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Was Robert E. Lee a gifted soldier whose only weaknesses lay in the depth of his loyalty to his troops, affection for his lieutenants, and dedication to the cause of the Confederacy? Or was he an ineffective leader and poor tactician whose reputation was drastically inflated by early biographers and Lost Cause apologists? These divergent characterizations represent the poles between which scholarly and popular opinion on Lee has swung over time. Now, in eight essays, Gary Gallagher offers his own refined thinking on Lee, exploring the relationship between Lee's operations and Confederate morale, the quality of his generalship, and the question of how best to handle his legacy in light of the many distortions that grew out of Lost Cause historiography.
Using a host of contemporary sources, Gallagher demonstrates the remarkable faith that soldiers and citizens maintained in Lee's leadership even after his army's fortunes had begun to erode. Gallagher also engages aspects of the Lee myth with an eye toward how admirers have insisted that their hero's faults as a general represented exaggerations of his personal virtues. Finally, Gallagher considers whether it is useful—or desirable—to separate legitimate Lost Cause arguments from the transparently false ones relating to slavery and secession.
"A very valuable work."
— Nymas Review
Gallagher demonstrates in his latest book that he is . . . the foremost historian of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia today.
Journal of Military History
"Gallagher's work, both in Lee and His Army and elsewhere. . . sets a high standard for the history profession.
Civil War Book Review"
Gallagher and the University of North Carolina Press have performed a valuable service for current and future students of Lee and the Lost Cause.
Civil War News
A stimulating and thought-provoking book.
Journal of Southern History
Gallagher has reinforced his position as one of the nation's leading Civil War historians.
Florida Historical Quarterly
My own research over the years indicated that Freeman might have been closer to the mark than many of those who insisted Lee and his army had been overrated. Various kinds of Confederate testimony bespoke a national focus on Lee and his operations. Considerable evidence also supported the Lost Cause idea that superior northern numbers and resources played a fundamental role in the Confederate defeat. That Lost Cause warriors sometimes argued from positions of strength not only helps explain why their writings have been tenaciously influential but also raises an important concern. Can we accept part of what Lost Cause authors said about Lee and his army without also lending a measure of authority to their denial of slavery's centrality to secession and the Confederacy, their romantic portrayal of a united white South battling to the end, and their blatant distortions regarding other aspects of the war?
The essays in this collection explore the relationship between Lee's operations and Confederate national morale, the quality and nature of his generalship, and the thorny problem of how best to handle Lost Cause writings about the Army of Northern Virginia and its commander. The four essays in Part I grew out of a belief that most historians of the Civil War, whether pursuing military or nonmilitary topics, have accorded surprisingly little attention to the ways in which Confederates in uniform and behind the lines reacted to Lee's famous campaigns. Hindsight tells us one thing, but the contemporary record often reveals something very different. I offer four case studies to gauge the impact, at the time, of Lee's activities. I selected three battles that seem uncomplicated in this respect: Antietam and Gettysburg, a pair of defeats that ended Lee's two invasions of the North, and Fredericksburg, an apparently unequivocal victory. For my fourth topic, I canvassed sentiment in the winter and spring of 1864, a period typically portrayed as a time of waning will in the Confederacy.
I based my findings almost entirely on letters, diaries, newspapers, and other wartime sources-as distinct from postwar accounts informed by full knowledge of how the war unfolded. I drew on the writings of more than 300 witnesses, among them soldiers and male and female civilians. Although I tried to find evidence from a broad spectrum of society representing various geographical regions, my sample was not scientifically constructed. My conclusions thus should be considered suggestive rather than definitive.
Having offered that caveat, I will say that Confederates often responded differently to news from the battlefront than we have come to assume. They relied on fragmentary accounts from relatives and friends in the army, often inaccurate reporting in newspapers, and rumors spread behind the lines. Most did not see either Antietam or Gettysburg as a military disaster; a number expressed some unhappiness with the outcome of Fredericksburg; and many exhibited a tenacious belief in ultimate victory during the winter and spring of 1864. The essays in Part I collectively accentuate the importance of relying on evidence from the time, rather than reading backward with all we know about the war's outcome, to fathom the complexity of attitudes and morale at specific times. They also underscore a remarkable faith among soldiers and the citizenry in Lee and the prowess of his army. Well before he and his troops marched toward Pennsylvania in June 1863, the Confederate people looked to them as the nation's best hope for winning independence. That conception of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in turn cushioned reaction to Gettysburg and fed optimism in early 1864.
Other historians have reached conclusions quite different from mine. Knowing eventual defeat awaited the Confederacy, many scholars have taken their cue from Union opinions about military operations. Northern soldiers and civilians in September 1862 and July 1863 typically considered Antietam and Gettysburg successes (although some demurred from the prevailing views), which lends credence to the argument that these battles marked major mileposts along the road to Appomattox. Similarly, northerners manifested a strong expectation that Ulysses S. Grant would achieve success against Lee as the spring campaigning season approached in 1864.
How can we account for strikingly divergent Confederate and Union reactions to the same events? Were white southerners engaged in self-delusion? Did they proclaim false optimism in a desperate effort to maintain national resolve in the face of an obviously failing struggle for independence? Some newspapers friendly to the Davis administration undoubtedly tailored their editorials and coverage of events to boost morale. Just as surely, some Confederates wrote letters to relatives designed to buck up spirits. But I believe it is a mistake not to accept roughly at face value a good part of the written record. The notions that participants often failed to record their true opinions and that we, at a distance of more than a century and a third, can detect what they really thought strike me as highly problematical. Northerners and Confederates simply perceived some events differently and responded accordingly.
When assessed within the context of the time, Confederate reactions to Antietam and Gettysburg and optimism in the spring of 1864 seem plausible. After all, military events in the Eastern Theater during the nine months following Antietam included important Confederate victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville followed by Lee's second invasion of the North. Would anyone appraising the situation in late June 1863, when the Army of Northern Virginia roamed across the Pennsylvania countryside seemingly at will, insist that Antietam had delivered a fatal blow to southern hopes for success? Similarly, the Army of the Potomac mounted no serious threat in Virginia for almost ten months after Gettysburg; and when the combatants renewed their struggle during the Overland campaign, Lee and his army amply justified the confidence their countrymen and countrywomen had voiced that spring. By the late summer of 1864, Abraham Lincoln and countless others in the North despaired over their prospects for victory, and Gettysburg represented scarcely more than a receding memory of triumph.
Defeat fundamentally altered Confederate thinking about Gettysburg and other wartime events. Painfully aware that they emerged from the conflict a conquered people, many white southerners looked back to find points at which their fortunes might have taken another direction. Gettysburg proved a natural candidate for such retrospective speculations. It had marked the deepest penetration into the United States by a major Confederate army, claimed more casualties than any of the war's other battles, and ended the remarkable run of victories Lee had crafted during the preceding year. Lost Cause authors especially relished Gettysburg because it allowed them to absolve Lee of responsibility for failure by blaming James Longstreet (very few accounts written in the aftermath of Gettysburg had mentioned Longstreet in this light). If "Old Pete" had attacked as ordered on July 2, they insisted disingenuously, Lee would have won the battle and marched on to national victory in 1863. Thus did former Confederates create a postwar literature that, unlike the bulk of their wartime writings, buttressed the notion of Gettysburg as a clear turning point.
The three essays in Part II focus on Lee's generalship. I am intrigued by various dimensions of the Lee myth-not just from the perspective of revisionists such as Thomas L. Connelly and Alan T. Nolan, who have attacked what they consider a hagiographic literature, but also as one mindful of how admirers have insisted that their hero's faults as a general represented exaggerations of his personal virtues. The first of these essays takes issue with what I see as a flawed interpretive tradition. Nourished by the writings of both critics and admirers, it presents Lee as a throwback to an earlier style of leadership ill suited to a modern mid-nineteenth-century conflict between democratic societies. The second essay in Part II addresses the idea that Lee was too much of a gentleman to make hard decisions about his top lieutenants. It argues that the Overland campaign, and especially the two weeks of fighting and maneuvering around Spotsylvania Court House in mid-May, highlighted Lee's willingness to deal firmly with his corps commanders.
Lee also has been criticized for granting some subordinates too much latitude and failing to exercise a tight rein at critical moments. The third essay in Part II engages this topic obliquely in the course of examining Jubal A. Early's role in the Chancellorsville campaign. Events of May 1-4, 1863, provide an instructive example of Lee's giving Early wide discretion and then stepping forward to take control when Lafayette McLaws, another senior subordinate, failed in a crucial moment at Salem Church. Generally pleased with Early's performance in a difficult, semi-independent role at Chancellorsville, Lee nevertheless exerted a firm hand after the battle when "Old Jube" pursued a controversial exchange with William Barksdale that threatened to taint the Confederate victory.
The single essay in Part III examines Lee, Early, and Douglas Southall Freeman as shapers of how Americans have understood Confederate military history. All three men argued within the Lost Cause tradition. Early and Freeman presented Lee as the most important and talented Confederate general, awarding his campaigns clear primacy among Civil War operations. They highlighted his disadvantage in human and material resources and asserted that northern numbers largely determined Confederate defeat. In doing so, they skirted the fact that it took superb leadership by Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant to ensure decisive use of northern means. Yet despite according too little weight to the difficulty of applying Union power effectively, Early and Freeman grounded many of their claims about numbers, Lee's ability, and the effect of his army's campaigns in solid evidence. This essay asks whether it is useful-or desirable-to separate veracious Lost Cause arguments from the transparently false ones relating to the institution of slavery and other aspects of Civil War-era history.
Six of these pieces first appeared in volumes of the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series published by the University of North Carolina Press. As editor of that series, I planned my contributions with the intention of eventually gathering them in a volume devoted to Lee and his army during the war and in the historical literature. I slightly revised each of the six and added the two on Lee as a modern soldier and on him and his army in public memory to round out the book. As a collection, these essays represent a step in my continuing effort to comprehend how military and civilian affairs intersected during the Civil War, where Lee and his army fit within the larger story of the Confederacy, and how Americans have interpreted their great national crisis.
Excerpted from Lee and His Army in Confederate History by Gary W. Gallagher Copyright © 2001 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Part I. Lee's Campaigns
The Net Result of the Campaign Was in Our Favor: Confederate Reaction to the 1862 Maryland Campaign
The Yanks Have Had a Terrible Whipping: Confederates Evaluate the Battle of Fredericksburg
Lee's Army Has Not Lost Any of Its Prestige: The Impact of Gettysburg on the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate Home Front
Our Hearts Are Full of Hope: The Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederacy in the Spring of 1864
Part II. Lee as a Confederate General
An Old-Fashioned Soldier in a Modern War?: Lee's Confederate Generalship
I Have to Make the Best of What I Have: Lee at Spotsylvania
Fighting the Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church: Lee and Jubal A. Early at Chancellorsville
Part III. Lee and His Army in the Lost Cause
Shaping Public Memory of the Civil War: Robert E. Lee, Jubal A. Early, and Douglas Southall Freeman
Author Biography: Gary W. Gallagher is John L. Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His previous books include The Confederate War and Lee and His Generals in War and Memory.