by Andy Mateja

Today’s new readers of the American Civil War are being barraged by writers attempting to psycho-analyze the motivations of the South’s greatest leader: General Robert E. Lee.
Despite heavy battlefield losses, Lee believed the surest way to victory over a much larger and infinitely stronger opponent was to bring that battle to them. Critics today say Lee should have marshaled his strength instead of aggressively pursuing offensive victory. They had forgotten that Lee’s predecessor commanding the Confederate Army in the East had followed that course and literally allowed his Union opponent to push him back until Richmond itself was nearly under siege and Confederate government politicians were fleeing the capitol believing the end had come.
It took Lees audacity and aggressive nature to defeat the encroaching Union tidal wave and reverse the theatre of operations to the outskirts of Washington DC in less than 60 days !!!
Lee’s exceptional foresight caused him to realize that absolute victory was not possible against an all-powerful Union opponent and that TIME itself would be the ultimate arbitrator – one way or the other … with one side either exhausting its supplies and manpower or the other losing the will to fight an opponent who wins every battlefield conflict. Keep in mind that Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia has won several impressive battlefield victories and had come close to complete victory had his orders been followed to the letter by commanders who proved to be inept or unwilling to trust the judgment of Robert E Lee.
Imagine had Gen Stonewall Jackson “second guessed” Lee regarding his flanking move directive at Chancellorsville where Lee had won his greatest battlefield victory against an opponent outnumbering him almost 2 to 1…. ? Or if Gen James Longstreet had obeyed Lee’s directive without question on the second day at Gettysburg and promptly attacked the Union left flank ….would there have been a need for a third day of fighting …?
We must remember the Civil War was fought in a time far different than today, particularly in culture, motivation and spirit. Honor courage and aggressiveness, particularly among Southern men was commonplace. To back away from a fight was almost unheard of. While victory was never assured, innate confidence in those that chose to fight drove them on again and again, particularly in the final year of the war when all seemed hopeless. There is no question that Robt E Lee manifested an unswerving belief that offensive tactics provided the best chance for military success.
Lee’s strategy and tactical victories were also not wasted on Britain and France, seeking justification to enter the war as France had done during the Revolutionary War 80+ years before. They were willing to support a people willing and determined to fight to preserve their new nation rather than waiting to be attacked by a government seeking to prevent the formation of that “independent nation”.
Nor had Lee’s aggressive tendencies been lost on the morale of his Northern opponents. His continual string of victories, often against superior odds, led Northern soldiers and civilians alike to believe Lee was almost omnipotent. As further evidenced by a quote Gen Ulysses Grant is reported to have said during the 1864 Overland Campaign to his battlefield commanders who expressed concern about Lee’s fighting prowess: “Oh, I am tired of hearing what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault and land in our rear and on both flanks at the same time. Go back to your command and try to think of what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do .”
Lee indeed was a multi-dimensional military leader who understood that there were many ways to win a war. He was truly the South’s last best hope for ultimate victory.