Lee in 1863–more symbolic than real?

From John Hennessy:

Lee at Chancellorsville.1020One of the great benefits of milestones is this: preparing for them requires you to focus on the essentials, to articulate broad and big ideas efficiently and powerfully. We are currently at work on the Chancellorsville 150th (schedule coming soon). Chancellorsville has always been the most difficult of our four battles to convey. While it features giant personalities on both sides, and while Lee and Jackson produced unarguably an immense military achievement, the battle lacks the texture or landscapes of Fredericksburg (with its varied environments and participants) or the high drama of Wilderness and Spotsylvania (as the first clash of Lee and Grant and the evolution of a truly different way of waging war). 

The recitation of why Chancellorsville matters is familiar: Lee seizes the intiative that carries him to Gettysburg, Jackson dies, Confederate faith in the Army of Northern Virginia intensifies (among the public AND Lee), while yet another Union commander suffers failure in the face of a smaller foe. Lincoln wails, “My God! What will the country say!”

All dramatic stuff, all important. But, let’s go to the last item on the list: what DID the country say about Chancellorsville?

Not much.

Which leads me to my point: maybe the greatest signfiicance of Chancellorsville resides in what it tells us about the war at large. By 1863, the Civil War had become so large and so complex that even a singular, dramatic, decisive victory by R.E. Lee moved the needle of public sentiment or the tides of war very little indeed. The most  unlikely, one-sided victory of the war, born of incredible risk, yielded almost nothing for the Confederate cause.

That in turn begs the question:  by 1863, had the scope of the war rendered Robert E. Lee’s talents more symbolic than real?  Was he the equivalent of Bobby Orr having to play for the 1972 New York Islanders (what a horrifc thought)–an immense talent trapped in a place where he might make some spectacular plays, but with little hope of affecting the larger outcome?  The war, it seems to me, had become a grinding effort to accumulate or degrade, and Lee could accumulate no longer. 

Authors and historians are forever trying to elevate the significance of their subjects. Maybe this is an instance where the larger importance of an event lies not in the impact it had, but in the impact it didn’t have and what that tells us.

7 thoughts on “Lee in 1863–more symbolic than real?

  1. During the 1863 campaign discussion I’ll be having next week with my students at Gettysburg, I’ve in the past talked about the military concept of “Center of Gravity.” Usually, I posit with them that Lee is the ultimate social CoG: he is more important as a potent symbol for the South’s morale than he is as a commander winning any particular battle.

    I think you’re right, his victories do not move the needle forward (I think the northern CoG being either Lincoln or Washington means he can’t unless he strikes those points), but his defeats do seem to move it back quite regularly.

    It’s exactly what I’d expect out of a 4-year long punishing siege (and what else is the war?): every defeat to the South is a blow; every victory is a hollow consolation because the blockade is still there, Washington is still there, the Northern soldier is still looming.

    Thanks for the chance to think, John.

  2. Without a doubt one of the stupidest observations I have ever read on a Civil War subject. I’m really speechless. Those who hate and despise the Confederacy will go to any lengths to discredit their efforts. After all, were you to say something that reflected positively on Southern efforts or Lee, then you would be part of the “Lost Cause”. – John Davis

    • John: Is it that you disagree with my analysis of this period, or that you don’t like my analysis? I have written by now several million words about the Civil War. You’d be hard-pressed to find in them much to suggest I “hate and despise” the Confederacy. In fact, I find the Confederacy and the men who fought for it intensely interesting, Lee especially. My point here is that he labored under circumstances that rendered his efforts far less successful than he hoped. He pointed that out himself several times. John H.

  3. Good questions, John. The Union soldiers were not defeated at Chancellorsville, their commander was, and their letters home reflect that perception. Lee was incredibly lucky that he was not annihilated in early May because Hooker certainly had several opportunities to do that. A close look at this battle that takes place between F’burg and G’burg reveals much about the relative strength of the two armies at that time. The Union army was growing as an institution, with better intelligence, a new logistics doctrine, and improved training. It had manpower issues, but was certainly not demoralized. The Confederate army, on the other hand, was showing signs of being used up. Logistics aside, Lee’s staff served him poorly at Chancellorsville and he did not have division commanders who could step up and temporarily take on corps commander duties. Lee had to direct attention to those matters himself. The Confederate army had excellent troops, but they were not being supported as an army should be. The Confederate army was hurt bad at Gettysburg, but had also been roughly handled at Chancellorsville. The question that intrigues me is how much were Southerners fooling themselves. As an example, Confederates wrote energetically about a flag of truce in front of the stone wall on May 3rd, suggesting Union victory was possible only through treachery. The battlefield reality was that the bulk of Early’s forces were focused on the Deep Run area, Confederate artillery was not properly deployed on the heights at Fredericksburg, and Gibbon’s attack managed to divert Confederate attention at a critical time. Yet Confederate accounts focus on the flag of truce.

    There is still a lot to discuss about Chancellorsville, as you have said. Thanks for initiating it.

  4. An insightful post, John – Thanks. Mysteries and Conundrums has once again succeeded in providing new perspective on a 150-year old subject matter. But what’s this twaddling, Bobby Orr playing for the NY Islanders…? Say it isn’t (wasn’t) so! I like the analogy though, talented Lee playing for a freshmen team. Again, not so!

  5. I don’t agree – I think Lee was still crucial in 1863. If the Confederates had won at Gettysburg, which almost happened under Lee’s leadership, then it is quite conceivable that the war would have ended with a Confederate victory.

    I think you can say that by spring 1864 that Lee didn’t matter very much. All his brilliance only delayed the inevitable once Grant took command in Virginia.

    The greatest irony relating to Lee goes back to 1862 – without his leadership during the Seven Days, the war might have ended that summer, and it is possible that the Union would have been restored with slavery more or less intact. So the Confederacy’s greatest general ensured the eventual destruction of slavery, the defense of which is why the southern states seceeded in the first place.

  6. Dont know if Lee had become irrelevant by this time or not. Certainly we can say that he was a major figure in an effort that had been from its inception doomed to inevitable failure.
    By adopting a policy of seeking stalemate or foreign intervention the South had chosen a course with slim chances of success. Did Lee seriously think his two forays into the North could lead to success for his nation? Or, was he merely trying to delay the inevitable?
    Given the realities of the time if Lincoln could keep the North in the fight they would inevitably win.So while Lee, on the tactical level was excellent, on the strategic level not so much. But again how much of the blame belonged to Davis and the civilian leadership, and how much to Lee’s inability to convince them to change course. Assuming of course that he saw it as a flawed policy.

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