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On Lee…


The tangle between Robert E. Lee imagery, Confederacy worship, white supremacy, and human rights is far too complex to take on in anything shorter than a three volume set (although here’s a screed I penned in my frivolous youth) but it’s worth noting that the United States Navy at one point saw fit to name a nuclear ballistic missile submarine after the treasonous General. As to Grover’s last question:

One other thing about Lee. Even aside from the terrible cause for which he was fighting, it is arguable that the US military shouldn’t even celebrate Lee as a great American general. Fortunately for the North, Lee didn’t remember George Washington’s more judicious generalship against a superior force or realize the simple lessons of insurgency later popularized by people like Lawrence of Arabia and Mao.

There’s obviously a ton of material on this, and I claim no special expertise on the subject. Some general thoughts:

  • For the reasons I made clear here, insurgency wasn’t an option for the Confederacy. Davis and Lee appreciated (whatever there beliefs about the robustness of slavery in its 1860 configuration) that allowing Union armies unfettered access to the interior South would destroy the social system they were fighting to save. The Civil War was about declaring independence in order to preserve this system; only in the last few months, when the destruction of the system was already at hand, was it possible to envision alternative military strategies.
  • I don’t regard the invasions of the North (in either 1862 or 1863) as strategic errors. Rather, I think of them as Lee’s effort to resolve the other problem mentioned in the above link, which is that the Union occupied vast swaths of the South and was unlikely to give those territories up even if it conceded defeat in the Potomac theater. By raiding into the North in strength, and perhaps even threatening Washington, Lee could credibly offer a chip for regaining some lost Confederate territories. I don’t think that this was a strategy that was particularly likely to work (capturing Washington was probably beyond the capacity of the Army of Northern Virginia, as was destroying the Army of the Potomac), but Lee had to do something about the fact that the Confederacy was crumbling while the status quo endured in Virginia. Of course, an alternative would have been to use interior lines to attempt to either recapture territory in the West or prevent its loss in the first place. I don’t know why Lee preferred invasion; it may have something to do with tensions inside the Confederate Army, the Confederate government, or with Lee’s belief in his own abilities and that of his Army.
  • At the tactical and operational levels, I think that Lee was an outstanding commander. He repeatedly fought larger, better equipped Union formations, often on unfriendly ground, and did very well. He certainly made key mistakes, but this is inevitable in a campaign as long and large as the US Civil War. Lee had advantages that many commanders don’t; he knew many of his opponents personally, and could gauge their proclivities and likely behaviors.  But then his opponents also knew him, in many cases better than he knew them.  Causing and capitalizing on mistakes is part of the job, and Lee by and large did this very well.
  • A positive evaluation of Lee’s military skills makes the problem of his moral monstrosity even more acute; there’s a good argument to be made that through his decision to join the rebellion he substantially extended the Civil War. But then as others have noted, for the abolition of slavery to become a Northern priority the war probably had to last beyond a few months in any case.,
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