Robert E. Lee: A Traditional General in a Modern War?

Last night Gary W. Gallagher presented a talk as part of UVA’s on-going symposium, “Lee at 200.”  Gallagher’s talk challenged a number of assumptions concerning Lee that collectively point to an old-style or traditional general who struggled to understand the tenets of modern war.  Such a view can be discerned in our popular culture, including the horrific movie Gods and Generals and even Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.  Just think of the music that is played in the background whenever Lee enters the story or the tone of Lee’s voice.  Now think of the way in which both Grant and Sherman are portrayed.  Consider the two images of Lee above.  On the one hand we prefer to think of the Lee on the left dressed in full uniform rather than the photograph taken by Brady just days after Appomattox.  One of the most popular points of contrast – usually mentioned in the context of the surrender at Appomattox – is the contrast between the way Lee and Grant dressed.  We know the drill so I am not going to repeat it.  Gallagher suggested, however, that Lee often dressed with a simple military jacket and colonel’s insignia.  The image of Lee in full military regalia does satisfy our desire to see him as more sophisticated or as somehow cut off from the dirtiness of war in comparison with Grant and Sherman.

The tendency to interpret Lee along traditional lines conforms to our broader assumptions that distinguish an agrarian South made up of cavaliers and a more industrial North made up of raucous immigrants.  We prefer to think of the South as stuck in the past and the war itself as a defensive posture against modernism.  Never mind the fact that the South ranked as the 4th most industrialized region on the planet or that a great deal of recent scholarship has successfully challenged this traditional picture of the South and has even demonstrated that large segments of the population were in fact quite progressive along economic lines.  Never mind the fact that just everybody in the North still farmed in 1860.

Gallagher presented a thorough overview of the literature on Lee and focused specifically on the various ways in which popular writer, beginning in the late 19th century, and scholars continue to interpret Lee as a commander out of step with the demands of modern war.  Early writers include John Esten Cooke, John W. Daniel, Charles Francis Adams, and more recently, Clifford Dowdey and Gene Smith.  All of them utilize the cavalier and other medieval imagery.  More recently, historians such as J.F.C. Fuller, Thomas Connelly, Alan Nolan and T.H. Williams have argued that Lee was unable to take in and appreciate the military situation beyond the Blue Ridge; rather, he was preoccupied with Virginia.  One of the nice things about a Gallagher talk is that you can always expect to get a good dose of historiography.  In fact, I don’t know too many Civil War historians who have as strong a grasp of the historiography of 19th century American history as Gallagher.

In contrast to this popular image of Lee, Gallagher believes that Lee was “perfectly attuned to the realities of a mid-19th century war.”  He was an ardent Confederate nationalist who paid close attention to the relationship between events on the battlefield and morale on the home front.  Perhaps the best example of Lee’s nationalism is his strong advocacy for a national draft in the spring of 1862.  This was the first national draft in American history and it represented a fundamental shift in the degree of intrusiveness in ordinary American’s lives.  And it was the Confederacy which introduced this first!  Lee believed that the individual states ought to give way to the demands of the national government; in fact, at one point Gallagher mentioned that Lee advocated confiscating all of the cattle from southern farms if it was necessary to maintain the armies.  Lee also clearly understood that the war was about the preservation of slavery and wrote about this often in his correspondences with Davis and others.  Lee advocated arming slaves during the war in exchange for their freedom not because he was a closet emancipationist, but because he believed it to be necessary to achieve independence.  Gallagher suggested that the sum total of the Confederate government’s legislative actions during the war constituted a far more intrusive system compared with the United States.  Such a view does not fit our preconceptions of a government bent on protecting states’ rights.

Most importantly, Gallagher believes that Lee’s record and aggressiveness on the battlefield constitutes the best case for interpreting him as a modern general.  Lee’s offensive movements proved to be much more deadly compared with Grant.  In fact, in the three years up to the Overland Campaign Grant lost a total of 35,000 men compared with Lee who lost over 100,000 men.  Gallagher is quick to point out that the high numbers are not cited as a criticism of Lee, but as an indicator that he understood what would win the war.  Lee’s stunning victories galvanized white southerners during difficult times and dampened northern morale.

Anyone who knows Gallagher is aware that he grew up out west and was reared on D.S. Freeman’s studies of Lee and his army along with other more traditional Lost Cause writers.  That enthusiasm and boyhood attraction for Lee and his men continues to come through in his public talks; that said, Gallagher is a first-rate scholar who understands that generalizations about the past or colorful commentary is no substitute for thorough research and analysis.

This talk is based on an article that appeared in the journal Civil War History: “An Old-Fashioned Soldier in a Modern War?: Robert E. Lee as Confederate General (December 1999): 295-321; the article is reprinted in Lee and His Army in Confederate History (UNC Press, 2001).

4 comments… add one
  • Forester Apr 3, 2017 @ 12:40

    Anyone who says the South was “stuck in the past” hadn’t visited bustling cities like Norfolk in 1850s. In fact, Norfolk was proud of it’s urbane and luxurious nature. After all, Napoleon III himself stayed in the Purcell House. You could find any luxury you desired here (though not a public library, it sucked to be poor). If you read the newspapers, southerners in this city were NOT agrarian peasants — rather, they expected to continue growing and eventually outpace even New York City. With its train yards and coal shipping port, Norfolk was a city on the edge of tomorrow.

    KEVIN WROTE: “Gallagher suggested that the sum total of the Confederate government’s legislative actions during the war constituted a far more intrusive system compared with the United States. Such a view does not fit our preconceptions of a government bent on protecting states’ rights.”

    Sounds like modern times. They used to fight for the “freedom” to own slaves, now it’s the freedom to ban gay marriage. The people who scream the loudest for freedom are often the most ironically restrictive regimes. I see them as sincere in their beliefs, though hopelessly self-deluded.

  • Warren Oct 4, 2007 @ 14:48

    Sounds like it would have been an interesting talk.

    Did Gallagher talk about Lee’s infantry tactics at all? Looking at him from a purely military angle, I always took Lee to have been someone who hadn’t fully grasped the new reality of longer range muskets (such as the enfield and springfield), and thus to be of the old school rather than the new. But to be fair, there were plenty of leaders on both sides who made the same mistake.

    To my mind, anything Lee said on the newer weapons would clarify where he was at.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 4, 2007 @ 7:45

    Thanks John. That’s called sloppiness on my part.

  • John Maass Oct 4, 2007 @ 7:43

    Sounds like a good talk!

    I think the statement that the Confederacy conducted “the first draft in American history” has to be significantly qualified. Every one of the original 13 states drafted men for service during the American Revolution, and many of the colonies did the same thing during colonial wars. This includes Lee’s own Virginia, which conscripted men for service during the Seven Years’ War. Perhaps what is meant is a “national” draft? If so, that may work, but the practice of drafting men–conscription was the word used as well in the 18th century–goes back well before the ACW.


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