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Robert E. Lee has occupied a remarkable position in the American memory of the Civil War. Few people in April 1865, whether in the Confederacy or the United States, would have predicted his rise to national popularity. Leaders in failed civil wars typically suffer drastic consequences, but by the early 20th century Lee stood alongside Abraham Lincoln as one of the conflict’s two most beloved figures.

His towering reputation among exRebels makes sense. His acceptance throughout the rest of the United States is more surprising. Lee has appeared on five U.S. postage stamps— most recently in 1994. Arlington House was designated the Lee Mansion National Memorial by Congress in 1925. Nine years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt captured the prevailing sentiment about him. “All over the United States we recognize him as a great leader of men, as a great general,” Roosevelt told a crowd in Dallas, adding, “I believe that we recognize him as something much more important than that. We recognize Robert E. Lee as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”

The trajectory of Lee’s reputation through much of the 20th century offers an interesting contrast to that of Ulysses S. Grant’s. Grant increasingly was caricatured as a drunk, butcher and corrupt politician, while Lee remained widely admired as a brilliant Christian soldier who accepted defeat gracefully and called for postwar reconciliation. As I noted in my last column, Lee’s aggressive generalship yielded horrific casualties; indeed, he must be reckoned the bloodiest general in U.S. history if measured by the percentage of his men killed or disabled. Yet unlike Grant, he suffered no loss of reputation among his contemporaries as a consequence. Confederates mourned the thousands of soldiers killed or maimed while serving under Lee, but they directed little criticism toward him. One British visitor to Richmond in March 1865 surely spoke the truth when he described Lee as “the idol of his soldiers & the Hope of His Country” who inspired an “almost fanatical belief in his judgement & capacity.”

The harshest critiques of Lee as a bloody commander came in the late 20th century. Thomas L. Connelly’s The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (1977) and more especially Alan T. Nolan’s Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (1991) emphasized the high casualties in the Army of Northern Virginia. Nolan argued that offensive tactics and strategy hurt morale within the army and undermined the Confederacy’s national military effort. Lee’s critics sometimes point to the defensive victory at Fredericksburg as a model that the general should have followed rather than pressing the tactical offensive at the Seven Days’, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and elsewhere (although how anyone hoping to replicate the victory at Fredericksburg could guarantee a supply of minimally gifted opponents such as Ambrose E. Burnside goes unaddressed).

No one can dispute the costly nature of Lee’s generalship or the fact that he sometimes made questionable military decisions. The attacks at Malvern Hill and on the third day at Gettysburg, the decision to fight at Antietam, and other episodes invite criticism. If examined without reference to how his operations influenced Confederate and Union politics and morale, Lee’s mistakes and massive casualties can be interpreted as evidence of a questionable record.

The fundamental question should be whether Lee’s leadership yielded a good return on the high investment in Confederate blood. Here we must look beyond numbers killed and wounded and ground lost or won to examine the Confederate home front and morale in the Army of Northern Virginia.

With the exception of Fredericksburg, Lee’s operations between June 1862 and May 1863 included offensive strategic and tactical components and persuaded the Confederate people that their largest army was dictating the action rather than merely waiting for Union forces to strike. Civilians applauded Lee’s efforts and increasingly saw him as their equivalent of George Washington during the American Revolution. By the midpoint of the war, Lee and his army had become the most important national institution in the Confederacy.

Within his army, Lee’s daring leadership helped forge an unshakable bond with the men. Wartime writings by Lee’s soldiers betray remarkable devotion to their general. Lee experienced a typical reaction at a review of James Longstreet’s First Corps in April 1864. “As he rode up to the colors, and the men caught sight of his well known figure,” reported one witness two days after that event, “a wild and prolonged cheer, fraught with a feeling that thrilled all hearts, ran along the lines and rose to the heavens…many persons became almost frantic with emotion.”

It is worth noting that most defensive campaigns also failed to conserve Confederate manpower. Not counting surrendered troops at places such as Vicksburg (whose numbers dramatically increased the defender’s losses, a phenomenon seldom noted by scholars critical of Lee’s offensive tendencies), strategically defensive campaigns often resulted in roughly equal casualties on both sides. The reason was simple. Generals on the defensive usually had to attack in order to avoid a siege, and their tactical counteroffensives seldom occurred under favorable conditions. Joseph E. Johnston’s re – treat up the Virginia Peninsula in 1862 offers a case in point. While falling back toward the Confederate capital, Johnston fought a delaying action at Williamsburg and later, with his back against Richmond, launched a clumsy tactical offensive at Seven Pines. Confederate casualties approached 8,000 for the campaign, while Union losses fell short of 7,500.

Far from pursuing a strategy that shortened the Confederacy’s life, Lee crafted victories in 1862 and 1863 that convinced a majority of his people that independence could come as long as the Army of Northern Virginia remained in the field. That belief held firm until the last stages of the war and, more than any other factor, explains why Confederates fought as long and as hard as they did. For Lee, as with Grant, numbers should not be the principal yardstick by which we judge their actions and establish their historical reputations.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here