150 years ago today the outcome of the American Civil War was decided on the battlefield of Gettysburg.
Don’t you find it rather strange that Lee is considered by many great scholars and military historians as one of the greatest generals who ever lived and he the most important battle he ever fought as well as the war?
I will lay out some very bare facts about Gettysburg and suggest you reach your conclusion:
Lee was on the offensive, and yet chose to engage the enemy when they were entrenched on high ground. This defied the basic rules of war, especially when you have the advantage, yet he chose to engage them at Gettysburg with Federal forces occupying all the most defensible points around the town.
It was obvious to any first year military student that Lee needed Cemetery Ridge as an artillery position in order to successfully engage the Union army and create an enfilading fire against the Union artillery and positions. Lee was known for the precision of his speech and orders, and yet his orders to Gen. Ewell were to take Cemetery Hill “…if practicable.” Ewell, given an option, decided his men were needed a rest and it wasn’t.
Lee’s battle plan was sheer perfection, as you’d expect.
- Heavy artillery bombardment of Union lines concentrated on the stone wall to soften it, which would be particularly effective from Cemetery Hill…if practicable.
- J.E.B. Stuart and cavalry unit to come in behind the Union lines and meet Pickett’s Charge.
- Pickett’s charge at the weakest point in the lines, the stone wall.
Alright, can’t really fail, as most scholars agree. So why did it?
1. The inexplicable and completely uncharacteristic “optional” order to Ewell concerning a mission critical strongpoint that Ewell would have taken if ordered to do so without an option.
2. Lee’s artillery (sans Cemetery Hill, the only position that would provide effective fire on the Union lines at the stone wall, thanks to the single optional order ever issued by Lee) is aligned for DEFENSE even though he is on the offensive. In order to effectively shell lines at a distance enfilading fire is required, not a 90 degree alignment suitable only for firing chain and shrapnel at advancing troops. The shells largely simply went over the Union lines and did little damage. These principles had been taught to every cadet since Napoleon’s days and Lee was considered a master.
3. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry ran smack into George Armstrong Custer’s and was stopped.
In spite of full knowledge that 2 of the 3 conditions required for a successful assault had not been met, Lee ordered Pickett’s charge. All his senior officers were stunned. If such an order had been issued by any other human, they simply would have ignored them or shot him. Pickett hated Lee for as long as he lived for sending him and his men into a deathtrap.
That charge destroyed the most effective part of Lee’s army, and, according to most scholars, lost the war. The North had a victory to shore up morale, and time to use all those Northern resources to gradually reduce the South.
I enjoy history of all kinds and turn my attention from time to time to specific people or areas for special attention as the spirit moves. It may be Vitruvius, the extraordinary Roman “plumber,” Eusebius, the father of ecclesiastical history, Shih Huang-Ti, the unifier of China, or Julian Weiss, the man who taught Scott Joplin piano. A few years ago it was Robert E. Lee and I purchased three highly regarded bios after considerable research. One, a critique, the second, an objectivist, and the third an apologist. Normally, such a spread will have widely varying details. I was surprised to find that one of Lee’s most rabid critics could find little in Lee’s personal life to criticize and was reduced to hearsay, much of which wasn’t given any credibility even at the time and is now long since past any likelihood of being corroborated. It is now largely forgotten that by the late 1870s Lee was, by far, the most popular figure of the war in the North as well as the South…more popular than Lincoln. I cannot think of any other war in history where the losing general or leader became a hero on the winning side. Only in America, my friends! Therefore, my personal view of Lee’s motive for his decisions at Gettysburg, and elsewhere during the war, is very much based on Sherlock Holmes famous dictum: Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. “To the victor goeth the spoils” includes writing the history, and anyone trying to find out what really happened and why must be a skeptic when it comes to “accepted” views.
I submit that those hours spent alone in his room at Arlington after declining the offer of command of the Union army were the most agonizing of his life and may have resulted in the best kept secret of American history that, if true, makes Robert E. Lee the greatest patriot in U.S. history by far.
Lee’s deep sense of honor and passionate faith in Christianity is not questioned by any writer or observer. Here’s a man who is credited with never breaking a promise who must either violate his oath to “…preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States…” or take up arms against his native land, Virginia. It’s either father or mother. Based on these facts, I believe he acted in the only way he could by ensuring that the South would not win and destroy the Union, and to end it at the earliest possible credible moment. This would explain the orders at Gettysburg both his lieutenants and scholars have found inexplicable and turned the tide of the war. If he’d won, he’d have occupied Washington within days and he simply could not do it. He fought a holding action for another year and a half and surrendered his army the moment he felt the South would accept defeat. I met a direct Lee descendent a few years ago who listened to me patiently and finally confided that “That is something his descendents have always known, but we will not speak of it in public as we’d be branded as apologists and accused of living in a surreal world.” This person was dead serious and I was stunned. I cannot say that person was not living in an unreal world but I can say that the conversation certainly made sense in the light of my own thoughts and I found no reason to assume a lack of sincerity.
I want to mention a couple of other things about Lee. It’s known he was anti-slavery, but as a citizen of Virginia where it was the rule he didn’t kick up much of a fuss about it. His own slaves were inherited and he freed them way before the war. His personal body servant, the Rev. Wm. Mack Lee, lived for decades after the war as a preacher. He remained with Lee through every battle of the war. Decades later he had this to say in the preface to his autobiography, which remains in print and is an extraordinary testament:
“I was raised by one of the greatest men in the world. There was never one born of a woman greater than Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to my judgment. All of his servants were set free ten years before the war, but all remained on the plantation until after the surrender.”
Rev. Wm. Mack Lee, 1918
Within weeks of Appomattox Gen. Lee attended his church. Large groups of ex-confederates still camped in parts of the south and the population awaited some sign as to how to react to Northern occupation. When communion was offered, the parishioners were stunned when a black man (previously required to sit in the balcony and take communion after everyone else) immediately approached the rail, knelt, and held out his hands. Nobody moved, including the minister. Then, the white-haired Lee rose, approached the rail, knelt beside the black man, and extended his hand.
That story went through the South like a wildfire. Untold thousands were still ready to resist occupation with futile guerrilla warfare that would have yielded nothing but further ruin, but they began to lay down their weapons.
Without so much as a word, Lee had communicated to them that it was over and it was time to heal.