Lee and the Lost Cause (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

(This post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on April 17, 2006)

Some readers were none too happy with my characterization of Lee’s General Order No. 9 as an early (pardon the pun) expression of a certain explanation of Confederate defeat attributing that outcome to the “overwhelming numbers and resources” of the Union, to use Lee’s phrasing (although aide Charles Marshall composed the draft document).

However, just 72 hours before, Lee had informed Grant that he did not share Grant’s view about “the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia”; the next day, he told Grant, “I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army.” It was not until April 9 that Lee changed his mind (or dropped his false bravado) and responded to the reality of the situation. The order that followed was characteristic of a new line of explanation: that of being overwhelmed. On April 12, Lee informed Jefferson Davis that he had only 7892 infantry carrying arms; he did not explain why that was the case, or why the number of Confederates who surrendered was more in the neighborhood of 25,000 (we have to revise our notion of stacking arms at Surrender Triangle if only a third of the soldiers were armed).

Lee also told Davis that “the enemy was more than five times our numbers,” which would not appear to be the case if some 25,000 Confederates surrendered. Eight days later, on April 20, Lee acknowledged that the number of those who surrendered amounted to 26,018, but claimed that all those unarmed me came back into the army on the evening of April 9 only after hearing of the surrender. It is odd that Lee was in the neighborhood of Appomattox Court House when he wrote the first letter on April 12, several days after the reported flood of returnees commenced, but claimed he did not know of this until he was back at Richmond.

Playing the numbers game was one of the most prominent themes on both sides after the war. Confederates tended to exaggerate the numbers they faced, while Union chroniclers argued for a much lower disparity. Lee was not immune to the practice. In the years following the war he set himself to the task of trying to compose a history of the Army of Northern Virginia in order to focus on the odds faced by that army. His goal, he said, was to recognize the bravery of his men. “It will be difficult to get the world to understand the odds against which we fought,” he wrote Jubal Early in 1866.

This project collapsed, in part because Lee was not able to gather the records he desired: it may have been just as well. For in a series of interviews in 1868 Lee revealed another trait usually associated with what’s called the Lost Cause approach to Confederate history: a tendency to explain Confederate defeats in terms of the failure of Confederate subordinates to perform, and not because of anything done by their Union counterparts. Heading the list of the guilty for Gettysburg were Jeb Stuart and Richard Ewell, although in another interview Lee complained that James Longstreet was “often slow,” but in that case he was highlighting the Wilderness.

There’s always been an inherent tension in these two traits: if the Confederates were going to be overwhelmed in any case by superior numbers, then who cares about minor errors, which at most could only reshape the path toward the inevitable conclusion? And yet there is no doubt from Lee’s postwar writings and conversations that he thought the war was winnable. That the Confederacy lost was not due to Union leadership, but to the small margin of error the Confederates enjoyed if they were to win, a margin frittered away by Confederate actions on the field and elsewhere. That Lee was perfectly willing to point fingers, engage in recriminations, and assail the recollections of others suggests that it was best for his reputation that he never managed to assemble his account.