Archive for October, 2009

Trying to Marginalize Robert E. Lee

by Andy Mateja

Recent books and publications seem to focus on marginalizing Robert E. Lee and the results of his audacious command persona. They seem to want to give credit for the battlefield strategies and victories to everyone EXCEPT Lee. While Lee did not emerge as an effective battlefield commander until the summer of 1862, we all need to remember the dire straights the South was in at the time. McClellan was at the outskirts of Richmond preparing for a siege with locals and politicians scrambling for safety. Grant , with a string of victories at Fts Henry, Donelson and at Shiloh during the early months of 1862   was poised with an army of over 100,000 under Halleck to invade Mississippi,  with the ultimate goal of splitting the Confederacy in half. With ultimate doom facing the fledgling Confederate nation  little more that a year old, the hand of fate intervened and thrust Lee into the vortex of battle. He was given a chance to prove himself and literally prolonged the life of the Confederacy for several more years. The first thing Lee did was to change the dynamics from a defensive to offensive strategy. Even though outnumbered he moved against McClellan and pushed him back , releasing the stranglehold on the Confederate capitol. Then rather than awaiting the next Union attack, HE moved against a new Federal army that was forming to attack him in flank. divided his forces. Lee defeated his Union opponents at Second Manassas in late August and was now sitting less than 30 miles outside of Washington DC!  To keep the momentum going,  he advanced his army into Maryland with the ultimate goal of penetrating Union soil in Pennsylvania. However through an unexplained  mishap regarding a extra copy of Lee’s Special Order 191 which somehow found its way into Union hands, he had to adjust his strategy in order to fight a defensive battle at Antietam. Despite overwhelming numbers Lee’s army held on and held the Union army (again under McClellan) in check.  In less than 90 days, Lee fought three major battles and moved the theatre of war from the outskirts of Richmond to more that 160 miles away  – almost to the state line of Pennsylvania. After resting and refitting his army in the Shenandoah Valley , Lee moved his forces to intercept another Union offensive against Richmond. At Fredericksburg, Lee delivered his most lopsided victory against his Federal opponenets. Lee’s greatest victory was to come a few months later  in the same general area -at Chancellorsville. With Longstreet on detached duty and outnumbered more than 2-to-1 , Lee devised an audacious plan to again split his army and attack the much larger Union army from the flank. The masterful plan worked perfectly and completely routed  Hooker and his army of over 100,000. Lee, with subordinates Jackson and Stuart, engineered the greatest victory the Confederacy has seen up to this time . The drawback however was the accidental wounding of Stonewall Jackson and his ultimate death several days later. Jackson would be deeply missing in the coming months.  Again rather than awaiting to be attacked, Lee kept the momentum going and moved his army into Pennsylvania. This caused deep consternation in Washington DC and the surrounding cites of Baltimore, Harrisburg & Philadelphia. Northerners were now feeling the anxiety that the people of Richmond felt one year earlier BEFORE Lee took command. Lee also was shrewd in making this play instead of sending reinforcement to the beleaguered Vicksburg– a major victory on Northern soil would negate the ultimate fall of that gateway city on the Mississippi and cause Union troops concentrated deep in the South to reverse course and speed to the relief of the Northern cities threatened  by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The strategy almost worked – except this time Lee had to content with the ever-cautious Longstreet instead of the aggressive Jackson.  Without Jackson and Stuart (who was on a raiding foray) Lee had to rely solely on Longstreet as the only experienced command officer to execute his offensive strategy.  Longstreet had a contrary view of how the battle should be fought and second-guessed Lee at every opportunity.  The results were that Lee experienced his greatest defeat at Gettysburg while only a few months earlier experienced his greatest victory at Chancellorsville ! The difference was that Longstreet was with Lee at Gettysburg and Jackson was with him at Chancellorsville. Despite this major setback Lee was allowed to retreat to Virginia and rest and refit his army without union molestation as he was now feared by Northern officers and politicians alike. Even after Longstreet was again sent on detached duty to GA,  Lee kept the Union force at bay through the rest of 1863 and early 1864. When Grant came East to battle Lee in March 1864, all eyes were on this death struggle. Even though outnumbered almost 2-to-1 Lee inflicted heavy casualties on Grant at every turn which outraged the Northern population and caused Lincoln himself to question whether he would win re-election. Even after he was bottled up in the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg, Lee wanted to maintain the strategic initiative by detaching Jackson’s 2nd Corps (now under Jubal Early) and have them move to threaten Washington DC once again.  The audacious move worked,  and caused Union troops, fighting Lee outside the Southern capitol to be dispatched at the last minute to blunt the Confederate move on the Northern Capitol.  Lee’s strategic pressure on the North kept alive the hopes that Lincoln would lose re-election in November and the new U.S. president would sue for peace and let the Confederacy co-exist. The hand of fate stepped in once again and prevented that from happening – first with Union victories in Atlanta and later the Shenandoah Valley. Lee kept the confederacy alive for another 5 months after the election and reluctantly surrendered his army at Appomattox after all other options were gone. Lee’s troops were so inspired by him that they wanted to keep on fighting and not accept defeat. The Confederacy in essence ceased to exist on the day Lee surrendered. The only other  much smaller Confederate army in the field surrendered a few weeks later. there is no question if it wasn’t for the Robert E Lee and his offensive strategies, the Confederacy would have ceased to exist years sooner. McClellan instead of Grant might have been the national hero and future president and slavery may or may not have ceased to exist.    More on that later…………….

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Why We Are Here

The purpose of this blog is to focus on the events and circumstances surrounding the most important conflict in American History.  Over the past few years many of the core facts that had been recorded by accomplished authors over the past 140 years have been obscured and marginalized by a new breed of writers who want to focus more on the social events of the time and their perceived impact on the causes and effects the rather than the facts as stated by the actual participants.

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