A new book on Robert E. Lee’s Civil War generalship argues he was a victim of his own success.
By B. Keith Toney
For more than 100 years, from the time of his death in 1870 until 1977, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was universally revered as one of America’s greatest military heroes. The movement was at first sectional, beginning in Lee’s native South, then took hold nationally as old adversaries spoke publicly of Lee’s greatness as a Civil War general. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, Lee became the most familiar figure of the war.
The first real crack in the pedestal upon which Lee had been placed came in 1977 with the publication of Thomas L. Connelly’s The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society. The iconoclastic Connelly examined the deification of Lee and detailed the conscious effort behind this process by Lee’s fellow Virginians. He presented a revised image of the beloved icon of the Lost Cause that was argu-ably more human and certainly more controversial.
If Connelly sent a tremor through Lee’s pedestal, Alan Nolan dealt it a crushing blow in 1991 with the publication of Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. Nolan, an Indiana attorney, presented a finely argued case against the way fawning historians have viewed both Lee the man and, more important, Lee the general. Nolan’s revisionist view charged, among other things, that Lee was limited in his strategic ability to wage war, and that the Southern chieftain’s inability to develop a plan for the South to gain independence through carefully marshaled military achievements doomed the Confederacy.
Suddenly the floodgates were opened. Revisionist views of Lee became almost mandatory, it seemed. As more and more current books expanded on Nolan’s somewhat negative image of Lee, many began to wonder how a general of such allegedly limited ability could have sustained an army in the field for as long as he did against such overwhelming odds.
Enough is enough, declares Joseph Harsh in Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862 (Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 1998, $35). Harsh not only refutes many of the modern claims regarding Lee’s supposedly flawed generalship but also contends that the Confederacy in fact did have a strategy for winning the war, a strategy that Lee helped to develop. The accepted modern view of Lee as a commander who bled the Confederacy dry while he searched for a blow that would crush the Union Army and gain independence in one fell swoop is, according to Harsh, far from accurate. Instead, he argues, Lee was an opportunistic commander whose very success led him inevitably to press his advantage. What else, Harsh asks, could Lee have done?
Harsh goes further by exploring the long-held belief that Confederate President Jefferson Davis also doomed the Confederacy by adopting a policy of attempting to defend every square inch of Southern soil, placing his armed forces perpetually on the defensive and spreading their resources impossibly thin. This, too, contends the author, is an inaccurate assessment of the facts. Harsh presents ample evidence to show that Davis and Lee worked in close concert to develop a strategy of undertaking aggressive action at every favorable opportunity and husbanding their resources as much as possible while waiting for such opportunities to present themselves.
Although imperfect and not always implemented properly, this “passive-offensive” strategy, Harsh concludes, not only presented the Confederacy with its best chance of victory but also kept the Southern cause alive long past the point that conventional wisdom suggests should have been possible. According to Harsh’s way of thinking, the South’s chances of victory were slight at any rate.
By definition, Harsh’s new assessment of the Confederate military strategy in the first two years of the war must be viewed as postrevisionist. He sometimes seems more interested in rebutting Lee’s critics than in making his own case. Yet it should be pointed out that reassessing facts and accepted versions of events is an integral part of the historian’s function. The danger lies in revisionism for the sake of celebrity or in change for change’s sake. Confederate Tide Rising is guilty of neither of these charges. Rather, it is a serious, thought-provoking study of the military policy undertaken by the Confederacy, in the persons of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, and thus deserves a careful reading by all students of the war.