Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee; drawing by David Levine

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.

Though severe, Nolan’s criticisms of Lee are not mean-spirited—with one exception. The chapter entitled “The Price of Honor” maintains that by August 1863, after Gettysburg and Vicksburg, or at the latest by June 1864, when his army was pinned in the trenches before Petersburg and Richmond, Lee recognized—or should have recognized—that the war was lost. Thus every man killed or maimed, every farm or factory destroyed, every widow and orphan created during the last twenty or ten months of the war was Lee’s responsibility. He had the same authority to surrender, writes Nolan, “anywhere from twenty to five months prior to April 9, 1865…as he had on April 9.” Yet he fought on “in the absence of any rational purpose” except to salvage the South’s honor as well as “Lee’s personal sense of honor…. There is, of course, a nobility and poignancy, a romance, in the tragic and relentless pursuit of a hopeless cause. But in practical terms” it meant another two or three hundred thousand dead.

In making this charge, Nolan has shed the role of historian for that of courtroom prosecutor. History must acquit Lee of this charge. The Confederacy’s cause was not hopeless after Gettysburg or at any other time before Lincoln’s reelection in November 1864. To suggest otherwise is inconsistent with Nolan’s own challenge to the thesis of inevitable Union victory. The idea that Lee should have surrendered a still potent army seems perverse. Lee’s surrender in 1863 or 1864 would not have ended the war, for the Confederate government, most of its people, and indeed most of the soldiers themselves were determined to carry on. As it was, the war continued for seven weeks after Appotomattox until Jefferson Davis was captured and other Confederate armies had surrendered.

Despite my dissent from some of the arguments in this book, I find it one of the most stimulating as well as provocative revisionist studies of the Civil War. It is also full of unconscious irony—that is, the themes are ironic, though Nolan’s approach is not. We have Lee the professed unionist and emancipationist fighting for disunion and slavery; Lee the general who won more battles than almost any other but lost the war; Lee the humane Christian who caused untold death and sorrow. But the central irony of Lee’s career is missing from the book. When he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862, the Confederacy was on the verge of collapse. In the previous four months it had experienced crucial military defeats in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina; it had lost its largest city, New Orleans, much of the Mississippi Valley, and most of Tennessee; McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had moved to within five miles of Richmond, where the Confederate government at one point had packed the archives and treasury on special trains to evacuate the capital. Within three months Lee’s offensives had taken the Confederacy off the floor at the count of nine and had driven Union forces onto the ropes. Without Lee the Confederacy might have died in 1862. But slavery would have survived; the South would have suffered only limited death and destruction. Lee’s victories prolonged the war until it destroyed slavery, the plantation economy, the wealth and infrastructures of the region, and virtually everything else the Confederacy stood for. That was the profound irony of Lee’s military genius.

“From the summer of 1862,” wrote a Confederate veteran, “the war became a war of wholesale devastation. From the spring of 1864, it seemed to have become nearly a war of extermination.” This escalation of the Civil War from a limited to a destructive war is a dominant theme in Brooks Simpson’s new study of Grant and Charles Royster’s interpretation of Sherman and Jackson. Restoration of the pre-1861 Union was the initial Northern war aim. Lincoln hoped this could be accomplished by a limited military action to “suppress” the minority of Southern “insurrectionists” who had gained momentary sway over the presumed Union-loving majority. In his proclamation of April 15, 1861, calling out 75,000 militia for this purpose, Lincoln promised that these forces would avoid “any devastation, any destruction of, or interference with, property, or any disturbance of peaceful citizens.” In December 1861 Lincoln still hoped that the war would “not degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.”1

Union military success from February through May 1862 seemed to promise imminent victory without extensive destruction. But the bloody battle of Shiloh in April 1862 had raised disturbing questions. General Grant, Union commander at Shiloh, had previously won easy victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, which convinced him that the Confederacy was a hollow shell about to collapse. But when the Confederates regrouped and counterpunched so hard at Shiloh that they nearly beat him, Grant changed his mind. He “gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest,” he wrote.2 As Brooks Simpson makes clear in Let Us Have Peace, Grant had a Clausewitzian grasp of the relationship between military strategy and political war aims—precisely the quality that Lee lacked, in Alan Nolan’s judgment. Having initially hoped to put down rebellion without destroying property or eliminating slavery, Grant learned in 1862 that only remorseless, revolutionary war would do the job. “If [the South] cannot be whipped in any other way than through a war against slavery,” he wrote, “let it come to that.”

By the summer of 1862, after Lee’s counteroffensive drove Union forces away from Richmond, Lincoln arrived at the same conclusion. The government could not fight this war “with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water,” he said in an unwonted burst of sarcasm. The rebels “must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt.”3 The emancipation of slaves owned by rebels had become, said Lincoln in July 1862, “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union,” for slaves provided the labor force that fueled the Confederate war economy. “Decisive and extensive measures must be adopted,” said the President, who now embraced the idea of a relentless conflict that would overthrow the Southern social system. “We [want] the army to strike more vigorous blows. The Administration must set an example, and strike at the heart of the rebellion.”4

Lincoln approved orders that went out from General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to Grant and other field commanders. “Handle that class [Confederate sympathizers] without gloves,” directed Halleck in August 1862. “Take their property for public use…. It is time that they should begin to feel the presence of the war.” In early 1863 Halleck noted that “the character of the war has very much changed within the last year. There is now no possible hope of reconciliation with the rebels…. We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them. Every slave withdrawn from the enemy is the equivalent of a white man put hors de combat.”5 Two years later, after billions of dollars of Southern property, including slaves, had been confiscated, railroads and bridges destroyed, factories and cities burned, crops laid waste, and one quarter of Southern white men between the ages of twenty and forty killed, Lincoln said in his second inaugural address:

Fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”6

William Tecumseh Sherman was the bluntest spokesman and most hardened practitioner of relentless war. Yet he came reluctantly to that position. After the first battle of Bull Run, where Sherman commanded a brigade, he deplored the pillaging by his soldiers:

No Goths or Vandals ever had less respect for the lives and property of friends and foes…. My only hope now is that a common sense of decency may be inspired into the minds of this soldiery to respect lives and property.

As late as July 1862 Sherman, then in Tennessee, complained of Union troops who took mules and horses from farmers. Such “petty thieving and pillaging,” he wrote, “does us infinite harm.”7

This does not sound like the Sherman we know. And, indeed, he soon changed his view. His initial attitude had rested on the belief in a residual unionism among the Southern people that should be fostered rather than alienated. But his experience as commander of occupation forces in western Tennessee during the latter half of 1862 disabused him of this notion. Hostile civilians who supported Confederate guerrillas and cavalry raiders swarming in the Union rear convinced Sherman that “all in the South are enemies of all in the North…. The whole country is full of guerrilla bands….It’s about time the North understood the truth that the entire South, man, woman, and child, is against us, armed and determined.”8

This experience plus the escalating intensity of military operations underlay Sherman’s conviction, expressed during the famous march from Atlanta to the sea in 1864, that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”9 No one made Southerners feel the hard hand of war more than Sherman. His army cut a swath of destruction fifty miles wide through Georgia and South Carolina, regions that would never again provide food and material for Confederate armies. Perhaps “we cannot change the hearts of those people,” acknowledged Sherman, “but we can make war so terrible…[and] make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.”10 It was not pretty, but it was effective. After Sherman had passed through South Carolina, a citizen of that state wrote that “all is gloom, despondency, and inactivity. Our army is demoralized and the people panic stricken. To fight longer seems to be madness.”11

Sherman had a ready answer to Southerners who charged him with brutality and barbarism: “You brought all this on yourselves…you who, in the midst of peace and prosperity, have plunged a nation into war…who dared and badgered us to battle, insulted our flag…turned loose your privateers to plunder unarmed ships, expelled Union families by the thousands [and] burned their houses…. Talk thus to the marines, but not to me, who have seen these things.”12

Sherman’s methods and his grim philosophy—“war is cruelty and you cannot refine it”—anticipated twentieth-century warfare. He is often seen as a progenitor of what Russell Weigley has called “The American Way of War”—the unleashing of devastating power to destroy enemy resources and terrorize the civilian population. More than one analyst has drawn a direct line from Sherman to Hiroshima to My Lai to the bombing of Iraq, though conceding that Sherman’s methods destroyed only civilian property, not civilian lives.13 Royster resists the temptation to assert a causal connection between Sherman and Curtis LeMay. Twentieth-century wars would have happened as they did even if Sherman had never lived. “Sherman the creator of modern war has been largely a rhetorical rather than a historical figure,” Royster writes. “In the twentieth century the name of Sherman has taken on an incantatory quality; speak it, and all the demons of destruction appear.”

Even in the Civil War itself, Royster maintains, Sherman and other practitioners of destructive war were more effect than cause. The tendency toward total war was present at the outset, from the moment the guns opened on Sumter. “Americans did not invent new methods of drastic war during the Civil War,” Royster believes, “so much as they made real a version of conflict many of them had talked about from the start.” Senator Benjamin Wade spoke of “making the south a desert” as early as December 1860, four months before the firing on Fort Sumter. Once the shooting began, a Milwaukee judge said that Northern armies should “restore New Orleans to its native marshes, then march across the country, burn Montgomery to ashes, and serve Charleston in the same way…. We must starve, drown, burn, shoot the traitors.”

Such sentiments were by no means confined to Yankees. Southern rhetoric was if anything more vehement, and that of Southern women most ferocious of all. “Let Yankee cities burn and their fields be laid waste,” a Savannah newspaper proclaimed. “It surely must be made plain at last that this is to be a war of extermination,” a Richmond editor wrote. A month after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Annie Maney of Nashville prayed that “God may be with us to give us strength to conquer them, to exterminate them, to lay waste every Northern city, town and village, to destroy them utterly.”

Stonewall Jackson epitomized this yearning for a destructive war against the Yankees. A devout Presbyterian almost to the point of religious fanaticism, Jackson seemed to be Oliver Cromwell reincarnated in the nineteenth century. Royster emphasizes Jackson’s preeminent quality of “relentlessness…. He tried to kill as many of the enemy as possible, and he did not shrink from getting his own men killed doing it.” Jackson repeatedly urged invasion of the North to “destroy industrial establishments wherever we found them…and making unrelenting war amidst their homes, force the people of the North to understand what it will cost them to hold the South in the Union at bayonet’s point.” So great did Jackson’s reputation become in 1862 that one Arkansas woman rejoiced at the rumor that he had crossed the Potomac and “is encamped on the ashes of Washington City.”

Jackson never got that opportunity. But Royster is convinced that he would have seized it if he had. If the chances of war had fallen differently, Jackson might have become the Southern Sherman; Pittsburg and Harrisburg might have suffered the fate of Atlanta and Columbia. As it was, Confederate cavalry torched Chambersburg and Southern saboteurs tried to set fire to several New York hotels. But Royster sometimes tends to confuse rhetoric with reality. His premise that the destructive mentality existed from the beginning, and the topical organization of his chapters, which disregards chronology, gives the book a static quality that precludes a sense of the dynamic, evolving, escalating scope of the conflict. Less than half of the book deals with its main theme; the remainder wanders among a dozen or more apparently unrelated topics, among them the Lost Cause phenomenon, Allen Tate and the Nashville Fugitives, Civil War journalism, and Lincoln’s dreams. What could have been a tightly written 250-page book becomes instead a curiously disjointed, discursive 500-page tome.

Nevertheless, some of its passages sparkle, as do portions of the other two volumes under review. Together they illustrate the particularly Clausewitzian nature of the Civil War wherein military strategies and campaigns cannot be separated from their political background and purpose. Simpson makes a strong case for Grant as the most Clausewitzian of all; one wonders, though, what happened to his political acumen when he became president. Perhaps Simpson will tell us in a future study. Beyond Clausewitz, these books also demonstrate that military history cannot be understood apart from the values, ideology, and culture of societies at war. Historians of the common soldiers in the Civil War have shown the way to write this innovative and exciting kind of analysis; now we have three studies of the war’s foremost generals to help military history come of age as a serious scholarly discipline.

This Issue

November 7, 1991