American Civil War, Confederate Army, General Robert E Lee, Battle of Gettysburg (Thure de Thulstrup, 1887)

#Trump: Was Robert E. Lee a Great General?

US President Trump Calls Confederate Civil War Leader a “Great General”

Speaking in Ohio, US President Donald Trump has called Confederate leader Robert E. Lee “a great general,” causing a Twitter storm of irate tweets. But who was Robert E. Lee and was he a great general?

Robert Edward Lee was an American soldier, chiefly remembered today as a Confederate Army general during the American Civil War. Born January 19, 1807, his father Henry Lee III, known as “Light Horse Harry,” had been an officer during the Revolutionary War against the British. Young Lee went to West Point, the United States Military Academy, graduating among the top of his class. He joined the US Army Corps of Engineers and proved himself to be a capable officer over his 32-year career.

Mexican-American War

When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Lee served as one of Winfield Scott’s principal aides. His ingenuity in finding undefended routes of attack directly led to several US victories. After the Battle of Cerro Gordo (April 18, 1947), he was promoted to brevet major and subsequently to brevet lieutenant colonel and brevet colonel, although his permanent rank remained captain.

West Point and the Cavalry

Lee was appointed Superintendent of West Point in 1852. His three year tenure was notable for improvements in the buildings and courses.

In 1855, Lee was promoted to second-in-command of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, serving under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston at Camp Cooper, tasked with protecting settlers from Apache and Comanche raids.

American Civil War

When the southern states seceeded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America, Lee was torn by two loyalties: that to the United States and that to his native state of Virginia. Scott became commanding general of the Union Army and recommended Lee to US President Abraham Lincoln. Lee was promoted colonel and given command of the 1st Cavalry Regiment.

However, it was the Virginian in him who won. Lee resigned his commission in the Union Army to avoid being ordered to take military action against his fellow Virginians. The Richmond convention elected him commander of the Virginian army, even before he arrived in the city.

With the formation of the Confederate States Army, Lee was appointed one of five generals. Lee, however, continued to wear the insignia of a colonel, his last US Army rank, instead of that of a general.

Defeat: The Battle of Cheat Mountain

Lee’s first engagement against the North was at the Battle of Cheat Mountain, September 12-15, 1861. Lee’s strategy was to surround the Union Garrison at Cheat Summit Fort, but he was unable to realise this plan due to a combination of false information from Union prisoners and lines of communication within the Confederate forces hampered by the terrain and bad weather. The result was a Confederate defeat, with the Union remaining in possession of the fort.

Success: Organization of Coastal Defences

After Cheat Mountain, Lee was sent to organize the coastal defences in Carolina and Georgia. His years as a military engineer proved decisive and his improvements checked Union superiority in infantry, artillery and navy, protecting the City of Savannah right up until late 1864. Lee would gain the nickname of “King of Spades” for his extensive trenchworks around Richmond, but the scoffers would see their value during the final battles of the war.

Victory: Seven Days Battles

After General Joseph E. Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines (June 1, 1862), Lee was appointed in his place, renaming the Army of Virginia, the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee had picked up the nickname of “Granny Lee” for his perceived lack of aggression and his replacing of Johnston was not welcomed in the Confederate Press.

However, Lee’s bold Seven Days Battles – a series of six major battles over the seven days from June 25 to July 1, 1862 – against superior Union forces restored his reputation, as well as Confederate morale.

Inconclusive: Battle of Oak Grove

The invading Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, advanced West towards Richmond, Virginia, with the intention of besieging the city. They were checked by the Confederate defence, with McClelland ordering a withdrawal and later a counter-attack, gaining about 600 yards at the cost of a thousand casualties on both sides.

Mixed: Battle of Beaver Dam Creek

After Oak Grove, Lee went on the offensive, attempting to turn the right flank of the Union Army of the Potomac. Lee’s plan was immediately derailed by the late arrival of his major attacking force under Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and the impulsive assault by the rest of his troops under A.P. Hill, grown impatient by waiting for Jackson. The Confederates suffered heavy casualties and failed to achieve any of their objectives. A tactical victory for the Union, it proved to be a strategic victory for the South, as McClellan abandoned his attack on Richmond.

Victory: Battle of Gaines’s Mill

Lee now launched the largest Confederate offensive of the Civil War, with some 57,000 men in six divisions thrown against McClellan’s forces. Despite continuing communication problems – Jackson was again late – Lee was able to concentrate a greater force against a smaller portion of the larger Union Army and force McClellan to abandon his attack on Richmond.

Inconclusive: The Battle of Garnett’s and Golding’s Farms

With the battle at Gaines’s Mill underway north of the Chickahominy River, Confederate general John B. Magruder led his men in a reconnaissance in force to discover the position of McClellan’s retreat. Against orders, Magruder decided to attack the Union line south of the river at Garnett’s Farm. Although he accomplished little, Magruder’s harassment convinced McClellan to continue his retreat.

Inconclusive: Battle of Savage’s Station

Lee again devised a complicated plan to destroy the Union Army that went off half-cocked, resulting in an inconclusive engagement. Jackson was late again and Magruder’s former boldness was checked by the larger Union force and he committed too few troops to the attack. The Unionist continued retreating, abandoning supplies and a large number of their wounded.

Inconclusive: Battle of Glendale

Confederate divisions encountered the retreating Union Army at Glendale (or Frayser’s Farm), breaking though their defensive line only to be repulsed by counter-attacks.

Inconclusive: Battle of White Oak Swamp

With the main battle of Glendale underway about 2 miles south, Jackson was bringing his men up to join the engagement. He was checked by Brig. Gen. William B. Franklin commanding the VI Corps and the Union Army of the Potomac was saved from annihilation, being able to retreat to Malvern Hill and form a strong defensive position.

Defeat: Battle of Malvern Hill

Now commanding the high ground and supported by naval vessels in the James River, the Union Army of the Potomac turned to meet the pursuing Confederates. With almost equally matched troop numbers, the Unionists were able to use superior artillery to their advantage. The Confederates suffered heavy casualties, launching three frontal assaults uphill against entrenched positions unsupported by their own artillery.

Although individually most of the Seven Days Battles were inclusive, Lee had forced McClellan to abandon his Peninsula Campaign and retreat. Lee was a hero, the saviour of Richmond.

Lee’s strategy had been better on paper than it was in execution. He failed to take into account difficulties in command and control, but despite the poorly co-ordinated nature of his offensive he had pressed the advantage and thrown the invaders back.

Victory: Second Battle of Bull Run

After the collapse of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in June 1862, Lincoln gave command of the newly formed Army of Virginia to John Pope, perceiving him to be a more aggressive leader. Lee met Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run, August 28-30, 1862, and gave him a thrashing. The Second Battle of Bull Run was a significant tactical victory for the Confederates: Union casualties were about 14,000 killed and wounded out of 62,000 engaged; while the Confederates lost about 1,000 killed and 7,000 wounded out of 50,000. Pope was relieved of his command on September 12, 1862.

In less than 90 days after taking command, Lee had run McClellan off the Peninsula, defeated Pope, and moved the battle lines from 6 miles (9.7 km) outside Richmond, to 20 miles (32 km) outside Washington.

Defeat: Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg)

Lee continued to push forward, taking his army into Maryland and Pennsylvania. But McClellan had gotten his hands on a lost Confederate dispatch and now knew the exact size and disposition of Lee’s army and the extant of his plans. McClellan marched and army of 87,000 men to crush the Confederate force. A spy in the Union camp had relayed news of the dispatch’s discovery and Lee was able to consolidate his troops and prepare for the confrontation. They met at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862 – remembered as the bloodiest day in US history. After the battle 22,717 men were dead, wounded or missing. Although tactically inconclusive, it was a Union strategic victory, turning back Lee’s invasion of the North.

Victory: Battle of Fredericksburg

Disappointed by McClellan’s failure to destroy Lee’s army, Lincoln replaced him with Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside ordered an attack across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia, opening a battle that was to last from December 11 to 13, 1862. Delays in bridging the river allowed Lee’s army time to organize strong defences, and the Union frontal assault on December 13, was a disaster. There were 12,600 Union casualties to 5,000 Confederate.

Victory: Battle of Chancellorsville

With Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker now commanding the Army of the Potomac, the Unionists crossed the Rappahannock River on April 27, 1863, to concentrate his forces near Chancellorsville before advancing on Lee’s army. Hooker had the numbers on his side, but Lee won a decisive victory over the larger force. Chancellorsville is known as Lee’s “perfect battle” because his high-risk gambit to divide his army in the presence of a much larger enemy force resulted in a significant Confederate victory. However, it came at the cost of heavy casualties, including Jackson, his finest corps commander.

Defeat: Battle of Gettysburg

Despite Lee’s victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederate’s western front was buckling under General Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign centering on Vicksburg. Instead of turning to defend Vicksburg, Lee decided to launch another invasion of the North.

Lee’s ambitions were crushed at the Battle of Gettysburg. Fought from July 1 to 3, 1863, the battle involved the largest number of casualties of the entire war and is often considered the turning point of the Civil War. Lee’s decision to mount a massed frontal assault against the centre of the Union line – known as Pickett’s Charge – resulted in huge Confederate casualties and forced Lee’s Army into retreat. The Confederate Army never recovered from the losses sustained.

Defeat: Overland Campaign

After Gettysburg, Lee had sent a letter of resignation to president Davis, but Davis refused to accept it. Lee had no other choice now, but to go on fighting. Grant’s Overland Campaign was bringing him closer to Richmond. At the Battles of Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna and Totopotomoy Creek, Lee won tactical victories but was unable to check Grant’s advance. Even Lee’s later victories at Cold Harbor and Fussell’s Mill were not enough to prevent the final defeat of his exhausted and outnumbered army. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Was Lee a Great General?

Robert E. Lee had excelled at West Point, proved himself during the Mexican-American War, and had the confidence of senior commanders in the US Army. With the secession of the Southern States, he sided with his native Virginia and went on to drive the invading Northern armies out of the South. He was a capable and at times daring commander, the Battle of Chancellorsville was the brilliant highpoint of his military career only to be followed by his devastating defeat at Gettysburg.

British Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley wrote of him, “According to my notion of military history there is as much instruction both in strategy and in tactics to be gleaned from General Lee’s operations of 1862 as there is to be found in Napoleon’s campaigns of 1796.” If he can be compared to Napoleon, then surely he can be considered a great general.

In 1900, Lee was one of the first 29 individuals selected for the Hall of Fame for Great Americans (the first Hall of Fame in the United States), in New York. He remained among the Great Americans until New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered his bust to be removed in August 2017. Cuomo is a member of the Democratic Party and previously served in the Clinton administration.