Generals of the American Civil War

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The Civil War was the most gruesome conflict in American History. It was fought over four brutal years with battle after battle costing tens of thousands of lives. The Confederacy fought for slavery rights by succeeding from the Union, which prompted the remaining Union states to declare war in an effort to reform the United States. Armies were drafted and many generals were elected to lead them. The confederate armies were led by strong, determined generals from the start, which allowed them to stay competitive throughout the war. The greatest of these generals was Robert E. Lee, who led what the American Battlefield Trust calls, “the most famous and successful of the Confederate armies”. Robert E. Lee is the greatest Civil War general because of his extraordinary tactical genius, Integrity, and high self-standards.

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Robert E. Lee began his military career as a senior member of the military academy at West Point for almost five years. Then the Civil War broke out and things drastically changed for Lee. He was offered command of the Union armies by Abraham Lincoln, though he decided to fight for the Confederacy because of his southern roots. Lee followed a long path to reaching command of the entire army of Virginia. He was at first appointed as the general of a small Confederate army, which was defeated by the Union. This defeat moved him into the position of military advisor for, the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis. This position lasted merely a year until Lee was appointed as the General of a depleted Virginia army.

Lee was often claimed to be inferior to General Grant of the Union, but this claim is utterly false. General Grant was simply the recipient of better circumstances. In an article published by The Smithsonian Institution, the author asserts that “Lee also had the difficult task of implementing a strategy to win the war that required him to invade the northern states, which he did twice. He knew the South couldn’t just sit back and hold what it had: the North was too strong and some sort of early end to the war had to be found”. Lee had it much harder than Grant from the beginning because of the unfortunate circumstance he fought with. The Union had more supplies, was economically superior, and had a massive amount more manpower than the Confederacy. This is the only reason that Grant defeated Lee. In fact, it should rather be known how impressive Lee’s ability to prolong that war was. This was largely due to his superior tactical ability.

Lee quickly became known as a tactical mastermind while in command of his recently named Army of Northern Virginia. Richard A. Gabriel, a revered historian and professor at Canada’s college of war, claims that one of the most important traits of a general is, “To adjust to changing circumstances requires a mind receptive to new ideas and open to new possibilities”. Lee demonstrated this ability many times throughout the war with his use of innovative tactics.

The greatest example of Lee’s innovative tactics was his defensive masterpiece at the battle of Chancellorsville. The battle began when Union General Joseph Hooker led around 115,000 soldiers toward Fredericksburg Virginia. Hooker knew that Lee had a much small army, which prompted Hooker to split his forces into two groups. Hooker had a section of his army maintain the siege on Fredericksburg, while the rest of his force flanked around to the rear of Lees fortifications. This move Lee out-positioned, outnumbered, and with no route of retreat.

In response to the situation, Lee devised one of the boldest and most innovative battle plans of the Civil War. Lee began by stationing a small token force inside of Fredericksburg. This force would not be able to stop a full-scale assault, but it would give the appearance that the city was well defended. The rest of Lee’s army marched north to meet Hooker on the battlefield. Lee quickly recalled the great general “Stonewall” Jackson for a tactical meeting. Lee instructed Jackson to take most of the army and march, concealed by the forest, to the flank or the Union force. Lee then spread his remaining men into one long battle line with no reinforcements to give the appearance of a full army, which kept the Union commanders from becoming suspicious. Later on, Lee ordered the assault, and the Union lines which were caught surprised and unprepared for the tactic. Lee and his men pushed back the Union line and inflicted heavy casualties. At the same time, the defenders at Fredericksburg were overwhelmed and pushed out of the city, which left the confederate rear exposed. Lee reacted quickly and deployed some of his force back towards the town where they were victorious. After losing tens of thousands of men Hooker pulled back his army and retreated away from Lee.

Historian Frank O’Reilly forcefully claims that “In the face of a larger enemy you must of necessity concentrate your forces”. At the time of the battle of Chancellorsville this was the way which a “great” general would handle the situation Lee was faced with. Lee, with unprecedented genius, redefined the laws that guided such an engagement by splitting his force into three contingents. This was revolutionary in terms of tactical planning in the civil war because lee broke from the mold and understood that in the face of a new problem must come to a new solution. Furthermore, Lee always conducted himself with the highest Integrity at all points in his life.

General Michael Diamond claims that “There is no room for a questionable character in Generals, generalship or leadership”. Lee always demonstrated quality Integrity and character which made him a great general. In the time leading up to the civil war, Lee had questions about which side to join, but is quoted as saying, “Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South, I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native State”. Lee prided himself on being a man of integrity and character, which is shown in this quote through his loyalty to Virginia. Lee could have given up on the south and sided with the heavily favored north, but his character and integrity would not allow him to betray his true home. This affected him so much so that even though Lee disagreed with the south fundamentally, he would not allow his integrity to be questioned by siding with the north.

Lee also demonstrated his character throughout the war through his care for his men. Lee’s army often starved because of a lack of provisions from the Confederacy’s government. Lee is even quoted as saying, “I have been up to see the Congress and they do not seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving”. Though Lee was committed to serving the government of the south, he had the character to stand up for his men. They were being mistreated and Lee demanded to know why, which is why he calls out the southern politicians in this quote. This apparent willingness to accuse his superiors of mistreatment of the common men demonstrates Lee’s character which held strong and did not waver throughout the war. Lee also never placed the blame on others he placed himself on a high personal standard.

General Michael Diamond also claims that a general needs to, “Maintain high personal standards for oneself. Equally important is to set and enforce the standards for the rest of the organization”. The war took its toll on lee and his army. Many defeats were had by Lee and his fellow southern generals. The losses were high, and the war lasted longer than expected, though Lee never blamed his men. He held himself accountable for the defeats and the loss of life because he held himself to such a high personal standard. After Lee was defeated decisively at the Battle of Gettysburg, he said, “After it is all over, as stupid a fellow as I am can see that mistakes were made”. Lee lost tens of thousands of men in the battle of Gettysburg and lost the battle decisively. He could have blamed his men for underperforming or his officers for lack of leadership, but Lee placed the blame upon himself. This is the mark of a man who has high self-standards.

The civil war called many generals to lead many armies. Many were successful and many were not, thought the greatest of them all is Robert E. Lee. He is incomparable to any other commander due to his all-around superiority. He was even greater than the Union’s greatest general Ulysses S. Grant. Lee’s superiority is a product of Tactical Genius, Integrity, and high self-standards. In fact, after Lee’s graceful surrender at the Appomattox courthouse general Grant, who is known to have no respect for his opponent, even said, “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly”.


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07 July 2022

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