In the years since the end of the American Civil War, many myths have been allowed to grow out of the manner of the Confederate defeat. Not the least of these is the legend of Robert E. Lee. In this piece, we of the Underground Railroad will try to dispel some of those myths.

This is Myth Number 1. Robert E. Lee seemed to be proud of the fact, up until Gettysburg, that he had never left the enemy in command of the field. We seem to recall from an earlier command, prior to the Army of Northern Virginia, that one General George B. McClellan kicked his butt but good in the soon-to-become-independent-from-secessionist-Virginia, West Virginia, and that his reputation was so damaged that when he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia his sobriquet was "Old Granny". And it was no compliment! The man whom he replaced, Joseph Johnson, was a far better general who understood better than most what conducting a defensive war was all about. It should also be borne in mind that the plan to oust McClellan from the gates of Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign was in fact Johnson's and not Lee's.

Which brings us to Myth number 2. It is frequently claimed that Lee's campaign against McClellan on the Peninsula was a smashing chain of victories. Whilst we will concede that by vacating the field McClellan gave victory to Lee's army, each individual battle in the Seven Days was, in fact, a tactical Confederate defeat. The Federal Army of the Potomac inflicted heavier casualties on Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in each of the individual engagements before being ordered by the timid McClellan to withdraw back to Harrisons Landing, the worst defeat of the campaign possibly being inflicted at Malvern Hill. But we have to concede that the Seven Days was a tactical defeat for the Federal cause, although, in the end, it could be claimed as a strategic victory in that the inflicting of such heavy casualties seriously weakened the long-term ability of the Confederacy to wage war against the Union.

It is perhaps part of the myth that is so conveniently forgotten by his supporters that, for the most part, his major opponents in command of the Army of the Potomac were such total disasters. It was not until the advent of George Gordon Meade that the myths were finally laid bare for examination, although McClellan finally, with a little good fortune, gave him a bloody nose at Antietam. Unfortunately, poor Little Mac was unable/unwilling to give Lee's butt yet another good kicking as in West Virginia. But we have to ask what in the world made Lee go on the offensive into Maryland in the first place. It was his plan, as was the Gettysburg campaign of the following year, but a little forethought would have shown it to be a disaster in the making. He was one of the first to advise Jefferson Davies of the necessity of fighting a defensive war, and as such we concede he was a master tactician, witness Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. But offensive campaigning is a different beast altogether, and we opine that he never really got to grips with it.

Much is made of his ability to divide his forces and strike at multiple targets. However, on the two occasions he tried it, he very nearly came unstuck, and would have if the then Federal commanders (McClellan and Hooker successively) had pressed a little more vigorously. During the Maryland Campaign, he divided his force so that Jackson (and there was a tortured soul, if ever there was one) could capture Harpers Ferry. This was no great feat, since Harpers Ferry was recognised as being undefendable. The garrison commander actually disobeyed orders by staying and fighting for it, thus losing valuable troops from the upcoming campaign (a mistake that would not be made the following year).

The myth that Lee was invincible was finally laid to rest at Gettysburg where, against all advice from his lieutenants, he threw away the advantage of the tactical victory of the 1st day. It must be said that he was not served well by Jackson's replacement, Richard S. Ewell, but Lee picked him and the ultimate responsibility lies with Lee. This battle, if none other, showed his offensive naivety. Against advice to work around the Federal flank, he assaulted an unassailable position, at least from the point of view of pure numbers. If the numbers had stacked up the other way, i.e. 3-to-1 in his favour, he may have stood a chance. But with a 3-to-1 disadvantage in available manpower, he stood no chance. Supporters will argue that it is easy to be wise with the hindsight of 135 years, but this axiom was well known even in the days of the American civil War.

From Gettysburg to the end, Lee never mounted another offensive stroke, with the exception of the Fort Steadman fiasco. This effort was easily defeated by a single division of a single corps, while president Abraham Lincoln conducted a grand review of other troops, thus showing the contempt with which the Federal Army of the Potomac finally held the Army of Northern Virginia. Days later, Grant and Meade launched the final offensive of the war, and crushed what little life remained in the ANV.

The final myth is perpetuated by those who should know better. And that is that Robert E. lee was the most-loved general in American history. I doubt that his would hold much water in the Federal camps, since he was stripped of US citizenship, which was never restored, even after death1. And some of his later biographers gave such evidence as to try to shift all the blame for his shortcomings onto his most dependable and loyal subordinate, James Longstreet.

We give him credit for the one final act, which prevented the ANV from degenerating into a bunch of guerrillas, namely the manner of surrender at Appomattox.

Thus have we of the Underground Railroad dispelled the myths surrounding Robert E. Lee. All of his "victories" were entirely pyrrhic in nature, with the exceptions of Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor. Such victories cost the Confederacy dearly in the post-war years, to the extent that fairly minor achievements took on major proportions in southerners minds, a trait that continues to this day. Could it be that the Confederacy could not afford Robert E. Lee? It is a question that can be answered - definitely not!

Confederate Railroad

The "Confederate Railroad" is a pseudonym for a group of writers and is written to cause a reaction.

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, February 2000

  1. The above article states "[Lee] was stripped of US citizenship, which was never restored, even after death." In actual fact, his citizenship was restored in 1975 - see University of Texas Article - Speech Number 750473 for confirmation of this.