Confederate Tide Rising, Part 3

by Brett Schulte on November 16, 2005 · 1 comment

Chapter 2 – “It would change the character of the war”: The Ascent of Lee, to June 1, 1862

In the first chapter of Confederate Tide Rising, Joseph Harsh covered Confederate strategy for the beginning of the war to the Battle of Seven Pines. In chapter 2, Harsh narrows his focus to Robert E. Lee, his working relationship with Jefferson Davis, and their role as driving forces behind Confederate strategy for the rest of the war. Lee is the main subject of this chapter, and Harsh argues persuasively that Lee without exception pursued an offensive strategy designed to maximize the Confederacy’s chances of winning the war.

Joseph Johnston had been wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines, and Davis had no one else to turn to other than Lee for the command of the main Confederate army in the east. Davis had no faith in Gustavus Smith, Johnston’s second in command. With the death of Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh and the wounding of Joseph Johnston at Seven Pines, Lee was one of the three remaining full generals in the Confederacy. As he did on prior occasions, Davis used Lee to plug the gap. Harsh says that although this choice would turn out to be wise, at the time it was “curious” based on Lee’s record to that date.

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Davis trusted Lee as an advisor, but he had his doubts about Lee as a battlefield commander. As was mentioned in the above paragraph, Davis had used Lee as a troubleshooter on previous occasions, in both West Virginia and South Carolina & Georgia. The Confederate president and his government had faith in Lee, making him third highest ranking general in the entire Confederacy. Lee also became Davis’s chief military advisor. While Davis had faith in Lee in administrative matters, he didn’t think of him as a battlefield commander at this point in the war. When he was appointed to field command, Lee had at the start “a combination of advantages no other Confederate general would ever realize”:

Camp Pope Publishing

1. strength of character and the ability to attract loyalty and devotion
2. Lee took “incomplete and contradictory information and still…found a way
to impress his will on confusion around him”
3. he confronted problems with
a positive attitude; he saw “the enemy’s problems almost as plainly as he saw
his own”
4. Lee assumed command at precisely the right time; he had the largest
Confederate army ever assembled at the start of the Seven Days
5. Lee was both
a good leader (to his men) and a good subordinate (to a prickly Davis)

Harsh says Davis and Lee formed an excellent working relationship from the very beginning. Lee kept Davis informed, and Davis allowed Lee to do as he saw best. Due to his good relationship with Davis, Lee received some benefits:

1. “a larger, more coherent theater of operations than” Joe Johnston
2. the largest army the South ever concentrated in one place; Lee outnumbered McClellan during the Seven Days
3. he was allowed to “devise and pursue…a grand strategy so broad it bordered on national policy”

Harsh believes this level of trust was never matched on the northern side, but I personally believe the Grant-Lincoln relationship grew to rival the Lee-Davis relationship by the end of the war.

Lee held a conference of his generals on June 3, 1862, only one day after taking command. He wanted to see what ideas they had and get their general feelings on the dire situation facing them in front of Richmond. Davis interrupted the meeting and was disappointed to learn that many of his generals displayed a pessimistic attitude, but Lee kept control of the meeting. However, after the meeting, ever the dutiful subordinate, he rode after Davis to ask his opinion on matters. Lee always kept a positive attitude, and used a “best-cases” approach, according to Harsh. The general had to figure out how best to stop McClellan. He rejected a passive defense due to McClellan’s engineering and siege ability, and instead chose to launch an attack. Davis recalled one of Johnston’s earlier plans in talking with Lee, and it involved attacking north of the Chickahominy River. He also gave Lee permission to recall Jackson from the Shenandoah Valley. Harsh believes that with Lee, moving from a desk job to field command brought out the best in him. As the author puts it, “the closer Lee got to the trees, the more clearly he saw the forest.” He maintains that “during his entire three years of command…Lee would try to implement a coherent grand strategy that promised the Confederacy at least a chance to win the war.” Harsh says that Lee’s year as a military advisor allowed him to see what it would take for the South to win the war, to learn the Confederacy’s strengths and weaknesses, and to observe the tendencies of the enemy. It also allowed him to be in position to set Confederate strategy better than anyone but Davis himself. Harsh points out that Lee always explained at least parts of his strategy to Davis in letters, and speculates that he filled in most of the rest in unrecorded conversations the two men surely had. Lee believed in “certain basic truths” by June 1862:

1. “the Confederacy faced overwhelming statistical disadvantages in its bid for separation”
2. Lee believed Confederate victory was impossible if the North was dedicated enough in bringing its advantages to bear, regardless of what the Confederacy did
3. Lee believed the Confederacy would fight alone, with no foreign intervention

Because of these beliefs, Harsh says Lee knew the odds were long, and he took risks commensurate with that belief. Lee’s goal, then, was to make victory so costly for the North as to make them lose the conviction to finish the fight. Lee was extremely interested in signs of anti-war sentiment in the North, and took pains to fan these flames with his actions. As commander of an army, however, the general was obviously concentrating on military victories first and foremost. He wanted to prevent Northern victories and stop Northern offensives. Lee knew the South only had a limited supply of resources, so he hated the “positive loss” caused by sitting still (i.e. while the North’s advantage got larger). Due to these beliefs, Lee felt he had to take and then keep the initiative as much as possible. Lee had to protect Southern manpower levels while at the same time defeating his enemy completely. He termed this idea “easy fighting and heavy victories”.

Lee never even thought of a passive defense. The accepted view is that Lee had an aggressive personality, but Harsh does not necessarily agree with this “personality” idea to fully explain Lee’s offensive strategy. Even if Lee were aggressive, Harsh avers that this was better than a passive defense, which wouldn’t have worked anyway owing to the Confederacy’s need to retake territory it considered its own. A defensive strategy went against Confederate policy and the peoples’ expectations. “Lee didn’t invent the offensive-defensive”. Instead, it had been preferred since the Napoleonic Wars. Halleck and Jomini condemned the passive defense. Lee’s strategy was backed by his government and most importantly, by Davis. These two men agreed on offensive strategy from the start, Harsh believes. Lee chose the offensive so as not to forfeit initiative, and he thought an offensive strategy offered the only chance to win the war. Harsh says that a tactical defense with an offensive strategy is preferable to the strategic defense, but even then the enemy must decide to assault the entrenched position. Some, like George McClellan (with his background as an engineer), might not choose to play this game, instead preferring siege operations. When Lee took command, he could not choose either a tactical or strategic defense. Both would have lost him Richmond and probably the war. Lee decided he had to not only prevent the capture of Richmond, but to also free as much Virginia territory as possible from Northern control. Harsh concludes that to accomplish these goals, Lee had no choice but to use the strategic offensive. Criticism of Lee for concentrating on the East is unfounded, says Harsh, for two reasons:

1. the East had to occupy Lee’s attention, since he commanded the major army there
2. Lee as military advisor to Davis had found it difficult to control the west; it had to be even more difficult from the field

Besides, says the author, the East and West were equally important. If you lose one the other would be flanked and lost as well. Richmond HAD to be defended because it was a large manufacturing center (Tredegar Iron Works, etc.) and because Virginia contained a large number of the South’s people. Unfortunately for the South, Richmond was vulnerable as well. Many invasion routes led to the city from the north and east. In fact, McClellan had used these routes to get near the city already. Harsh believes that Lee’s choice to use the offensive was to him not a choice but a “no alternative” method to achieve independence. Lee’s use of the offensive was neither unique nor original. He urged concentration of Confederate forces into field armies, he avoided planning too far in advance, and he recognized the Confederacy’s strengths, using strategy that utilized those strengths. In the end, Lee had little margin for error in his grand strategy, and he would have to find operational or campaign strategies that would help widen that margin.

Lee’s implementation of Confederate strategy marked a positive turning point in the third phase of the war. Over the next two years, Lee would wage a contest versus the Federal commanders to see whose offensives would prevail. In using the offensive-defensive, Lee had two advantages:

1. he would mostly operate in his own country
2. he could undertake concealed movements with greater opportunity for surprise

Lee’s numerical inferiority caused a problem, but Harsh points out that Lee did not need theater wide parity or superiority. This only needed to happen at the point of attack. Strategic turning movements provided the opportunity to make this happen. Lee wanted to “draw out” his opponent and attack on open ground. Turning movements could achieve three ends:

1. it could cause the enemy to retreat and abandon territory: Lee rejected this, no “heavy victories”
2. it could seize a threatening position and force the enemy to attack; offered tactical defense (as long as the enemy didn’t use siege operations)
3. it could seize a position from which you could attack the enemy: Lee preferred this option because it retained the initiative

If you’ve been paying attention up to this point, you will see that the third option offered Lee the ability to pursue both “easy fighting and heavy victories”. Two fights, at Malvern Hill and Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, appear to contradict this. The results were disastrous in both cases. But Harsh says that these two cases were TACTICAL and not strategic mistakes. Once the armies came together, strategy gave way to tactics. There are two ways to retain the initiative in a tactical situation without making a frontal assault:

1. withdraw and move back to strategic operations
2. make a flank attack

Lee, naturally, favored the latter. Harsh notes that flank attack and turning movement are similar but have differences:

1. a turning movement was strategic and could end in an offensive battle, defensive battle, or no battle at all
2. a flank attack was tactical and if successfully achieved always caused a battle

The flank attack and/or turning movement were used in every one of Lee’s victories, says Harsh. Lee’s strategy and tactics closely paralleled Jomini’s, whether intentionally or not Harsh cannot determine. Lee was also influenced by key men, including his father “Light Horse Harry” Lee, George Washington, and Winfield Scott. Napoleon also influenced Lee due to his West Point training. Harsh says each man contributed to Lee’s understanding of war, but that he was unique in applying the results in his own way. In other words, Lee was his own man. The author concludes by saying it is ironic that Lee had to, in effect, be “demoted” to Army command to bring out his talents to the fullest.

Those of you who read my last blog entry on Confederate Tide Rising may recall that I had apologized for the length of said entry. I find myself apologizing again for this entry. Harsh’s work has proven fascinating to me, and I’m only two chapters in. I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll be covering these books in great detail. I’m hoping that I can cut down at least a little as Harsh goes into Lee’s Campaigns with the Army of Northern Virginia. I’m going to try to shift back to my usual brief summary of the events of a chapter followed by discussion of several interesting points from the chapter. After having read only three chapters of this book, and after having only briefly glanced through the contents of Taken At The Flood and Sounding the Shallows, I can see why these books were recommended to me. Harsh’s level of research, including the questions he brings up and then proceeds to answer to the best of his ability, can be described in no other way than by calling it outstanding. The man clearly knows what he is talking about, and though I do not always fully agree with his opinions, I can see they are grounded in an intense study of primary documents. There will be more to come on hopefully an every-other-day basis, excluding weekends. I’d be very interested to hear any opinions on Harsh’s conclusions, especially from those of you who disagree with him.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

nolan April 19, 2006 at 1:50 pm

hey i was wondering if u could answer a question for me ” if i was alive the y would i want to join the confederate army please email me bak with a reply . i am doing this for a skool deal

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