Robert E. Lee was not the man you worship

The Lost Cause mythology popularized by postbellum Confederate sympathizers is responsible for many of the half-truths concerning the American Civil War. Recently, due to the controversy over the Confederate flag, the Lost Cause assertion that slavery was not a cause of the war has been largely discredited. There will always be hold outs, but professional historians have reclaimed the truth about the causes of the war. Many Lost Cause myths remain, and one of them that I will discuss in this blog post is an offshoot of the slavery-not-a-cause-of-the-war myth.

After assuming command of the Army of Northern Virginia after Joseph E. Johnston was hit by an artillery shell at Seven Pines, Robert E. Lee won international renown for his military successes in the Peninsula and Maryland Campaigns of 1862. However, some of this military success must be attributed to the painfully slow, and arguably treasonous actions of Union Army then-General-in-Chief George McClellan.

In the Peninsula Campaign, McClellan led Union troops within earshot of Richmond, before Lee’s forces drove McClellan from the peninsula entirely after seven days of battle from Gaines’ Mill to Malvern Hill. Though the rebels sustained serious casualties in the campaign (specifically at Malvern Hill in which the Confederates suffered 2,650 more casualties than Union forces despite forces of similar sizes), McClellan still withdrew and ended the campaign without making a serious threat on the rebel capital Richmond.

In the Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Lee’s army successfully relieved pressure on Virginia, while forcing the Union into a tactical stalemate, but strategic victory at Antietam Creek. This tactical stalemate occurred despite McClellan’s extremely superior force size (>75,000-38,000). Also, McClellan essentially achieved the bare minimum required for Union victory. Rather than pursuing the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac, McClellan essentially got in front of them at Sharpsburg and simply halted their advance. With the Potomac at their backs. Did I mention he also had Lee’s battle plans for the entire Maryland Campaign?

In addition to this, McClellan half seriously joked about staging a military coup during the Maryland Campaign. In Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam, a scene from the Maryland Campaign is described in which a fed up McClellan stated to his fellow officers that the Union army should “change front on Washington.” While many historians have discounted this remark as a joke, Slotkin asserts that it should be taken as a serious threat because he in fact, did say it. Lee’s successes during the Maryland Campaign must be taken into account with the context that the commander he was facing off against was, in my opinion, attempting to do the bare minimum to be considered victorious so that he could preserve his army and let the war drag out long enough to compromise with the C.S.A., thereby preserving his Democratic presidential ambitions.

In the Pennsylvania Campaign of June and July 1863, Lee actually achieved many of his goals despite having to retreat after defeat at Gettysburg. Despite defeat at Gettysburg, he returned to Virginia after retreating from Pennsylvania with most of his wagon train and loot in tow. This included badly needed supplies such as livestock, clothing, food, and more.

The aforementioned military successes of 1862-1863 (Lee’s supposed year of invincibility) have allowed Americans to accept a twisted truth about Robert E. Lee. That he was a dignified man who did not support secession or slavery, but was duty bound to his home state. This is, in a word: bologna. Or perhaps more fitting: tooth-shattering hard tack. Lee inherited slaves, and whipped them considerably. He also initially refused to honor a manumission pact decreed by his father-in-law that would have freed all of his inherited slaves. Instead, he kept them in slavery until September 1862 although the document stated they should be freed in 1858. Lee also showed few moments during the war in which he cared about the wellbeing of African Americans. During the aforementioned Pennsylvania Campaign of 1863, Lee’s armies kidnapped freedmen on their march through Maryland and Pennsylvania and sent them back south into slavery, declaring that they were contraband and must be returned to their rightful owners.

And Lee who so abhorred attacks on the southern people, encouraged Nathan Bedford Forrest’s actions in the massacre at Fort Pillow, in which Confederate troops did not discriminate in terms of age or gender in their killing of African Americans. Or the fact that many were surrendering.  

Lee’s hypocrisy in terms of decrying Union so-called atrocities is astounding. Before the battle of Fredericksburg, the Union bombardment of Fredericksburg so horrified Lee that he stated, “These people delight in destroying the weak and those who can make no defense; it just suits them!” Yet Lee saw no issue with Confederate divisions demanding ransoms and burning down towns or John Mosby’s Raiders’ retaliatory execution of Union POWs. In fact, Mosby corresponded with Lee before ordering the executions.

Lee was short-tempered and stubborn. When James Longstreet questioned Lee’s strategy for the third day of fighting at Gettysburg, and instead suggested that the Confederate army move south of the town and force the Union to defend Washington, Lee stated, “No; they are there in position, and I am going to whip them, or they are going to whip me.” The third day saw the defeat and retreat of the Confederate army eventually into Virginia, a state that 99% of the Army of Northern Virginia would remain in until the end of the war.

Just as incorrect as any of the myths surrounding Lee are is the depiction of Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as a butcher for the extreme casualties his army suffered at battles such as Wilderness and Cold Harbor. I’ve never understood the pass Lee is given on this. His army suffered horrifying casualty numbers at times, and especially in the closing months of the war. From March 25-April 1, 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia suffered some of the most lopsided casualty numbers of the entire war, especially given the inferior number of forces engaged at nearly every battle (see below)

Battle Confederate Casualty % Union Casualty %
Fort Stedman 40% 7%
Lewis’s Farm 4.6% 2.2%
White Oak Road 10% 8.5%
Dinwiddie Court House 7.2% 3.9%
Five Forks 27.8% 3.7%

Robert E. Lee was an excellent leader of men who did have military success. However, the inordinate amount of praise he receives for being a gentle, dignified, duty-bound man is misplaced. Arguably, his greatest military successes came against a military commander who a fellow officer suggested was motivated either by cowardice or treason. When faced with a capable commander in Grant who was able to deplete Lee’s forces and bring the war to its people, Richmond eventually fell. The revolving door of Union commanders Lee faced between McClellan and Meade is so bad that it almost does not need to be mentioned.

And as previously mentioned, the antislavery reputation associated with Lee is simply false. He believed African Americans were in a better condition in slavery in America as opposed to Africa. He was what he was: an imperfect man leading an army of rebels in a dark chapter of American history.

I am attempting a blog

The last time I created a blog it was very similar to most things I do. I was putting out content left and right for the first 72 hours and then I burnt out and never posted in it again. So this blog may not last very long either, but at least I’m putting up a nice defense mechanism upfront.

This blog will feature random thoughts that come to my mind that I wanted to rant about, but was too embarrassed to do so on Facebook due to my hatred of social media arguments. I understand that is hypocritical, but so are many things I say and do. Plus there are many brilliant hypocrites throughout history – like Teddy Roosevelt, a conservationist who hunted big game. Stay tuned because this will be a wild 72 hour ride.