View single post by Wrap10
 Posted: Wed Aug 6th, 2008 02:16 am
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Wrap10
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It's an interesting question about Lee, asking if he was overrated. I guess it depends on what we're measuring him against. If it's his ability to win battles, then I doubt most people would say he was overrated. if it's his ability to walk on water, then despite his historical reputation, I'm afraid the answer is yes, he is indeed overrated. As would we all be. I do know that anytime someone offers a criticism of Marse Robert though, they risk a serious backlash. But I guess I'll risk it. :)

I have a hard time deciding exactly how I view Lee. The best I can come up with is that he was something of a star-crossed commander. Brilliant, even amazing victories, combined with some astonishingly reckless and costly decisions. Did he prolong the life of the Confederacy, or help doom it to failure? That's another interesting question. I seem to go back and forth on the answer, but I tend to lean more toward "prolong" than "doom." Perhaps he did a little of both. Maybe that could be the subject of a different discussion.

On the whole, I think Lee was an exceptional commander. There is no doubt about that. But there are times when I honestly wonder, what on earth was the man thinking? For instance, the decision to stand and fight at Sharpsburg. Especially on the 18th. If there is one single, mystifying decision in the war, above and beyond all others, that would probably be it for me - Lee's decision to stay put and offer battle again on September 18th, at Sharpsburg. If McClellan had had the killer instincts of a Lee, Jackson, Grant, or Sheridan, the war in the East would have ended right then and there. Then how would we view Lee as a commander?

Lee did a truly masterful job of handling his army in that battle. But even given that, his army's survival was due in large part to hesitation and incompetence on the Union side, mainly in the form of McClellan and Burnside. Lee’s decision to offer battle there in the first place was reckless, and his decision to remain on the field and offer battle again on the 18th bordered on military suicide. It may have been a calculated decision based on his famous ability to get an accurate read on McClellan, but even if so, I think it was an incredibly foolish gamble. He was risking his army in return for...what? What could he possibly hope to gain by staying there?

Was he betting that McClellan wouldn’t attack again? That's difficult to believe. Even given how long it took him to finally do so, Mac had already shown he was willing to attack. There was no reason to believe he wouldn’t do so again. And while I forget the exact number, he still had thousands of reserves. At least one entire corps that had not seen battle the previous day. Still more nearby. I don’t know what Lee’s reasoning was, but if he was gambling that McClellan would not attack again, it’s beyond my understanding. The fact that McClellan didn't attack was sheer luck on Lee's part. His men would not have held. They would have tried for all they were worth, and they were worth a great deal. But they would not have held.

Or did Lee opt to stay because he honestly believed his army was still capable of winning the battle? If that was the case, then he was deluding himself. His army had not been pushed to the breaking point the day before. They had been pushed beyond the breaking point. Despite everything that Lee and his magnificent army did in that battle, their line was broken in the center, and their right flank was turned. Either event should have spelled the end of the battle and the end of Lee’s army. Both times, it was mainly incompetence in the Union leadership that saved the day for them.

Yes, I realize the importance of A.P. Hill at the end of the day, and he and his men deserve every bit of praise they receive. But to me, the point is that Hill's men never should have had the chance to do what they did. The battle should have been decided before they arrived. Even after they attacked and pushed Burnside back, he still could have turned the tables on them. He had Hill outnumbered by something like two-to-one, possibly more. But as with McClellan, the fight had gone out of him by that point. If it was ever in him to begin with.

As for Lee himself, there were times when his aggressiveness worked absolute wonders, and other times - such as the battle of Antietam - when it came near wrecking his own army. Perhaps at Antietam he was blinded by that same belief of invincibility in his own men that possessed him at Gettysburg. A belief that wherever a southern army commanded by Robert E. Lee went, no Union army or Union commander could defeat it, or him. In that he was wrong. He finally learned that bloody lesson, as he admitted himself, on the third day at Gettysburg. He was fortunate indeed that he did not learn it on the second day at Antietam. That's the way it seems to me.

Perry

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