The truth about Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee: He wasn’t very good at his job

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - MICHAEL S. ROSEN­WALD michael.rosen­wald@wash­

In the June 1969 is­sue of Civil War His­tory — Vol­ume 5, No. 2, Pages 116-132 — a renowned South­ern his­to­rian at­tacked the legacy of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“No sin­gle war fig­ure stands in greater need of reeval­u­a­tion than Lee,” wrote Thomas L. Con­nelly, the late Univer­sity of South Carolina pro­fes­sor. “One pon­ders whether the South may not have fared bet­ter had it pos­sessed no Robert E. Lee.”

Con­nelly’s es­say was among the first aca­demic mus­ket shots fired on Lee’s stand­ing as an out­matched but not out­wit­ted mil­i­tary ge­nius pre­sid­ing over a Lost Cause — a rep­u­ta­tion cel­e­brated in fawn­ing bi­ogra­phies and mon­u­ments such as the one removed Fri­day in New Or­leans.

But his­tory is not set in bronze. It evolves. And though Lee re­mains an im­por­tant, pow­er­ful sym­bol in the South, his rep­u­ta­tion among schol­ars has evolved to the point that many ei­ther ques­tion or out­right ridicule his stature as a bat­tle­field sa­vant.

To Ed­ward Bonekem­per III, the au­thor of “How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War” and sev­eral other books on the war, Lee is not the hum­ble, proud bat­tle­field loser pre­sented by doc­u­men­tar­ian Ken Burns and other pop­u­lar works of his­tory, but a bum­bling strate­gist and the cen­tral char­ac­ter in “the most suc­cess­ful pro­pa­ganda cam­paign in Amer­i­can his­tory.”

He’s talk­ing about the Lost Cause — or as he ti­tled a re­cent book, “The Myth of the Lost Cause.”

The tenets of the Lost Cause are that slav­ery was al­ready dy­ing be­fore the war, that states’ rights were re­ally the is­sue any­way, that the South did the best it could against a pow­er­ful killing ma­chine (an early ver­sion of a par­tic­i­pa­tion tro­phy), and that Lee’s sub­or­di­nates (es­pe­cially James Longstreet) bun­gled the war, most no­tably the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg.

“A big part of this myth is the adu­la­tion of Robert E. Lee,” Bonekem­per said in an in­ter­view. “He has got­ten a lot of re­ally good press.”

That be­gan, Bonekem­per and other his­to­ri­ans have writ­ten, shortly af­ter the war ended.

The nar­ra­tives of war are usu­ally shaped by the win­ning side, but af­ter Lee sur­ren­dered, the North got on with life and re­build­ing the econ­omy. Mean­while, prom­i­nent South­ern­ers set out on a spin of­fen­sive, form­ing the South­ern His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, which pub­lished hun­dreds of pa­pers telling its side of the war and shap­ing its his­tory.

Lee was el­e­vated to the high­est sta­tus pos­si­ble — South­ern sav­ior.

“The white light that falls di­rectly upon him,” one booster wrote, was “from the smile of an ap­prov­ing and sus­tain­ing God.” One of his former of­fi­cers wrote, “The Di­vin­ity in [Lee’s] bo­som shone translu­cent through the man and his spirit rose up to the God­like.”

One can’t do much bet­ter than that, bo­som and all.

It would take decades of aca­demic hand-to-hand com­bat to un­ravel the myth.

Con­nelly’s 1969 es­say, which among other things crit­i­cized Lee’s obsession with de­fend­ing his home state of Vir­ginia at all costs, was met al­most im­me­di­ately with scorn. In the next is­sue of Civil War His­tory, his­to­rian Al­bert Cas­tel wrote that “Con­nelly set out to do a job on Bobby Lee.”

But Con­nelly was not alone in his cri­tique. Other his­to­ri­ans be­gan pil­ing on.

Lee, they wrote, mis­han­dled over­all strat­egy of the war. Out­manned, Lee should have taken a more de­fen­sive pos­ture, draw­ing the North into dif­fi­cult South­ern ter­rain. In­stead, he was con­stantly on the of­fen­sive, which re­sulted in heavy ca­su­al­ties and bro­ken spir­its.

“All the Con­fed­er­acy needed was a stale­mate, which would con­firm its ex­is­tence as a sep­a­rate coun­try,” Bonekem­per wrote. “The bur­den was on the North to de­feat the Con­fed­er­acy and com­pel the re­turn of the eleven way­ward states to the Union.”

His­to­rian James McPher­son put it this way: “The South could ‘win’ the war by not los­ing.” How­ever, “the North could win only by win­ning.”

The noted mil­i­tary scholar Rus­sell Wei­gley com­pared Lee — un­fa­vor­ably — to Napoleon in his land­mark 1973 book, “The Amer­i­can Way of War: A His­tory of United States Mil­i­tary Strat­egy and Pol­icy.”

“Like Napoleon him­self, with his pas­sion for the strat­egy of an­ni­hi­la­tion and the cli­mac­tic, de­ci­sive bat­tle as its ex­pres­sion, he de­stroyed in the end not the en­emy ar­mies, but his own,” Wei­gley wrote.

Lee’s in­ep­ti­tude was most dam­ag­ing at Get­tys­burg.

On the third day of bat­tle, in what be­came known as Pick­ett’s Charge, Lee or­dered his troops across an open field, sub­ject­ing them to heavy fire. Lee did this against the ad­vice of his sub­or­di­nates. The Rebels suf­fered more than 6,000 ca­su­al­ties.

Lee apol­o­gists blamed Longstreet’s ex­e­cu­tion of the at­tack, which many his­to­ri­ans and mil­i­tary strate­gists now find laugh­able.

In a 2006 brief­ing pa­per, the Cen­ter for Tech­nol­ogy and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Pol­icy — a De­fense De­part­ment re­search cen­ter — called Lee’s ef­fort at Get­tys­burg a “blun­der” that “doomed the hopes of the Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­ica.”

The at­tack was poorly planned. Lee con­tin­ued even as the bat­tle­field scene sug­gested he shouldn’t — in­for­ma­tion he ei­ther didn’t seek out or ig­nored.

“Rapid adap­tive decision mak­ing might have saved Lee’s army,” the brief­ing pa­per ar­gued.

“The ul­ti­mate les­son for the U.S. mil­i­tary is that it is not enough to have bat­tle-wise decision mak­ers; they must be more bat­tle-wise than their en­e­mies.”

Bonekem­per has been speak­ing across the coun­try — in­clud­ing in the South — about Lee’s faults and the Lost Cause myth for more than 20 years.

Early on, he faced a lot of re­sis­tance to his con­clu­sions.

“Now peo­ple don’t get nearly as emo­tional as they used to,” he said. “They are more open to hear­ing that there is an­other side to the story.”

Mon­u­ments fall. So do their leg­ends.


Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee on his horse, fore­ground, is sur­rounded by his of­fi­cers. As his mon­u­ment comes down in New Or­leans, his­to­ri­ans un­ravel the icon’s myths.

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