I think that we have a common misconception about Robert E. Lee. It’s one of those things that’s fairly common in history, I suppose. We assume their greatness was known to everyone in their time because we already know their story.
We know the legend of Robert E. Lee. He was the officer both sides desperately wanted on their side. He was the general who was destined to run the Union ragged throughout the Civil War. He was the guy who would have won the fight in a few months for the Union.
It’s true that both sides wanted him. He had a reputation as a brilliant engineer and a capable commander. Lincoln wanted to put him in a fairly high command position. Jefferson Davis did make him one of the CSA’s first five full generals.
The part we miss in looking at Lee as the man he became is that Lee didn’t want to fight for the South. He had nothing good to say about the CSA and intended to fight for the Union until Virginia seceded. It was only then that Lee chose the side with which he is synonymous. Virginia even made him commander of all the state’s forces.
At the outset of the war Lee wasn’t put in charge of a major field army. Joe Johnston and PGT Beauregard were the Confederate commanders at First Bull Run. Lee’s first battle was in the sideshow over West Virginia (which didn’t much like Virginia as a whole and seceded from the larger state at the outset of the war). It was an ignominious beginning He lost at Cheat Mountain due, of all things, to being too timid.
Let’s remember Lee’s reputation. He was a brilliant engineer and artillery officer. There really aren’t any stories out of the Mexican-American War of Lee making audacious moves like Grant’s decision to sneak behind enemy lines and carry a howitzer up a bell tower.
After Cheat Mountain Lee spent most of his time arranging defenses. He dug trenches around Richmond. Eventually he was made Jefferson Davis’s prime military advisor, a position that meant absolutely nothing in terms of influence. No one trusted Robert E Lee in the field. His most spectacular success in this role came in the spring of 1862 and didn’t involve the command of a field army.
McClellan had some 130,000 troops at his command, which gave him a significant advantage over the Confederate forces, which probably numbered somewhere around 70,000 at the time. McClellan, however, believed his force was outnumbered. His Pinkerton spies consistently overestimated the numbers of Confederate forces, something the Southerners were only too happy to reinforce by building fortifications topped with “Quaker guns:” logs mounted on walls as if they were cannon. Those seemingly impregnable defenses were Lee’s doing and they probably saved Richmond in 1862.
The Civil War is mostly thought of as a fight over a ninety mile stretch of ground. Washington D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capitol, were that close. So both sides naturally assumed that all it would take was a few days’ march, a fight for one city or the other, and the war would be over.
It’s almost a quaint notion, but everyone thinks wars will be over fast. “We’ll lick ‘em good and be home by Christmas,” is the sentiment that starts pretty much every conflict. That rarely happens, especially for something as contentious as a civil war.
The Civil War contained firsts on many levels. It was the first war that featured rifled weapons. It was the first war that featured combat between purpose-built ironclad warships without sails. It was the first war to really take advantage of the speed of railroads. It was also the first war fought in newspapers.
The American Civil War was revolutionary for the involvement of the press in ways that can only be paralleled by the Vietnam War. The conflict of a century later is the first time war footage was taken directly from the battlefields and put in to television sets on the home front. The Civil War was the first war that was photographed. It was the first war that involved telegraph dispatches, allowing newspapers to get immediate wire copy of the events on distant battlefields.
In previous wars George McClellan might have been able to get away with sitting on his rump waiting for the right time. In the Civil War he had no chance. Daily reports went out with details of the Army of the Potomac’s lack of movement. Political cartoons ridiculing the general’s timidity ran in newspapers.
Those same newspapers would later carry Matthew Brady’s photographs of mangled corpses and burn into human memory the names of such places as The Sunken Road, The Bloody Angle, and The Hornet’s Nest. To this list of firsts in the Civil War we must add that it was the first war to truly, definitively, burst the bubble of the romance of war. From the war we got books like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage that call in to question everything we’ve always assumed about the glory of war. Sadly, it seems that every generation has to re-learn that particular lesson from the Civil War.
Lincoln finally got McClellan’s massive juggernaut moving south in the spring of 1862. Rather than head down to Richmond through Manassas Junction and re-fight the Battle of Bull Run, McClellan decided to out-flank Joe Johnston, land at the mouth of the James River, and head towards Richmond from the South. This move caught the Confederates by surprise and Johnston ended up sitting at Manassas Junction with his pants around his ankles.
The South still had an ace in the hole. They knew that Washington would freak at even the suggestion of an assault. They moved to exploit this fear and put Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley with about 8,000 troops.
The Shenandoah Valley was one of the most important bits of territory in the Civil War. It was a fertile larder for the South and a dagger pointed straight at Washington. Late in the war Jubal Early would take a force all the way up the Shenandoah Valley to the suburbs of Washington.
But we’re still in 1862. Stonewall Jackson was in the Shenandoah Valley with about 8,000 troops. Washington freaked out, exactly as the Confederates predicted. They pulled Irvin McDowell’s corps out of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan effectively started the Peninsula Campaign with 40,000 casualties. The already worried commander would be going to Richmond with only 90,000 troops. All to counter 8,000 men under Stonewall Jackson.
The Federals sent two armies into the Shenandoah Valley after Stonewall Jackson, one under Nathaniel Banks and the other under John C. Fremont. Each army outnumbered Jackson two-to-one. Yet from the end of March to the beginning of April, Jackson ran the Union ragged. His army slogged up and down rain-choked roads, staying just barely ahead of the Union forces with every step.
Eventually Lee managed to free up enough troops to roughly double Jackson’s army and the rain stopped. He won brilliant victories on June 8 and 9 at Cross Keys and Port Republic, then slipped out of the valley. Jackson’s 17,000 troops tied up about 50,000 Union troops at a critical moment.
Joe Johnston was injured at Fair Oaks facing off against McClellan. Jefferson Davis put Lee in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia. This move angered a lot of people, who thought Lee’s battlefield legacy should have ended at Cheat Mountain. Their nickname for him was “Granny Lee.”
That nickname didn’t last long. At the tail-end of June and on into July Lee led his army, reinforced to 92,000, against McClellan, who now had 106,000 troops. Lee couldn’t take everybody with him. They were too close to Richmond. It really didn’t matter. McClellan was timid and about a third of his troops were separated from the main body by the Chickahominy River. So when Lee struck the Army of the Potomac only had 65,000 troops.
For seven days the two armies fought the prosaically-titled Seven Days’ Battles. Lee won every engagement, but missed chances to bring McClellan to the point of annihilation at Mechanicsville and Frayser’s Farm when expected attacks by Stonewall Jackson didn’t materialize. Jackson claimed to be sick at Mechanicsville, an excuse that is difficult to simply dismiss. He force marched his troops for three months, constantly looking for momentary advantages against forces superior in number if not leadership skill. He then made another forced march in order to engage in a desperate fight at the gates of his own capitol. Stonewall Jackson was not one to shy away from the fight.
It would be the last time Jackson would fail. Unfortunately for Lee the failures at Mechanicsville and Frayser’s Farm meant a golden opportunity passed him by.
The Union managed to avoid disaster. Even so, the Army of Northern Virginia would prove too much for anyone in the theater to handle. That army and its new commander were on their way to the halls of myth and legend.