18 thoughts on “The Sunday Question: Lee Moves North, 1863

  1. Ray O'Hara June 5, 2011 / 7:40 pm

    Well history tells us it was a bad choice, but that could be the result of hindsight as the affair was badly done.

    But I still think staying home was better.
    Vicksburg was to far away to effect, either by events in the north or by trying to send troops. Whatever choice Vicksburg would be lost before anything east of the Allegheny Mtns had effect.

    the AoP and Washington were about to embark on a self-destructive internal political fight between the Generals and Lincoln.
    By moving north Lee precipitated a military crises that preempted any Yankee internal strife and Gettysburg ended it. Lee did Lincoln a huge favor with his invasion.

    Better to have sat and rested his army for the Fall campaign that would surely come. The CSA’s friend was slowing and prolonging the war, the invasion sped it up and shortened it.

    And there was no victory in the North, nothing he could capture, maybe one old ACWUSA poster’s favorite scheme of destroying the coal mines and thus killing the USN blockade for lack of fuel. But I always classified that hope as ridiculous in the extreme.

    • WM June 6, 2011 / 10:08 am

      Hindsight tells us it was a bad choice mainly because of the way the battles turned out when he moved north. It was the inherent risk he took.

      If Antietam or Gettysburg had gone the way of Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville it’s entirely probable that Lee’s march north would be viewed as a success.

  2. Mark Douglas June 5, 2011 / 8:24 pm

    Lee’s attack on the North was a good idea, and might have worked if Lee was 1/2 as able as his adoring fans yearn to believe.

    Lee’s biggest mistake might have been to believe God was on his side, which he most definitely did. Lee thought whatever good fortune the South had militarily, was God’s will. He was wrong.

    Lee started to plan his strategy around this lunacy of “God will take care of us”. When he sent men to their deaths, Lee was convinced this was God’s will — just as he was convinced slavery was God’s will, just as he was convinced that God intended slavery to be painful to slaves “for their instruction.”

    While historians have assigned all kinds of sophisticated reasons to Lee, for his idiotic attack at Gettysburg, it really boiled down to this: Lee thought God would magically make things work out, because this was all God’s will.

    We all know that Lee was told over, and over, and over, not to attack as he did at Gettysburg. He had time, and council, and cool reflection, and experience. Yet he decimated the remaining “True Believers” — the loyal, enthusiastic troops, who could be replaced in body, but not in energy or spirit.

    From then on, desertions were the biggest problems Lee, and the South, faced. Jeff Davis himself decried that 2/3 of his army had deserted by September of 64.

    So when you ask what Lee could have done— he could have not sent his men to obvious slaughter, on the goofy notion that God would protect them. Not against the best army on earth — at that point — the best armed, the most experienced, the best situated and led.

  3. James F. Epperson June 6, 2011 / 4:27 am

    It was a gamble that not only didn’t work, but backfired. It probably was the right play, although it could have been managed better. Sitting passively in Virginia wasn’t going to accomplish anything, no was sending troops west a good idea (at that time).

  4. Alton Bunn June 6, 2011 / 5:29 am

    General Lee has been accused of being too parochial toward the Virginia theater as opposed to the rest of the confederacy and I think there’s some truth to that. It helps explain (to me at least) why he pursued this course instead of taking part of his army to Vicksburg. Even if he was able to accomplish more than he did up north I cant see Grant being called east while the AoP was still intact.

  5. Jim Pearson June 6, 2011 / 8:29 am

    The choices were more than Vicksburg, sit in Virginia and go north to attack Gettysburg.

    The best choice was to go north and upon arrival on the field at Gettysburg withdraw to pursue the original aim of causing panic and disruption to weaken Northern resolve. “Getting his blood up” lead him to go the wrong direction and engage in a battle where he did not know the terrain, did not know the strenght of the enemy, did not have the intelligence Stuart could have provided and could not disrupt the enemy’s supply line.

    People discuss the decisions at Gettysburg and do not give sufficient thought as to his decision to engage the enemy. Pushing the enemy through town was not a reason to continue.

    Pushing the enemy to the best defensive terrain in the area and then attacking it was wrong, but Lee should never have put himself in a position where he had to think about it.

  6. Ray O'Hara June 6, 2011 / 9:05 am

    Lee kept foolishly trying to “win” the war when what he needed to do was not lose the war.
    the CSA never had the power to win but they could avoid losing. Lee by his constant attempts to win merely hasted the losing. even had he won at Gettysburg there was no victory in the North, but there was defeat and he found it.
    Of all the mistakes Lee made invading the North was the biggest, and he tried it twice and failed in each.

  7. TF Smith June 6, 2011 / 11:18 am

    Attaway and Jones make the point that the ANV’s invasions of the north (1862 and 1863) can be seen as essentially large scale foraging raids with a political warfare component (1862 was an election year, after all); the mistake was to actually engage in battle, either in a weakened state on the defensive (1862) or on the offensive (1863).

    Personally, it seems that after the defensive successes of 1862, the best bet in the east for the CSA would be to remain on the defensive south of a chosen river line (Rapidan or Rappahanock, I suppose), sending detachments to SW or SE Virginia when necessary for sustainment, and use the Virginia railway network to sustain and, when necessary, reinforce the field forces in northern Virginia and the Shenandoah.

    Not sure how long they could have kept up that strategy, but at least it would have prevented the losses the ANV took in the invasions and provided something of a strategic reserve, for use in Virginia or (possibly) Tennessee as needed.

    Fabian, of course, but I don’t see a better strategy for the CSA – and it worked for the Romans, after all.

    • WM June 6, 2011 / 11:47 am

      I think you’re neglecting the role that simple accidents of history played into Lee’s movements. We tend to look back at military campaigns as if they are all some giant preordained plan with destined outcomes that result from large scale decisions.

      Yet take Antietam. That entire battle could have ended with a completely different result had not a soldier stumbled across a cigar wrapped in Special Order 191, giving McClellan a heads up on several key confederate battle movements.

      • TF Smith June 6, 2011 / 2:31 pm

        Really? My impression is if McClellan had not had the information from SO 191, presumably he would have been even more cautious (prudent?) than he was historically and it is quite likely there would not have been a battle, period.

        As long as the AOTP was between the ANV and Washington, McClellan would have (essentially) fulfilled his mission, and given the results of Pope’s decision to give battle at 2nd Manassas, I’m not sure that McClellan would have faced much pressure to attack – and he certainly would not have divided his forces.

        So absent SO 191, Lee sits in Maryland for awhile after Miles surrenders at Harper’s Ferry and goes south, with McClellan following slowly until he is south of the Rappahanock yet again.

        No battle at all.

        • WM June 7, 2011 / 10:38 am

          I doubt Lincoln would have allowed Lee to just sit in Maryland (or Pennsylvania) for a while unimpeded. Remember that he was running around foraging up there, disrupting crops and commerce. If McClellan didn’t attack, Lincoln would have eventually gotten someone else who would.

          Lee, meanwhile, would have probably started to move northeast to place the pinch on Washington via Baltimore (which had a reputation as being a pro-confederate city). At some point or another there would have been a clash. All Special Order 191 did was give McClellan a chance to force it early on at Anteitam.

          • Ray O'Hara June 7, 2011 / 11:30 am

            Lee wasn’t crazy enough to ever dream of Baltimore. no sane commander puts himself out of supply with a major fortress holding 10s of thousands of troops {Wash DC} in his rear and a large field army between him and safety.

            Moving to Baltimore could only have one result, the destruction of the ANV.

            Lee was a gamble but he wasn’t insane.

          • WM June 7, 2011 / 12:12 pm

            …and yet we have just such an instance of Lee attempting to pinch off Washington from the north and force a diversion of Union resources with Early’s raid on Fort Stevens in 1864. Insane? Doubtful.

            Fortress or no fortress, isolating the capitol at just about any point in the war, had it succeeded, would have been a strategic win for Lee. The point is not to fight your way into the capitol in a street by street slaughter fest against a heavily entrenched and fortified city. It’s to cut it off from the northeast and throw the federal government into chaos.

          • Ray O'Hara June 7, 2011 / 1:02 pm

            Early was a small force not the entire army, a raid is one thing sending the entire army is something completely different. and Isolating DC was impossible as there was always the water route.
            When Lee sent Early north his aim was to loosen Grants Grip on Petersburg-Richmond not to capture DC. it failed disastrously and Early basically lost most of his force.

          • WM June 7, 2011 / 1:36 pm

            “and Isolating DC was impossible as there was always the water route.”

            Then why all the worry at the beginning of the war when the Merryman types were cutting down railroad bridges on the Baltimore-DC corridor? Why the worry that Early was going to tear up the Baltimore & Ohio? By your logic Lincoln had nothing to fear about since they could always sail around instead.

            By the way, telegraph signals didn’t travel into the capitol by water.

          • Ray O'Hara June 7, 2011 / 2:09 pm

            why countenance sabotage. and cutting rails hurt commerce it wouldn’t have forced DC to capitulate.
            you are confusing separate issues.

          • TF Smith June 7, 2011 / 3:01 pm

            Lee was, if I understand correctly, suffering heavily from straggling in the Maryland/Antietam campaign as it was; I really don’t see him marchiing on Baltimore from Harper’s Ferry, without a secure supply line (powder and shot can’t be foraged). In fact, an attempt on Baltimore would be roughly equivalent to the “let ’em go the Channel” idea when it came to the Germans and the Bulge in 1944…

            Early’s operation really was a raid; even the CSA acknowledge that.

  8. Chuck Brown June 6, 2011 / 1:34 pm

    I think it was the right decision for Lee. His reasons for making the move were sound.

    It is interesting to speculate, however, as to what might have happened had Meade taken command and then had taken the offensive. Meade never really got the chance to try this on his own, what with Grant looking over his shoulder. Given Meade’s actions after Gettysburg, I doubt that he had the temperament for the kind of action necessary to actually win a war.

    After Vicksburg, Lincoln would likely still have either named Grant to command the Army of the Potomac (in the event of Meade’s defeat in Virginia) or as General-in-Chief (even a victory by Meade would like not have been followed up).

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