Was Lee a Poor Strategic Thinker?

OldReliable1862

First Sergeant
Joined
Jul 2, 2017
Location
Georgia
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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atlantis

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 12, 2016
During the 62 Maryland foray large numbers of union forces remained in Virginia. Hampton roads and northern and western Virginia remained firmly in union hands.
So what did Sharpsburg accomplish.
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
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.
I do agree that Lee's military abilities needed to be examined in a more objective manner. Much of the revisionist writing is focused on being a counterweight to Lee as the so-called "Marble Man," whose stoic image was molded to create an almost cult-like view of Lee. That of course, was not Lee's doing, but the influence of the postwar "Lost Cause" movement that tried to make sense of the Confederacy's downfall by seeking to elevate Lee as a southern icon. Evaluating Lee's operational effectiveness as a commanding general can be done more objectively if we disregard the mythology that has grown up around him. ​
 

OldReliable1862

First Sergeant
Joined
Jul 2, 2017
Location
Georgia
I do agree that Lee's military abilities needed to be examined in a more objective manner. Much of the revisionist writing is focused on being a counterweight to Lee as the so-called "Marble Man," whose stoic image was molded to create an almost cult-like view of Lee. That of course, was not Lee's doing, but the influence of the postwar "Lost Cause" movement that tried to make sense of the Confederacy's downfall by seeking to elevate Lee as a southern icon. Evaluating Lee's operational effectiveness as a commanding general can be done more objectively if we disregard the mythology that has grown up around him. ​
Personally, I think Lee would have found his cult a tad...creepy.

Lee had a remarkable frankness regarding his own shortcomings and failings - see his assessment of his performance of Gettysburg. Indeed, it's one of the qualities I find most admirable about him.
 

edfranksphd

Private
Joined
Aug 30, 2019
Delay, was perhaps one of Lee's objectives. It is difficult to get a direct fix on exactly what he was doing in Pa., in relation to the War in general and in the West in particular. Delay, was the enemy of confederate success. It only allowed the already overwhelming forces and production to grown all the larger larger over time, and I ague that Lee was well aware of it and the last thing he was working for, was delay.
I believe your claim that "delay was the enemy of confederate success" would come as quite a surprise to Lee, Davis, and the other senior leaders of the CSA. Their strategy was to make the war to costly as possible for the North so that the North would grow so war weary that Lincoln would lose the '64 election, and the CSA would therefore become de facto winners of the war if they could hold out till the inauguration of the winner. Even Lincoln though he would lose the election as late as late July of '64?!
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
Personally, I think Lee would have found his cult a tad...creepy.

Lee had a remarkable frankness regarding his own shortcomings and failings - see his assessment of his performance of Gettysburg. Indeed, it's one of the qualities I find most admirable about him.
I'm sure he would have. He was the opposite of less modest individuals and prima donnas such as Stuart and Custer.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
I believe your claim that "delay was the enemy of confederate success" would come as quite a surprise to Lee, Davis, and the other senior leaders of the CSA. Their strategy was to make the war to costly as possible for the North so that the North would grow so war weary that Lincoln would lose the '64 election, and the CSA would therefore become de facto winners of the war if they could hold out till the inauguration of the winner. Even Lincoln though he would lose the election as late as late July of '64?!
If confederate leaders really believed, including Lee, they certainly did not conduct their war to fit that strategy.

For such a strategy to be viable, the war had to be seen as being unsuccessful by all observers. Such was not the case in reality. In fact, the very opposite was true. The confederacy's war for independence was in a state of continuous collapse, from the very first days of the conflict.

Within the first year of the war, the South was blockaded and the outlet of the Mississippi was lost, vital land bases had been secured on the Carolina Coasts, New Orleans was secured. A band of slave states was kept within the Union, securing the headwaters of the great River Invasion routes into the southern heartland. Confederate access to its Trans-Mississippi lands was soon reduced to Vicksburg.

The South for all practical purposes was cut off from the rest of the world, great invasion routes into the South were secured.. All of this , as noted being accomplished within almost the first year of the war.

I have noted on other threads, through the years, that any person with a map and pins could track the course of the war on the map almost mo. by mo. and see a stead progress of the Union pins steadily move south and East, tracking the slow but, more or less, steady collapse of confederate authority over time. The only place that this was not true, was in the East, where the ANV and AoP fought sterile battles that led only to stalemate.

Many people then and now, pay too much to the stalemate battles between the Rapidan and Rappahannock , that they ignored the true scope of the war and what was really going on, right before their eyes.

It was no accident, IMO, that in the 3d year of the War(1864), the first glimmers of the end of the war was seen, and it was seen in the West First. Where southern resistance had reached a critical phase and began its final collapse and in the process, helped reelect Lincoln.

In truth, the war was not being lost, in reality, there was only a stalemate in the East, i.e., the South was not winning, it was merely holding its own. While the war was being won in the West from almost the very first days of the War.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
https://towardsdatascience.com/napo...eral-ever-and-the-math-proves-it-86efed303eeb
According to this metric Lee was not a great general. Napoleon by the above metric was the greatest general ever . Feel free to agree or disagree. I am just posting what what was written.
Leftyhunter
I read an assessment by a commentator a long time ago, that I have always tried to adhere to when comparing generals, with Napoleon; that in military terms, 'Napoleon was the greatest man of action, since Alexander the Great' . I think that is as close to an accurate and fair assessment of Napoleon as is possible and if comparisons have to be made with other military leaders of different times and places, is probably the most useful.(mainly because it eliminates those between the two men, and narrows the field to a more manageable size)
 

edfranksphd

Private
Joined
Aug 30, 2019
I read an assessment by a commentator a long time ago, that I have always tried to adhere to when comparing generals, with Napoleon; that in military terms, 'Napoleon was the greatest man of action, since Alexander the Great' . I think that is as close to an accurate and fair assessment of Napoleon as is possible and if comparisons have to be made with other military leaders of different times and places, is probably the most useful.(mainly because it eliminates those between the two men, and narrows the field to a more manageable size)
Re LeftyHunter's post above - Math can't even prove itself, let alone the relative effectiveness of generals. It CAN provide evidence, but PROOF is a very different beast. It would be great if the various claims made for and against were at least supported by some sort of evidence. Leave "proof" to God.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I have read through this thread with great interest. I have spent years studying the massive logistical organization that Rosecrans created to support his advance from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga. The number of replacement equines going south & broken down animals returned is astonishing, for example. Bragg’s supply wagons & equines had been nearly destroyed by the long hauls from Northern Alabama. Where were the replacement equines for the 30,000 going to come from?

30,000 divided by 4 = - 7,500 equines X 26 pounds of fodder/animal = 195,000 pounds of fodder every day. Middle TN was grazed to the roots. The mountains from VA to North Georgia was a dessert. Rosecrans reserved the newly repaired N&CRR for fodder. Equally important to logicians was the return of the gunny sacks that the fodder was shipped in. Recycled bags were absolutely vital for all manner of supplies. The A of the C’s fodder came from IN, IL, & OH. Where was the fodder for the 7,500 equines sent to TN going to come from & how was it going to be transported?

The rail road repair & engineering units in the Army of the Cumberland used innovative prefab bridge & track sections to keep the N&CRR & L&NRR running despite everything man & nature could do. The Army of Tennessee was supplied from Northern Alabama. The RR linking Middle TN with that supply source was a complete wreck, inoperative. Where would the RR engineering & construction assets that would be needed to support 30,000 more men come from?

None of the strategic transfers of 30,000 from Virginia has included the logistical support that would require. A rule of thumb would require a - 90,000 support element. ( 80,000 Aof the C / 240,000 Department of the C, eg.) Where was it going to come from? Not from Atlanta, Lee was already consuming everything that passed through there. Where were the supplies to support the logistic element going to come from?

Lee’s army in Virginia was dependent on supplies from the Atlanta depot. The direct rail route through East Tennessee was strategically vital. Holding Chattanooga & Knoxville was the key to Lee’s lifeline. The alternative route was hundreds of miles longer. After Grant’s successful Chattanooga-Knoxville victory Lee said that Longstreet should have gone to Knoxville & threatened Rosecrans’ flank via the RR. That was a strategically sound insight. The Dalton Depot would have supported Longstreet’s force. Lee, like all military professionals, based his strategy on what was logistically supportable.

By securing Knoxville & threatening Rosecrans’ flank Longstreet would have achieved four strategic purposes. For most in Lee’s thinking, his link to Atlanta would have been secured. By threatening Rosecrans’ rear & flank it would have made it impossible for the Army of the Cumberland to advance toward Atlanta. At the same time, strategic Atlanta to VA RR link would have been secured. Placing Longstreet in East Tennessee would have dramatically shortened his supply line to the Dalton Depot. By contrast, Longstreet’s winter quarters after the retreat from Knoxville was 500 convoluted rail miles from Dalton. This validates Lee’s strategic thinking, in hindsight anyways… which makes him no different than the rest of us.
 
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atlantis

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 12, 2016
I have read through this thread with great interest. I have spent years studying the massive logistical organization that Rosecrans created to support his advance from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga. The number of replacement equines going south & broken down animals returned is astonishing, for example. Bragg’s supply wagons & equines had been nearly destroyed by the long hauls from Northern Alabama. Where were the replacement equines for the 30,000 going to come from?

30,000 divided by 4 = - 7,500 equines X 26 pounds of fodder/animal = 195,000 pounds of fodder every day. Middle TN was grazed to the roots. The mountains from VA to North Georgia was a dessert. Rosecrans reserved the newly repaired N&CRR for fodder. Equally important to logicians was the return of the gunny sacks that the fodder was shipped in. Recycled bags were absolutely vital for all manner of supplies. The A of the C’s fodder came from IN, IL, & OH. Where was the fodder for the 7,500 equines sent to TN going to come from & how was it going to be transported?

The rail road repair & engineering units in the Army of the Cumberland used innovative prefab bridge & track sections to keep the N&CRR & L&NRR running despite everything man & nature could do. The Army of Tennessee was supplied from Northern Alabama. The RR linking Middle TN with that supply source was a complete wreck, inoperative. Where would the RR engineering & construction assets that would be needed to support 30,000 more men come from?

None of the strategic transfers of 30,000 from Virginia has included the logistical support that would require. A rule of thumb would require a - 90,000 support element. ( 80,000 Aof the C / 240,000 Department of the C, eg.) Where was it going to come from? Not from Atlanta, Lee was already consuming everything that passed through there. Where were the supplies to support the logistic element going to come from?

Lee’s army in Virginia was dependent on supplies from the Atlanta depot. The direct rail route through East Tennessee was strategically vital. Holding Chattanooga & Knoxville was the key to Lee’s lifeline. The alternative route was hundreds of miles longer. After Grant’s successful Chattanooga-Knoxville victory Lee said that Longstreet should have gone to Knoxville & threatened Rosecrans’ flank via the RR. That was a strategically sound insight. The Dalton Depot would have supported Longstreet’s force. Lee, like all military professionals, based his strategy on what was logistically supportable.

By securing Knoxville & threatening Rosecrans’ flank Longstreet would have achieved four strategic purposes. For most in Lee’s thinking, his link to Atlanta would have been secured. By threatening Rosecrans’ rear & flank it would have made it impossible for the Army of the Cumberland to advance toward Atlanta. At the same time, strategic Atlanta to VA RR link would have been secured. Placing Longstreet in East Tennessee would have dramatically shortened his supply line to the Dalton Depot. By contrast, Longstreet’s winter quarters after the retreat from Knoxville was 500 convoluted rail miles from Dalton. This validates Lee’s strategic thinking, in hindsight anyways… which makes him no different than the re
Once you lose east Tennessee it is over. When the CS army regrouped at Dalton it was time to start seeking terms for peace.
 

edfranksphd

Private
Joined
Aug 30, 2019
I have read through this thread with great interest. I have spent years studying the massive logistical organization that Rosecrans created to support his advance from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga. The number of replacement equines going south & broken down animals returned is astonishing, for example. Bragg’s supply wagons & equines had been nearly destroyed by the long hauls from Northern Alabama. Where were the replacement equines for the 30,000 going to come from?

30,000 divided by 4 = - 7,500 equines X 26 pounds of fodder/animal = 195,000 pounds of fodder every day. Middle TN was grazed to the roots. The mountains from VA to North Georgia was a dessert. Rosecrans reserved the newly repaired N&CRR for fodder. Equally important to logicians was the return of the gunny sacks that the fodder was shipped in. Recycled bags were absolutely vital for all manner of supplies. The A of the C’s fodder came from IN, IL, & OH. Where was the fodder for the 7,500 equines sent to TN going to come from & how was it going to be transported?

The rail road repair & engineering units in the Army of the Cumberland used innovative prefab bridge & track sections to keep the N&CRR & L&NRR running despite everything man & nature could do. The Army of Tennessee was supplied from Northern Alabama. The RR linking Middle TN with that supply source was a complete wreck, inoperative. Where would the RR engineering & construction assets that would be needed to support 30,000 more men come from?

None of the strategic transfers of 30,000 from Virginia has included the logistical support that would require. A rule of thumb would require a - 90,000 support element. ( 80,000 Aof the C / 240,000 Department of the C, eg.) Where was it going to come from? Not from Atlanta, Lee was already consuming everything that passed through there. Where were the supplies to support the logistic element going to come from?

Lee’s army in Virginia was dependent on supplies from the Atlanta depot. The direct rail route through East Tennessee was strategically vital. Holding Chattanooga & Knoxville was the key to Lee’s lifeline. The alternative route was hundreds of miles longer. After Grant’s successful Chattanooga-Knoxville victory Lee said that Longstreet should have gone to Knoxville & threatened Rosecrans’ flank via the RR. That was a strategically sound insight. The Dalton Depot would have supported Longstreet’s force. Lee, like all military professionals, based his strategy on what was logistically supportable.

By securing Knoxville & threatening Rosecrans’ flank Longstreet would have achieved four strategic purposes. For most in Lee’s thinking, his link to Atlanta would have been secured. By threatening Rosecrans’ rear & flank it would have made it impossible for the Army of the Cumberland to advance toward Atlanta. At the same time, strategic Atlanta to VA RR link would have been secured. Placing Longstreet in East Tennessee would have dramatically shortened his supply line to the Dalton Depot. By contrast, Longstreet’s winter quarters after the retreat from Knoxville was 500 convoluted rail miles from Dalton. This validates Lee’s strategic thinking, in hindsight anyways… which makes him no different than the rest of us.
Placing Longstreet & 30K men in Knoxville to threaten Grant's rear and prevent his movement south toward Atlanta and perhaps provide a chance to turn Grant's left flank with Bragg's entire army was the major motivation for Bragg to send Longstreet to push Burnside from Knoxville as quickly as possible which would then allow Longstreet to begin turning Grant's left flank while Bragg simultaneously moved up the line from Missionary Ridge toward Knoxville and then onward to follow in the path of Longstreet's advance. But this plan was wrecked by Longstreet's taking nearly one month to invest Knoxville rather than the expected 7 to 10 days. It was ONLY b/c Bragg was threatening Knoxville by diverting troops to threaten it that Grant was FORCED to attack Bragg's lines outside Chattannoga, originally simply to "demonstrate" for the purpose of causing Bragg to recall some of the Knoxville bound troops, which is exactly what Bragg did, thought some troops had already departed by rail for Knoxville. See the Detachment of Longstreet Considered, Savas/Woodbury Publishing (1995).
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Placing Longstreet & 30K men in Knoxville to threaten Grant's rear and prevent his movement south toward Atlanta and perhaps provide a chance to turn Grant's left flank with Bragg's entire army was the major motivation for Bragg to send Longstreet to push Burnside from Knoxville as quickly as possible which would then allow Longstreet to begin turning Grant's left flank while Bragg simultaneously moved up the line from Missionary Ridge toward Knoxville and then onward to follow in the path of Longstreet's advance. But this plan was wrecked by Longstreet's taking nearly one month to invest Knoxville rather than the expected 7 to 10 days. It was ONLY b/c Bragg was threatening Knoxville by diverting troops to threaten it that Grant was FORCED to attack Bragg's lines outside Chattannoga, originally simply to "demonstrate" for the purpose of causing Bragg to recall some of the Knoxville bound troops, which is exactly what Bragg did, thought some troops had already departed by rail for Knoxville. See the Detachment of Longstreet Considered, Savas/Woodbury Publishing (1995).
If you read David Powell’s latest book ‘Impulse of Victory Grant at Chattanooga’ you will discover that events played out differently from what you have asserted. Thanks to Grant’s command of the Western Theater, Burnside’s Knoxville operation was under his control. At the same time, maintaining control of Cumberland Gap was a component of that occupation.

Grant was very aggressive, rightly believing that the tempo of offensive operations was an essential part of a success. The only thing holding him back from attacking Bragg sooner was gathering the force necessary to do it.

Had, as Lee concluded, Longstreet’s force had occupied Knoxville & advanced down the valley it would have revolutionized the Chattanooga situation. As it was, advancing on Knoxville he was reduced to hauling his artillery with oxen & making shoes out of the hides of slaughtered cattle.

I agree with Lee. In retrospect, securing Knoxville would have been the correct strategic move.
 

Lost Cause

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Sep 19, 2014
During the 62 Maryland foray large numbers of union forces remained in Virginia. Hampton roads and northern and western Virginia remained firmly in union hands.
So what did Sharpsburg accomplish.
Hindsight. It’s not what did it accomplish at that time, as much was as what were the political, military, and logistical objectives of moving through Maryland, near Washington. Moreover, those Union forces in Virginia were not a threat to Richmond.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
Hindsight. It’s not what did it accomplish at that time, as much was as what were the political, military, and logistical objectives of moving through Maryland, near Washington. Moreover, those Union forces in Virginia were not a threat to Richmond.
Antietam was the first of two attempts of Lee at Grand strategy, that they both failed is, IMO, significant.
 

leftyhunter

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
May 27, 2011
Location
los angeles ca
Re LeftyHunter's post above - Math can't even prove itself, let alone the relative effectiveness of generals. It CAN provide evidence, but PROOF is a very different beast. It would be great if the various claims made for and against were at least supported by some sort of evidence. Leave "proof" to God.
No math can very easily prove itself as if you have two apes and add two you have four apples if you eat two apples and don't add any apples you have no apple's. If we don't use a mathematical metric then what metric should we use?
We know sucessful generals don't surrender . We also know sucessful generals in the pre air war era usually outnumber their opponents. Lee didn't outnumber is opponents most of the time but that's not the Union Armies problem.
As for God e/ she it can speak for itself.
Leftyhunter
 

Lost Cause

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Sep 19, 2014
Antietam was the first of two attempts of Lee at Grand strategy, that they both failed is, IMO, significant.
The alternative was to not have a strategy and continue to stand by to repel the Union army as it tried time and again to take Richmond. That section of Virginia was war torn, and the 1862/64 elections were on the line. Elections had a political impact for north eastern and western theaters of operations.
 
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