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How Noble Was Robert E. Lee?

Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History

by Alan T. Nolan
University of North Carolina Press, 231 pp., $22.50

Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861–1868

by Brooks D. Simpson
University of North Carolina Press, 339 pp., $34.95

The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans

by Charles Royster
Knopf, 523 pp., $30.00

Alan Nolan’s previous book on the Civil War was a superb account of the Iron Brigade of the Army of the Potomac. He will need the same tough hide possessed by the Union veterans he described to endure the attacks from spiritual descendants of the legions who marched with Robert E. Lee. For Lee Considered is nothing less than a wholesale revision of the heroic image of the white South’s favorite icon. Nolan calls his study Lee Considered rather than Reconsidered because he believes that the figure of the legendary Lee has blocked genuine consideration of the historical Lee—apart from Thomas L. Connelly’s 1977 book, The Marble Man, which was primarily an account of the construction of the Lee myth.

Anticipating the outcry that will greet his interpretation, Nolan disavows any purpose to defame Lee. “I do not deny Lee’s greatness,” he assures the reader, but “Lee was, after all, one of us, a human being,…a great man but, indeed, a man” not a god. “Excessive adulation is not the stuff of history.” To a historian this is unexceptionable. But this disclaimer of bias is a bit disingenuous. Nolan is a lawyer by profession. The book has something of the tone of an indictment of Lee in the court of history, with the author as prosecuting attorney. He wants the jury—his readers—to convict Lee of entering willingly into a war to destroy the American nation. Lee did so, he believes, in the interest of perpetuating slavery. He pursued a faulty military strategy that ensured Confederate defeat, prolonging the war long after victory was possible at the cost of incalculable and unnecessary death and destruction. There is truth in some of these charges; it is not the whole truth, however. Nolan’s portrait of Lee may be closer to the real Lee than the flawless marble image promoted by tradition. But the prosecutorial style of his book produces some new distortions.

The Lee hagiography offers Nolan a big target. An early biographer of Lee wrote that “the Divinity in his bosom shone translucent through the man, and his spirit rose up to the Godlike.” The 1989 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana pronounced Lee “one of the truly gifted commanders of all time…one of the greatest, if not the greatest, soldier who ever spoke the English language.” The journalist-historian Douglas Southall Freeman, whose four-volume biography of Lee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 and did more to shape our image of Lee—indeed of the Civil War—than perhaps any other work, wrote of Lee: “Noble he was; nobler he became…a great and simple person. His character offers historians no moral flaws to probe.” Under the entry “personal characteristics” in his index, Freeman listed: abstemiousness, alertness, amiability, boldness, calmness, charm of manner, cheerfulness, courage, courtesy, dignity, diligence, fairness, faith in God, friendliness, generosity, goodness, good judgment, good looks, grace, heroic character, humility, integrity, intelligence, justice, kindness, mercy, modesty, patience, poise, politeness, resourcefulness, sincerity, tact, thoughtfulness, wisdom.

In his determination to cut this god-like icon down to human size, Nolan tackles first Lee’s reputation as an opponent of slavery and secession. These matters were important in the white South’s construction after the war of a Lost Cause mythology. According to this myth, a heroic people took up arms reluctantly to defend liberty and states’ rights against the overweening imperialist pretensions of Lincoln’s government in its war of Northern aggression against the South’s constitutional rights. In this rendition slavery had nothing to do with secession; the ugly truth that Southern states seceded and fought a war to preserve this institution became an awkward blemish on the image of a war for liberty and rights. Lee’s supposed opposition to slavery, therefore, was an essential part of the Lost Cause romanticism of the Confederacy. Lee “had believed steadfastly in gradual emancipation,” wrote Freeman; he was “personally opposed to slavery,” according to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, published in 1986; Lee himself told a congressional committee after the war that “I have always been in favor of emancipation.”

Like some other Southerners, during the antebellum era Lee privately described slavery as “a moral & political evil.” As executor of his father-in-law’s will, he carried out its provision for manumission of the slaves inherited by his wife. In the final months of the Civil War he urged the freeing and enlistment of slaves to fight for the Confederacy. But Lee also owned slaves, evidently sold some of them to a trader, and recaptured two slaves who had escaped. He denounced Northern abolitionists, defended the right of Southerners to take their slaves into the Western territories (the issue that provoked the sectional conflict leading to secession), and said during the war that the Confederacy fought to save “our social system [i.e., slavery] from destruction.” He did nothing to prevent his army from capturing dozens of blacks in Pennsylvania and sending them South into slavery during the Gettysburg campaign, and countenanced the Confederacy’s refusal to exchange captured black Union soldiers who had been slaves. And even as late as January 1865, Lee described slavery not as an evil but “as the best [relation] that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country.” The fair-minded reader must agree with Nolan’s conclusion:

Lee believed in slavery although, like many Southerners, he at the same time disliked it in the abstract…. The historical record flatly contradicts the assertion of Freeman and the Lee tradition that…Lee was personally opposed to slavery in any practical sense.

Before Virginia seceded in April 1861, Lee privately denied the right of a state to secede and lamented the breakup of the nation he had served for more than thirty years as an army officer. Yet when Virginia left the Union he promptly resigned from the army and, even before his resignation was accepted, became a general in the army of Virginia. This quick decision, accompanied by denunciations of “the aggressions of the North,” calls into question the legend of Lee the tragic hero forced by circumstances beyond his control to choose between loyalty to nation and loyalty to state. If Lee really opposed secession, why did he not remain loyal to the Union as did George H. Thomas, a Virginian, or David G. Farragut, a Tennessean, who became two of the top commanders in the Union forces? “Surely,” writes Nolan, “it is plain that Lee was a Southerner harboring Southern sectional feelings.”

This conclusion may oversimplify the ambivalence of Lee’s convictions and the difficulty of his choice. But Nolan’s treatment of the slavery and disunion themes provides a healthy corrective to the virgin-birth theory of secession, which held that the Confederacy was not conceived by any such worldly cause as slavery but by the divine principle—embodied in Robert E. Lee—of states’ rights and constitutional liberty. Nolan’s analysis of Lee’s generalship, however, is dubious in some respects, while brilliant in others.

The underlying premise of those who regard Lee as the “greatest soldier who ever spoke the English language” is the belief that the Confederacy had no chance to win the war; Northern preponderance in manpower, resources, and industrial might made Union victory inevitable. Thus Lee’s stunning victories and the Confederacy’s success in holding off the Yankee juggernaut for so long are testimony to Lee’s military genius. This image of a gallant welterweight inflicting repeated knockdown blows against a flailing heavyweight before finally succumbing to raw power is central to the romantic image of the Lost Cause. Nolan thoroughly discredits the notion of inevitable Union victory. Such an outcome was no more certain than was British triumph over the American Revolution or American victory in Vietnam. Confederate strength was relatively greater than that of the victors in those conflicts.

Then why did the South fail? Because, Nolan thinks, of Lee’s faulty choice of an offensive strategy. Instead of conserving manpower by a strategy of trading space for time and employing selective counterattacks against targets of opportunity, wearing down the will of the enemy as did George Washington, Lee repeatedly attacked and invaded, sacrificing his limited manpower until forced to surrender. Lee could have lost most of his battles but won the war, Nolan writes; instead he won most of his battles and lost the war. Turning the Lee legend on its head, Nolan asserts that the very qualities his admirers praise are those that ensured Confederate defeat: “devotion to the offensive, daring, combativeness, audacity, eagerness to attack, taking the initiative.”

Nolan is not the first to make this point. And at a glance it seems persuasive. Lee’s great victories produced a higher proportion of casualties in his own army than in the enemy’s. Of all army commanders on both sides in the Civil War, Lee’s troops suffered the highest percentage of casualties. Yet it was Grant who acquired the label of “butcher.” One comparison will illustrate the power of the Lee legend. Union casualties in the assault at Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864, numbered 7,000 in less than an hour. More than anything else, this attack gave Grant his reputation as a butcher. By a remarkable coincidence, Confederate casualties in Pickett’s assault at Gettysburg also totaled 7,000 in less than an hour. This was a 50 percent casualty rate—compared with 15 percent for Union troops at Cold Harbor. Yet Pickett’s charge has been celebrated in legend and history as the ultimate act of Southern honor and courage against the Yankee Goliath, while Cold Harbor symbolizes callous stupidity. The Lee legend has indeed romanticized some harsh realities.

But this is not to endorse Nolan’s main point that Lee’s offensive strategy lost a war he might otherwise have won. It is quite true that the Confederacy had a chance to win the war—not by conquering the North or destroying its armies, but by sapping the Northern will and capacity to conquer the South and destroy Confederate armies. On three occasions the Confederacy came close to winning on these terms. Each time it was Lee who almost pulled it off. His victories at the Seven Days and Second Manassas and the invasion of Maryland in the summer of 1862; his triumph at Chancellorsville and the invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863; and the casualties his army inflicted on Grant’s forces in the Wilderness-Petersburg campaign in the spring and summer of 1864, plus Jubal Early’s raid on the outskirts of Washington itself—these three campaigns each came close to sapping the Northern will to continue the war. The battles of Antietam and Gettysburg forced Lee to retreat from Maryland and Pennsylvania; Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and Sheridan’s victories over Early in the Shenandoah Valley turned Northern morale around in 1864. Thus Lee’s strategy in the end failed to win the war. But the point is that of all Confederate commanders, Lee was the only one whose victories had some potential for winning the war. The notion that a more gradual strategy would have done better is speculative at best. The one Confederate general who did adopt such a strategy, Joseph E. Johnston, might well have yielded Richmond in the summer of 1862 had Lee not replaced him; Johnston failed to raise the siege of Vicksburg in 1863; and he probably would have lost Atlanta in July 1864 had Jefferson Davis not relieved him of command.

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