Second-Guessing Bobby Lee

Several years ago I offered my observations on the challenge that Virginia posed to Ulysses S. Grant in 1864. But I’ve also pondered what choices Robert E. Lee had in the eastern theater. After all, people second-guess Lee’s offensive strategy all the time, and yet I wonder what else he was supposed to do. Abandon Virginia? Stand on the defensive and absorb punches? Leave the defense of Virginia to someone else and go elsewhere to try to win the war?

Say you concede that none of these alternatives offer any more hope of Rebel victory. Did Lee’s strategy, which featured counterattack followed by offensive operations across the Potomac, offer a real chance of victory? Or did his efforts in Virginia in June, July, and August 1862 drain his army of the manpower it needed to conduct successful offensive operations north of the Potomac that September? Did the bloodletting at Gettysburg compromise his ability to deal with Union forces in Virginia in the fall of 1863 and the spring of 1864? What were his alternatives, and did they offer more promising results?

These are not idle questions. Many historians argue that Lee’s performance in the East was the key to Confederate persistence and gave the Confederacy its best chance to win. Fair enough. But that didn’t happen, and, absent an unlikely and complete disaster on the battlefield, it was unlikely that the Confederates could have prevailed in that way. That leaves wearing out the Union’s will to persist. Was Lee’s approach likely to achieve that goal? Remember, the war was more than Virginia: I argue that Grant’s ability to neutralize Lee in Virginia in 1864, despite Lee’s best efforts, allowed the Yankees to prevail elsewhere in time to secure Abraham Lincoln’s reelection. It’s notable that after Sherman took Atlanta that September, the Confederacy failed to devise a game-changing approach to military operations in the two months that remained until election day.

So you tell me what you think … including you, Mark Snell. This one’s for you.🙂


28 thoughts on “Second-Guessing Bobby Lee

  1. Mark October 9, 2016 / 5:19 pm

    Thanks, old friend. Give me a day to think about it. It’s Sunday night and I have been doing farm work all day. You won’t believe how much the topography of Gettysburg has changed since you were here in June, between the restoration of “General Lee’s HQ” (which it wasn’t) and the northern end of Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill. I’ll take a few photos this week and email them to you.

  2. Al Mackey October 9, 2016 / 5:29 pm

    My entering assumption is that Lee was a smart guy who knew his profession. That said, he must have known a thing or two about what he was doing. It seems to me he figured superior Federal resources would eventually become decisive, so, Alan Nolan’s assumptions to the contrary, he concluded he could not outlast the Federals but had to knock them out of the war quickly. That meant defeating them militarily in battle after battle, creating the image of invincibility and depressing Union morale to the point where the populace of the loyal states would force a change by electing Peace Democrats. He came close enough that I think he had the right strategy. He came within a whisker of winning on the second day at Gettysburg. A victory in Pennsylvania on Day 2 of the battle, with no Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge, would have been a political disaster for Lincoln and the Republicans. It would have probably led to a loss of the Pennsylvania governorship in 1863 and would have made Lincoln’s re-election an improbability in 1864.

  3. Bert October 10, 2016 / 5:37 am

    Although I don’t really disagree with Al, I also think Lee got a big assist from poor strategic thinking up north. For example, if Grant gets approval for that 60,000 man army to move through NC, I think Lee’s manpower drain becomes apparent sooner. And if Lee tries to deal with that threat… maybe Grant gets to throw that touchdown pass to Don Maynard after all.😉 I’m not sure history treats Lee quite so kindly after that.

    But Halleck killed the plan. So, historically we are left with a Lee who almost won twice in Federal territory, and who contributed to Northern war-weariness to the point where it almost cost Lincoln nomination.

    BTW, because of the immediate mental connection I made to your SB3 analogy, I initially misread your last line as, “…Matt Snell, this one’s for you.”

    • Mark October 11, 2016 / 7:04 pm

      Matt is my youngest son. The other guy was a NY Jet.

  4. rcocean October 10, 2016 / 7:01 am

    An Interesting question. However, I don’t really think Lee and any alternative to his “offensive” strategy in summer of 1862. His job was defend Richmond, and the only way to keep McClellan from getting close to the city and saying siege was to attack. Later, when Halleck and Pope stupidly advanced toward Richmond while McClellan was leaving the Peninsula, they saw a chance to defeat the split up AoP. In both cases, Seven Days and Bull Run, the Rebels came within an inch of inflicting a massive defeat on the AOP. Later, in Maryland who knows what would happened without the “the lost order” or if Pope/Burnside had been in command.

    A passive strategy would’ve simply resulted in another Siege of Peterburg or Richmond, and we all know how that came out.

  5. David Rasch October 10, 2016 / 7:02 am

    I just ordered your book on the war in the east. Retired, I’ll have time to absorb its contents.

  6. Lyle P. Smith October 10, 2016 / 7:38 am

    An alternative policy would have been an earlier western concentration of Confederate forces. What if Longstreet goes west after Fredericksburg to winter in Middle Tennessee? Maybe Bragg has another go at Rosecrans. Longstreet could have been sent west much earlier in ’63 and most of Beauregard’s Atlantic coast forces sent to Virginia to help Lee defend Richmond. A better time to invade Pennsylvania might have been September/October, when the harvest is coming in, and after which winter limits campaigning in Virginia.

    • John Foskett October 10, 2016 / 11:12 am

      We actually seem to have touched on the same general point, although at different levels of specificity.

  7. John Foskett October 10, 2016 / 7:49 am

    I don’t see many options, especially given Davis’s “Virginia First” mindset. Of course, when Lee took command the situation was already pretty much what the CSA desperately had to avoid – a siege of Richmond. At very high cost Lee was able to loosen that but it was still a live possibility (or at least as “live” as it could be with McClellan in charge). So Lee moved north and forced the administration to recall the Army of the Potomac. The big problem as I see it was not so much Lee’s costly and high risk aggressiveness, but, instead, was Davis’s lack of an overall game plan.

  8. bob ruth October 10, 2016 / 9:38 am

    Lee was a very good – but flawed – general. His overly aggressive tactics – from Seven Days to the Wilderness – sapped the South of much-needed manpower, even when he won tactical victories. Lee was fortunate that the Army of the Potomac was led by mediocre generals for the first three years of the war.

    Speculating that Lee came close to winning Gettysburg and Antietam or destroying the Army of the Potomac at Seven Days and Bull Run II is fun. But in the final analysis, it’s a fool’s errand. Virtually every Civil War battle has dozens of what-ifs and maybes.

    For example, you can just as easily speculate that a more competent general (Ulysses S. Grant and George Thomas come to mind) would have destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia at Seven Days, Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, etc.

    • Shoshana Bee October 11, 2016 / 9:53 am

      Quote: Speculating that Lee came close to winning Gettysburg and Antietam or destroying the Army of the Potomac at Seven Days and Bull Run II is fun.But in the final analysis, it’s a fools errand…”

      I do not believe that grouping the Second Day of Gettysburg in with the other “What-Ifs” is accurate. With one brigade left to defend Culp’s Hill, it was at great risk to falling during the night and morning of its siege. Had it not been for the ingenuity, experience, and particularly the foresight of General Greene to place the breastworks, it is most likely that Culp’s Hill would have fallen, thus, exposing the right flank of the Union line, and possibly interrupting its supply line and further placing Cemetery Hill at risk.

      The battle for the left flank on the Second Day of Gettysburg is much more chronicled than, Culp’s Hill, but suffice to say, it was at great risk of falling, too. As the story goes, had it not been for that celebrated bayonet charge, the results of LRT could easily have been different.

      My overall point is that it does not take a stretch of the imagination to see how close the Second Day of Gettysburg was as compared to other “What-Ifs”. It was close, and it would not have taken much for the results of the day to turn out differently.

    • rcocean October 13, 2016 / 7:27 pm

      Lee was a very good – but flawed – general. His overly aggressive tactics – from Seven Days to the Wilderness – sapped the South of much-needed manpower, even when he won tactical victories. Lee was fortunate that the Army of the Potomac was led by mediocre generals for the first three years of the war.

      Well, guess what? Most Generals are “mediocre”. Napoleon defeated a lot of “mediocre” Generals. Who was Grant up against in Mississippi and Tennessee? “Geniuses” like Joe Johnston, Pemberton, and Braxton Bragg. The mark of a great general is that he wins against the mediocre ones. The mediocre ones don’t – cause they are mediocre. Grant also beat the mediocre ones – until he came up against Lee.

      The fact is that Lee beat opponents when he was outnumbered, when did Grant ever do that? Y’know you can admit that Lee was a great General and acknowledge that Grant was great too.

      • Brooks D. Simpson October 14, 2016 / 11:21 am

        As for Grant being outnumbered … you might want to look at the early stages of the Vicksburg campaign.

        • rcocean October 15, 2016 / 12:59 pm

          You’re absolutely right, Professor. I stand corrected. But the main point remains. I’ve never argued that Grant wasn’t a great General, even though I’ve criticized his “Overland Campaign” strategy in 1864 – but I think Lee was a better one.

          People talk about the Gettysburg campaign, but rarely mention that Lee was outnumbered 75-90 by Meade. Yet, Lee almost won. He was outnumbered 2-1 by Hooker and won. He defeated everyone who came against him, except for Grant, and even that defeat was more due to logistics rather than Generalship.

          What would have happened if Grant had been put in charge of the AoP in May ’63 instead of May ’64? I don’t doubt Grant’s military ability but could he have handled the political snake pit any better than Hooker? An interesting question.

          • John Foskett October 17, 2016 / 3:55 pm

            The 75-90 analysis for Gettysburg is too simplistic. Far more meaningful to discuss the respective numbers in action on July 1 and on July 2. I’ll give you the Chancellorsville frolic. I would add, however, that Hooker getting schooled by Lee had zero to do with the “political snake pit”. My wager is that an aggressive Grant would have called on the First Corps, among other things, and would have taken advantage of an opponent who (1) was significantly outnumbered and (2) foolishly split his outnumbered forces in two.

      • John Foskett October 14, 2016 / 1:07 pm

        Where does that leave Stonewall? He labored mightily just to eventually squeak by opponents whom he significantly outnumbered.

      • bob ruth October 15, 2016 / 6:48 am

        I was too kind when I characterized Lee’s opponents during the first three years of the war as merely “mediocre.” Actually, most of them were downright awful, terrible, lousy, laughable, incompetent. (You get my drift.)

        Grant made Pemberton look mediocre during the Vicksburg campaign because Grant brilliantly outmaneuvered the rebels with numerous feints and other distractions. Pemberton never really discovered what Grant was up to until it was too late. Lee never came close to devising a successful campaign as complex as Grant’s Vicksburg victory. And, by the way, Pemberton and Grant’s armies had about the same number to troops until the actual siege of the city was underway.

        Grant similarly outmaneuvered Lee during the Overland campaign when he secretly marched the Army of the Potomac from Cold Harbor to across the James River. Lee didn’t fully comprehend what Grant had done for almost three days. Only faint heartedness by Gens. Smith and Hancock kept Grant’s army from capturing Petersburg in 1864.

        Bottom Line: Grant captured three entire armies at Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and Appomattox, a feat never accomplished by Lee. Sure, Lee won brilliant tactical battles, but none of them came close to the strategic successes of Grant.

        Donelson resulted in Nashville and most of the rest of Tennessee being permanently occupied by the Union. Vicksburg opened the Mississippi River to Union transportation and split the Confederacy. And, of course, Appomattox won the war.

        In contrast, Lee’s successes temporarily blocked Union advances, but never really changed the overall course of the war as Grant’s victories did. Lee was an excellent commander, but his generalship – especially his strategic vision – didn’t come close to Grant’s.

        • TFSmith October 15, 2016 / 11:48 am

          Nicely summed up.

          The other differentiator, of course, is Shiloh. Grant’s forces took a rebel army-level offensive, rolled with it, stopped it dead, and hit back the next day, sending the rebel force reeling backwards in retreat.

          Lee did the same thing repeatedly to McClellan in the Seven Days, and Mac continually withdrew, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

          The comparison is apt.


          • bob ruth October 15, 2016 / 1:56 pm


            You’re so right about Shiloh.

            As Brooks has noted in his excellent books and lectures, Grant was The Great Adapter. If some tactic failed, Grant didn’t retreat, become despondent and wallow in self-pity. Instead, he lowered his shoulders, kept moving forward and tried something else.

            Grant was not perfect, by any means. But he was a prime example of what it means to “keep on truckin.” Actually, Lee had the same iron-will quality. That’s one of the reasons both are considered two of America’s greatest warriors.

          • TFSmith October 20, 2016 / 8:24 pm

            Thanks, Bob.

            There’s a story that when Adm. Reeves went to Oahu for the initial Pearl Harbor inquiry, he was briefed on Fletcher’s handling of the Wake relief operation. His reaction was supposed to be something along the lines of “I used to think we needed officers who could think AND fight; by Gawd, I’d be happy with one willing to fight!”

            Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Meade, Ord, Thomas … were all fighters, some more offensively, some more defensively. Grant was both, and a thinker as well. Hell of a strategist and a combat commander, and as witness Mexico, pretty sharp frontline soldier as well.


        • hankc9174 October 16, 2016 / 6:15 am

          The CSA force at Donelson was not an ‘entire army’.

          It was somewhat smaller than the Harper’s Ferry garrison captured in September 1862.

          • bob ruth October 16, 2016 / 4:09 pm


            Just a couple of points.

            As I recall, the Confederate force captured at Donelson was 14,000-15,000 strong, while the Union troops captured by Jackson at Harpers Ferry numbered 11,000-12,000.

            We can debate whether the Rebel force at Donelson was an “entire army.” But in the first year of the war in the West, I would argue that a 15,000-man force – especially one assigned the vital role of keeping the western reaches of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers from being overrun by Union troops – did comprise an “entire army.”

            And there was no comparison in the strategic importance of the two actions. As I wrote before, Donelson forced the permanent Rebel evacuation of Nashville and most of the rest of Tennessee. Union troops re-occupied Harpers Ferry within a few weeks of its capture.

        • hankc9174 October 16, 2016 / 6:19 am

          ‘temporarily blocked ‘ ?

          In May 1864, after 3 years of war, the main eastern union army had advanced about 40 miles from Washington to Culpeper.

          Virtually the entire ‘eastern’ theater could have fit in the space between Chattanooga and Atlanta, which is where the western theater had moved.

    • hankc9174 October 16, 2016 / 6:02 am

      In retrospect, the war hinged on Lincoln’s re-election in 1864. Given the union’s western success, could Lee have done better than to frustrate the union eastern war effort until early 1865?

      Consider the parameters: the major effort in the ‘east’ took place in a narrow, 100-mile long corridor between Washington and Richmond and there it stayed for over 3 years. The only time major action departed from this tiny area from 1861 until June 1864 was when Lee went north to Antietam and Gettysburg (my apologies to the various Valley campaigns).

      The ‘west’ had vast terrain, navigable rivers and accessible sea ports, all playing into Confederate weaknesses.

  9. TF Smith October 10, 2016 / 11:33 pm

    Given the choices available after JE Johnston was wounded (Lee, GV Smith, or ?) he was the only choice.

    Given the reality that GBM was so easily and obviously buffaloed, Lee made the correct if painful decision to (continue Johnston’s strategy of) attacking McClellan’s army on the Peninsula, and then go big after Pope. In both cases, it paid real – if painfully gained – dividends for the rebellion.

    However, the invasion of Maryland did more harm than good, obviously (presumably the strategic results of Polk’s invasion of Kentucky should have been an indicator); the defensive strategy that led to the operational victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville show the obvious effectiveness of a Fabian strategy.

    The 1863 invasion was strategic lunacy, and Lee failed consistently after 1863.

    Could the rebels trade space for time? No, but simply remaining on the defensive could have resulted in a stalemate in the east, which would have both freed up at least some resources for the west and given the rebels a better chance at a political victory in 1864 than the chosen strategy, certainly.


    • John Foskett October 11, 2016 / 5:54 am

      Good points. I think the fundamental problem, however, is that you assume that Davis would have used those resources in the west. I have yet to figure out whether he even knew that it existed. And by 1864 the only plausible use for those resources would have been Georgia.

      • TF Smith October 11, 2016 / 10:23 pm

        True, although given the example of Longstreet’s movement in 1863, presumably some resources would have gone west. The question of whether Davis could have found a commanding general he could have worked with and who could have gotten all the rebel commanders in the West to pull in one direction, however, is unclear … Bragg was not the man, obviously.

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