Art Callaham: In the heat of battle, bet on General Lee

April 22, 2012|By ART CALLAHAM

During this sesquicentennial commemoration of America’s Civil War, there will be much said and written about the historically great and not so great from that time. Locally, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts will conduct an exhibit, “Valley of the Shadow,” from June 16 to July 28.  Several of our local authors either have already, or will soon have, books published that concern the time and people. It is my intent to write several columns on the subject for The Herald-Mail.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about my new perspective on general, later president, U.S. Grant; I received a great amount of feedback, mostly positive about the column, some folks asking for more.

A couple of my good friends suggested that I must have had to “bite my tongue” while I wrote about the man who beat my all time favorite southern hero, Robert E. Lee. The answer to those suggestions was: Yes; at least initially until I had the chance to really research Grant. However, to be fair and balanced, I guess I needed to do a little more research on my hero and perhaps that research would result in a new perspective on Lee.

To begin a new look at Gen. Lee, my friend Bill Soulis loaned me a wonderful book by Maj. Gen. J.F.C. Fuller titled “Grant and Lee, a Study in Personality and Generalship;” 1957, Indiana University Press (the book was originally published in England in 1933). What better way to study Lee than to look at a direct comparison with Grant made by a member of the military establishment? 

Gen. Fuller (1878-1966), a British officer, author and historian, is considered by some to be the architect of modern tank warfare. He is the respected author of the nine principles of strategic warfare; those principles, written after World War I are still valid and used today.  I must note that Fuller has his critics, most pointing to his dabbling in the occult, magic and mysticism. But even his critics value his tireless and detailed research.

Fuller concludes: “… Grant is so little understood. Though the greatest general of his age, and one of the greatest strategists of any age, he is little quoted in military histories or textbooks.”  Grant from Fuller’s perspective was the “grand strategist of the Civil War,” not the “butcher” and “purveyor of the massed fire frontal assault.” Rather, he was a “chess master of maneuver.” General Fuller’s conclusions are based mostly on his research of the letters, reports, published books and notes of Grant’s staff officers.

Fuller uses the same research scheme to frame his conclusions concerning Robert E. Lee. First and foremost Fuller stylizes Lee as an “aristocrat and a paragon of civility.” Lee could bring out the best in others, demanded total loyalty and an absolute sense of integrity.  According to Fuller, Robert E. Lee is “the consummate tactical commander.” Along with his generals, officers and soldiers, Lee felt that his army was invincible and capable of doing anything under arms.

But as a strategist, Fuller finds Lee lacking. Lee’s total focus, after Grant came east, became myopic and was centered on maintaining the sovereignty of his home state — Virginia. Yet the grand strategy for Confederate sovereignty had to include lands beyond Virginia’s borders. From Fuller’s perspective, Grant was able to grasp the “total war” picture, while Lee was not.

Sharing a similar view with Fuller about “Lee the strategist,” Ralph Peters, in his latest book “Cain at Gettysburg” concludes “At his best, Robert E. Lee fought brilliant battles and admirable campaigns. His weakness was as a strategist. His beloved Virginia was the center of his universe and the need to defend it at all costs blinded him first to the importance of the Mississippi Valley, then to the fatal blows struck by (one of Grant’s trusted subordinates) Sherman in the Southern heartlands.”

Who am I, but a failed historian, to argue with notable authors like Fuller and Peters about Lee’s ability or inability as a strategist? However, in Lee’s defense, I submit the names of William T. Sherman and George G. Meade, both capable subordinates who carried out the grand strategy of U.S. Grant. With the death of Thomas J. Jackson in 1863, Lee was left with few, if any, subordinates capable of independent tactical action based upon anyone’s overall total war strategy.

My overall perspective of Robert E. Lee remains unchanged, if called to go in harm’s way under one leader, I would place my sword with Lee.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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