Sunday, May 08, 2005

The question of Robert E. Lee's Greatness

Here is part of another e-mail that I received back in January of 2004 from a woman in the United Kingdom. A very kind reader, she wrote, "Does Robert E Lee deserve to be remembered as a great General? The more I look into his character the more I think he does deserve the title. I would love to know what you think."

This is how I responded.

Robert E Lee, Courtesy of the National Archives"I've often wondered about the validity of the many America Civil War spawned reputations. I should say that I have not extensively studied General Lee. I consider myself still new to the subject of the American Civil War and seriously doubt that I am qualified to adequately answer your question. However, I'll try anyway and you can be the judge.

When people ask about Lee's greatness, I first have to wonder how they define "great". Certainly he did not attain the goals he set for himself. After Gettysburg, he said to Jefferson Davis, " one is more aware than myself of my inability for the duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfill the expectations of others?" Ultimately, even his victories cost him the men and resources he could not spare.

But, it's my understanding that his goals were political as well as military. He knew the South needed foreign recognition in order to gain independence and gambled that his aggressive Maryland and then Gettysburg campaigns might bring this about. He knew that the South would lose a protracted conflict. They needed to score a string of convincing victories to gain European intervention. They did not and his first reversal in the North allowed what may have proven to be the death nail to Southern recognition...Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. To me, the South's last hope for foreign intervention after Gettysburg would have been Lincoln's loss of the 1864 election. But it was Sherman's success and Grant's resolve that led to Lincoln's second term and made the Confederacy's end only a matter of time. Had Lee not initially been so aggressive, he may have later had the men to challenge Grant to the degree necessary to contribute to Northern dissatisfaction and the election of McClellan in '64. He did not however and the war ended soon afterwards.

But Lee's greatness can't be limited to the battlefield scorecard. The intangibles made him what he was and what he has become. He inspired the loyalty of his men. His shouldering of the loss at Gettysburg saying that it was "All my fault" lead some to view him as sublime. Militarily, he lead one of the greatest reversals of fortune in history ejecting the Army of the Potomac from the Gates of Richmond, soundly defeating General Pope at 2nd Manassas, and then taking the war to the North, all in just a few months time. He arguably achieved more with his ragged, shoeless, outnumbered band that was the Army of Northern Virginia than any other commander would have.

I wonder though if this question can be answered without considering that he fought for and inspired a nation formed to protect the institution of human slavery. He was certainly aware of the various Declarations of Causes issued by the seceding states and their focus on slavery. As Mississippi stated, "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world." Can a man truly be considered great whose efforts directly or indirectly contributed to such an abomination?

Certainly, the post-war deification of Lee by his fellow Virginian's and the scapegoating of Longstreet contributed to his soon-to-be untouchable stature. But Lee the man was apparently not corrupted by political ambition. He was deeply religious. He was a gentleman. And he gave the South a reason to hope, even if that hope proved to be short lived. After the war, he led an even greater number as he helped those in the South who were ready to mend fences with their recent Northern foes.

So to answer your question, in my opinion, yes, General Lee deserves to be remembered as a great General. I suppose that the fact that a woman from Scotland e-mailed a stranger from the United States to ask his opinion 130 plus years after Robert E. Lee passed away speaks volumes on the impact of a man neither ever met."

Reading this more than a year later, I certainly left out much. But hopefully, some of it still stands.

Enjoy the Day.


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