R. E. Lee
Robert E. Lee is overrated as a general. There, I said it. He was a very good general no doubt, even a great general, but to read many histories of the Civil War, you’d think that he was an infallible military genius who was a mix of Hannibal, Napoleon, and Patton, with a dash of Mars himself thrown in for good measure.
I’ve been reading a lot of Civil War history books lately and Lee as a military genius is often a given. He’s the icon of the Lost Cause, the noble Virginian who led a proud and honorable defense of his homeland despite overwhelming odds. As the story goes, he won again and again with nothing more than a rag tag army of barefooted country boys facing off against the mighty Union military machine. It certainly makes for a good story, as long as you don’t mind the holes.
First, Lee’s opponents early in the war sucked. They might have been the worst crew of generals that have ever led a major army on the winning side of a war. Prior to Gettysburg, Lee faced McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker. McClellan was afraid of his own shadow, Pope was so indecisive that it nearly got his entire army killed at Second Manassas, Burnside thought the attack at Fredericksburg was a good idea (across the Rappahannock against the dug in Confederate troops on Marye’s Heights), and Hooker was more interested in boozing and women than in being a good officer. It wasn’t until Meade that he faced an army with even a passable commander, and Meade was only so-so. When the Union finally found a decent commander in the form of Grant, Lee’s winning streak was over for good.
Second, Lee’s officers were by and large much better than the opposing union officers. From the corps commanders to the the division commanders down to the brigadiers and regimental officers, the Confederate officers were much better, particularly in the beginning of the war. The vast majority of southern general officers were military school grads. The Union army’s officer corps was stuffed full of political appointees. On the Confederate side, Lee could lean on Jackson, Longstreet, Stuart, Early, Hood, Ewell, and so on. The Union got dunces like Dan Sickles, the political general who, without orders, marched III Corps out to the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield, abandoning the Cemetery Ridge line and Little Round Top, on the second day of Gettysburg and came within a hair of losing the battle for the Union. This advantage slowly wore down as the war went on, as Confederate officers were killed and Union political generals were sacked or forced into backwater commands. Certainly by 1864, this advantage had evaporated.
Even Lee’s greatest campaigns could be disputed as bad ideas. Tactically, yes, he won a number of victories but at what cost? He left a quarter of his army at Antietam and another quarter the next year at Gettysburg. The South didn’t have those kinds of numbers of men to spare. The North did and Grant used that grim calculus to his advantage when he put Lee’s command through the meat grinder in 1864. By 1865 it wasn’t a question of if the South was going to surrender, only when. Would Lee have done better by following a Fabian-like strategy, more similar to Washington’s strategy versus the British? Perhaps. You can certainly make the argument that it would have avoided the costly invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania. The reality was that without recognition from foreign powers, succession was destined to fail, just as the American Revolution might very well have failed without recognition from the French.
Lee, especially from a tactical perspective, was a unique and outstanding commander. Strategically, you could make an argument that he was less skilled. He had advantages of incompetent opponents and superior subordinates. When those advantages eroded, he showed that he was a mere mortal.