The evaluations of the historically minded often move like a pendulum. I see this throughout my own life. Initially, like everyone, I thought Napoleon a great genius. But then you think again . . . after all, he lost. And what about what happened in Egypt, to say nothing of Russia? And what of all those armies he beat from 1799-1809–nothing more than decrepit, out-dated Enlightenment entities destined for the trash-heap anyway.
After a while, however, I thought again and gave credit where due. Sure, his armies were the perfect foil for the Austrians and Prussians, but he helped create the French army that formed that perfect foil. Like any great leader he imprinted himself all over his army. And we say that the armies he faced were bound for trash-heap only with the benefit of hindsight. Napoleon put them there, after all.
But . . . he lost.
Writing about The Civil War comes with similar pitfalls. As the states began to come together in the Progressive Era (ca. 1880-1920) we looked for unity and healing from our past, and we lionized Lee as a romantically doomed warrior, who nevertheless, performed heroic feats. Lee’s generalship for that era stood second to none. Beginning in the 1960’s historians swung the narrative. They focused on Lee’s irascible temper, his huge losses, his weak opponents, his strategic failures at Antietam, Gettysburg, and so on.
Joseph Glatthar’s excellent General Lee’s Army brings balance back to this narrative. He studies the army of Northern Virginia in depth and concludes that of course, Lee was a great commander. He helped forge a great army with a great record in the field. He deserves much of the credit he receives.
But . . . he lost, and we do well to remember this.
Glathaar shows us how the strengths and weaknesses of Lee and his army come from the same place by looking at culture, demographics, the life of the common solider, and those directly under Lee’s command.
We do have to take into account Lee’s frequent opponent, the Union’s Army of the Potomac. From a pure match-up standpoint, it would have been interesting to have Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson oppose Grant, Sherman, and Thomas for the duration of the conflict. As it happened Lee only faced Grant towards the end of the war, and then Grant had to work with the Army of the Potomac, where he inherited a completely different, and vastly inferior, operational and command culture than he worked with out west.
In A Savage War, the authors point out that the Army of the Potomac inherited a disproportionate number of soldiers recently graduated from West Point. A West Point education tended at that time to over-emphasize math, engineering, and organization (something that U.S. Grant lamented in his memoirs). Such skills have their place, but should not have pride of place in officer training. Those that drank from the firehose of this approach would inevitably give way to excessive caution. Meticulous organization takes a lot of time. In addition, once you have built something so “pure” and pretty, one might not wish to do anything that might get it dirty. This helps explain why McClellan (tops in his class at West Point) could think himself a great general even though he couldn’t actually win a battle. He was excellent in doing what his education, at least in the narrow sense, trained him to do.
The plodding, rigidly organized Army of the Potomac gave Lee and his men a perfect target given their particular strengths.
Glaathar points out that the men in Lee’s army fully believed in their cause and came with the strongest of motivations. Ante-bellum southern society had the duel influences of the aristocratic planter and the Appalachian border-settlers. Both of these cultures emphasized honor and courage. Both of these cultures preached a vision of manliness that gave way to no one. Letters home from top officers on down the ranks show a constant desire for combat and to prove themselves.
Lee both understood and embodied this himself. Many other accounts of his generalship focus on his ability to psychologically assess his opposite number on the Union side and devise the proper approach accordingly. Glaathar adds to this, showing how Lee knew how to use his men expertly. They proved superlative in the counter-attack, and could march quickly and fight hard back-to-back. We see this at Bull Run, in Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign, and at Chancellorsville, as at other times.
But both the aristocratic planter and border settler culture had its weaknesses, and these too had a significant impact on the war.
Appalachian border culture emphasized freedom of initiative and eschewed “systems” like tight and itchy collars. Lack of formal structure gives one great freedom. But an army of tens of thousands needs tight organization to act as a unit. Without this organization, large scale offensives could never be undertaken.
Many in the south seceded because they did not want to be told what to do by anyone they did not like or respect. They tended to run hot and cold alternatively. Sure enough, Lee had a hard time enforcing discipline. The army at time looted the Virginia countryside for supplies, stole from the bodies of dead Union soldiers,** and had a hard time maintaining equipment. Many went AWOL unexpectedly not necessarily out of cowardice but because “they felt like it.”
Honor and Ego:
The aristocratic nature of the army came through in the upper echelon of the officers. The bickered for position and rank. At times they disobeyed directly if they felt insulted. Some at times seemed to prefer maintaining their honor to winning a battle.
All of these weaknesses would make coordinated action over a large distance difficult. Perhaps this is why Lee spread out his armies in his invasion of the north in 1863. It gave each commander more independence. But . . . when the time came for coordinated action, invariably Lee’s forces could not pull it off.
Shelby Foote wrote that, “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Lee command their army.” I’m guessing that he meant at least that no one is perfect. But I surmise that he meant more. The weaknesses of Lee’s army, and of much of southern culture, outed themselves at that battle. To make their situation worse, the Confederacy fought their weaker opponent in ways that favored their slim strengths. The good ground and interior lines of the Union forces at Gettysburg played right into the laps of their slower, plodding, yet more bull-headed nature.^
Lee’s 1863 invasion may have been a mistake, but he intuited correctly that the South could not win a long and protracted war. He emphasized the Confederacy’s logistical shortcomings, but the army had cultural shortcomings as well. Perhaps Lee had read and recalled Tocqueville’s commentary on aristocratic and democratic societies at war. In Chapter 24 of his musings, Tocqueville comments that,
In aristocracies the military profession, being a privileged career, is held in honor even in time of peace. Men of great talents, great attainments, and great ambition embrace it; the army is in all respects on a level with the nation, and frequently above it.
We have seen, on the contrary, that among a democratic people the choicer minds of the nation are gradually drawn away from the military profession, to seek by other paths distinction, power, and especially wealth. After a long peace, and in democratic times the periods of peace are long, the army is always inferior to the country itself. In this state it is called into active service, and until war has altered it, there is danger for the country as well as for the army.
It may be remarked with surprise that in a democratic army after a long peace all the soldiers are mere boys, and all the superior officers in declining years, so that the former are wanting in experience, the latter in vigor. This is a leading cause of defeat, for the first condition of successful generalship is youth. I should not have ventured to say so if the greatest captain of modern times had not made the observation.
A long war produces upon a democratic army the same effects that a revolution produces upon a people; it breaks through regulations and allows extraordinary men to rise above the common level. Those officers whose bodies and minds have grown old in peace are removed or superannuated, or they die. In their stead a host of young men is pressing on, whose frames are already hardened, whose desires are extended and inflamed by active service. They are bent on advancement at all hazards, and perpetual advancement; they are followed by others with the same passions and desires, and after these are others, yet unlimited by aught but the size of the army. The principle of equality opens the door of ambition to all, and death provides chances for ambition. Death is constantly thinning the ranks, making vacancies, closing and opening the career of arms.
. . . An aristocratic nation that in a contest with a democratic people does not succeed in ruining the latter at the outset of the war always runs a great risk of being conquered by it.
*Interesting parallels exist between Lee and Napoleon’s armies. Both faced stiff, rigidly organized opponents. Both emphasized movement, speed, and capitalized on the energy and spirit of their men. Both had great success early, but both also suffered significant setbacks as their respective wars dragged on. Each faced manpower issues, but also, their opponents got better over time and neither Napoleon or Lee made the necessary adjustments based on the improvement in their opponents.
In fairness to the Army of the Potomac, the soldiers displayed extreme courage at Fredericksburg, and were stalwart in the defense at Gettysburg.
**Many southerners decry the actions of Sherman. Glaathar demonstrates that Lee’s army did many of the same things, albeit on a smaller, less organized scale, as Sherman’s army. And . . . they did this not just in Pennsylvania but in Virginia as well.
^Fredericksburg might serve as a good example of these qualities, with a negative outcome.