Robert E. Lee
One of the most iconic figures of the American Civil War has to be that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee who was the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia during the war. He was known for leading a rag tag, under armed and poorly supplied army against a much larger foe and winning many battles. He was a graduate of West Point and one of the most highly regarded military minds when the war initially broke out. Lee was offered the post as the leader of all Union Army forces by Abraham Lincoln, and was sorely tested. However being from Virginia, he chose to throw his talent and support to the side of his home state.
Lee did not make this choice frivolously he definitely gave it a lot of thought, because he had been organizing and fighting for the United States for nearly thirty years. Lee was a highly decorated leader in the Mexican War and took great pride in training other officers to fill in the ranks. Leaving the Union was not a choice that he made easily because he believed in the concept of the United States. This was documented by his staunch support of the reconstruction efforts after the war was over.
General Robert E. Lee, had a home in Washington DC and he had to give this home up in order to lead the armies of the Confederacy. The northern politicians searched for a way to punish Lee for a traitorous act so they took his home and converted the grounds into Arlington National Cemetery, which to this day is the resting ground for those with military connections. In the Civil War there was a certain odd justice in turning the grounds around the home of Robert E. Lee into a cemetery. To this day the Lee home still stands, preserved as a constant reminder of the perceived treachery of Lee. What better reminder than the gravestones of those he was responsible for killing. As a military leader, it was hard to argue with the success of Lee. He was a leader that became an icon of the South during the war. Lee was able to use fast riding scouts to great effect, monitoring opposing troop movements and most always choosing the most advantageous locations for the military battles his army fought. So even though they were always outnumbered, they had the advantage of terrain and cover. With each victory, his troops gained a psychological edge over the Union and for years the outcome of the war was in doubt. In the end though, a lack of infrastructure for production and foreign allies, led to the fall of the South.
Robert E. Lee was a great general who led the Southern Armies in the Civil War. He was a great leader but was eventually overcome by a lack of resources and money that fueled the Northern war effort. His last act as leader was to surrender his army to General U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
Lee, Robert E. (19 January 1807–12 October 1870), soldier, was born Robert Edward Lee on the Stratford estate in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the son of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a soldier and political leader, and Ann Hill Carter. The promise of affluence implied by his birth at his father’s ancestral estate was not fulfilled in Lee’s childhood. Neither family, nor military distinction in the Revolution, nor political success as governor of Virginia (1792–1795) could save Major General Henry Lee from the penalties of financial recklessness, aggravated by broken health. As a result, Robert’s childhood was shadowed by the frequent absence of his father, seeking to escape his creditors and to promote his physical rehabilitation, while his mother supported herself and her five children on the income from her Carter legacy, which was adequate but by no means lavish. The family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, in 1810. For an unknown period, Robert attended a school at Eastern View in Fauquier County that was run by the Carters for their children. By 1820 he was a student at Alexandria Academy, where he finished his secondary school education no later than 1823.
A waiting list delayed his admission to the United States Military Academy at West Point until 1 July 1825. He graduated from the academy in 1829, second in his class. Exercising the privilege of a high-ranking graduate, he chose service in the Corps of Engineers, the most prestigious branch of the army. He was commissioned second lieutenant of engineers on 1 July 1829.
The two-month furlough awarded graduates enabled Lee to nurse his widowed mother in the last of many illnesses. After she died on 10 July, he spent time visiting with relatives and frequently called at “Arlington,” the home of George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington. There Lee courted Custis’s daughter, Mary Anne Randolph Custis, whom he had known since childhood. They were married on 30 June 1831 and had seven children. The marriage linked Lee to Arlington and gave him a symbolic association with the Washington tradition, an association that expanded with the rise of Lee’s military fame.
Lee’s first army assignments were to help plan the construction of Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River in Georgia (1829–1831) and Fortress Monroe at Old Point Comfort in Virginia (1831–1834). From Fort Monroe, Lee went in August 1834 to Fort Calhoun on the Rip-Raps in adjacent Hampton Roads and then in October to Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington. While in Washington he was promoted to first lieutenant on 21 September 1836. An excursion into the civil engineering projects historically important to Lee’s corps came with his travel to St. Louis in the summer of 1837 to superintend works protecting the harbor of the city from shifts in the channel of the Mississippi. Except for occasional visits to Virginia, Lee remained at St. Louis until October 1840. He found the improvement of the Mississippi intellectually stimulating, and it brought him useful experience in cooperating with civil officials. Meanwhile he rose to captain on 7 July 1838. After another tour at corps headquarters, which included inspection trips to corps work sites, Lee arrived in New York City on 10 April 1841 to superintend the fortifying of the country’s most important harbor.
Robert E. Lee
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-B8172-0001).
The Mexican War
Lee’s having won recognition for excellence among the army’s engineers was signified by his appointment to a board of officers to attend the West Point final examinations in June 1844 and to membership on the Board of Engineers for Atlantic Coast Defenses on 8 September 1845. Still, for a soldier, greater distinction could be won most readily in combat. Lee’s opportunity for such distinction came in the Mexican War, though only after much dull and uneventful marching. He entered Mexico on 12 October 1846 as a staff engineer with the column under Brigadier General John E. Wool. With Captain William D. Fraser, Lee directed the building and repair of roads and bridges from San Antonio, Texas, to near Saltillo, Mexico, a distance of over 600 miles, where Wool’s column joined the command of Major General Zachary Taylor.
On 16 January 1847 Lee received orders to join Major General Winfield Scott, commanding general of the U.S. Army, as chief engineer of the main army of invasion. Lee joined Scott at Brazos, Texas, for a planned amphibious assault against Mexico’s Gulf coast and a subsequent march to Mexico City. Scott, who had first come to know Lee well on the West Point board in 1844, trusted him completely and accorded him the maximum opportunity to display initiative, allowing him to make decisions just short of the key operational ones of an army commander. Lee responded in a way that virtually assured him of later gaining independent command of a field army.
The enemy held a strong mountainous defensive position around Jalapa, but Lee discovered a feasible route through high hills around the Mexican left; he persuaded Scott to use it and led the vanguard along the route, providing U.S. forces with a victory in the battle of Cerro Gordo on 17–18 April. For this Lee won the brevet rank of major. When the enemy fell back on another strong position in front of Churubusco, Lee again found a feasible route skirting a lava bed known as the Pedregal, to permit another turning of the Mexican defenses. Across the Pedregal, Lee joined with Brigadier Generals Persifor F. Smith and John Cadwalader in deciding to proceed with the turning attack against the Mexican main body in spite of the arrival of enemy reinforcements that threatened the flank of such a move. Then he recrossed the dangerous, mazelike Pedregal with a few men by night to secure from Scott enough additional troops to counter the Mexican reinforcements. Again the outcome was swift American victory, at Contreras across the Pedregal and then at the main enemy position of Churubusco, both on 20 August. In reward, Lee received a brevet as lieutenant colonel. A brevet colonelcy followed on 24 August 1848, for his actions in the previous year’s battle of Chapultepec, where Lee’s contribution was the more straightforward and less independent one of helping map Mexican strong points to assist Scott in planning the battle. All in all, Lee emerged from the Mexican War a proven combat leader who enjoyed the special confidence of the ranking officer of the U.S. Army.
Recognition as an Exceptional Officer
Arriving back in Washington on 29 June 1848, Lee resumed duties at corps headquarters and on the coast defense board, whose business took him from Boston to Florida and Mobile. In April 1849 he assumed direction of the building of a fort on Sollers’s Flats, a shoal in the Patapsco River off Sollers’s Point, to defend Baltimore harbor (the work was named Fort Carroll in October 1850). His next assignment demonstrated again that the army regarded Lee as an officer above the ordinary; on 27 May 1852 he was named superintendent of West Point. He held this post from 1 September 1852 to 31 March 1855, restoring cadet discipline, which he found disturbingly lax, but leaving little permanent mark on the academy.
Up to this point, Lee had had little direct contact with the army on the western frontier. While he was superintendent at West Point, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis sought to increase the size of the force patrolling the vast new territories acquired from Mexico. In response Congress authorized the formation of two new cavalry regiments to accompany the existing two of dragoons and one of mounted riflemen. The new Second Cavalry became Davis’s favorite; on the same day that it was created, Paymaster Major Albert Sidney Johnston, a close friend of the secretary from their West Point days, was promoted to be its colonel, while Lee became its lieutenant colonel. Lee served with the Second at St. Louis, in the Kansas Territory, and at several posts in Texas before reporting to San Antonio to replace Johnston in command. These tours of duty included a certain amount of chasing after “hostiles” but were more dull than otherwise, and thus typical of the frontier. Lee did, however, learn at firsthand about commanding troops in the field—in small numbers, to be sure, but with difficult logistics.
Lee was at home at Arlington after court-martial service in New York City when, on 17 October 1859, First Lieutenant James E. B. Stuart of the First Cavalry delivered a message ordering him to report immediately to the War Department. The result was that he hastened with Stuart to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where the abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859) and his followers were holding off Virginia militia and Maryland volunteers after seizing the fire-engine house of the United States Arsenal. Taking command, Lee demanded the surrender of the insurgents early on 18 October and then ordered the storming of Brown’s refuge by marines from the Washington Navy Yard. The assault succeeded, and Brown was captured. Lee returned to Texas early the next year, but he was never to escape the shadow that the Harpers Ferry raid had cast over his state.
Civil War and Resignation from the Union Army
He was commissioned full colonel and commander of the First Cavalry on 16 March 1861. By that time, however, seven southern states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. Lee had left Fort Mason and the Second Cavalry on 13 February, under orders to report to Brevet Lieutenant General Scott. Some time in early March, Lee called on Scott in Washington, learned of his coming promotion, and was probably advised by Scott that if the secession crisis erupted into war, he would likely be Scott’s second-in-command and the leader in the field. Lee probably warned Scott, in turn, that if Virginia seceded, he would feel obliged to follow his state and resign his commission. He opposed secession, disliked slavery, and never himself owned more than about a half dozen slaves (whom he emancipated before the Civil War), but he believed he must be loyal to Virginia and could not take up arms against the Commonwealth. On 18 April, following the bombardment of Fort Sumter on 12–14 April, Francis Preston Blair, Sr., on behalf of President Abraham Lincoln, directly asked Lee whether he would take command of an enlarged U.S. Army. But Lee reiterated what he had said to Scott. On 20 April, having learned that Virginia had seceded two days earlier, Lee submitted his resignation. It was a painful decision but one that in its expression of loyalty to home and kindred has commanded sympathy even from those who cannot admire it.
On 21 April Governor John Letcher of Virginia dispatched a messenger offering Lee command of the military and naval forces of the state, with the rank of major general, but the messenger evidently passed Lee while the latter was en route from Arlington to Richmond in response to an earlier invitation from the governor. Lee accepted the commission from Letcher’s hand on 22 April. On 10 May the Confederate War Department gave Lee command of its forces in Virginia, though it proceeded to send troops and other officers there apparently without regard to him. Following the voters’ ratification of the Virginia Ordinance of Secession on 23 May, the state turned over its forces to the Confederacy on 8 June, while Lee had already been commissioned brigadier general in the Confederate regular army on 14 May.
He also became a confidential military adviser to President Jefferson Davis, who dispatched him to western Virginia in late July to coordinate efforts to recapture the considerable parts of that mountainous region, with its population largely disaffected by secession, that had already been overrun by the Federals. Supervising rather than commanding, displaying a gentlemanly reluctance to offend independent-minded officers of lower rank, Lee saw his first campaign for the Confederacy end in defeat at the battle of Cheat Mountain or Elkwater on 10–15 September, when Confederate columns failed to cooperate enough to drive the Federals from the mountain.
On 31 August Lee had been confirmed as a full general of the Confederate regular army, a rank he had held without formal confirmation since its authorization by the Confederate Congress on 16 May. Confident of Lee’s abilities despite Cheat Mountain, Davis next sent him to try to shore up another crumbling front. Unluckily, Lee arrived at Charleston to command the South Atlantic coast defenses on 7 November, the very day that the U.S. Navy captured the defenses of Port Royal Sound in South Carolina. Following this success, the Federal navy had access to the sheltered waters inside the sea islands and could shift vessels and troops up and down the South Carolina and Georgia coasts more rapidly than Lee could respond. He had to concede the bays and inlets south of Charleston to the enemy, permitting the Union to tighten its blockade and hold springboards for further offensive action.
On 2 March 1862 Davis summoned Lee back to Richmond to resume his duties as adviser at an inauspicious moment when the Confederacy confronted an apparently insurmountable challenge posed by Union offensives almost everywhere around its circumference without enough manpower to create an adequate defensive cordon. The defense of Tennessee was already collapsing, and the largest single enemy army, the Army of the Potomac under Major General George B. McClellan (1826–1885), was preparing to advance on Richmond.
Residence of General Robert E. Lee.
707 East Frankline Street in Richmond, Virginia, at the close of the Civil War.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-B8171-3288 DLC).
Decision to Take the Offensive against the Union
Lee had concluded that the Confederacy would continue to suffer reversals if it persisted in a defensive strategy. If the South simply tried to hold its borders, the North could multiply its inherent advantages in manpower and resources by concentrating overwhelming force at the points of attack it chose. The only remedy for the Confederacy was to accept the risks of the initiative by going over to the attack at places of its own choosing. By concentrating force at those places, it might, with good fortune, achieve parity or even superiority of strength at critical points. Following this strategy, Lee arranged to reinforce Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Army of the Valley sufficiently to permit it to undertake the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 8 May–9 June 1862. The Confederate concentration and initiative produced not only local tactical victories, but also the strategic advantage of diverting Federal troops from McClellan’s offensive against Richmond.
Soon Lee confronted that offensive directly. In March, McClellan had moved his main force by sea from Washington to Fort Monroe; then he began an advance toward the Confederate capital by way of the peninsula between the York and James rivers. On 31 May, General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces opposing him, was wounded at the battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines. The next day Lee succeeded to Johnston’s command, which he promptly designated the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee applied his principles of concentrating force and seizing the initiative. He had Jackson join him with the Valley Army, and, thus reinforced, he conducted a series of attacks against McClellan just outside Richmond in the Seven Days battles of 25 June–1 July.
The battles saved Richmond and transformed Lee from an apparent failure to the hero of the Confederacy. Lee himself was nevertheless disappointed with the Seven Days, because he had hoped to destroy the Army of the Potomac. Lapses in coordination attributable at least in part to Lee’s gentlemanly style of command helped account for the incompleteness of the victory, but for the next year Lee resolutely continued to pursue the goal of the destruction of the enemy army. He progressed in his strategic convictions beyond the belief that the Confederacy must seize the initiative to conclude also that the initiative must be pushed to a decisive, war-ending victory. Otherwise the superior resources of the Union would enable it to outlast local or regional setbacks. The Confederacy must compel the North to recognize its independence rapidly or it would not be able to do so at all.
Assuming the Strategic Offensive
These convictions carried Lee beyond tactical, battlefield attacks like those of the Seven Days to the strategic offensive. The Seven Days left McClellan’s Army of the Potomac inactive, but it was still supported by the Union navy at Harrison’s Landing on the James River, while in northern Virginia the Union organized a new Army of Virginia under Major General John Pope for an overland advance from Washington. Trusting in McClellan’s by-now frequently demonstrated caution, Lee moved north to meet Pope. The Federals responded by withdrawing the Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula. On 29–30 August, Lee defeated Pope’s army, reinforced by part of McClellan’s, at the second battle of Manassas or Bull Run. The way was then clear for Lee to invade the North, fully assuming the strategic offensive, in the hope that a southern victory on Union soil would convince the North of the futility of trying to crush the Confederacy and prompt Lincoln’s government to concede Confederate independence.
The Army of Northern Virginia had, however, lost casualties of about 25 percent (20,000 killed, wounded, and missing) in the Seven Days and 19 percent (9,000) at Second Manassas. These losses had by no means been completely replenished when Lee’s army began crossing the Potomac River into Maryland on 5 September; furthermore, heavy straggling plagued his force, the result both of fatigue and of the disinclination of many Confederate soldiers to depart from a strategy simply of defending their country. Consequently, when the Federals, reunited as the Army of the Potomac under McClellan, brought Lee to battle at Sharpsburg on Antietam Creek on 17 September, Lee had only about 34,000 men to face about 71,500 of the enemy. He felt obliged to fight on the defensive. His men held their positions throughout the bloodiest single day of the war, with losses of some 10,318 or 31 percent (with the Federals losing some 12,400, or 25 percent of the 50,000 actually engaged); but after defying the enemy for one day more, Lee retreated back across the Potomac.
Promptly he importuned President Davis to reinforce his army so that he could resume the strategic offensive. Davis, respectful of Lee but not convinced of the appropriateness of his strategy, did not immediately comply. Therefore Lee’s next two major battles were again strategically defensive. At Fredericksburg, Virginia, on 13 December 1862, against the Army of the Potomac now commanded by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, Lee fought on the tactical defensive also and lost the relatively small total of 5,300 out of 72,000 men (7 percent). At Chancellorsville on 2–4 May 1863 Lee attacked on the battlefield against the latest Federal commander, Major General Joseph Hooker, losing nearly 13,000 men out of about 60,000 (22 percent).
The Battle of Gettysburg
Following Chancellorsville, Davis finally reinforced Lee to the strength the general believed necessary for a new invasion of the North. On 3 June 1863 Lee set out for Pennsylvania, but he did so without Stonewall Jackson, who had died on 10 May of complications from wounds suffered at Chancellorsville. Ever since the Pennsylvania campaign climaxed at Gettysburg on 1–3 July, debate has persisted over whether Jackson’s absence accounts for Lee’s inability—at Gettysburg or in any of his subsequent battles—to achieve the sort of complete tactical success that the flanking maneuvers led by Jackson at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville had provided. Probably the circumstances of the battle of Gettysburg would have precluded such bold maneuver anyway; in particular, Lee was hampered by a lack of familiarity with the terrain. At Gettysburg less ambitious attempts against both enemy flanks failed on 2 July, and the next day the battle ended with the defeat of Major General George E. Pickett’s famous charge against the Union center. The skillful defensive tactics of Major General George G. Meade as Federal commander helped impose on Lee his highest casualties yet: 28,000, about 35 percent.
Lee probably gambled on Pickett’s Charge because he recognized that no more throws of the dice of a strategic offensive would be possible. His cumulative casualties were already too great: here lay the fatal flaw in his strategy. He would still, nevertheless, risk attacking on the battlefield in the hope of destroying the enemy army, as he had done from the beginning. In the late summer and the autumn of 1863, he and Meade waged an indecisive campaign of maneuver in northern Virginia. The next spring, Lee faced a different kind of opponent when Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, assuming the post of commanding general of the Union army, took the field in direct supervision of Meade. Grant was determined to end the war by eliminating Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, either by outmaneuvering and trapping it or by exploiting the North’s superior manpower to trade casualties with it until Lee’s numbers were exhausted. Lee’s generalship forced Grant into the second alternative, but that could not save the Confederacy.
In the Wilderness (5–7 May 1864), at Spotsylvania Courthouse (7–20 May), and in lesser actions through Cold Harbor (3 June) and Lee’s crossing to the south side of the James River (essentially completed 18 June), Lee’s skill and tactical initiatives extracted about 64,000 casualties from the enemy, more than the 61,000 men with which he had begun the campaign against his opponents’ 100,000. But the Army of Northern Virginia also suffered about 25,000 casualties during that time, and this arithmetic would inevitably prove fatal unless the Confederacy could maintain its fronts in a way demoralizing enough to the North to prevent Lincoln’s reelection in November.
Facing Grant at Petersburg
Lee did his part toward that end. On 15–16 June, Meade’s Army of the Potomac crossed the James River east of Richmond to join Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s (1818–1893) Army of the James in assailing the railroad junction at Petersburg, twenty miles south of the capital, to cut both Richmond and Lee’s army off from the lower South. Lee checked the effort and held his opponents to a dreary deadlock of trench warfare around Petersburg through the rest of the summer and into the autumn. He also detached Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early to rescue the Shenandoah Valley from Federals operating there and to threaten Washington, which Early did by marching all the way to the fortifications of the Union capital by 11 July. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the resources of the North were by this time too fully mobilized to permit Early’s triumph to be more than transitory, and Major General Philip H. Sheridan crushed his force in the autumn, doing much to help assure Lincoln of a second term.
Lee persisted in the struggle because he believed himself bound by duty. On 6 February 1865 President Davis appointed him general in chief of the Confederate States Army, while he also remained commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Hitherto he had derogated the capacities of black troops, but in desperation he urged their enlistment, which the Confederate Congress authorized on 13 March. It did so, however, without the promise of emancipation, which Lee, who now advocated gradual emancipation, thought necessary.
When good campaigning weather returned in the spring, Lee, with 44,000 men, no longer had enough strength to hold some twenty miles of the Petersburg trenches against Grant’s force of 128,000. He proposed to withdraw westward and then southward to unite with General Joseph E. Johnston’s forces in the Carolinas. Characteristically, he set the stage with an attack, against a vulnerable point in the Federal lines, hoping to compel Grant to weaken his western flank and thus ease the planned maneuver. But it was too late. Lee’s assault on Fort Stedman failed on 25 March. Grant then reinforced rather than reduced his left flank, breaking past Lee’s own western flank at Five Forks on 1 April. This breakthrough threatened Lee’s whole Petersburg position with encirclement, and the next day Lee told Davis that Richmond and Petersburg would have to be evacuated.
Surrender at Appomattox
Knowing that the chances of joining Johnston were now remote, Lee nevertheless hastened to avoid the enemy’s Five Forks spearhead and retreat to the west. The Federals, better nourished and supplied, paralleled his movements and won several races to key railroad depots. On 9 April Lee’s troops attacked southward from Appomattox Courthouse and discovered that all paths of retreat had been closed. Lee decided he must surrender himself and the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant. He did so that afternoon. Only 26,765 men remained to stack arms (and only 7,800 of those on the surrender rolls had actually been bearing arms still).
Under the surrender terms, Lee, like his men, became a paroled prisoner of war. He was, however, among the high Confederate officials excluded from President Andrew Johnson’s amnesty proclamation of 29 May, and on 7 June he was indicted for treason by a grand jury of the United States Court for the Eastern District of Virginia sitting at Norfolk. The indictment was not pursued, but neither did Lee receive individual pardon, though on 13 June he wrote to Grant enclosing an application for amnesty.
Still, Lee set his course to lead the South toward accepting reunion. He reiterated his belief that it was the duty of every citizen to work in that direction when he accepted the invitation issued by the Board of Trustees of Washington College on 5 August to become president of that institution. Promptly he traveled to Lexington in the Valley of Virginia to take up the office for the fall term. On 2 October he was formally installed as head of a school whose buildings and library had been looted in 1864 and which found itself short of funds and almost all other necessities, with only fifty students in attendance. Lee succeeded in restoring the college as a model for higher education in the South, and enrollment was up to nearly 400 students in the fall term of 1870.
On 28 September 1870 Lee was stricken by what would now probably be diagnosed as a coronary thrombosis. He died at daybreak on 12 October in Lexington.
Hero of the Confederacy
In spite of some criticism of his prompt acceptance of reunion, in the South Lee came to be even more revered after Appomattox than he had been before. His reputation continued to grow after his death, and by the turn of the century his cult had spread into the North, signaling a national apotheosis. During the war Stonewall Jackson had probably been more warmly admired; Lee’s aristocratic aloofness had earned him more respect than enthusiastic devotion. After the war, however, Lee’s apparent remoteness from the usual run of humanity lent itself to his translation into something of a Christ figure: his worldly defeat came to attest to a nobility of character all the more sublime.
Nobility of character Lee surely possessed, in an exemplary personal and family life and in his unswerving devotion to his conception of his duty. As a military commander he demands a more critical appraisal. As a battlefield tactician he was inferior to none in the Napoleonic art of the maneuver against the enemy flank or rear designed to subdue a rival army psychologically as well as physically; Second Manassas and Chancellorsville exhibited masterpieces of such maneuver. His strategic prescriptions, however, were more questionable. His insistence on seizing the risks of the initiative—attacking in most of his battles and going over to the strategic offensive whenever possible—implied heavy casualties and thus the lavish expenditure of the scarcest of all the Confederacy’s scarce resources, its manpower. In addition, Lee inclined toward a parochial view of Confederate strategy. President Davis consulted him about overall strategy through most of the war, but Lee tended consistently to underrate the strategic importance of regions other than his own and the problems of the generals fighting there. In the summer of 1863, for example, reinforcing the West to try to save Vicksburg might have been a more appropriate strategy than invading Pennsylvania.
Nevertheless, Lee’s strategic vision was clear when he rejected a passive cordon defense as one that would allow the North, by choosing the points of attack, to multiply its inherent numerical advantage. The true alternative to Lee’s strategy was a strategy of flexible defense, yielding territory to trade space for lives and time, counterattacking on opportune occasions to erode the enemy’s will and enhance Confederate morale. Such a strategy would have been akin to George Washington’s. On the other hand, Lee’s risks in pursuing the initiative took into account the probable need for a swift victory if there was to be victory at all. From that perspective, Lee may have chosen the least undesirable strategic option in circumstances that offered little or no hope of winning the war. Combining such a judgment with an appreciation of Lee’s mastery as a tactician assures him his rank among the American soldiers most deserving of study and admiration.