Sunday, July 7, 2013

What was Robert E. Lee thinking?

The Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College is an annual conference that brings in scholars, authors and battlefield rangers and guides to speak on issues and personalities of the war. The students are adults who pay several hundred dollars each to live in dorms for a few days and stoke their curiosity about the war. Teenagers who have earned scholarships add to the mix and often ask the best questions.

This year was my fourth at the institute as a speaker and tour guide. When I go, I attend as many sessions as I can to hear from the real experts. It is like going back to college. As you may have seen from the “Gettysburg Journal” series on this blog, I also love that the battlefield becomes an extension of the classroom for the institute’s program.

The invasion gave Lee's army a chance to attack Union industrial might. 
As a nearly lifelong journalist, I have a serious note-taking habit. In coming days I plan to give you capsules on this blog of a few things I learned at this year’s Civil War Institute. Some of these will be one-liners and vignettes, but I want to begin with short pictures drawn by excellent scholars on the two generals at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee and George Gordon Meade.

For this post, let’s look at Lee through the eyes of Richard Sommers, a historian who teaches at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle, Pa. Sommers’s topic was not so much Lee’s character as the imperatives and objectives that motivated him and the Army of Northern Virginia during his 1863 invasion of the North.

After his Chancellorsville victory Lee had to decide what to do next with his battle-hardened army. He rejected going south to try to change to course of the fighting around Vicksburg or in Tennessee. At least in part, Sommers said, this was because the generals there, Joseph E. Johnston and John C. Pemberton, were inept and Braxton Bragg was little better.

Lee’s alternative was to invade the North. This offered the prospect of breaking the will of the Union and winning military victories that would lead to British recognition and support of the Confederacy. Lee’s army could also gather food and supplies, disrupt two vital east-west railroads and threaten the coal industry in Pennsylvania. Sommers described coal “as the oil of its day” and one of Lee’s overarching goals as “to strike at the heart of Union might.”

The invasion required that Lee remain on the offensive, keep moving, exploit the Union army’s mistakes and never go on the defensive. This meant forcing the action and making the Yankees react. Lee hoped to keep the Union army from massing and to destroy it piece by piece.

When Union troops streamed north into Maryland and Pennsylvania, Sommers said, Lee could not ignore them. He didn’t have to fight them in a particular place, but wherever he fought, he had to carry the battle to them. Taking a defensive position would allow the Union army to concentrate and possibly expose the weakness of the Confederate supply line.

Lee was not overconfident or rash at Gettysburg, Sommers said, but he understood that he had to remain in motion. If he stopped, he became not a threat but a target.

Lee’s lieutenant, James Longstreet, claimed after the war that Lee committed to assuming a defensive position, but Sommers doesn’t buy it. He said Lee knew that acting defensively would require him to make the enemy do what he wanted him to do. Lee operated instead on the principle that it is always prudent to give the enemy credit for acting in his own best interest. The corollary is that you should seek to beat the enemy’s best game with your best game.

Sommers, a stately man with a shapely 19th-century beard, obviously admired Lee, but a tour later in the day reinforced my one reservation about his point if view. As I stood looking across the open expanse Gen. George E. Pickett’s men had to cross under heavy fire to reach the Union line on the opposite ridge, I wondered how anyone could order such an attack. Even the imperatives to stay in motion and stay on the offensive did not explain why Lee made a hopeless frontal assault on July 3.

Next: Carol Reardon on George Gordon Meade’s transition to command of the Army of the Potomac.

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