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.
 
Last edited:

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
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.
You are exactly right. In his letter to Davis, Lee stated explicitly that it was the morale of Northern Voters that was the strategic target of his incursion into Pennsylvania. He told Davis that the CSA should tell the peace parties on the North exactly what they wanted to hear. The strategic goal was to defeat Lincoln’s party in November. Lee’s strategic thinking was insightful & accurate. What was lacking was a leadership at the national level that could understand his vision or provide him with what he needed to execute his strategic vision. Davis, not Lee was in charge of CSA strategy.
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
Lee stated explicitly that it was the morale of Northern Voters that was the strategic target of his incursion into Pennsylvania.
Absolutely, but it also points to the larger problem with the Confederacy's grand strategy (or lack thereof). A field commander such as Lee should not be making military decisions on the basis of attaining political goals. That was the responsibility of Davis and his administration, who were sadly lacking in formulating a consistent and realistic strategy to achieve independence.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
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.
True enough, but, this does not have any relationship to the question of how good a strategic mind did Lee Have?

Lee's strategy that led to Antietam, was to bring a another Union State into the confederacy and move the Union's strategy from the strategic offensive of invading the South, to one of Defending or surrendering its National Capital. All this before the eyes of the world. All he had to do was defeat the AoP on its own ground, Except, Lee, apparently, could not do that outside the borders of Virginia.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
True enough, but, this does not have any relationship to the question of how good a strategic mind did Lee Have?

Lee's strategy that led to Antietam, was to bring a another Union State into the confederacy and move the Union's strategy from the strategic offensive of invading the South, to one of Defending or surrendering its National Capital. All this before the eyes of the world. All he had to do was defeat the AoP on its own ground, Except, Lee, apparently, could not do that outside the borders of Virginia.
I think you make a good point. None of Lee’s excursions beyond a few counties in VA could have been sustained to the point strategic success because of the complete absence of logistical support. Rosecrans could advance across a mountainous food desert, take & hold Chattanooga because of massive logistical support. The A of NV never had anything like it & therefore could not have taken & held a position outside VA.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
I think you make a good point. None of Lee’s excursions beyond a few counties in VA could have been sustained to the point strategic success because of the complete absence of logistical support. Rosecrans could advance across a mountainous food desert, take & hold Chattanooga because of massive logistical support. The A of NV never had anything like it & therefore could not have taken & held a position outside VA.
I agree and it points up the quality of Lee's strategic sensibilities, if not his thought, i.e., it is seldom possible to engage in a major invasion, on the Cheap.

Lee's invasion of Md., was an ad hoc affair in the first place, with little apparent detailed thinking beyond defeating the AoP.
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
Lee's strategy that led to Antietam, was to bring a another Union State into the confederacy and move the Union's strategy from the strategic offensive of invading the South, to one of Defending or surrendering its National Capital
I'm not sure if Lee was actually expecting that Maryland would or could be brought into the Confederacy, although he certainly hoped to raise new regiments there while damaging Northern civilian spirit. But in regard to moving Union (or ostensibly loyal) states into the southern column, there was some sort of loose understanding among southern leaders to attempt as much. Which explains the initial fervor of southern commanders in 1861-62 to mount campaigns in Missouri, Kentucky, and New Mexico territory.
 

Wizard of Cozz

Private
Joined
Aug 20, 2021
I'm not sure if Lee was actually expecting that Maryland would or could be brought into the Confederacy, although he certainly hoped to raise new regiments there while damaging Northern civilian spirit. But in regard to moving Union (or ostensibly loyal) states into the southern column, there was some sort of loose understanding among southern leaders to attempt as much. Which explains the initial fervor of southern commanders in 1861-62 to mount campaigns in Missouri, Kentucky, and New Mexico territory.
I think Lee understood the South couldn't win a long war, that it's best hope for victory was either crushing Norther popular support and getting Lincoln to lose the election OR gaining European support. The best way to demonstrate your ability to win is to win on the other side's soil. Obviously he failed to win, but that doesn't negate that it strategically wasn't the right decision, just that they didn't operationally and tactically succeed, to bring out the Strategic objectives. It's hard to judge the Maryland campaign, because Lee's operational orders fell into Union hands, therefore giving McClellan a prized opportunity to eliminate Lee, which he failed to accomplish.
 

Lost Cause

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Sep 19, 2014
True enough, but, this does not have any relationship to the question of how good a strategic mind did Lee Have?

Lee's strategy that led to Antietam, was to bring a another Union State into the confederacy and move the Union's strategy from the strategic offensive of invading the South, to one of Defending or surrendering its National Capital. All this before the eyes of the world. All he had to do was defeat the AoP on its own ground, Except, Lee, apparently, could not do that outside the borders of Virginia.
Again, your arguing hindsight. I repeat my post 680.
 

Lost Cause

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Sep 19, 2014
I think you make a good point. None of Lee’s excursions beyond a few counties in VA could have been sustained to the point strategic success because of the complete absence of logistical support. Rosecrans could advance across a mountainous food desert, take & hold Chattanooga because of massive logistical support. The A of NV never had anything like it & therefore could not have taken & held a position outside VA.
Comparing the strategic objectives of Lee and Rosecrans are apples and oranges. Lee’s primary objective was to protect Richmond from invading Union armies. Rosecrans needed to capture territory. Tactically speaking, Rosecrans turned tail and ran when he faced a significant defeat. Lee had to be pulled back by his troops more than once when the situation was bleak.
 
Last edited:

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Comparing the strategic objectives of Lee and Rosecrans are apples and oranges. Lee’s primary objective was to protect Richmond from invading Union armies. Rosecrans needed to capture territory. Tactically speaking, Rosecrans turned tail and ran when he faced a significant defeat. Lee had to be pulled back by his troops more than once when the situation was bleak.
Of course they were different, nothing could be more obvious. If you would like to engage in a discussion on that topic, I am ready to oblige. The comparison between the Tullahoma Campaign & the Gettysburg Campaign. The contrast between the vast logistical support for the one & the absence of it for the other is what is being compared.

The Army of the Cumberland did fall back to Chattanooga, thus turning Chickamauga into nothing but a tactical setback. At the conclusion of the campaign, from Cumberland Gap to Chattanooga East Tennessee was firmly in Union hands. At the end of the Gettysburg Campaign, Lee was back where he started minus 40% of his army.

I see no point in responding to tropes, so will make this my last post on this topic.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Of course they were different, nothing could be more obvious. If you would like to engage in a discussion on that topic, I am ready to oblige. The comparison between the Tullahoma Campaign & the Gettysburg Campaign. The contrast between the vast logistical support for the one & the absence of it for the other is what is being compared.

The Army of the Cumberland did fall back to Chattanooga, thus turning Chickamauga into nothing but a tactical setback. At the conclusion of the campaign, from Cumberland Gap to Chattanooga East Tennessee was firmly in Union hands. At the end of the Gettysburg Campaign, Lee was back where he started minus 40% of his army.

I see no point in responding to tropes, so will make this my last post on this topic.
Bragg whipped Rosecrans' army. But Burnside was still in the Knoxville area. Rosecrans retreated only to Chattanooga. The US still held Bridgeport. So Chickamauga was another fantastic blood letting, with very little strategic consequence. As often was the case, the Confederates had no reserve available to follow up.
 

GwilymT

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 20, 2018
Location
Pittsburgh
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.
I’d agree that both efforts by Lee were a gamble and neither of them paid off... gambling and sound strategy don’t mix.
 

edfranksphd

Private
Joined
Aug 30, 2019
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
Your command of logic is too much for my feeble mind, Lefty.
 

edfranksphd

Private
Joined
Aug 30, 2019
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.
I'm afraid you spent a lot of time studying the war, and no doubt writing about it, but I fear the claims you've derived are seriously flawed, imho, entirely. I recommend less writing and more reading?
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Bragg whipped Rosecrans' army. But Burnside was still in the Knoxville area. Rosecrans retreated only to Chattanooga. The US still held Bridgeport. So Chickamauga was another fantastic blood letting, with very little strategic consequence. As often was the case, the Confederates had no reserve available to follow up.
It is interesting that you say, “Bragg whipped Rosecrans army… retreated…to Chattanooga.” The whole point of Bragg’s attack was, as you rightly point out, to recapture Chattanooga. It is remarkable how quickly the morale of the A of the C rebounded. Dana records the upbeat attitude of officers & men. That is in stark contrast with the near despair displayed in journals & letters by the members of the A of TN. They quite rightly questioned the competence of their leadership. Dana reported that A of the C soldiers compared the first days of Ft Donelson, Shiloh & Stones River with Chickamauga concluding that they had suffered worse & come out triumphant. Napoleon said that morale is as ten is to one to the material. Chickamauga is a sterling example of that principle in action.
 
Last edited:

edfranksphd

Private
Joined
Aug 30, 2019
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.
You are welcome to rely on the scholarship of a delivery company owner with a BA in History. I'll continue to rely on PhD historians. Longstreet was already on the rails for Atlanta to reinforce Bragg, who by then had already been pushed past Chatta into northern GA. Long helped Bragg defeat Bragg at Chicka, killing, wounding and/or capturing ⅓ of Rosecrans' army and recovering N GA in the process. What happened and why thereafter is a matter of great debate even to this day, but I'm pretty sure Mr Powell hasn't the credentials to shed any valid light on that question, IMHO. Again, I suggest you read the above cited essay and/or read Professor (PhD) Steven Woodworth's Six Armies in Tennessee (1997).
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
You are welcome to rely on the scholarship of a delivery company owner with a BA in History. I'll continue to rely on PhD historians. Longstreet was already on the rails for Atlanta to reinforce Bragg, who by then had already been pushed past Chatta into northern GA. Long helped Bragg defeat Bragg at Chicka, killing, wounding and/or capturing ⅓ of Rosecrans' army and recovering N GA in the process. What happened and why thereafter is a matter of great debate even to this day, but I'm pretty sure Mr Powell hasn't the credentials to shed any valid light on that question, IMHO. Again, I suggest you read the above cited essay and/or read Professor (PhD) Steven Woodworth's Six Armies in Tennessee (1997).
A PhD once told me that an ad homonym attack is an indication of lack of evidence to support an argument. This only confirms that bit of wisdom. It is obvious you haven’t read David Powell’s body of work. It needs no defense from me. Just some of the books I have read on this subject are in my review posted at the head of this thread.
 
Last edited:

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
It is interesting that you say, “Bragg whipped Rosecrans army… retreated…to Chattanooga.” The whole point of Bragg’s attack was, as you rightly point out, to recapture Chattanooga. It is remarkable how quickly the morale of the A of the C rebounded. Dana records the upbeat attitude of officers & men. That is in stark contrast with the near despair displayed in journals & letters by the members of the A of TN. They quite rightly questioned the competence of their leadership. Dana reported that A of the C soldiers compared the first days of Ft Donelson, Shiloh & Stones River with Chickamauga concluding that they had suffered worse & come out triumphant. Napoleon said that morale is as ten is to one to the material. Chickamauga is a sterling example of that principle in action.
Whipped? In what way? Not even the body count was favorable to the Confederates. Burnside was still in the Knoxville area. The US fortified Chattanooga. The US still held Bridgeport and Stevenson. And in about 12 days there was a position to which the Cumberlands could retreat towards reinforcements. The Confederates had protected Chickamauga Station and their railroad connections, so they were in better shape than they had been in Pennsylvania, but that's not much.
 

Stone in the wall

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Sep 19, 2017
Location
Blue Ridge Mountains, Jefferson County WV
I’d agree that both efforts by Lee were a gamble and neither of them paid off... gambling and sound strategy don’t mix.
Lee rolled the dice and divided his army at 2nd Mannassas an Chancellerville and came out a winner. As soon as a battle starts you can throw any plans out the window.
 
Top