What Might Have Happened If Lee Had Joined The Union Army When Asked?

jackt62

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
I've often thought about the course of the war had Lee accepted command of Union forces in April 1861. For starters, we would have to overlook the fact that Lee did not want to "draw his sword against Virginia" or take part in an "invasion" of the seceded states. Assuming that is not an issue, Lee's first major test would come at Bull Run; but given the untrained state of the federal Army of Northeastern Virginia and the effective Confederate opposition under Johnston/Beauregard, and Lee's own inexperience, it is doubtful whether the outcome of that battle would have been different. But let's fast forward to 1862; if the positions of McClellan and Lee were reversed, it is certainly credible to believe that Lee would have conducted a more energetic campaign in the Peninsula; add to the fact that the Confederacy would lack its own version of Lee and his audacious Seven Days battles, it is in the realm of possibility that Lee commanding Union forces could have prevailed against southern forces in the Peninsula and taken Richmond. Ironically, if the Union had achieved a victory over the Confederacy in 1862 and the war over, the Union would have been preserved with slavery intact. So by fighting for the Confederacy, perhaps Lee became the vehicle by which slavery was finally abolished in the United States.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I believe he wasn't offered command of all Union forces - he was offered a Union command, not "Union command".
It'd be quite strange if (as one claim goes) he was offered MG rank straight from the get-go - as of January 1861 he was a colonel in the army (i.e. a brevet, as they were before and during the Civil War) and a Lt. Col. in his regiment.

Sumner was also a colonel as of January 1861, with his brevet to the position (i.e. when he started counting as a colonel as far as the army was concerned) giving him less than a week's seniority on Lee, though Sumner's regimental rank was higher. Sumner got one of the regular BG slots and got packed off to the Pacific; it's actually quite plausible that Lee would have been sent West, so as to avoid him having to serve against Virginians as much as possible.
Absent that, he could end up with a division, or he could end up with army command.


If we assume Lee gets sent West (to command an army out there), we can actually make a fairly good guess about what happens in the East (if we employ the time-honoured what-if tactic of "squashing butterflies" and assume the West is doing its own thing in the background)...

First Bull Run goes basically as historical. So does late 1861 and early 1862, except that it looks like the person who suggested flooding the Warwick river might actually have been Lee.
In addition, Lee appears to have been shifting troops south from Johnston's army to make a force to oppose Burnside in North Carolina, and some of those troops were passing through and helped reinforce the Warwick line earlier than would otherwise have been the case (some of the troops Lee was shifting were drawn from Magruder's defensive troops, though AFAICT "no shifting" is a net negative for the amount of force Magruder has on the Warwick in the first few days of contact).
This means that without Lee, and oddly enough, things might well have gone better at Yorktown as the first major divergence - with the Warwick not flooded then it's much more possible to turn the position, as instead of a couple of well-defended dams there's a much broader front on which troops can attack. Given that historically McClellan ordered bayonet charges then it seems at least plausible that a less well defended and weaker position overall could have been taken.

The rainstorm of the 7th onwards (I said I was squashing butterflies...) prevents rapid exploitation, but with Yorktown encircled there's the scope to open up the York (and consequently the James) weeks earlier; Johnston is calling for reinforcements much as he historically did, but the few extra weeks have the scope to change the whole complexion of the campaign. Not least because Johnston's army is still en route down from the Rappahanock area, though if McClellan doesn't get 1st Corps back his ability to conduct amphibious moves is limited.


meanwhile in the west perhaps Lee has won at shiloh or something
 

Generic Username

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May 12, 2019
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Yes
Really depends on the Union command Lee gets. Can't claim credit for the idea, but instead of Lee getting posted to the Department of the Carolinas and Georgia in late 1861, Beauregard gets sent. Without him there to mess with A.S. Johnston's battle plans, the Confederates are able to win a smashing victory at Shiloh.
 

farmerjohn

Private
Joined
Oct 30, 2019
I've often thought about the course of the war had Lee accepted command of Union forces in April 1861. For starters, we would have to overlook the fact that Lee did not want to "draw his sword against Virginia" or take part in an "invasion" of the seceded states. Assuming that is not an issue, Lee's first major test would come at Bull Run; but given the untrained state of the federal Army of Northeastern Virginia and the effective Confederate opposition under Johnston/Beauregard, and Lee's own inexperience, it is doubtful whether the outcome of that battle would have been different. But let's fast forward to 1862; if the positions of McClellan and Lee were reversed, it is certainly credible to believe that Lee would have conducted a more energetic campaign in the Peninsula; add to the fact that the Confederacy would lack its own version of Lee and his audacious Seven Days battles, it is in the realm of possibility that Lee commanding Union forces could have prevailed against southern forces in the Peninsula and taken Richmond. Ironically, if the Union had achieved a victory over the Confederacy in 1862 and the war over, the Union would have been preserved with slavery intact. So by fighting for the Confederacy, perhaps Lee became the vehicle by which slavery was finally abolished in the United States.
that is exactly my point. with lee on the side of the north , the south has noone with his strategic thinking abilities. plus his willingness to move with much rapidity when a opportunity presents itself
 

farmerjohn

Private
Joined
Oct 30, 2019
Really depends on the Union command Lee gets. Can't claim credit for the idea, but instead of Lee getting posted to the Department of the Carolinas and Georgia in late 1861, Beauregard gets sent. Without him there to mess with A.S. Johnston's battle plans, the Confederates are able to win a smashing victory at Shiloh.
but also, with beauregard there, at shiloh, beauregard takes EFFECTIVE control over the army when johnston is shot. imagine what mess might've happened if bragg had assumed control at the time johnston went down. or,... would it have been hardee???? to assume command? bragg was an overeducated idiot. much like the people in congress today! lol!!!
 

farmerjohn

Private
Joined
Oct 30, 2019
I believe he wasn't offered command of all Union forces - he was offered a Union command, not "Union command".
It'd be quite strange if (as one claim goes) he was offered MG rank straight from the get-go - as of January 1861 he was a colonel in the army (i.e. a brevet, as they were before and during the Civil War) and a Lt. Col. in his regiment.

Sumner was also a colonel as of January 1861, with his brevet to the position (i.e. when he started counting as a colonel as far as the army was concerned) giving him less than a week's seniority on Lee, though Sumner's regimental rank was higher. Sumner got one of the regular BG slots and got packed off to the Pacific; it's actually quite plausible that Lee would have been sent West, so as to avoid him having to serve against Virginians as much as possible.
Absent that, he could end up with a division, or he could end up with army command.


If we assume Lee gets sent West (to command an army out there), we can actually make a fairly good guess about what happens in the East (if we employ the time-honoured what-if tactic of "squashing butterflies" and assume the West is doing its own thing in the background)...

First Bull Run goes basically as historical. So does late 1861 and early 1862, except that it looks like the person who suggested flooding the Warwick river might actually have been Lee.
In addition, Lee appears to have been shifting troops south from Johnston's army to make a force to oppose Burnside in North Carolina, and some of those troops were passing through and helped reinforce the Warwick line earlier than would otherwise have been the case (some of the troops Lee was shifting were drawn from Magruder's defensive troops, though AFAICT "no shifting" is a net negative for the amount of force Magruder has on the Warwick in the first few days of contact).
This means that without Lee, and oddly enough, things might well have gone better at Yorktown as the first major divergence - with the Warwick not flooded then it's much more possible to turn the position, as instead of a couple of well-defended dams there's a much broader front on which troops can attack. Given that historically McClellan ordered bayonet charges then it seems at least plausible that a less well defended and weaker position overall could have been taken.

The rainstorm of the 7th onwards (I said I was squashing butterflies...) prevents rapid exploitation, but with Yorktown encircled there's the scope to open up the York (and consequently the James) weeks earlier; Johnston is calling for reinforcements much as he historically did, but the few extra weeks have the scope to change the whole complexion of the campaign. Not least because Johnston's army is still en route down from the Rappahanock area, though if McClellan doesn't get 1st Corps back his ability to conduct amphibious moves is limited.


meanwhile in the west perhaps Lee has won at shiloh or something
i believe lee would have assumed command of the armies in the east.
 

jackt62

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
but also, with beauregard there, at shiloh, beauregard takes EFFECTIVE control over the army when johnston is shot. imagine what mess might've happened if bragg had assumed control at the time johnston went down. or,... would it have been hardee???? to assume command? bragg was an overeducated idiot. much like the people in congress today! lol!!!

At least Beauregard was commanding from the rear, which was the appropriate location for an army commander in terms of command and control. Johnston should not have been acting as a Division or even Corps commander no matter how gallant it might have seemed to be leading troops in the field.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
i believe lee would have assumed command of the armies in the east.
I don't think so, because McDowell got that command partly on the basis of his political reliability - and Robert E. Lee, Virginian slaveholder (and already someone whose land overlooks the Capitol) is not the sort of person the Radicals would consider politically reliable.
 

Fairfield

Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
would the war been over at first bull run? peninsula campaign?
For one thing, he would need to clear it with President Lincoln. Despite the commonly held belief that Lincoln offered the general a place in the Union army, that doesn't seem to have been the case. Douglas Southall Freeman himself wrote that the offer was made by an aide who lacked the authority.
 

Fairfield

Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
"I never thought I'd live to see the day that a president of the United States would raise an army to invade his own country." - Robert E Lee.
This seems to be a line from a movie. I'd love to see a credible source 🙂. For one thing, the confederates believed that CSA was a separate country--and, if the general really thought that Lincoln was invading his own country, wouldn't that be admitting to treason?
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
If we for a moment assume that Lee does get the CO position, then it's an open question what his style of generalship is. Historically under most circumstances Lee was prone to attack aggressively to seek fleeting opportunities, but under most circumstances Lee was in a situation where his army was on a weakening trendline relative to his opponent - that is, he didn't have much prospect of his army getting stronger if he waited.

The exception to this is periods like June 1862. During this period Lee is on a strengthening trendline relative to his opponent, and he doesn't go on the attack - instead he waits while he gets stronger.
This simple fact may change the whole dynamic of how Lee's generalship appears relative to his period in command.


It's also worth really seriously contemplating the political issue, because it was effectively an open secret that victorious US generals often end up as Presidents. Careers as generals propelled or helped to propel Washington, Jackson, Harrison and Taylor to the Presidency, and Pierce served as a general as well, so effectively about one third of the presidents of the US had held general officer rank; historically of course Grant became President partly because of his career as a general, something which was then repeated after both the Spanish-American War (Roosevelt) and World War Two (Eisenhower).

If it looks likely that the Union is going to win a short war, then it looks likely that the Union is going to win a war in which slavery is retained, and Lee is really quite a pro-slavery individual as far as it goes - he's sort of antithetical to the Republican ideal. If anybody's generalship is going to get sabotaged by the Radicals one way or another to ensure that he cannot be the victorious hero who rides his military career into the White House, it is Lee. (And lest it be thought that they would not do such a thing, that sort of thing was already going on historically...)
This is likely to shape his military career, and provide a baleful influence - Davis gave Lee an almost free hand in many ways (though not all), but I do not think the same freedom would happen for Lincoln's administration and Lee.

Of course, he might win anyway.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
This seems to be a line from a movie. I'd love to see a credible source 🙂. For one thing, the confederates believed that CSA was a separate country--and, if the general really thought that Lincoln was invading his own country, wouldn't that be admitting to treason?
It's at least theoretically possible for someone to point out the hypocrisy in an opponent's position without subscribing to it. An equivalent would be to say, for example, "I didn't know you could blockade your own country" with respect to the Union blockade, because a blockade is an act of war and the Union was maintaining that the Confederacy was not a "belligerent".
 

Fairfield

Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
It's at least theoretically possible for someone to point out the hypocrisy in an opponent's position without subscribing to it. An equivalent would be to say, for example, "I didn't know you could blockade your own country" with respect to the Union blockade, because a blockade is an act of war and the Union was maintaining that the Confederacy was not a "belligerent".
But that would ruin a really stirring movie line.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
But that would ruin a really stirring movie line.
It wouldn't, because I'm explaining that it's something Lee could have said (because he's pointing out the hypocrisy in the Union position). Though a much bigger question is whether he said it at all - I know of at least one common line around Gettysburg which was invented in The Killer Angels to sound good, and which has since entered "common knowledge" because it was in the film Gettysburg.
 

steve59p

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 21, 2016
This seems to be a line from a movie. I'd love to see a credible source 🙂. For one thing, the confederates believed that CSA was a separate country--and, if the general really thought that Lincoln was invading his own country, wouldn't that be admitting to treason?

Agree on the 1st part.

On the 2nd Lee seems to be implicitly saying that the CSA isn't a separate country by this statement. Presumably this is before Virginia itself left the union, largely on the same issue as I understand it. I assume he's actually saying that he think peaceful secession is better than a brutal war to try and force reunion but I can't see anything treasonable in the actual statement. But then as you say it seems to be from a film so how accurate the wording is we don't know.

Steve
 
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