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Most British historians were Lee fans.

In November 1865, Robert E. Lee informed Jubal A. Early that he intended to write a history of the Army of Northern Virginia. “My only object,” he explained regarding the soon-abandoned project, “is to transmit, if possible,  the truth to posterity, and do justice to our brave Soldiers.” Early provided Lee with a number of documents and agreed that the story of the conflict should not be entrusted to the pens of the winners. In their search for vindication, Early observed later in a letter to the editor of the London Standard, ex-Confederates would have to rely on an appeal to “foreign nations and to the next age.” Early could not have known that between 1861 and 1961 no European nation would accord more attention to Civil War history than Great Britain—or that its writers often would express admiration for what Lee and his army accomplished.

The first British accounts appeared while the war still raged. Arthur James Lyon Fremantle’s Three Months in the Southern States: April-June 1863, published in Edinburgh in 1863 and the following year in New York and Mobile, gave readers a heroic portrait of the Army of Northern Virginia. Some famous incidents of the Battle of Gettysburg come to us from Fremantle’s diary, including Lee’s comments to Cadmus M. Wilcox in the aftermath of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble assault: “Never mind, General, all this has been MY fault—it is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it in the best way you can.”

Field Marshal Viscount Garnet Wolseley’s writings on the war, published between 1863 and 1890 and later collected in The American Civil War: An English View (ed. James A. Rawley, 1964), mirrored Fremantle’s in their profound admiration for the Confederate nation. Like Fremantle, Wolseley spent time with Lee, “the renowned soldier, whom I believe to have been the greatest of his age,…[and] whom I have always considered the most perfect man I ever met.” In language Jubal Early would have approved, Wolseley castigated the Union’s war against the Confederacy as “merely the military despotism of a portion of the States striving under the dictatorship of an insignificant lawyer to crush out the freedom of the rest.”

Perhaps most widely read of the early British authors was George Francis Robert Henderson, who published Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War in 1898, marking the apogee of admiring British writing on the South’s war effort. “Almost immediately it was acclaimed the greatest of all works on the Confederacy,” noted Douglas S. Freeman in 1939. “For a Southerner to confess, after 1900, that he had not read Henderson,” added Freeman, “was for him to put himself under suspicion of treason to his inheritance.”

Three British officers publishing in the 1920s and 1930s broke with the tradition of pro-Confederate writings emanating from England. B.H. Liddell Hart’s Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American and Alfred H. Burne’s Lee, Grant, and Sherman: A Study of Leadership in the 1864-65 Campaign (1929, 1938; paperback editions 1993, 2000) praised the two most important Union officers. Liddell Hart described Sherman as “not a typical man of his age, but the prototype of the most modern age” and called on readers to “fully appreciate Sherman’s outlook on war and peace.” Burne anticipated later scholarship by T. Harry Williams and others, arguing for Grant’s superiority because he “spiritually and morally belonged to the age of the Industrial Revolution” while Lee was “old-fashioned,” a commander hampered by an outlook yoked to “the agricultural age of history.”

In The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant and Grant & Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (1929, 1933; paperback editions 1991, 1982), Maj. Gen. J.F.C. Fuller rehearsed arguments present in the work of Thomas L. Connelly and Alan T. Nolan in the 1970s and 1990s. Fuller insisted that Lee’s strategic vision was limited to his home state and he too often indulged in frontal assaults that cost the South manpower. Lee was “so obsessed by Virginia that….to him the Confederacy was but the base of Virginia.” Moreover, the Confederate chieftain repeatedly “rushed forth to find a battlefield” and “by his restless audacity, he ruined such strategy as his government created.” On balance, concluded Fuller, Grant outstripped Lee as a strategist.

The most famous British author to write seriously about the Civil War was Winston Churchill. In volume four of A History of the English Speaking Peoples (1958; the section on the Civil War was reprinted separately as The American Civil War in 1961), Churchill said of Lee: “His noble presence and gentle, kindly manner were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character.” Churchill compared “Stonewall” Jackson to the Calvinist Oliver Cromwell and cast him and Lee as gifted soldiers holding back a Union tide: “Against Lee and his great lieutenant, united for a year of intense action…were now to be marshalled the overwhelming forces of the Union.”

Such language would have delighted Lost Cause writers who pronounced Northern numbers the key to victory in a war the South never could have won. Churchill’s portrait of Grant echoed intemperate attacks by former Confederates. Alluding to Union “tactics of unflinching butchery” during the Overland Campaign, Churchill wrote “more is expected of the high command than determination in thrusting men to their doom.” Grant’s strategy and tactics at Petersburg “eventually gained their purpose” but “must be regarded as the negation of generalship.” Churchill also applauded the resilience of Southerners. “By the end of 1863 all illusions had vanished,” he contended. “The South knew they had lost the war, and would be conquered and flattened. It is one of the enduring glories of the American nation that this made no difference to the Confederate residence.”

A modern reading of Churchill and other influential British authors confirms what Lee and Early hoped would be the case—that winners do not always control the public memory of historic events.


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.