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Thread: Robert E.Lee overrated?

  1. #16
    Armchair Worrier Senior Contributor bolo121's Avatar
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    Hi guys could you recommend any books for me to read up on The American Civil war?
    Also why do so many guys regard Nathan Bedford Forrest so highly?
    All i know about him was that he was a very cruel and racist southern commander.

  2. #17
    Banned Defense Professional Bluesman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Albany Rifles View Post
    Okay, and........what?
    Isn't it fun finding all those flaws in conventional thinking that has come down through the years? I mean, once we all recognize that to accept the old, stodgy judgement of history is to just be another intellectually lazy follower, instead of being out there on the unconventional leading edge of revolutionary new ways of looking at the heretofore 'acceptable' (code for 'establishment-enforced mediocrity') facts (which are really just interpretations, take-'em-or-leave-'em for whatever reality YOU choose), then we're all free to see whatever the people that were too close to the actual 'truth' (a dangerous concept, as it is relative) simply could not perceive.

    How much more interesting the observer himself becomes if, instead of following the tour guide through the museum, he sets out on his own to explore another sequence of displays, utterly altering his learning experience, and proving that he, at least, is not going to be led around, that he's just so much more avant-garde and ORIGINAL.

    BORING. And it's everywhere. Go to a Civil War roundtable sometime, and these guys are the ones that have to sit on their hands to keep from jumping up and interrupting the lecturer with the 'ACTUALLY, sir...' that begins in the micro-second after the speaker concludes and calls for questions.

    Lee was excellent, with imperfections, much like ANY of the Great Captains. And to give in to the lay-historian's common disease of seeking to magnify out of proportion his flaws in some iconoclastic show of anti-me-too-ism is just as boring and tiresome as accepting without criticism something like Freeman's valentine to Lee.

    Look at any military history book club or discussion group, and you find guys coming out of the woodwork to tell you that, ACTUALLY, every single you believed about this or that was WRONGWRONGWRONG.

    BORING. And usually incorrect.

    How 'bout we all do this: accept that the guys that would know the most about it - the men that had to contend with, and usually lost to, General Lee probably had more on the ball than anybody else, re: his abilities as a commander? And their judgement is clear: he was EXCELLENT.

  3. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by bolo121 View Post
    Hi guys could you recommend any books for me to read up on The American Civil war?
    Also why do so many guys regard Nathan Bedford Forrest so highly?
    All i know about him was that he was a very cruel and racist southern commander.
    Okay, EVRYbody was a racist back then. As far as cruel, maybe, maybe NOT. The Fort Pillow Massacre is still under discussion today as to what really happened, and Forrest's role in it.

    As to why he's regarded so highly, that's an easy one: he was simply awesome as a cavalry leader. He conducted damaging raids and first-rate reconnaissance operations, he screened the army as well as anyone could have, and brought shock power to the big battles that he led units in, long after that aspect of mounted warfare was considered gone for good.

    He was fearless, ferocious, and a canny leader of men. Perhaps the best cavalry general on either side during the war (with acknowledgements to Sheridan and Stuart and Ashby and Custer...many others).

  4. #19
    Banned Defense Professional Bluesman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BudW View Post
    Was Lee overrated? who do you think were the Best Civil War Generals on each side?
    By WHO? Freeman probably over-rated him, because his criticism was mild and VERY sympathetic.

    But was he over-rated by his opponents? Nah. Frequently, he was UNDER-rated, and look what happened almost every single time they did that. DEFEAT, usually of a nature that got 'em fired.

    Lee was the best on the Southern side, and that's not even debatable by anybody that knows a farthing's-worth about his relative worth to his cause, and on the Union, purty much has to be Grant. Neither side could've carried on without these indispensible men, and eventually, even Lee had to quit, as good as he was, because Grant was as good as HE was.

    There are so many good picks, though. But Lee could not have been replaced at any point in the war, once he took over from Johnston, and if he'd somehow gotten taken out of the picture, the Confederacy's main army and only real hope of winning would've gone down MUCH earlier.

    I believe Grant was the personification of determination, and that's all the North really lacked to finally end the war, once Grant came to the Eastern theater. If he'd been replaced by anybody else, the war would almost certainly not entered into the final decisive phase that ground down the Confederacy and ended their ability to resist.

    Both men were indispensible, and exactly what their side needed most. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, they needed MORE than just Lee; he came close, but he couldn't close the deal.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Blademaster View Post
    I'd say that Sherman was a far better general than Grant and Lee. That man definitely knew war.
    He was excellent, and that's proven even if the 'better than' part wasn't.

    His formation at Bull Run out-performed every other unit of comparable size. He was not nearly so shattered on the first day of Shiloh. He clearly saw that to subdue the South, an all-out effort had to be made, and that the nature of the conflict would not be a few field battles with a glorious, quick end, but that the nation would have to come to terms with a long, bloody, costly and destructive future.

    Was he 'better' than Lee and Grant? I don't think so, but you could sure see that he understood his job better than anybody else. His formations were drilled and disciplined, they were made from the same raw material as all others, but were much better soldiers, and his officers were solid, as well. He deserves credit for that, as well as seeing and having the courage to do what it took to end the war.

    They thought he was a mad-man at the time, but Grant saw his qualities, and we owe both of 'em for that.

  6. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bigfella View Post
    My problem with the way people assess Lee is not so much that they overrate him, but that they underrate others by comparison (I think the excat same is true of many WW2 German Generals).
    Well, it IS relative. Against what else CAN they be compared but their opponents?

    Lee was undoubtedly a brilliant field commander, but can it really be said with certainty that he was superior to Jackson, Sherman or Grant?
    Sure. The South would've collapsed under ANY of those guys. Jackson could never have been in over-all command of the Confederacy's main army, and the army would've been unhappy under him. His corps and independent mission in the Valley, and as a subordinate while under direct supervision of Lee when they combined was the PERFECT place for him, and it's why his record is so impressive. I think it's easy to follow the 'what if' out to a conclusion that he simply wasn't the guy for the job. Lee's personality and qualities were what held the ANV together; Jackson simply could not have done the same with his characteristics.

    Sherman was an excellent leader, but I don't think he could've held the ANV together in the same circumstances that Lee was in. Ditto Grant. They were perfectly suited to their instruments, but it took Robert E. Lee to do what he did with what he had. If Grant and Lee had swapped missions and resources - Lee as General-in-Chief of all Federal forces, Grant as C-in-C of the ANV - can there be ANY doubt that the war would've been over MUCH sooner? I don't think so.

    I think that a case could be put for any of those men & perhaps a few more (Joe Johnson, Thomas).
    Those two don't make my list, although they each had fine qualities. I put 'em in the second tier.

    The one who impresses me most from the perspective of modern warfare is Sherman. His understanding of logistics, of the role of non-combatant populations in modern warfare & his ability to make the enemy engage on HIS terms (to the point where they often could not engage at all) would have been perfectly at home in the C20th.
    First-rate, no doubt. But we'll never know how he would've fared against Lee. Personally, I rate Lee higher mano-y-mano on the battlefield. But could Uncle Billy have maneuvered better, seen strategic opportunities better, done better at hammering down the Confederacy, while limiting his opponents' actions? Probably, for all the reasons you listed, and we have historical examples of him doing exactly that against second-tier enemies.

    Having said that, I don't necessarily see him as 'better' than his most impressive contemporaries.
    Ditto. That's likely going to be the first and last thing we'll ever agree on.

  7. #22
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    Quote Originally Posted by ofogs View Post
    I have always thought Lee to have been terribly overrated. A case study for this would be his actions (or lack thereof) at Gettysburg. No use of cavalry assets for recon (and he had cavalry available, just not Stuart until the third day when Custer stopped him). And very vague and few orders issued through the course of the battle. Pickett's Charge was probably inexcusable.
    He was terribly over-rated based on ONE BATTLE? Mate, it was his worst day EVAH, no doubt, and can be said to have been as decisive an action as ever he fought, that is true. But DUDE, come ON. The parts that you point out were all true, and STILL came dam' close to WINNING it, and if that's what an over-rated general looks like to YOU, your standard is a bit too close to perfection, I'd say.

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    Quote Originally Posted by astralis View Post
    it's been said that lee was the last of the great napoleonic generals, and that grant/sherman were the beginning of the great attrition-era generals.
    I'd agree.

  9. #24
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    Quote Originally Posted by ofogs View Post
    I think a sound argument could be made that Lee, with able corps commanders, could operate with very loose mission based tactics. Having read some of his battlefield "direction," I think he just barely passes. Once he lost Jackson, however, he desperately needed to apply the "directed telescope" to his new commanders and provide more consistent and definite direction. A trademark of Napoleon was his ability to do just that: missions to his corps commanders and then to apply himself to directing the decisive point (ideally) of the battle- notwithstanding the couple Davout's corps basically won for him. So, even if Lee was a good Napoleonic general, he could have learned much more from him.
    Easy to say from where we sit. Who knew that in July 1863, though?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Albany Rifles View Post
    Lee was an excellent commander but he had some serious flaws.
    1. He would fixate on a target. He fixated on Fitz John Porter's corps on Malvern Hill and could not be dissuaded from conducting a head on assault against a full corps of infantry backed up by an incredible array of artillery. Stand on Malvern Hill and you have to ask yourself who in their right mind would attack here. At Gettysburg, he did much the same thing. He had a victory on 1 July but the Union had the decisive terrain at the end of the day. After Day 2 his Army was in shambles…yes he had a fresh division coming up but the Union had him outnumbered. He was deep in enemy territory with a river between him and safety. He had an enormous train to clear out of the area. It made more sense defend while his units withdrew. But that was against his nature. His attacks on July 3 shredded the offensive ability of the ANV for rest of the war. And as OFOGS mentioned he mismanaged his cavalry (had almost a full division with him)
    2. If you study Lee’s battle management in 1862 – 1863 you will see that he would mange the movement to the battlefield and allow his subordinate commanders fight it. During the Seven Days He managed the movement but then the subordinate division commanders fought individual battles unsupported in 4 of the 6 battles. The two he managed directly, Gaines Mills and Malvern Hill, he went 1-1. From then on in the battles where he took the offensive, study 2d Manassas and Antietam. Jackson and Longstreet fought those battles pretty much independent of each other. Same at Chancellorsville, with Early in the Longstreet role. At Gettysburg, with Jackson gone, he depended too much on Ewell and Hill. He chose to spend his time more with Longstreet and not with his more inexperienced corps commanders. He himself had seen the northern end of the battlefield as decisive yet he did not place himself there. It was not until the 1864 campaign that he started to take control on the battlefield itself…with some really astounding results when one considers how beat up the ANV was.
    3. Lee had a hard time disciplining his subordinates. Read Lee’s Lieutenants…you will see this as a common thread all of the way through.
    This may appear to be nitpicks…but these opinions are ones I formed with years of reading, research and seminars.
    Grant, like Lee, had some flaws (no, drinking was not one of them). He badly mismanaged his army before Shiloh…but corrected his errors on the battlefield. At Iuka and Corinth he was guilty of poor battlefield management. However, he learned from these errors. He recognized after the Holly Springs raid that he had to find another way to get at Vicksburg and he tenaciously held to that, adjust his plans as needed. He, like Lee, often got more out of subordinates which others could not. He was able to forge an effective team amongst the likes of Baldy Smith, George Thomas and Joseph Hooker. But most importantly he recognized that the battlefield was not divorced form the political. In a civil war, the political side of events is deeply connected to the battlefield and vice versa. And unlike some Union commanders, he fought with what he had…and won. He understood the way to win the war was to apply full combat power at all points. A rebellion only can last as long as the rebels have a standing force in the field (see Washington, George and the Continental Army). Grant knew, destroy the Confederate Army and you win the war. He was the first one to pick up Scott’s Anaconda Plan and apply it.
    Sherman….ahh, now there is an interesting situation. Like all men, Sherman had his demons and he sometimes allowed them to get the best of him...They almost knocked him out of the war early on. He was brilliant at Shiloh…once he got over his prejudice of volunteer officers. Considering the terrain, he actually performed fairly well at Chickasaw Bayou. He probably should not have sent in the second charge but he had to try. He did not believe in Grant’s plan at Vicksburg for quite some time…in fact McClernand was the true believer of the group and performed well at Port Gibson. His performance at Tunnel Hill at Chattanooga was, to be charitable, bad. And he was overwhelmed at first in the Atlanta Campaign…he never quite seemed to get Joe Johnston where he needed to get him. And his success at Atlanta was due to the effective generalship of George Thomas and the fortuitous removal of Joe Johnston with and his replacement by the overmatched John B. Hood. But he grew into a highly effective Army Group commander. But while he did great in Georgia and the Carolinas, how much of that was due to the size of his force?
    So, Lee was the best the Confederates had and Grant was the best the Federals had.
    ALL THAT to say the truth in the last sentence?

    I'm kiddin'; I'm a kidder.)

    Re: Malvern Hill. Perspecticve is everything. Lee had been rolling the Federals back in battle after battle, day after day, for a whole victory-filled week. Each time, 'those people' managed to barely avoid total catastrophe in the nick of time. Twice his troops, confident and desperate at the same time, had broken through 'impregnable' positions and seen the enemy flee in wild disorderly rout before him. And he'd caught 'em again.

    He knew that there was nowhere they could escape to if he beat 'em one last time. He also knew that the war, if it went on long enough, was a sure loser for his side. If he was going to win, it would take the seizing of those rare opportunities that Fate sometimes hands a lucky commander that has the guts to roll the dice.

    He HAD to try it.

    But instead of the final, crushing hammer blow that he'd ordered, he got individual brigades going in and being shattered one at a time, until there was NOTHING that could break once-beaten-now-triumphant Union troops.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bluesman View Post
    He was terribly over-rated based on ONE BATTLE? Mate, it was his worst day EVAH, no doubt, and can be said to have been as decisive an action as ever he fought, that is true. But DUDE, come ON. The parts that you point out were all true, and STILL came dam' close to WINNING it, and if that's what an over-rated general looks like to YOU, your standard is a bit too close to perfection, I'd say.
    I recommended this one battle as a case study. The purpose of a case study is to look at one data point in depth to try to learn more about it and the collection of data as a whole. The decisiveness of the battle, combined with the wealth of knowledge available about it means it is pretty well suited to serve as a case study.

    Easy to say from where we sit. Who knew that in July 1863, though?
    You're moving into perhaps the most critical battle of the war. You're deep in enemy territory. There's a guy who's never commanded a corps before in a crucial point of the battle. You wouldn't pay some extra attention to that guy? Really?

    Besides, the Napoleonic technique I described was based on what Napoleon did over 50 years prior. A student of Napoleonic tactics and warfare would have known about how he commanded.

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    Thanks for the great comments, I learn a great deal from all you WAB posters.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ofogs View Post
    I recommended this one battle as a case study. The purpose of a case study is to look at one data point in depth to try to learn more about it and the collection of data as a whole. The decisiveness of the battle, combined with the wealth of knowledge available about it means it is pretty well suited to serve as a case study.



    You're moving into perhaps the most critical battle of the war. You're deep in enemy territory. There's a guy who's never commanded a corps before in a crucial point of the battle. You wouldn't pay some extra attention to that guy? Really?

    Besides, the Napoleonic technique I described was based on what Napoleon did over 50 years prior. A student of Napoleonic tactics and warfare would have known about how he commanded.
    Okay, I know what a case study is.

    No, I follow what you're saying, and I even agree with it to the point of saying Lee wasn't perfect.

    But who IS? I mean, the reason battles and leaders are so fascinating is because of the POSSIBILITIES. And I think Lee was uncharacteristically off his game, and, as I've written in a thread almost identical to this one,
    Time after time after time...the Gettysburg campaign was a series of completely improbable events and combinations of wildly unlikely things that when taken together, served to frustrate all of the strengths in the best army ever commanded by a master of tactical and operational art.
    , and I still believe that. If he'd been on top of it, that would never have happened.

    And there were so MANY 'ifs' that, taken together, this isn't a good case study at all.

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    [B][QUOTE=, he sets out on his own to explore another sequence of displays, utterly altering his learning experience, and proving that he, at least, is not going to be led around, that he's just so much more avant-garde and ORIGINAL.[/B]

    I can not remember that I went through a museum with a guide. I have been through a few with a docent or the staf historian, but not with the standard guide. I will say the current exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society is very informative on comparing Grant & Lee.

    Go to a Civil War roundtable sometime,

    Would you like to see my membership card for the Richmond Civil War roundtable...or Capital City Roundtable...or the Civil War Roundtable of Greater Boston?

    Lee was excellent, with imperfections, much like ANY of the Great Captains.

    Yup, that is what I said...and his greatest imperfection was he was a traitor. However, he was a an excellent combat commander.


    And to give in to the lay-historian's common disease of seeking to magnify out of proportion his flaws in some iconoclastic show of anti-me-too-ism is just as boring and tiresome as accepting without criticism something like Freeman's valentine to Lee.


    Lay historian? Don't think so. MA in Civil War history in 1992


    How 'bout we all do this: accept that the guys that would know the most about it - the men that had to contend with, and usually lost to, General Lee probably had more on the ball than anybody else, re: his abilities as a commander? And their judgement is clear: he was EXCELLENT.

    It is a common failing amongst amateur historians to take 1st person primary sources at face value...i.e., the people who wrote immediatly following the war. They always said their enemy was tougher, better, etc. They had a vested interest to say that their enemy was almost unbeatable. Civil War memoirs of general officers need to be taken with a large grain of salt.

    Lee was the best the Confederates had.


    Still curious on why you knew I would respond to this question. Do we need to be vetted or something before we join in?
    “Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”
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    Bolo121

    Quote Originally Posted by bolo121 View Post
    Hi guys could you recommend any books for me to read up on The American Civil war?
    Also why do so many guys regard Nathan Bedford Forrest so highly?
    All i know about him was that he was a very cruel and racist southern commander.

    Start with the sticky on this board Recommended Civil War readings. Some good stuff there. If you want more or have any other questions, feel free to send me a frivate message.
    “Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”
    Mark Twain

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