Robert E. Lee and the American Civil War

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Robert E. Lee and the American Civil War

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1Urquhart
Redigeret: jul 17, 2014, 8:10pm


The recently released Michael Korda Clouds of Glory-the Life and Legend of R.E. Lee is a long, laborious, plodding account of his life. Did I mention it is also slow?

While there is mostly the same old material that most of us are used to, Korda has also quietly and almost inconspicuously managed to make a very compelling argument that I never saw raised before.

It is that R.E. Lee because of the character / personality of the man was the cause of the South not doing better than it did in the war. More specifically, he describes continuously throughout how very much Robert E. Lee was locked into a Romantic ideal of always having to play the part of the polite, unflappable, gracious, Southern gentleman. In doing so, he was unable to handle personal confrontations throughout the war that he should have addressed and yet failed to do so.

For instance, he could never bring himself to send direct orders to his commanders but rather only gently worded suggestions that they take certain specific appropriate action when they deemed it appropriate. This obviously resulted in real problems with Longstreet at Gettysburg, and in many other situations with other commanders. There were commanders he should have replaced and orders that he should have forced out; however his reserve, politeness, and deference to the ideal of that which he deemed courteous, proper, and polite forbade him from doing so.

Neither his wife, nor his daughters, when told to move to safer lodgings followed his guidance, despite his repeated requests and orders to do so in the most courteous of terms.

Of course he was a brilliant tactician, second in his class at West Point, and a tremendously popular general to his army and the people of the South. But it was this character flaw and his inability to handle personal face to face hostile confrontations that crippled him throughout his years of command of his army.

Yes, the North had more manufacturing, manpower, resources, railroads, navy, and a worthy cause to fight for. The South lacked them all, and the reading of this book shows that there were very many battles when the South could just as easily have won. However, it was Lee’s virtue of fulfilling the role of the Sorthern gentleman that was also his fatal flaw when it came to leading an army to the necessary successes on the battlefield and the ultimate victory.

As the book suggests, being a living, breathing apotheosis of the Southern gentleman of his time had its drawbacks.

NB: the proper code for Touchstone was used but is not currently working for Michael Korda Clouds of Glory-the Life and Legend of R.E. Lee

2BruceCoulson
jul 17, 2014, 4:39pm

Ordeal by Fire may have been the first book to suggest that Lee's character might have been a contributing factor; that Lee really WAS the plaster saint that so many later tried to turn Lincoln into (at least in the North...).

3Phlegethon99
jul 19, 2014, 9:17am

Note for the next secessionist uprising: No more Mr. Nice Guy.

4Urquhart
jul 19, 2014, 9:53am

Excellent point........

5Rood
jul 19, 2014, 12:05pm

I disagree with this sort of Lee bashing. Southern armies were hard-scrabble affairs ... it took enormous amounts of individual effort by both soldiers and civilians to keep them supplied, and no one knew this better than Lee. Even so, when it came down to it, he demanded all, and because everyone respected him, they came through, again and again. Had Lee demanded more structure, and had he been uncompromising ... I'm confident the South would have caved in long before Appomattox. When armies are living off the land, they have to have decentralized commands ... and only the commanders on site would know what could be done under individual circumstances.

6Urquhart
Redigeret: jul 20, 2014, 9:26pm

Rood, for me to have clearly said of Lee that:

Of course he was a brilliant tactician, second in his class at West Point, and a tremendously popular general to his army and the people of the South. But it was this character flaw and his inability to handle personal face to face hostile confrontations that crippled him throughout his years of command of his army.

is not by any stretch of the imagination "Lee bashing."

I personally grew up as a child with great reverence, like most Southerners, for the man and his virtues.

Even his horse Traveler was my idol as a child. How many people know the name of Grant's horse? If anyone does, please step forward and get the credit. Think I was alone in that love of the horse? Check this out:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveller_%28horse%29

Traveler even has a website:
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=3082

What I did not mention in my review of the book is that throughout the book, it really does read like one long, thoughtful and sincere eulogy. He apparently was everything I always thought him to be. That is why I was surprised by the point that the book made; it was new to me.

To point out one flaw in the man's character is simply not "Lee bashing." The fact you find it so, is the measure of the pedestal upon which this man rests in people's minds even today.

The man was mortal.

7TLCrawford
jul 21, 2014, 3:00pm

This is not Lee bashing either, he was a traitor to his country. Sure, I have heard the apologist line that he was loyal to his state but West Point is not the military college of Virginia and he was not commissioned into the the Army of Virginia when he graduated. He stabbed the nation that his ancestors helped found and that educated him in the back and brought on countless deaths by doing so.

8Rood
jul 21, 2014, 5:54pm

6> In this one single instance I disagree, as I consider Lee's relationship with his subordinates, one of mutual respect and trust, giving them the freedom to act according to their better judgment, the secret to his success as a leader of men. It may have resulted in terrible problems, as when his eyes and ears, J.E.B Stuart, disappeared for days at Gettysburg, and it may have resulted in foolish choices, as when, perhaps out of weariness and frustration, he disregarding his long, careful deferral to the wisdom of individual commanders by ordering Pickett's hopeless frontal charge, but this was not a gently worded suggestion, it was a direct order. He may have couched his order by saying to take the hill "if practicable", but by its very nature the order to attack calls into question Korda's premise. Perhaps Lee felt they had no other option, but it is one time he should have deferred to his subordinates, all of whom (with the possible exception of Pickett) sensed the utter futility of the attack.

In the trust Lee usually placed in his subordinates, he was, perhaps, the ultimate democrat, the ultimate American, as he instinctively believed in the sovereignty of the individual, the most difficult of all governments, as it requires the individual to take charge of his own life and circumstances.

9Urquhart
Redigeret: jul 22, 2014, 11:31am

In the interests of full disclosure on my side, I will say that by the age of 8-9 yrs. of age, I had on my bedroom wall above my head:
1. One picture of Robert E. Lee
2. One picture of the Battle of the Crater
3. One picture of a composite of Lee’s Generals
4. And one picture of James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart on his horse. I thought he was great.

And I have in my possession still that same Robert E. Lee carte de visite taken by Mathew Brady that looks something like this:
https://www.google.com/search?q=robert+e+lee+carte+de+visite&source=lnms&amp...

So as suggested before, my comments are not the comments of a typical Lee “basher.”

Thinking further today on the South's signing of surrender at Appomattox Court House, I think of the paintings one sees representing that great coming together of Grant and Lee. They are of course not totally realistic and yet they are in a way.

Taking this one picture among many for example:
https://www.google.com/search?q=grant+and+lee+at+appomattox&source=lnms&...

It shows Grant in a very plain uniform and Lee in his most formal parade dress attire with Sword. In point of fact Grant was dressed down more and was mud spattered according to the Korda book while Lee was truly in his finest wearing even a Sword minted in Paris that was the object of continuous envy to everyone in the room.

Each leader was in a sense very iconic or representative for his own respective side. Lee the exquisitely turned out Southern gentleman while Grant was mud spattered in his plain uniform. Throughout the book Lee is mentioned as fulfilling the Southern ideal of the Stoic Southern gentleman. One man the Romantic idealist and the other the ultimate pragmatic Realist.

It is great to have ideals as I had as a child, but maybe part of growing up is letting go the grand ideals and seeing what the Confederacy was fighting for was just plain wrong.

I am sure many of us read history with a wispy sense of nostalgia, dreaming about those things in time that never were nor could be. But that doesn't have to be one's dominating approach as one gets older.

Lee certainly moved into old age gracefully as President of Washington (& Lee) College and was eventually granted the U.S. citizenship by Gerald Ford that he requested.
http://civilwartalk.com/threads/general-lees-citizenship-restored.17667/

I still admire many of the virtues of Lee, even if I don't support his cause.

And it is reassuring for me to know that even Robert E. Lee, as great a leader and good a person, and Stoic though he was, that he also had personality shortcomings just like the rest of us. I mean he couldn’t even confront and give orders to his wife to pick up and move when need be. She was repeatedly caught behind enemy lines for her failure to follow his orders to move. I mean that pretty much qualifies them both for each being not only a little bit rigid in their own mind set, but downright (excuse me) dumb as well. And yes, the Yankees returned her, but come on…

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Just a note, for the record, Longstreet of course did not follow the few orders in a timely fashion that he was given at Gettysburg by Lee, and so has been thought by many to have cost Lee the battle of Gettysburg. In fact Longstreet disagreed with Lee throughout the war as to how it should be fought. He thought it should have been fought entirely with a defensive strategy.

And when it came time at Gettysburg for Longstreet to order Pickett to charge he simply could not bring himself to do that and instead only bowed to Pickett in response as to his question as whether or not he was to charge. Pickett was of course in no doubt that Lee had his men slaughtered and said as much often and publicly. Lee repeatedly told the returning soldiers from the battle fields that day that the failure was his alone and apologized. Boy, they don't make generals like they used to.

10TLCrawford
Redigeret: jul 22, 2014, 8:57am

And I used to have respect for President Ford. Since the pro-Lee forces are admitting to their early indoctrination at the hands of southern revisionists I will confess to the origins of my anti-Lee bias. My middle name is Lee, given to me by my Catholic / Baptist parents for Saint Timothy and my paternal grandfather Sherman Lee Crawford. His great uncles and great grandfather fought in the Civil War on opposite sides. All were from Kentucky and all survived. the animosity also survived. When Sherman Lee's father disappeared a little before 1910 suspicion fell on his rebel in-laws. The US Civil War lives on.

I also spent most of my youth living between Grant's birthplace, Point Pleasant, Clermont County, Ohio, and his childhood home in Georgetown, Ohio. I don't know if that made me pro-Grant or just cynical of all the insignificant local history plaques around the country.

11Urquhart
jul 23, 2014, 10:49am

Always a relief to know that people can avoid my commentary on America’s Civil War by going to other threads.

In Korda’s book, he pointed out the fact that in Pickett’s charge of over about ¾ of a mile of open field, that the men did not charge in the way we understand the word today where a soldier would rush forward. Rather, in their day, the word meant as if to walk slowly, surely and indomitably. So those men that went to their death did so very differently from what we might imagine today. I would think that takes a very special courage.

12BruceCoulson
jul 23, 2014, 11:24am

Lee acknowledged that he, as the commander, was ultimately at fault. Ever since then, innumerable commentators have done their best to shift the blame (generally to Longstreet, who wasn't well-liked by Southern historians for his conduct post-war, although his general capabilities as a commander are rarely questioned).

Most militaries adhere to the concept that the over-all commander is responsible for anything that happens, even if he knew nothing about the incident or couldn't have possibly prevented what happened. It works in reverse as well; the commander gets all the credit when victory is achieved.

Lee, and most of the other major commanders of the Civil War, were aware of this concept, which is why Lee accepted the failure of Pickett's Charge as his fault. It was his decision; it was his failure. In that, Lee wasn't being 'overly noble' or the 'perfect Southern gentleman'; he was acting as an exemplary commander.

The concept that Lee's very character, the perfection that inspired his men was also a handicap in some ways, has been noted previously; and I think there's some merit to it.

13Muscogulus
Redigeret: jul 28, 2014, 12:20pm

Michael Fellman, in The Making of Robert E. Lee, challenges two of the statements that have been taken as read here.

1. That Lee accepted sole responsibility for the failure of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg.
2. That his postwar career as a role model was exemplary and transcended politics.

Fellman finds that Lee accepted none of the blame for military failures while he was alive, pointing fingers at his subordinates while defending his own conduct and that of his soldiers (all of them) as unexceptionable. The story of his accosting some of Pickett's retreating men and saying, "I'm sorry — it's my fault" is as mythical as Washington's cherry tree, if I understood Fellman correctly. It interests me that this is a controversy among historians and I'd like to know the chain of evidence for the theory that Lee accepted blame.

I reviewed the book for LT, in case you're interested.

14Muscogulus
jul 28, 2014, 12:22pm

Touchstone: Clouds of Glory

15Urquhart
jul 28, 2014, 1:48pm

13>Muscogulus

So which author are we to believe?

Does the much longer Michael Fellman book mean he is more relaible?

I really don't know.

16TLCrawford
jul 29, 2014, 8:38am

Considering what we know about human nature and how Southern historians created the myths of the "Lost Cause" is there really any doubt as to which vision of Lee is most accurate?

17Urquhart
Redigeret: jul 29, 2014, 9:39am

So are you saying that all historians north of the Mason-Dixon are credible but those south of it are not?

What about Shelby Foote?

18shilpash
jul 29, 2014, 9:39am

Denne bruger er blevet fjernet som værende spam.

19BruceCoulson
jul 29, 2014, 10:38am

Northern historians who de-constructed the post-Reconstruction southern interpretation of the War Between the States also accepted that Lee's flaws did not include denying responsibility for his actions, and they certainly had little interest in promoting Southern mythology.

20TLCrawford
jul 31, 2014, 9:10am

#17. Not at all. However the revision of history done by southern historians after the Civil War is a fact and as they say, the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong but that is the way to bet.

History has been used to support political bias in the US since we started writing it. It started to get better in the 1960s. I suspect that a large part of that was the coming of age of the post war GI Bill historians writing from their perspectives. Prior to that most historians came from wealth and all their life experiences said that great men, their relatives, had made the USA what it was. Working class histories stood up and pointed out that it was not all candy and roses for most Americans and that writing a check was not the same as building a nation.

The "culture wars" were backlash against that. As is the rewriting of history texts to discredit, for instance, Thomas Jefferson for his role in the separation of church and state.

Did Lee take full credit for his failed strategy? Without reading the primary documents about the events and their aftermath I don't know. But I know that maintaining healthy doubt is important.

21Rood
jul 31, 2014, 6:50pm

Not having yet read Korda's book ... I'm curious if he wrote anything about Lee's thoughts, after the government appropriated the grounds of Arlington House as the site of a national cemetery in 1864. While searching for information, I found an interview with a park ranger, Matt Penrod, who has been assigned to the house for the past 20 years. He doesn't say anything about Lee's reaction, but apparently Mrs. Lee visited the property shortly before she died in 1873. According to Penrod, she had trenchant things to say about the matter. See

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/bonus-video/interview-matt-p...

22TLCrawford
aug 5, 2014, 9:44am

Has everyone seen this thread? There is talk of adding Lee to the Legacy Library project.

http://www.librarything.com/topic/178026#4797142

23DinadansFriend
Redigeret: aug 8, 2014, 6:55pm

Well, according to the Great Wikipedia, Grant often rode Cinncinnati, son to Lexington, Son of Boston, both famous thoroughbreds. Grant's memoirs mention Cinncinnati, as does someone in Battles and Leaders. And according to some of his biographers, Grant could ride pretty much anything, which was why his two riding accidents were so shocking. I also note that Grant was obviously a pragmatic when it came to mounts, and held that a fast horse was a good idea for a general. McClellan had a horse named Daniel Webster, and there's a website, for other hippophiles among us. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_horses_of_the_American_Civil_War.

To go to the larger topic....RE Lee did the best he could with the material, human, or otherwise that he had. So did US Grant, and most of the soldiers of your Civil War....I just think the South lost because of its lack of materials, and its poor strategic decisions, and Davis' unaccountable fondness for Braxton Bragg, and John Bell Hood. For the Western Army the South would probably done better with a team composed of Joseph Johnston and Beauregard, (who always worked well with a Johnston), and support from Richmond.

24Urquhart
aug 8, 2014, 8:17pm

Yes, Grant loved horses and as a child on his father's farm he was the one who traded horses, etc. He hated the family tannery business.

Later in the Mexican war he was quarter master and very often in charge of the horses.

Was an excellent horse trader.