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How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War by…

How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War

by Edward H. Bonekemper III

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Robert E. Lee has been lionized since the end of the 19th century as a military genius; a man who would have achieved victory for the Confederacy if only his armies had not been so outnumbered.

Southerners, needing something to ennoble their defeat in the cause of retaining slavery, chose Lee as the shining example of the South they wished to be seen as having fought for: brave, noble and honest.

In pursuit of that goal a concerted effort by former southern generals, heritage groups, and historians effectively insinuated that view of the war, and of Lee's supposed military genius, into mainstream consciousness. That view has largely prevailed in most biographies of Lee and in histories of the Civil War ever since.

This book provides a long-needed corrective.

The author argues persuasively that far from being the military genius that most believe him to be, Lee was largely a failure, both strategically and tactically. In fact he goes on to argue that Lee's actions are largely to blame for southern defeat.

Both arguments are persuasive, with some caveats.

Strategically the author argues, Lee was fighting the wrong war. Overly aggressive, constantly looking to take the offensive even in victorious battles, he unnecessarily squandered his army, wracking up casualty rates the south could not sustain. His forays into the North at Antietam and Gettysburg were disasters from the outset, guaranteeing at least the perception of defeat as he was forced to retreat back into Virginia, and in the case of Gettysburg an actual and devastating defeat.

He should have been playing defense as most of his subordinate generals advocated, preserving men and materiel until divisions in the north finally broke its will to carry on the war.

The author, slightly less persuasively, argues Lee was also deficient tactically; utilizing a hands off approach to battles that often left his army wondering what to do, and allowing subordinates to decide for themselves what path to take without consideration of the overall strategy. Lee often issued vague orders, and except in his collaboration with Stonewall Jackson, was unimaginative planning battles; preferring either doomed frontal assaults, or devising plans so complicated they had no chance of success.

I think here the author sometimes takes the least flattering view of Lee's action and asserts it as the truth when other equally plausible interpretations might put Lee in a better light.

The overall effect of his argument here is still quite persuasive though.

Lastly I think the author stretches a bit blaming Lee for the failures of others, particularly John Bell Hood.

Overall a devastating critique of Lee as a military leader that is at least as persuasive - more so in my opinion - as those histories that lionize his achievements.

( )
  mybucketlistofbooks | Jan 10, 2015 |
Bonekemper has written a book that many Civil War history buffs will find outrageously controversial. His thesis, that Gen. Lee lost a winnable war through incompetent leadership, is broken down into the following claims:

1) By taking the war into the North, Lee followed an ill-conceived strategy that had no chance of ultimate success. He could not maintain himself in supply at that distance from his base. He would eventually have to retreat, making it seem like he had been defeated, whether he had been or not. Further, he was making poor use of the two strategic advantages that the South had: a) they did not have to conquer the North in order to win the war, they only had to outlast them; and b) with their internal lines of communication, they could shift men and resources to the places where they most needed them.

2) Lee's strategical viewpoint was influenced by his focus on the war in the East, and particularly the war in Virginia. He demanded and received the best of everything the South had to offer, and used it to fight for Virginia rather than for the South as a whole. He ignored important developments in the West, and denied that theatre resources that might have prevented its collapse. This myopia eventually allowed his own forces to be cut off and surrounded.

3) Lee's strategy was made even worse by his preference for being on the offensive tactically. He failed to grasp that technological changes in weaponry had made massed charges on well-prepared defensive fortifications tantamount to suicide. He sent his soldiers into numerous assaults on Northern positions, that, even when they succeeded in driving back the enemy, were using up his manpower resources at an unsustainable rate.

4) Compounding the above errors, Lee was not good at managing his army. He failed to provide himself with an adequate staff that could oversee the carrying out of his orders. His orders themselves were often vague, discretionary, and delivered verbally so that they were subject to misinterpretation and distortion.

Anyone who is not wed to the image of Lee as a brilliant military commander will probably find himself being swayed by Bonekemper's arguments. Although born and raised in the South, my opinions on the Civil War make me an honorary Yankee. Therefore, I was entirely open to reading criticism of Lee, in spite of his iconic status. I found that at some point, though, I began to lose confidence in Bonekemper's objectivity. No possible objections to his viewpoint are presented or answered. He sets up the facts he wants the reader to focus on, and ignores everything else. Nowhere does he mention that the idea of an invasion of the North was promoted by Johnston before Lee ever took command, or that it was also floated by Jackson at the end of his Valley campaign. Nowhere does he mention that the weight of public opinion in the South was completely opposed to a defensive war, and would probably have forced the resignation of any general who attempted to fight in that manner. (Lee could hardly have argued in favor of a defensive war using the prestige that he only enjoyed due to his willingness to go on the offensive.) Nor does Bonekemper mention the material advantages in resources and advanced weaponry enjoyed by the North that would have made a defensive war unlikely to succeed. Although weaponry made great technological advances during the war, the South did not possess the advanced weaponry as soon or in the same quantity as the North. For example, the South's retreat in the face of McClellan's advance during the Peninsula campaign was necessitated by their lack of long range guns that could respond to an artillery bombardment by Northern batteries.

That said, I think there is some truth in Bonekemper's book, even if he does overstate his case. The South did not lose solely because of the decisions of one man, but Lee does bear some of the responsibility for the loss (not that I would have wanted the outcome to be different). Had Bonekemper tempered his arguments and taken into account some of the possible objections, this would be a much stronger book. Even so, I think it is worth reading for those who already have some knowledge of the issues. It is not a good book to start with in learning about the Civil War, though, and it is definitely not the last word on its subject.
1 vote Ardsgaine | Apr 4, 2012 |
Well done and convincing debunking of the Lee Mystique. ( )
  markbstephenson | Jun 3, 2010 |
The main defect of this work is that it is written by a lawyer. I mean that in the sense that he's seemingly more intersted in trying to prove a case against Lee than in being objective. Having said that, he makes a surprisingly strong case indeed. Especially as it relates to how Lee was so wedded to the offensive he ground his forces down to nothing and how his outlook was so parochially focused on Virginia he ignored or even undermined the other theaters of operation. And issued such vague or even contradictory orders to his subordinates that they could do almost anything they wanted. This worked with Jackson, but not with any of his other underlings. Some of the statistics seem of a rather dubious value, though they were interesting, I must admit. The hit vs. being hit type ratios mentioned being these questionable items. Overall, interesting and rather provocative. ( )
1 vote worldsedge | Aug 8, 2007 |
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