How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War, by Edward H. Bonekemper, III, Sergeant Kirkland’s Press, (540) 899-5565, 248 pages, $29.95, and Robert E. Lee’s Civil War, by Bevin Alexander, Adams Media, (800) 872-5627, 352 pages, $24.95.
Robert E. Lee is widely regarded as the Civil War’s greatest soldier. Terms like “genius” and “invincible” abound in the literature of the war. This has not been a unanimous opinion, but the minority voices have never tarnished the general’s luster. These new books catalogue Lee’s failures and are persuasive.
As suggested by the title, Edward Bonekemper’s How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War is a wide-ranging negative analysis, beginning with the early field command in West Virginia where Bonekemper sees two of Lee’s faults that persisted throughout his career: failure to take charge of the battlefield and overly complex and ineffective battle orders. Appointed to command the Army of Northern Virginia, in the “slaughter on the Peninsula,” Lee manifested another characteristic, a penchant for costly frontal attacks that produced “losses that the outmanned Confederates simply could not absorb.” Lee, Bonekemper asserts, simply did not understand Civil War ordnance and his leadership “squandered the Confederacy’s chances of winning the war.”
Because of Lee’s headlong offensive strategy and tactics, Lee’s battles, won or lost, were failures. His masterpiece at Chancellorsville was really a “victory that wasn’t” because “the Confederates decimated themselves in frontal attacks on the Union’s defenders.”
Bonekemper rejects the Gettysburg scapegoating of J.E.B. Stuart, Richard Ewell, and James Longstreet and attributes their problems to the commanding general. He also charges Lee with the Confederacy’s defeat in the West. He argues that Lee should have cooperated with efforts to reinforce the Western armies from his own force and should have exerted himself to prevent the appointment of John Bell Hood to command of the Army of Tennessee. Bonekemper is persuasive in faulting Lee for the former, but charging Lee with Hood’s catastrophes at Atlanta and when he “played hell in Tennessee” seems an unreasonable stretch.
Bonekemper is bitter about Lee’s carrying on the war after it was lost, and this was plain: the war should have been abandoned by the South as of the beginning of the partial siege at Petersburg, surely when Lincoln was reelected, or at several climaxes thereafter. Bonekemper argues, for example, that “On December 31, 1864, less than half of the Confederacy’s soldiers were present with their units. Therefore, 1865 should have witnessed no fighting. But Lee had yet to call a halt to the bloody proceedings. Thousands of deaths that year were a macabre tribute to his chivalry and sense of honor or duty.”
Bevin Alexander’s Robert E. Lee’s Civil War is another analysis of Lee’s generalship. Although not as bold as Bonekemper’s book, it is similar in premises, tone, and conclusions. Bonekemper plainly states the premises: “Even without two huge armies guarding the portals, a defensive strategy would have exploited the South’s advantages: its great size, its difficult mountains, forests and swamps, and the practical inaccessibility of much of its territory…. These could have inhibited Northern movements and allowed the Confederacy to pursue a long war, preserving its other, more limited, resources, especially its manpower. In time the North might have become weary of its inability to end the war and stop the losses.”
He continues, “Lee sought from first to last to fight an offensive war–that is, a war of battles and marches against the armies of the North. This offensive war, though it produced many spectacular clashes and campaigns…, ultimately failed because Lee’s methods and his strategy were insufficient to overcome the South’s weakness in arms and manpower.”
From these premises, Alexander follows Lee’s war from the Peninsula’s “direct assaults by massed bodies of infantry against a waiting enemy….” After a costly success in the Second Battle of Bull Run, having written to Davis about the unreadiness of his army, Lee marched into Maryland and “bare feet, stony roads, diarrhea and sheer exhaustion” found “the Rebel army melted away.” He continues, “Lee’s erroneous assessment of the terrain at Antietam” caused him to accept a battle “which brought disaster to the Confederate cause.”
Following a successful defense at Fredericksburg, the war moved on to Chancellorsville. Alexander there finds Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson “a military genius. He had found a way to avoid making frontal attacks against the massed power of the Union army…. But Lee had not absorbed the lesson. And this sealed the fate of the Confederacy.”
At Gettysburg, Lee’s concentrating at Cashtown and Gettysburg was “senseless strategically.” He should have proceeded on to Harrisburg and Philadelphia and waited for a Federal attack on ground that the Confederacy could have selected. After Gettysburg, “Lee did not accept the fact that his army’s capacity for decisive offensive campaigns had vanished…. He refused then to entrench and fortify.”
The familiar stations and events of the Overland Campaign are well presented and contain pointed reference to Lee’s spasmodic and ill-conceived attacks and counter-attacks. Lee also urged Jubal Early’s detached divisions in the Shenandoah Valley to attack, which led to the destruction of that force.
At last, the surrender is recounted. At the end, Alexander essays that Lee was a great sectional conciliator after the war. It is my opinion that that is simply another aspect of the Lee myth, but it may mitigate the anger of his cult when they read Alexander’s book.
Alan T. Nolan