Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Were Southern Generals better than Northern Generals in the US Civil War?

Right after the Civil War, there was something called the myth of the “Lost Cause.” It was pioneered by Edward A. Pollard, A Richmond journalist who wrote a history of the war in 1866, called (can you guess?) The Lost Cause. Basically, the book says that the Confederacy was a glorious agrarian state, and was defended by the best armies in American history. Pollard argues that the Armies of the Confederacy were more motivated, they fought better, they were led by better officers, and they were fighting for a noble and glorious cause (the defense of the antebellum south). Many historians, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, repeated this myth and rebuilt it into its modern, “acceptable” form. Basically, they repeated it so often, and so loudly, that the “Lost Cause” became accepted as truth. Men like Douglas Southall Freeman, and even Ken Burns, have been influenced by the “Lost Cause” mythos. More recent historians have moved away from the “Lost Cause” myth, but the myth is still incredibly powerful, especially in conservative and southern circles, where the myth is undergoing yet another reinvention.

Were the South’s generals really better? Well that depends.

Robert E. Lee was repeatedly able to produce battlefield successes; hes called the American Napoleon for good reason! But he also failed strategically, by wasting the South’s precious manpower in offensive battles that cost the Confederacy more than it gained.

And on the other hand, Ulysses Grant maximized the Union’s advantage, especially in the Overland Campaign, by using multiple armies to attack the Confederacy all along its border. This strategy prevented the Confederates from reinforcing one area after another, as they had done in 1863, and it also stretched the CSA’s manpower to its very limits. So, there, you could say that Grant better adapted his strategy to the unique strengths and weaknesses of the resources at his disposal. In addition, he waged a spectacular series of campaigns, first in Mississippi against Vicksburg, then later against Lee in Northern Virginia, which achieved remarkable battlefield success.

What held Grant back, and what held both the Confederacy and the Union back throughout the war, was the state of professionalism in the wartime armies. Many of the Generals who fought in the American Civil War, on both sides, really weren’t generals at all. Lee was a Colonel before the war, Grant was a washed up Captain, Winfield Scott Hancock was a quartermaster, Sherman was a Colonel at First Bull Run, etc. Nobody really had the command experience required to maneuver large forces either strategically, or tactically. Unlike in Europe, where generals learnt how to be generals for decades before a war put their training to the test, in America, these men had to learn on the job. What that meant was that those with natural talent, like Lee, Grant, and Sherman, floated to the top, while everyone else made a mockery of warfighting. And when a commander would be wounded, or worse promoted, their subordinates would have to come up to fill the gap, regardless of skill or training. The Armies needed officers, and it was too late to shove a new batch through West-Point to make a general staff.

Thats why we often look at the Union Army, especially the Army of the Potomac under Hooker and Burnside, and snicker. They look so dumb, and these men were give command of an army. But really, I think if you look at what was going on in the Western theatre, and if you look at the Corps commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant and Lee were the exceptions, not the rule. They were the cream that rose to the top. Even men like Longstreet and “Stonewall” Jackson had major problems with commanding their forces in the field, Longstreet did poorly without Lee’s supervision, and Jackson did so with it.

So I think thats the real issue with Generalship in the Civil War. The South was fortunate to have found Lee so early on, while Grant was a gem that had to be dug out of the rough.

One response

  1. If you think Lee was some kind of genius, you might need to learn a little more. In tact, his stupidity lost them the war.

    He had more men, not less, at Gettysburg, and sent his men on the dumbest attack of the war — not in the heat of the moment without information, either. He was warned three times not to send those men over that mile and half open ground against a well armed men who could kill them — and did.

    Did you know what after that, the desertion rates skyrocketed for Lee’s troops? By the summer of next year, according to Jeff Davis speech in Macon, 2/3 of Lee soldiers had deserted! Maybe they didn’t like being killed while Lee stayed wiell in the rear, not even within sight of the killings he caused.

    I bet you also didn’t know about Lee’s orders while he was in the North to round up blacks — free blacks, he didnt care — and take them SOuth to be sold as slaves. No one told you that, did they?

    I bet you didn’t know Lee’s early job in the war? He was in charge of building the massive earthworks around Richmond and Petersburg– 70 miles of earthworks, row after row. And do you know who Lee got to build them? SLaves, thousands, maybe over 2000 slaves.

    While Southern apologist try to dismiss Lee’s nickname used several times then in the press — KING OF SPADES — as a loving name by his troops, actually it was from the Richmond newspaper — SPADE was a word like “Nigger” – the joke being Lee was King of SLAVES.

    The earthworks kept RIchmond in the war, and the huge Teledgar Iron works going, without which Richmond gets overrun, and most of their ammunition and cannon don’t get made. Bet you didn’t know that.

    People think Richmond was kept and protected because it was the capital — no, Montgomery was the birthplace, Richmond had those huge iron works, absolutely necessary to stay in the war. Its hard to know, but it’s quite possible Richmond is not the capital of the Confederacy, but for the massive iron works there .

    Ironically Lee and Davis both fled Richmond asap when they heard –mistakenly it turns out — about a breach in those earthworks.

    And about Lee and his slaves at Richmond — did you know Lee was an especially cruel slaver? He had slave girls whipped, and taunted them before torture, and screamed at them all thru torture. Bet you never knew that — but at least three newspapers before the CIvil War reported that, and incredibly, the overseer refused to whip one girl because she was TOO YOUNG to be whipped. Lee hired someone else to whip her!

    And these reports were verified after the war by inferviews with one of the ex slaves who had been whipped, but was digging graves at Arlington. Furthermore, Lee’s own slave ledgers and personal papers confirm payments to men named in those newspaper reports, on the dates mentioned.

    So if Lee had slave girls whipped during peace time — what do you think he did to slave men during war time, when, as far as Lee knew, any day the Union Army could try to breat thru the lines the slaves were building. You really need to see first hand what an earthwork is, they have an example in Georgia, I visited it. These were massive things, impenetrable by cannon of its day, and muderous to try to assault from the front. And it was not just one row — but several rows. And they never were breeched!! Lee and Davis both fled on a false rumor, The mayor or Richmond had to go out under a white flag and – get this — ask for help in putting out the “Evacuation” fires Lee ordered.

    Lee assumed the Union army would be in Richmond within hours, so he had fires set, wich DESTROYED MUCH OF THE CITy, huge explosions rocked the city. When you see the unreal destruction of Richmond in pictures, that’s NOT from Union cannon, that’s from the evacuation fires and explosions.

    So you have a lot to unlearn about Lee

    June 26, 2014 at 2:24 pm

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