provide him as well as Lee's support) Lee may have been able to bleed the Union white and to the negotiating table. Who knows. ("The vainist of all regret and speculation is what might have been", D. H. Hill???)

P.S. Over the summer I re-read Clifford Dowdey's "Lee's Last Campaign". It seemed like I had never read the book before (who knew, or remembered, that Charles Field needed a peg leg after Second Bull Run) and would recommend it for anyone trying to understand the personalities that Lee had in the ANV and the behind the scenes issues that he faced with individuals such as Davis, Bragg and, especially, Beauregard.

(What started out as a simple comment has turned into a thesis... Well, it is time to end this and go to bed.)

Regards.

FPT
 
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In defense of Lee, let me say this. The South lost the war in 1815. The entire western military mind decided that Waterloo was the ultimate confrontation of the 2 basic military formations--line vs column. Given that Napoleon was the greatest military mind of all time, if his formation, the column lost to Wellington's line, obviously the line was the superior. Consequently the entire Western military establishment abandoned the column and adopted the line. Including the US military through Hardee's manual.

They were right...to a point. The line is a superb defensive formation. Unfortunately it is only useful as an offensive tool subsequent to blunting an opponent's attack. Then you can sweep a retreating enemy from the field. Furthermore it almost directly focuses the general using it away from the possibility of maneuver, from looking for weak spots where his opponent is vulnerable.

I'd like to offer the suggestion that among the Northern commanders McClelland and Burnside (and I really hate to say anything good about either) came closest to winning the war YEARS before the actual finale. Lit'l Mac when he had the genius to go completely around his opponent's army and land a days walk away from Richmond; Burnside when he completely faked out Lee arriving at Fredericksburg with the ability to ford his entire army across the river and occupy the same Marye's Heights he was forced to attack. And make no mistake about it Lee would have been forced to attack. Even with his superior mobility, Burnside would have been able be breaking into the gates of Richmond before Lee could have gotten his entire army into position to try and block him. Ironically in this forum, both Lil Mac and Burney had a moment of semi-strategic or operational genius voided by their tactical ineptitude.

Finally ask yourselves, at what point did the South come closest to winning the war. Excuse me, what two points. Antietam and G'burg. Does anyone deny that France was ready, willing, and able to intervene on behalf of the South but felt unable to do so without concurrence by England? Secondly that England was actively looking for a reason to enter. Either one more Confederate victory or their continued presence in Union territory would have provided justification for intervention.

Does anyone want to contest that the infamous "Lost Order" was the single most unbelievable fluke in military history...any history in fact. Acknowledging that, we know that at least a day or so prior to the battle (Antietam) Lee was aware of the general fact that his plans had been betrayed. I would contend that the problem was not that he fought and lost the battle. What if he had instead actively fortified his position there. Invited attack and at the moment the attack began, slipped back across the Potomac and swung east or west and reentered Maryland then attacked Harrisburg and/or Pittsburg. Or in the alternative, threatened DC and taken Philly and Baltimore. Is there any doubt that foreign intervention would have ensued?

Likewise the G'burg campaign was a STRATEGICALLY brilliant concept. What better way to encourage foreign intervention than to wander at will through enemy territory. Think about it until the final battle began at G'burg, Lee had occupied almost half of the largest state in the Union. How did that look not only in the US but in the world at large.

G'burg was a three day battle. Day 1 was a stunning Confederate victory, Day 2 was an unqualified Southern success, and Day 3 could very well have ended in a Southern victory EVEN AFTER PICKETT'S CHARGE if only Stuart had the brains to attack Custer in line instead of column. Had he done so the Union cavalry would have been batted away like a pesky fly. The road to the entire Union supply train would have been open. Taking or burning it would have forced Meade to retreat back to the Pipe Creek line. His only problem would have been that Lee would have then gone anywhere but there after the battle.

One final point. Prior to G'burg Lee had had a splendid relationship with his subordinates. His army divided into 2 corps. One under Stonewall who he could trust to act independently and another under Longstreet, a capable general who he could prod into faster movement if necessary.

With the loss of Jackson he redivided his army into 3 corps not 2. As a result he had two commanders unused to independent command; not used to interpreting a superior's suggestions as actual commands. As a result 2 days of missed opportunities.

Following the battle Lee, in a move unprecedented as far as I know in military history, totally changed his command style. The Lee of the retreat from G'burg, the Pipe Creek Campaign, the Overland Campaign and the final Petersburg siege bore no resemblance to the Lee of the previous 2+ years.

The point is that as far as strategy is concerned, Lee extended the war until April '65. Can you name any other general of the South who could have done even half as well? What other Confederate general had it within his grasp the opportunity to actually win the war. I can't name one.
 

jackt62

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I think that's a very myopic view. It assumes that your opponent will simply continue making the same mistakes. What if the commander of the AoP decides to use Union naval supremacy to land south of Richmond (Petersburg or NC) and cut its supply lines from the south. If you look at Grant's memoirs, his own writings state that his preferred approach would to have been a giant right hook around the Rappahannock/Rapidan line and approach Richmond from the west where there were no available riverine defensive lines. My own view is sending at least 2 corps of the AoP down the Shenandoah under a COMPETENT commander. Worst case scenario, is closing the Valley to Southern advances. Furthermore you end the Valley's ability to supply Richmond and the ANV.

Union plans to attempt a right hook around the river defenses, and/or advancing through the Shenandoah Valley, while possibly considered, would never have gotten past Lincoln and the administration's obsessive fear over defending Washington by principally keeping a federal army between it and the enemy. Lee was astute enough to understand this key element in federal thinking and was able to use the Valley as his own "backdoor" approach to threatening northern interests throughout the war. To some extent, however, Grant's 1864 offensive plans did encompass Sigel's incursion in the Valley to wreck havoc on southern communication lines; but that didn't work out in the beginning.
 

jackt62

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Secondly, put the blame where it belongs. On Stonewall!!! On successive occasions Lee ordered attacks by Stonewall which would have resulted in a modern Cannae--a double envelopment destroying the AoP or forcing its surrender. Both times Stonewall was a no show.

I had the extreme good fortune of listening to the great Bud Robertson (Stonewall's great biographer) on 3!!! separate occasions. I was able to ask him about Stonewall's apparent failure and he said that it was his firm belief that at the time he was suffering from what today we would describe as PTDS.

It is amazing to me that Stonewall gets a pass from many historians on his dismal performance during the Seven Days. Lee himself did not seem eager to admonish him for the no or slow show appearance at Beaver Dam Creek and Gaines Mill, not to mention the ineffectual pursuit of the AotP at White Oak Swamp. Certainly there was existing good-will from Jackson's Valley Campaign, probably some recognition of his diminished capacity during the Seven Days, and an overall reluctance on the part of Lee to examine all the faults of the Seven Days.
 

rerobins

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Great discussion and I am always amazed at how knowledgeable and inciteful this group is.
To take this question a step further and if most of us can agree that the Lee's strategy was sound to seek that decisive battle, what magnitude of victory would it have required for the North to fold? Battles of annihilation are extremely rare in history and difficult yo pull off. 2nd Manassas and Chancellorsville were "decisive" victories, but the AOTP lived to fight another day. So was Lee's strategy very feasible given the odds?
 

rerobins

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Dec 10, 2012
Had Pickett been attacking Wellington's Peninsulars armed with Brown Bess the slaughter would've been just as bad and maybe worse.
Interesting comparison, though the Union troops could start their volleys and sharpshooting a much greater distance. Where did I read that the rate of fire for smoothbore muskets was a good deal faster than a CW rifled musket?
 
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