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. 🙂