The Myth of Robert E. Lee
"People have a knack of wrapping truth in myth"
By Christopher C.L. Custer, MD
While myths in military history abound and they often get in the way of truth. Truth is what a historian should strive to find. Unfortunately, history is often written by the victor, and they are people and all people have either sub consiousnesly or willing biases. My way to find the truth is to look at as many perspectives as I can. Somewhere in between these perspectives you will find the truth.
I am now going to look at the reasons for the myth and enigma of Robert E. Lee. His personality was of kindness and caring particularly towards his troops yet he willingly committed his men to perform frontal assaults like Picketts Charge despite all of his subordinate officers warning him of the folly of the charge.His men would follow him to the gates of Hell. By anyother name, he did lead them into Hell, the slaughter of his soldiers, over half were casualties, in a field between Seminary and Cemetary Rigdes. To me that’s an enigma- a person doing things that are inconsistent with their personalities.
While his battle record is impeccable, defeating armies twice the size the size of his army, his tactics were suspect(1). Despite his flawed tactics he had the audacity and manuever to pull victories from the jaws of defeat. First of all his aggressivness did not match the type of personality the South called for. As James McPherson said the south didn’t have to win the war, they just couldn’t lose the war. The Union on the other hand had to subdue the South and take territory. It had to win. General Lee with his aggressiveness stuck his head out and obligingly the Union cut it off. Now there is something to be said about the phrase "the best defense is a good offence", but it didn’t work well for the South- for in hindsight they lost the war. Interestingly, most of battles subsequently including Gettysburg, Lee lost using his insistence of constant offensive tactics. Other factors were also involved with these defeats. But one thing was clear, Lee did not anticipate Grant’s tactics of attrition and keep having Lee react to him to eventually bring the North victory.
Another deficiency in Lee’s tactics was he used impossibly complicated battle plans needing precise coordination almost impossible in the pre-radio. An example of this was General Lee’s inability to coordinate his troops at Cheat Mountain. Why haven’t we heard of this battle- the myth of General Lee’s myth of invicibility is a major factor. The second day of Gettysburg was another example his inability to coordinate two attacks simultaneously on the right and left flanks of the Union. General Ewell was to attack Culps Hill and General Longstreet who had an unexpectedly long march to Little Round Top. As a result these attacks were not coordinated and failed.
A further deficiency was General Lee use of outdated tactics. He like most officers trained at VMI or West Point and used Napleonic tactics where frontal assaults were often successful. But these tactics depended on the relatively short ranges of smooth bore muskets, accurate to a range of 100yds. However while these tactics were satisfactory for the Mexican War, the age of the muzzle loading rifles was dawning. These rifles had an accurate range of 600yds. This is what frontal assaults had to deal with in the Civil War, 18 volleys vs. 2 or 3 volleys. A recipe for slaughter and failure. Yet General Lee continued to use frontal assaults inspite of 7 out of 8 of frontal assaults in the Civil War failed.
Finally his orders were often ambiguous and gave his subordinates wide discretion. His way of giving orders to might be the beginning of Austragtactik (mission based tactics). Support for these tactics was von Moltke the Elder who said that "any battle plan would not suvive the first contact with the enemy" is true. However with his type of command style General Lee could also lose control and the discretion misapplied. An example of this was the second day of Gettysburg when General Lee ordered General Ewell to attack the enemy around Culps Hill if at "all practicable". Ewell judged that it was not practicable and rested his weary divisions. He was not dererlict in his duty for his troops had just forced marched to their present position. However his delay might have cost him the battle for he gave the Union the time to fortify their position and to gather reinforcements. If Thomas Stonewall Jackson was not killed at Chancellorville and commanded his divisions instead of Ewell, he surely would have attacked and probably have taken Culps Hill. As a result Jackson could have rolled up the whole Union line and win the Battle of Gettysburg. If the Confederates won Gettysburg, England might have supported them. Bringing her powerful navy to bear England would have broken the Union’s blockades. With open seas the South could have exchanged its cotton for manufactured goods. If this occurred the South could not lose the war and prevail as a new nation. Granted this is all supposition, but it was possible.
A military figure’s fate in history depends on the outcome of his most important or last battle he fought. Just look at Montgomery and el Alamein, Zhukov and Stalingrad and the battle of Berlin, and Mac Arthur and him wading ashore as victor of the Philippines. These men are known though out the schools in the U.S. and Western Countries. How then did the General Lee myth remain, despite his failures at Gettysburg and losing the war. His war record contribution to his myth is beyond reproach, yet there is a second reason to create the myth. I think another factor was his physical and mental character, in short his charisma- a person very easy to mythologized. Part of this appearance is because we all have an exaggerated picture of him. The extraordinary bravery he supposedly showed ( he never led from the front), the picture he cut, mounted in his uniform on his horse, Traveler and his eyes and beard all contributed to his myth. His mental character was one of resignation of accepting of many burdens that he neither took pleasure or advantage(2).This burden was his disagreement with his home state, Virginia, on succession. He didn’t like the idea of Virginia succession, yet he kept on soldiering on for a cause he didn’t believe in(3). Reminds me of a greek tragedy where a basically good noble man ( General Lee) fails due to a misjudgement on his part ( decision to side with Virginia in the Civil War)that brings his downfall. This downfall elicits pity and fear for the protagonist. It is only a stone’s throw for sadness and pity toward an heroic figure to a myth.
In conclusion, General Lee , while his battle record contributed to his myth, a far greater contribution is General Lee’s physical and mental persona. He is the definition of a tragic figure, a figure that is very easy to turn into a myth.
1) Zinn, J.,R. E. Lee's Cheat Mountain Campaign, (1974).
2) www.smithsonianmag.com/history/making-sense-of-robert-e-lee, retrieved from the internet 7/9/2019.