Two Virginians and the Choice Each Made in 1861

Although William T. Sherman made this point over a century ago, one can turn here to see a fresh rendering of the argument as to which Virginian deserves our plaudits more … Robert E. Lee or George H. Thomas.

I’d choose Thomas, too, although not his fanboys.

19 thoughts on “Two Virginians and the Choice Each Made in 1861

  1. Chuck August 14, 2013 / 3:27 pm

    Interesting article. I’d choose Thomas over Lee, as well. I take issue with the author’s assertion that “Grant smashed his way to victory,” however.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 14, 2013 / 3:42 pm

      Well, anyone who adores Thomas unreservedly is going to say that. πŸ™‚

  2. TF Smith August 14, 2013 / 7:52 pm

    I read Col. Bateman’s piece and thought you’d find it interesting. Have to say I agree with Bateman’s opinion.

    Another point to make about Lee is even if he felt he had to resign because he did not wish to serve in a civil war, he could have followed the same path as Alfred Mordecai or Alexander Doniphan.

    Either one of which I’d take over ex-Col. Lee…

    Best,

  3. guitarmandanga August 15, 2013 / 7:33 am

    In the Sherman piece, my eyes were drawn to the last block quote lifted from “Around the World with General Grant”: “Lee was of a slow, conservative, cautious nature…”

    Interesting to contrast this with recent scholarship (some of it quite shoddy and derivative) making exactly the opposite argument: that tactically speaking, Lee was too quick, too inclined to look before he lept, and too lavish of blood. Or was Grant refering to Lee’s strategic posture?

  4. guitarmandanga August 15, 2013 / 7:41 am

    For my part, I’ve always thought that both Grant and Lee were secretly a bit dissembling in their respective post-war snipes at each other (Lee claiming that McClellan was his most capable opponent, and Grant claiming Johnston). What exactly did Joe Johnston do that gave Grant such “anxiety”? Retreat further? Make excuses for inaction and blame Jeff Davis for not sending him all of the Confederacy’s available troops? The same for Lee vis-a-vis McClellan; how do his postwar plaudits for “Little Mac” square with other references (mostly postwar) in which Lee justified taking certain risks because he knew that he was facing McClellan? I can’t prove it one bit, but I think that secretly both Lee and Grant knew that the other was their most formidable opponent, but they said otherwise publicly because of irritation with that respective general’s “fanboys.”

    • John Foskett August 18, 2013 / 9:30 am

      I’d have to give the nod as “Biggest Dissembler” to Lee, however. Grant actually never faced Johnston, other than as a lurking presence to his rear during the latter stages of Vicksburg – unless the limited action at Jackson qualifies. Grant could plausibly think that Johnston’s views concerning strategy in that campaign, including Pemberton not retreating into Vicksburg, were sound. Lee, of course, faced McClellan in the field twice. On the first occasion, he bamboozled Little Mac by splitting his forces, seized the initiative, and drove McClellan back from Richmond (I know – it was a “change of base”). On the second occasion, Lee saw McClellan sit staring at his desperately thin lines on September 18 before allowing Lee to escape across the Potomac. Lee had to know to a moral certainty that Grant would have permitted neither the Seven Days or Antietam to go the way they did. And ultimately Grant drove Lee to digging around Petersburg – an event which meant the die was cast barring a political miracle. Could anyone in his right mind imagine McClellan operating the Overland Campaign?

  5. Michael Confoy August 15, 2013 / 10:05 am

    β€œI think that Robert E. Lee, as a traitor and betrayer of his solemn oath before God and the Constitution, was a much greater terrorist than Osama Bin Ladin… after all, Lee killed many more Americans than Bin Ladin, and almost destroyed the United States.” Right on brother, right on.

    As far as the I95 welcome center south of DC, the reason for its location is a bit more complicated. If it was not south of the beltway, there would need to be one on both ends of the beltway and one on I395, and the Memorial Bridge and the Key Bridge and the Chain Bridge. So being south of the beltway makes the most sense. Next, where does it make sense to have the first rest area? Well not to close to the DC metro area at the time it was built. Thus the current location.

    • Ned August 16, 2013 / 2:58 pm

      Agreed. I thought the welcome center bit was weak.

    • kr3728 August 18, 2013 / 2:13 am

      There is a rest stop 10 miles south of the belt. Why was that not used?

  6. Noma August 15, 2013 / 1:24 pm

    Great point from guitarmandanga. I look forward to seeing the response. As much as I’m inclined toward Grant, I’ve always wondered if his praise of Johnston was a way of minimizing Lee.

    Also, I’m wonder if Grant took into consideration that Sherman and Johnston were BFF — and wanted to push some commendations toward the buddy of his friend…?

  7. Lyle Smith August 17, 2013 / 6:15 am

    How much did being married to a New Yorker, and therefore being a member of a New York family, factor in to Thomas’ decision? He definitely held Unionist views, but there were a fair few Southerners who held Unionist views and still fought for the Confederacy (I’m thinking of Jubal Early in particular).

    If Thomas had married into a prominent Virginia family from where he was from, would he have sided with the Union? If Lee had married an Adams girl from Massachusetts what side would he have joined?

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 17, 2013 / 3:49 pm

      We’ll never know, although the fact that Thomas’s wife was from New York was often cited by those who questioned whether the decision was all that simple.

      • TF Smith August 18, 2013 / 11:55 am

        Farragut, born in Tennessee, married into a Virginia family, and he made the correct decision.

        Anyone know about Grimes Davis’ marriage?

        • Lyle Smith August 18, 2013 / 2:02 pm

          I don’t know if Benjamin G. Davis was even married, but we do know there were numerous U.S. army officers from the north who married southern women and became Confederates. These women clearly played a role in what became of their husbands. So, I think it is a fair question to ask of Thomas’ decision.

          Farragut’s wife moved with him to New York after secession. Maybe they were of one mind.

          Bottom line… let’s not ignore what women were thinking and doing during the Civil War.πŸ˜‰

      • John Foskett August 18, 2013 / 1:19 pm

        Then there was William Terrill from Virginia, whose 1861 response was β€œI am now and ever will be true to my oath and my country. No one has any authority to tender my resignation. I will be in Washington as soon as possible.” Of course, he, too, had married a Yankee lady.

    • John Foskett August 19, 2013 / 10:24 am

      Of course, there is no “Domestic Bliss” exemption for treason. If there were, we’ve been defaming Benedict Arnold for many, many decades. It may help explain why the Thomases and the Terrills of that time stayed true to their oaths, but it doesn’t excuse in the least what the Marble Man did.

    • kennethuil August 21, 2013 / 10:42 am

      Of course we shouldn’t assume these men chose their wives at random.

      Perhaps the same mindset that led Thomas to stay true to the nation as a whole also led him to consider settling down with not just a Yankee, but a New Yorker.

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