ROBERT E. LEE’S CIVIL WAR, by Bevin Alexander, Adams Media Corporation, 338 pages, $24.95.
If old soldiers never die, nor do the debates about their place in history. For generations Robert E. Lee’s reputation as a military commander remained relatively unscathed, with only occasional exceptions. Though it is not surprising that Ulysses S. Grant criticized his chief opponent’s abilities, barbs from former Confederate commanders such as P.G.T. Beauregard and James Longstreet were harder to ignore. Longstreet, for example, cited Lee’s over-aggressive tactics at Gettysburg. These first attacks, however, had little long-term impact on the Lee image.
It was not until the publication in 1935 of Major General J.F.C. Fuller’s comparative study of Lee and Grant that the debate took a decidedly more serious–and academic–turn. Fuller criticized Lee for sometimes being too intent on protecting Virginia and on winning what were only transitory victories while sustaining horrific losses and ignoring larger strategic issues. In more recent years, Thomas L. Connelly’s The Marble Man (1977) and Alan T. Nolan’s Lee Considered (1991) said much the same thing. There are now others too. While consistently crediting Lee for his high character and many superb skills, a growing number of historians are nevertheless beginning to explore in detail whether the general’s performance was sometimes flawed.
Bevin Alexander’s latest book, Robert E. Lee’s Civil War, is one of several recent entries into the fray. Alexander, the author of books on Stonewall Jackson, the Korean War, and modern warfare, presents an overview of Lee’s campaigns combined with a critique of his tactics and strategy. Lee still emerges as an outstanding general, skilled in maneuver and gifted in leadership, especially for holding together a consistently under-supplied and under-manned force. Yet, Alexander adds, there were times when even Lee erred. In particular, his fixation on large-scale attacks, and the accompanying costs in lives, led directly and inevitably to the South’s defeat. In truth, Lee’s Civil War is much more a synthesis than a detailed study, an overview of four years of war with an occasional dissenting viewpoint and “might have been” speculation. Such a book is meant to entertain and stimulate discussion. Many readers, though, will react negatively even to the author’s most measured critiques–confirming yet again how firmly entrenched Robert E. Lee’s reputation remains.
Edward D.C. Campbell, Jr., is a staff member of the Library of Virginia in Richmond and writes frequently about southern history and culture.