Saturday, September 11, 2021

Was Robert E. Lee a "stone-cold loser"?

Dana Milbank's opinion piece in the Washington Post begins:

Robert E. Lee was a stone-cold loser.
No general in U.S. history was defeated as unequivocally and as totally as Lee. For all his supposed strategic skill, his army was entirely destroyed. One-quarter of those who served under him were killed, and an additional half were wounded or captured. He was a traitor to the United States who killed more U.S. soldiers than any other enemy in the nation’s history, for the supremely evil cause of slavery. To boot, he was a cruel enslaver and a promoter of white supremacy until his death.

It is ridiculous that, in the year 2021, these simple truths are in dispute. But here we are.

Milbank continues:

For a point-by-point grading of Trump’s history paper, I checked in with Ty Seidule, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and military historian who is the former head of the U.S. Military Academy history department. Now at Hamilton College, he’s the author of “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning With the Myth of the Lost Cause.”

Greatest strategist of all? “Well, he’s a loser,” Seidule responded. “He wasn’t just defeated; his army was destroyed. The idea that he’s the greatest strategist of all is just ludicrous.”

War would have been over in a day? If it had, Seidule argued, then slavery may have survived. Emancipation wasn’t U.S. policy until 1863. “So the fact that Lee was able to keep the war going as long as it did helped add to the eventual destruction of that which he fought for.”


Would have won but for Gettysburg? The day after Gettysburg, Ulysses S. Grant triumphed at Vicksburg, giving the U.S. Army control of the Mississippi River and splitting the Confederacy. Lee’s army couldn’t function without thousands of enslaved people working as servants or in factories and on farms, and after Vicksburg, Seidule said, “they lose all that enslaved labor” as the U.S. Army pushed into the South.
“No one has lost more completely in American history than Robert E. Lee,” Seidule said. “There is no general that has been more crushed, more defeated, at the strategic, tactical, operational level. … How much genius does it take to lose absolutely and completely?”

To begin, this author is not at the top of the list in the Robert E. Lee fan club. This author believes that Grant's work at Vicksburg was a masterful job in terms of military and supply chain thinking.

But to say Lee was the most unequivocally defeated general in U.S. military history is a bit of hyperbole.

Within the confines of the Civil War, John Bell Hood was clearly worse as an army leader; From wikipedia;

at the age of 33 was promoted to temporary full general and command of the Army of Tennessee at the outskirts of Atlanta, making him the youngest soldier on either side of the war to be given command of an army. There, he dissipated his army in a series of bold, calculated, but unsuccessful assaults, and was forced to evacuate the besieged city. Leading his men through Alabama and into Tennessee, his army was severely damaged in a massive frontal assault at the Battle of Franklin and he was decisively defeated at the Battle of Nashville by his former West Point instructor, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, after which he was relieved of command.

The Army of Tennessee was much more destroyed under Hood's leadership than was the Army of Northern Virginia under Lee's.
Beyond the Civil War, Little Turtle's defeat of General St. Clair has to be the one of the worst defeats in U.S. Military history. From wiki:

Little Turtle is generally credited with leading a coalition force of about 1,000 warriors that routed the U.S. forces near the headwaters of the Wabash River on November 4, 1791. The battle remains the U.S. Army's worst defeat by American Indians, with 623 federal soldiers killed and another 258 wounded. (...) Of the 1,000 officers and men that St. Clair led into battle, only 24 escaped unharmed. As a result, President George Washington forced St. Clair to resign his post, and Congress initiated its first investigation of the executive branch.

Nothing Lee ever did was this bad.

Separate matters

From the IPBiz post Was Robert E. Lee a traitor?

Sophia Nelson makes factual errors in the above-quoted text. points out that Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on April 20, 1861 (not in 1862) and Lee took a position in the Virginia state militia, not in the Confederate army: [On April 20, 1861] Colonel Robert E. Lee resigns from the United States army two days after he was offered command of the Union army and three days after his native state, Virginia, seceded from the Union. (...) Two days later, Lee was appointed commander of Virginia’s forces with the rank of major general. He spent the next few months raising troops in Virginia, and in July he was sent to western Virginia to advise Confederate commanders struggling to maintain control over the mountainous region. If secession were legal, Lee was a citizen of the state of Virginia, but not of the United States, on April 20, 1861. Lee took command of Virginia forces, and was not, at that time, "commanding general of the Confederate States of America." Lee would take command of the Army of Northern Virginia during the battle of the Seven Days in 1862. He was not "commanding general of the Confederate States of America" at that time either.

Note also Dunst review of Seidule book on Robert E. Lee way off base including

Confederate leaders absolutely,positively did not want to have African Americans as fighting soldiers. This was most vividly demonstrated by the Cleburne proposal (to have black soldiers), which not only was rejected but also effectively buried from further discussion. Refer to the article "That Extraordinary Document" by Steve Davis in Civil War Times Illustrated, page 14 (December 1977). link: See also IPBiz Were there African American soldiers for the Confederacy?

From wiki on Ty Seidule:

Upon completion of the college ROTC program at Washington and Lee University in 1984,[10] Seidule became an officer in the United States Army.[7] Seidule served for 36 years, starting as a tank platoon leader in Germany.[11] His commands include a cavalry unit in the 82nd Airborne Division during the Gulf War, as well as 3rd Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment. His staff positions included crisis planning for NATO in Kosovo and North Macedonia.[2] After receiving his master's degree in history from Ohio State University in 1994, Seidule was appointed an assistant professor of history at the United States Military Academic while remaining on active duty in the Army.[9] Seidule retired from the Military Academy and the US Army as a brigadier general in 2020. In 2020, Seidule was appointed the Chamberlain Fellow and Visiting Professor of History at Hamilton College. He is also a fellow in the International Security program at New America.[12][13] He is a professor emeritus of history at the United States Military Academy at West Point where he taught and was the head of the history department for two decades during his time as an officer in the US Army

**Update on Sept 12, 2021:

History doesn't jibe with Trump's characterization of Robert E. Lee as a unifier and premier war strategist?

Within the post History doesn't jibe with Trump's characterization of Robert E. Lee as a unifier and premier war strategist , CNN has a milder rendition.

Lee's rank in the regular U.S. Army at the time of his resignation was colonel. He had been "passed over" for a generalship, which went to Joseph Johnston, a native of Virginia, and the highest ranking officer who switched from regular U.S. Army to the Confederacy.

Jefferson Davis, while serving as U.S. Secretary of War had created the Second U.S. Cavalry, which became a training ground for Confederate officers. The first leader was A.S. Johnston (not related to Joe), who outranked Robert E. Lee in the Confederate army.


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