Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy, 1863-1865
by Ethan S. Rafuse
Rowman & Littlefield, 2008
Is it really possible there’s anything new to say about Robert E. Lee, who probably has had more written about him than any other Civil War military figure? Ethan Rafuse clearly thinks so, and in Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy 1863-1865, he argues his case that “strategic and operational considerations properly led Lee to a preference for offensive operations throughout the war.” The question Rafuse seeks to answer, while simultaneously defending Lee’s military acumen from the slings and arrows thrown at it by some modern historians, is how the Gray Fox and the Army of Northern Virginia went from “that moment of triumph at Chancellorsville to complete defeat in 1865.”
Rafuse brings impeccable credentials to this quest. An associate professor of history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., a disciple of the Herman Hattaway/Archer Jones school of Civil War military history, and a biographer of George B. McClellan and George G. Meade—two of Lee’s more notable opponents—Rafuse argues that, given the North’s overwhelming advantage in men and materiel, Lee’s only recourse was to pursue a “strategy of exhaustion.” This strategy, he writes, “seeks to destroy an enemy nation’s will or the resources that enable it to wage war over time.” Since the North’s resources were beyond Lee’s grasp, only its will to fight was “a viable target for Confederate military strategists.” According to Rafuse, that will could only be broken if the Confederacy made the restoration of the Union so costly in terms of Yankee lives as to be unacceptable to Northern society.
The heart of Rafuse’s book details how Lee sought to accomplish this task through a strategy of attack and maneuver in the open country of Northern Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Although historians may well be correct that the war was ultimately won on the battlefields of the West, Rafuse convincingly argues that Virginia and Richmond, the Confederate capital, were the psychological and, to a large extent, industrial underpinning of the would-be fledgling nation. Thus, without Lee’s “consistently inspired, driving leadership and brilliance at the operational and tactical levels of war it is difficult to see how the war in Virginia could have lasted as long as it did.”
But did Lee’s brilliance prolong the war long after any real chance for establishing a separate Confederate nation had evaporated? Rafuse doesn’t say, but given the political climate in Richmond, probably not. He is too good a historian, however, to argue that Lee alone was responsible for the Confederacy’s battlefield victories in the East. In the main, Lee used tactics that were neither novel nor unique. He followed traditional 19th-century military doctrine of keeping a firm base, using interior lines of communication and supply, and seeking to achieve strategic turning maneuvers as advocated by Swiss military strategist Baron Antoine Henri Jomini—tactics that were all taught at West Point. It was, however, Lee’s overwhelming confidence in the élan of the men he led and his seemingly instinctual understanding of the personalities of many of the Union generals he opposed that allowed him time and again to successfully break the dictum of another 19th-century military theorist, Dietrich Von Clausewitz of Germany. Von Clausewitz had warned against splitting a numerically inferior force in the face of the enemy, which Lee did notably at Chancellorsville.
Nor could Lee be solely responsible for the defeats suffered by the Army of Northern Virginia and the eventual fall of the Confederacy. As Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett wryly observed after the war, “The Union Army had something to do with it.” Rafuse gives surprisingly high marks to the generals Lee faced early in the war, principally for not making any catastrophic blunders that could have destroyed their armies. He also accuses the Lincoln administration of unwittingly aiding Lee—at least until March 1864, when Ulysses S. Grant took over as supreme commander of all Union forces.
It would be interesting to hear Rafuse and James McPherson debate the merits of Lincoln as commander in chief. Rafuse argues that Lincoln partly hamstrung the various commanders of the Army of the Potomac by forcing them to adopt an overland route to Richmond that protected Washington, D.C., a strategy that played to Lee’s tactical strengths. Rafuse contends that a Peninsula route along the James River—a strategy first proposed by McClellan and later modified and successfully used by Grant—would have enabled the Union to bring to bear its superiority in men and materiel, thus forcing Lee to adopt a defensive posture of siege warfare to protect Richmond. That strategy, Lee had maintained, would ultimately lead to defeat.
Rafuse has chosen only to examine Lee the tactician and not how the psychological makeup of Lee the warrior influenced his battlefield strategy. If he had, Rafuse might have discovered that this aristocratic scion of Virginia’s slave-holding planter class perhaps had other reasons than strategic necessity for holding onto the leash of the dogs of war so enthusiastically for so long. After all, it was Lee who supposedly said, “It is well that war is so terrible—lest we should grow too fond of it!” Perhaps, in the end, he had.