Was Lee a Poor Strategic Thinker?

damYankee

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Aug 12, 2011
If Lee would of siezed the high ground at Seminary Ridge wouldn't General Meade simply surround Seminary Ridge? It's brutally hot so thousands of men require something like a gallon of fresh water per soldier per day. Each soldier is going to average one pound of biological waste per day so staying at Seminary Ridge won't be pleasent. Of course each soldier will require at least 2k calories per day so how would the AnV manage the logistics?
Leftyhunter
Lee had the option of taking the high ground of Seminary Ridge and forced Meade to dislodge him, thus the Union soldiers would have had to leave Cemetery Ridge and advance upon entrenched Confederate Sharpshooters and through Confederate artillery fire.
 

leftyhunter

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McClellan out numbered Lee's forces 3 to 1, he had Lee's plans in his hands, he waited for days before slowly advancing toward Harper's Ferry, sacrificing those union forces to the Confederates.
He squandered his numerical superiority at Antietam by sending uncoordinated piecemeal attacks against Lee's divided smaller force allowing Lee to shift forces along the line to counter any move.
By the end of the battle McClellan's forces were beat up, no doubt, because he played right into Lee's plan.
Lee's reputation as a military genius was built on victories over incompetent Union generals who bought into Lee's mythological image. Lee and those who served under him made the grievous mistake of believing their own propaganda, they believed they were invincible.
Gettysburg exposed the myth for what it was,.
As Alexander points out, Lee could have easily choose to defend Seminary Ridge and force the Union forces to attack him, as he did before and after Gettysburg, Had he forced the Union to attack him the outcome would be much different.
If Lee would of siezed the high ground at Seminary Ridge wouldn't General Meade simply surround Seminary Ridge? It's brutally hot so thousands of men require something like a gallon of fresh water per soldier per day. Each soldier is going to average one pound of biological waste per day so staying at Seminary Ridge won't be pleasent. Of course each soldier will require at least 2k calories per day so how would the AnV manage the logistics?
Leftyhunter
Lee had the option of taking the high ground of Seminary Ridge and forced Meade to dislodge him, thus the Union soldiers would have had to leave Cemetery Ridge and advance upon entrenched Confederate Sharpshooters and through Confederate artillery fire.
I am thinking more in terms of just surrounding Seminary Ridge where between hunger,thirst and not so pleasent effects of human waste Lee's men will within a few days have to breakout.
Leftyhunter
 

leftyhunter

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McClellan out numbered Lee's forces 3 to 1, he had Lee's plans in his hands, he waited for days before slowly advancing toward Harper's Ferry, sacrificing those union forces to the Confederates.
He squandered his numerical superiority at Antietam by sending uncoordinated piecemeal attacks against Lee's divided smaller force allowing Lee to shift forces along the line to counter any move.
By the end of the battle McClellan's forces were beat up, no doubt, because he played right into Lee's plan.
Lee's reputation as a military genius was built on victories over incompetent Union generals who bought into Lee's mythological image. Lee and those who served under him made the grievous mistake of believing their own propaganda, they believed they were invincible.
Gettysburg exposed the myth for what it was,.
As Alexander points out, Lee could have easily choose to defend Seminary Ridge and force the Union forces to attack him, as he did before and after Gettysburg, Had he forced the Union to attack him the outcome would be much different.
If Lee would of siezed the high ground at Seminary Ridge wouldn't General Meade simply surround Seminary Ridge? It's brutally hot so thousands of men require something like a gallon of fresh water per soldier per day. Each soldier is going to average one pound of biological waste per day so staying at Seminary Ridge won't be pleasent. Of course each soldier will require at least 2k calories per day so how would the AnV manage the logistics?
Leftyhunter
Lee had the option of taking the high ground of Seminary Ridge and forced Meade to dislodge him, thus the Union soldiers would have had to leave Cemetery Ridge and advance upon entrenched Confederate Sharpshooters and through Confederate artillery fire.
I am thinking more in terms of just surrounding Seminary Ridge where between hunger,thirst and not so pleasent effects of human waste Lee's men will within a few days have to breakout.
Leftyhunter
 

jackt62

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As Alexander points out, Lee could have easily choose to defend Seminary Ridge and force the Union forces to attack him, as he did before and after Gettysburg, Had he forced the Union to attack him the outcome would be much different.
That was the thinking of Longstreet; assume a strong defensive position and wait for a federal attack that was probably doomed to failure given the nature of direct attacks on an entrenched force. That was what happened at Fredericksburg, where all Lee had to do was to sit back and let the AotP decimate itself. Problem with that approach as far as Lee was concerned, was that it would not accomplish his primary goal of dealing the enemy a devastating defeat. Despite the outsized federal casualties at Fredericksburg, Lee was very dissatisfied with the results of that battle because the AotP was able to flee the battlefield intact and replace its losses. At Gettysburg, Lee could have maintained a defensive position on Seminary Ridge (or Cemetary Hill if it had been seized). But Meade did not have to take the bait and attack frontally; with diminishing supplies and tenuous communication lines, Lee could not afford to wait it out for any length of time.
 

jackt62

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If Lee would of siezed the high ground at Seminary Ridge wouldn't General Meade simply surround Seminary Ridge? It's brutally hot so thousands of men require something like a gallon of fresh water per soldier per day. Each soldier is going to average one pound of biological waste per day so staying at Seminary Ridge won't be pleasent. Of course each soldier will require at least 2k calories per day so how would the AnV manage the logistics?
Leftyhunter

Or simply cut off Lee's communications back to the Potomac and Virginia.
 

damYankee

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Aug 12, 2011
That was the thinking of Longstreet; assume a strong defensive position and wait for a federal attack that was probably doomed to failure given the nature of direct attacks on an entrenched force. That was what happened at Fredericksburg, where all Lee had to do was to sit back and let the AotP decimate itself. Problem with that approach as far as Lee was concerned, was that it would not accomplish his primary goal of dealing the enemy a devastating defeat. Despite the outsized federal casualties at Fredericksburg, Lee was very dissatisfied with the results of that battle because the AotP was able to flee the battlefield intact and replace its losses. At Gettysburg, Lee could have maintained a defensive position on Seminary Ridge (or Cemetary Hill if it had been seized). But Meade did not have to take the bait and attack frontally; with diminishing supplies and tenuous communication lines, Lee could not afford to wait it out for any length of time.
The aggressor is always going to risk annihilation attempting to take an entrenched opponent,. Lee had made the Union forces pay a high price for advancing against his army before and after Gettysburg, so one has to wonder why he choose basically the same tactic McClellan had used against him at Antietam, the parallel between those two battles are obvious.
McClellan out numbered Lee at Antietam, Meade out numbered Lee at Gettysburg, that's the first similarity, Lee was operating outside of his lines of communication, his army had advanced into a Northern state to engage the Union on its own ground.
But there is where the similarities end and roles reversed, instead of establishing a defensive line a d using his reserve to reinforce the line while the Union attacked piecemeal thus squandering their numerical superiority, Lee chose to copy McClellan, and attack an entrenched opponent piecemeal while his opponent could maneuver his reserve to reinforce his lines. .
Even given the chance to split his opponent at the Round Tops on day two, or to attempt a flanking movement, Lee chose to attack straight intobtge enemy in uncoordinated thrust instead of a coordinated effort at both ends of the Union line.
Then there is the issue of the vague and ambiguous orders he issued his subordinates, and the placement of Ewells artillery beyond the point of the fish hook, out of range to support Pickett's attack.
That brings us to the selection of the point of attack order to Pickett, look at the " fish hook " and it becomes obvious to anyone that if a frontal assault is in order, the best spot into carry out an attack is at the bend in the hook, not along the long straight shaft of the hook where the enemy can bring move fire power to bare against troops advancing across wheat fields. At the curve of the hook, only the arms directly to your front can fire on you. At the long shaft enfilade fire will decimate your troops,. And at the bend of the hook, Ewells artillery could hold down union reinforcements from maneuvering from behind the ridge.
So why order Pickett to attack the middle when there are much better positions to hit? This was Lee at his worse, but it wasn't the last time we would witness poor judgement by Lee,
 

jackt62

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That brings us to the selection of the point of attack order to Pickett, look at the " fish hook " and it becomes obvious to anyone that if a frontal assault is in order, the best spot into carry out an attack is at the bend in the hook, not along the long straight shaft of the hook where the enemy can bring move fire power to bare against troops advancing across wheat fields
That is exactly what General E.P. Alexander believed, according to his memoir.
 

jdawg

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Aug 2, 2019
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.


The dirty little secret is that your strategical brilliance with directly proportional to the size of your battalions.

If you have the big battalions your strategic options seem to really increase.

Also, about sending troops to the west, why would you give troops to John Pemberton when you have Robert E. Lee?

Vicksburg would have still surrendered. What good would those troops have done then?

Also, how well did Longstreet do at Knoxville?
 
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I admit that I haven't read those criticisms but based on what I know, I'm not sure I understand the attack on Lee.

Until late in the war his focus was the Virginia theater, defense of Richmond and the Army of Northern Virginia. He wasn't named General In Chief of all the armies of the CSA until February 1865. So, basically, it wasn't his job to be a strategic master-mind.

Strategic leadership of the Confederacy was the job of the Confederate War Department and specifically of President Davis who was also the "Commander In Chief" of the Confederate military. Additionally, from the little I know of Davis, he DID think that he was a strategic master-mind and probably did not countenance criticism well.

There's also an issue here of resources. "Strategic vision" depends a great deal on "strategic resources." As the old saying goes . . . . amateurs think tactics while professionals think logistics.

If you think of it that way, you do see Lee exercising strategic vision in 1863 when he argued against sending relief to Vicksburg and instead focusing on the invasion of the North.

The most important principle of war is the OBJECTIVE and I would argue that capturing Washington DC was the CSA's most important strategic objective.
You are right about Lee's position vis a vis Davis, as well as his personal bias. What you fail to consider is that the capture of DC was a physical impossibility. Before covid the Augusta CW Round Table was fortunate to have a presenter who had written about the DC fortifications. His thesis was that by late 62 or early 63 DC was the most highly fortified and protected capital in the world. To penetrate it would have required an enormous siege train--the one thing Lee had no possibility of acquiring. Had the entire AoP deserted in masse, the garrison troops in place could have withstood any attack Lee could have contemplated. The only exception to this fact occurred in 64 when Lee sent Early swinging around through the valley and they almost invested DC. And this was only because Grant had stripped almost all the garrison troops to reinforce his Army at Petersburg. Fortunately Early squandered his opportunity and Grant's reinforcements arrived in time to prevent a catastrophe.

On a larger scale you ignore the simple fact that in spite of Lee's continued successes against different commanders, he really had no rational expectation of victory. More famous writers than I have said that the Union essentially fought the war with one hand tied behind its back.

Also responding to those who assert that Lee should have fought a defensive war, they never specify against what attack. McClelland showed the basic Confederate vulnerability when he used the Union navy to transport him around the defenses and attack directly against Richmond. A better commander could and should have ended the war before it was really begun. Burnside could and should have ended the war at Fredericksburg. Again Union incompetence.

Don't like the direct approach. Advance down the Shenandoah Valley and approach Richmond from the West where there are no riverine defenses. Better yet use the Union navy to transport an army down to NC. Stand on defense around DC and attack NC and destroy hundreds of miles of the rail lines supplying Richmond. Send a 2 or 3 corps army into the Shenandoah to clear it of Southern defenders and close off it entrances and prevent Southern advances as well as a supply source for the Confederacy. Fortify the passes and eliminate it as a Southern pathway to attack the North, permanently. If Lee invades the North ala Antietam moving east of the Valley he is subject to attack through the passes by Union troops in the Valley on his flank.

Unfortunately Lincoln's antipathy (richly deserved) against McClelland and his flanking movement against Richmond poisoned his untrained military mind against any thing but a direct head butt against Lee and Richmond. I would really like to peer into Grant's mind and see if he really thought he could flank Lee's right and beat him or if he always intended to extend his advance until he reached the end of the Peninsula and could only gamble on a move across the James to envelope Petersburg from the east and south.
 
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When you criticise Lee for his lack of strategic vision, is there any general in military history who could have predicted the "Lost Order". Without that crazy unbelievable fluke, is there any doubt that Lee's invasion of the North would have resulted in British/French recognition of the Confederacy and a Southern victory?

On the other hand Union eventual victory rested not on any grand strategic vision but on grinding down the enemy knowing that if you have the numerical advantage all you have to do is kill enough of the enemy to make him surrender.
 

wausaubob

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Lee's strategy was that the Confederacy had to win the war before its resources were severely diminished. The Confederates had to win battles when they were at a disadvantage, because the imbalance in resources was only going to grow. It was the correct strategy.
The idea that the smaller nation could make greater sacrifices and incur greater losses, and therefore outlast the larger nation, did not make any sense. It was not a foreign war. All the spending occurred within the US. Many soldiers were furloughed home at various points. As the US Armies and navy advanced, the US economic area grew. They were advancing into areas that had been part of the US. The free population in those areas were Americans, who spoke English, and were mainly white Christians. Therefore the US logistical area was growing, even if most of the soldiers and sailors came from the northern areas.
Every variation in opinion about the war found expression in the New York press, including many pro-Confederate opinions.
But in the Midwest, the population saw rising commodity prices, stabilizing freight rates, population growth, joined to military success. The New York press, and the eastern press in general, had a poor understanding of public opinion outside their immediate areas.
 

wausaubob

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When you criticise Lee for his lack of strategic vision, is there any general in military history who could have predicted the "Lost Order". Without that crazy unbelievable fluke, is there any doubt that Lee's invasion of the North would have resulted in British/French recognition of the Confederacy and a Southern victory?

On the other hand Union eventual victory rested not on any grand strategic vision but on grinding down the enemy knowing that if you have the numerical advantage all you have to do is kill enough of the enemy to make him surrender.
That's not true and its harmful. Killing soldiers that had been US citizens and were prospective US citizens when the war was over, was a bad way to win a civil war. If it was the right way, the surrendering Confederate armies could have been exterminated. The main thing was to convince then they were never going to win, and that there was an acceptable mode of living available to them if they quit and went home.
 
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OpnCoronet

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Hard to say with any confidence. He never had a chance to plan and execute strategically.

He seems to have performed poorly outside of Va.,so the tunnel vision might have been real enough.

His two strategic thrusts into the North, ended in two of the greatest battles in the East, so if size is an indicator of importance, then their objectives were important. In M, to bring that state into the confederacy with all that entailed for the Union was strategically sound.

It is difficult to see precisely the strategic goal(s) of the Pa. invasion, especially from his own words on the subject. For what its worth I think he did have an important strategic goal.

Interestingly, to me, is the fact that both strategic moves failed for tactical reasons. Md invasion was was hastily improvised and poorly executed. Pa. invasion was meticulously planned but failed for the personal quirks of Lees command style.

I think had a good strategic sense, but was prevented from exploring that talent, if he had it, by the singular aggressive strategy of keeping possession of the strategic initiative and never allowing Lee to really function at that level.
 

jackt62

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On the other hand Union eventual victory rested not on any grand strategic vision but on grinding down the enemy knowing that if you have the numerical advantage all you have to do is kill enough of the enemy to make him surrender.
I must disagree. The Union's strategic vision was formulated in the early days after Ft. Sumter, when Lincoln and his administration imposed a blockade of southern ports and formulated aggressive army and naval movements into the southern heartland. While this strategy was sometimes undertaken too hastily (as in 1861's summer campaign against Richmond), it played out successfully in the western area from September 1861 to June 1862, when 3 major southern cities (New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis), fell to federal forces, and riverine activities opened up the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers to Union forces. By 1864, the administration's decision to centralize military operations under Grant led to the policy of concentrating in time and space, a strategy that led to the fall of the Confederacy within 1 year.
 

wausaubob

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I must disagree. The Union's strategic vision was formulated in the early days after Ft. Sumter, when Lincoln and his administration imposed a blockade of southern ports and formulated aggressive army and naval movements into the southern heartland. While this strategy was sometimes undertaken too hastily (as in 1861's summer campaign against Richmond), it played out successfully in the western area from September 1861 to June 1862, when 3 major southern cities (New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis), fell to federal forces, and riverine activities opened up the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers to Union forces. By 1864, the administration's decision to centralize military operations under Grant led to the policy of concentrating in time and space, a strategy that led to the fall of the Confederacy within 1 year.
The US imposed a blockade, which was consistent with British views.
The US early on authorized a fleet of ironclads and rams to be used on the internal rivers. These vessels wrecked some Confederate forts, and by-passed others.
The most audacious US strategy was to authorize an attempt to get over the passes of the Mississippi delta and capture New Orleans. This operation succeeded and the cost to the US to operate in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico decreased rapidly.
In about 14 months from the onset of serious armed hostilities, the US navy was patrolling the Mississippi River above Baton Rouge, and below Memphis. The US captured both New Orleans and Memphis as intact cities, without major casualties.
There were significant strategies that had little to do with killing former US citizens.
 

LetUsHavePeace

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The simple answer is yes; but the entire Confederacy was founded on a disastrously bad strategy. The South's only hope was to persuade the North to secede. The strategy the South adopted - garrisoning its borders and waiting for the Union armies to attack - may have comforted rebel opinion's desire to see themselves as the victims of aggression; but it guaranteed that the South would only use its martial spirit for counter-attacks. That was not how Southerner's own ancestors had fought and won the Revolutionary War or how Lee and his fellow West Point graduates had won the war against Mexico. Within the first year of the Revolutionary war the American rebels had attacked the British in Boston and mounted an expedition against Canada. The Canadian expedition may have failed (it almost succeeded), but it forced the British to think in terms of defending all of North America. The great failures of the Revolutionary Army - the defenses of New York and Charleston - came from adopting the very strategy that the South would follow.
It is unfair to make Lee answer the question about strategy. He was given no good choices. What we will never know is what he might have done if, in the early spring of 1861, Jefferson Davis had asked him a direct question: if you were a foreign country, how would you invade the States of the North?
 

Lubliner

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The simple answer is yes; but the entire Confederacy was founded on a disastrously bad strategy. The South's only hope was to persuade the North to secede. The strategy the South adopted - garrisoning its borders and waiting for the Union armies to attack - may have comforted rebel opinion's desire to see themselves as the victims of aggression; but it guaranteed that the South would only use its martial spirit for counter-attacks. That was not how Southerner's own ancestors had fought and won the Revolutionary War or how Lee and his fellow West Point graduates had won the war against Mexico. Within the first year of the Revolutionary war the American rebels had attacked the British in Boston and mounted an expedition against Canada. The Canadian expedition may have failed (it almost succeeded), but it forced the British to think in terms of defending all of North America. The great failures of the Revolutionary Army - the defenses of New York and Charleston - came from adopting the very strategy that the South would follow.
It is unfair to make Lee answer the question about strategy. He was given no good choices. What we will never know is what he might have done if, in the early spring of 1861, Jefferson Davis had asked him a direct question: if you were a foreign country, how would you invade the States of the North?
You make a very good point that opens a vast amount of what if's. Thanks,
Lubliner.
 

LetUsHavePeace

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Grant never thought Southerners' acts of political rebellion were immoral. He refused to use the words "traitor" and "treason" to describe what Confederates had done. He thought the rationale for Southern independence - enshrining slavery in their national constitution - was wrong. What came to surprise him during the war was the South's capacity for aggression. He had expected a short war; a few victories like Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson would be enough to persuade Southerners to end fighting and reach a workable peace. The shock for him at Pittsburgh Landing was not the surprise of an attack, but the size of the assaults and their pure aggression. Why, if the Southerners were capable of that scale of war-making, had they not dropped the hammer on the North from the very beginning?
 

jackt62

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The great failures of the Revolutionary Army - the defenses of New York and Charleston - came from adopting the very strategy that the South would follow
When all is said and done, the American Revolution succeeded because it enlisted foreign (French) intervention, and it wore down the British will to continue the struggle. Those were also the 2 main objects of Confederate policy; but unlike the Revolution, the Confederacy failed in both.
 

LetUsHavePeace

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When all is said and done, the American Revolution succeeded because it enlisted foreign (French) intervention, and it wore down the British will to continue the struggle. Those were also the 2 main objects of Confederate policy; but unlike the Revolution, the Confederacy failed in both.
Your observation about the American Revolution makes a very good point. Without French and Spanish and Dutch support the American revolutionaries would probably have lost. My judgment is that they would most certainly have lost if they had not begun the war by directly challenging English supremacy everywhere on the continent. By seizing Ticonderoga, besieging Boston and taking the fight to the enemy at Bennington they gave themselves a chance of winning over foreign allies. A purely defensive strategy - i.e. trying to protect New York and Charleston against the British Navy - certainly failed not only militarily but also politically. It reminded England's enemies why they had stopped fighting the Brits a decade earlier.
I think the Confederates had a similar chance to enlist European support by immediately and aggressively moving north against the Union states. That would have allowed Jefferson Davis to seek an alliance with the European bill collectors who wanted to seize Mexico. If he had also had the wit not to impose an embargo, he could have assured the Tripartite Alliance that any interruptions to the supply of cotton to their mills was entirely Mr. Lincoln's fault.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convention_of_London_(1861)
One has to wonder how many French and British warships would have been needed in the Gulf of Mexico to deter the Union Navy from seizing the mouth of the Mississippi if cotton exports had been flowing through New Orleans in 1861 as normal? Even David Farragut might have had to pause to consider the odds.
 
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