As many of you know I teach a Civil War seminar. The class is structured around two components, including research on the Valley of the Shadow as well as roundtable discussions of scholarly articles. This second component is very important as it teaches students to see history as more than just a collection of facts to be memorized. I want my students to understand that historical studies involve interepretation and this requires a formal argument. In pursuit of this goal I have students write 2-page thesis summaries of each article. This forces the student to read carefully with an eye towards picking out both the thesis and the evidence used to justify the thesis. Learning to write an analytical 2-page essay is great practice as many of my students are seniors and getting ready to start college. Last week we read an article by well-known Civil War historian Gary W. Gallagher. The article is titled, “When Lee Was Mortal” and appeared in Military History Quarterly (Spring 1998). The author is John Gregory. Feel free to offer constructive feedback as John is eager to respond.
With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, no other figure is more closely associated with the American Civil War than General Robert E. Lee. In this article, Gary Gallagher attempts to get to the roots of Lee’s iconic status and discover how even in life a man could have risen to a place of such high esteem in the hearts of so many people. Gallagher argues that Lee gave hope to Southern civilians through his victories in 1862-1863 that sustained their faith in the Southern cause through the dark days of 1864 and 1865. Gallagher asserts that Lee was very popular with his soldiers because they believed in his invincibility and overall that Lee was the personification of the Southern man. Gallagher also disputes competing accounts of Lee including Alan Nolan’s portrayal of “Lee the butcher.”
Gallagher weaves his tale of Lee like any great American story, from failure to success. After giving a brief history of Lee’s antebellum military career in the Mexican-American War and at West Point, Gallagher follows Lee’s path after his agonizing decision to resign his military commission in favor of his home state of Virginia. Lee went from one unimportant desk job to another in Richmond, and when he was finally given a command in western Virginia, he met with little success. Even after his somewhat more successful responsibilities involving the fortification of the South Carolina coast, he was still widely criticized. It was only as Union General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign reached the gates of Richmond that Lee rose to the forefront, assuming command of the Army of Virginia after the wounding of General Joseph Johnston. Gallagher believes that this moment in the summer of 1862 was the turning point of Lee’s career, and the course of the war. Gallagher shows how in the next year Lee turned the tide of the war in favor of the Confederates temporarily by taking the fight to the enemy, which galvanized his reputation as a military leader and as a man.
The major criticism of Lee early in the war was that he lacked aggressiveness; he was frequently called “old stick in the mud.” When desperation forced Lee into command he didn’t disappoint; once he had a large army on the battlefield, he continually engaged in offensive movements. Lee soon became known for his aggressiveness as he drove back the Union army, and won a string of impressive victories over the next year. This success not only made him popular with the Southern people but gave them a beacon of hope for their dreams of Southern independence. According to Gallagher, Lee served as a figurehead that everyone in the South could rally behind and believe in, as he continually delivered success on the battlefield. Even after the war turned in 1863, Southerners still believed in Lee and that kept them going to the end of the war. The idea of Lee as a figurehead is also prominent, as Gallagher points out, in Lee’s realization of the ideal Christian gentleman whom embodied honorable Southern values. Not only was Lee a great success on the field of battle but stood for everything elite white Southerners believed in, which only heightened his popularity. Lee’s success not only translated into popular civilian support but also in the loyalty of his soldiers. Gallagher opens his paper with a description of the final review of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864 and the enthusiasm and awe his presence inspired in the sixty thousand Confederate soldiers. Both soldier and civilian believed so strongly in Robert E. Lee’s leadership and invincibility that they didn’t believe that Gettysburg was a defeat, and that as long a Lee was in command that the South had a good chance of victory and gaining independence. Gallagher captures this last point very well by emphasizing that when Lee surrendered to Grant in April of 1865 there were still Confederate armies fighting, but the surrender of Lee sent the message that the war was over, and the remaining units soon surrendered as well.
Gallagher also refutes the thesis of Alan Nolan who argues that Lee’s command of the Army of Northern Virginia was detrimental to the Confederate cause because his campaigns cost too many human lives. Gallagher argues that while the loss of life was high, about 90,000 causalities in one year of Lee’s command, and mourned by the South, the victories, and confidence that Lee brought to the southern people in sustaining their confidence in the war was far more important than the human losses. He also states that even a largely defensive war would have been very costly in human lives, citing the examples of some of the unsuccessful Confederate generals in the West, and that the aggressiveness Lee displayed by attacking the Union Army was crucial in keeping the civilians supporting the war.
While Gallagher’s primary argument that Lee’s leadership generated popular civilian support for the war that keep the South fighting for three more years is very persuasive and probably correct on a certain level, there are still some holes. Unpopular wars have been waged by governments throughout history and been won, and while it is nice to have an inspired civilian population they are not the ones fighting the war. In this particular case, Lee’s popular support could only have done so much because of the grave difficulties faced by the Confederate government in fighting a war within a government based on the ideologies of states’ rights. Instead of focusing on the way Southern civilians faithfully supported Lee, Gallagher might have focused on the confidence the Southern soldiers had in Lee, as they continued to follow him and fight a war against an increasing larger and better equipped army. Lastly, the Gray Fox became known for his aggressive style which may not have been the greatest strategy for the war the South was waging. Traditionally, smaller nations that are fighting for independence in their homeland do not attempt to win the war but rather fight in a defensive or guerrilla style that demoralizes the enemy soldiers and civilians into ceasing the war. With the war protests that erupted in the North in response to Grant’s costly overland campaign in 1864, is it possible that Lee’s overly aggressive tactics earlier in the war should have been replaced by the hit and run defensive tactics he used later in the war that brought about such outcry in the North? Either way, despite leading a losing effort and raking up a costly bill in human life, Lee still remains immensely popular to an extent which still defies explanation.