Monday, March 5, 2018

Learn more about Lee and the Civil War

Links to more about Lee and the civil war!

Those links are the tip of the iceburg for more information online.  If you are looking for a book or two to expand your civil war knowledge,  Ron Chernow's book on Grant is very good, and Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative - 3 Volumes is FANTASTIC.  Hit up your local library, there are boatloads of books on the civil war and it really helps to take a look and read a little of a few to find the books you click with. Ken Burns, Civil War documentary is a great documentary but certainly not the only one!


  1. The Civil War was unwinnable – by Lee or anyone else. The Confederacy faced incredibly long odds from the start. One cannon factory in the entire South? Their chief source for cannons (and other armaments) was through capture of Northern equipment. You only capture if you force your enemy to flee the field.
    The Union blockade multiplied these effects by preventing arms imports from Britain and France except through blockade runners which, while romantic and exciting, hardly constituted a steady stream of material.
    The blockade, in turn was enhanced by the early occupation of New Orleans – the South’s largest port. It also gave the Union a base of operation in the Gulf which greatly improved the blockade. Ships could rest and refit there instead of steaming or sailing all the way back around Florida up to Maryland.
    While the romance of the Civil War lies in Virginia, the outcome was settled in the West – where the Union had the upper hand in generalship. Working down the Mississippi, ultimately splitting the south in two after Vicksburg was a critical blow to southern hopes. It led directly to Sherman’s March to the Sea which destroyed the ability for the south to maintain even the barest semblance of existence.
    Lee kept it close, but the Cause was Lost almost as soon as it was launched.

  2. I also think you’re making too much of the similarities between Washington and the colonies and Lee and the south.

    While Britain and the Union were both much more advanced industrially, Britain’s stuff was across the Atlantic, a month’s voyage away. The Union’s trip from factory to battlefront was much shorter in terms of distance and time (thanks railroads!).

    The Atlantic crossing also impaired what the British could bring to bear against the colonies. For every battery of cannon they brought, a squadron of cavalry or company of infantry (or chests of gold for bribes) had to be left behind. I don’t know for certain, but I would be very surprised to learn that the British greatly outnumbered the Americans on the ground. At specific battles, yes, but overall? Hard to believe.

    Again, the Union didn’t have this problem. They had ready access to everything they might need. Yes, they had exterior lines and so had to the long way around compared to the South, but again, railroad mileage made up for much of that disadvantage. The Union was solely focused on this war. They didn’t have an empire to administer like the British did. Their entire army could be, and was brought to bear.

    Once in the New World, the British were always operating in hostile territory, subject to guerilla attacks, sabotage and the like. Even their ‘safe’ harbors of New York and in the South had sizeable colonialist populations. Again, it was entirely different with the Union. After they lost a battle, they could quickly retreat across the Potomac to safe territory where they could rest, refit, and ready themselves for another campaign.

    Where there are similarities between the two wars lies in the fact that the major victories won by the Americans and the Confederates were results of attacks. Washington lost New York and Philadelphia while on the defensive. He won at Trenton and Yorktown while on the offensive. (He wasn’t at Saratoga, but that was another offensive victory).

    Saratoga was the victory that secured French intervention. Lee knew, and failed to obtain, a similar victory on Union soil that might bring in foreign assistance.

  3. Wars are won on the offensive. On the defensive, you yield the initiative and have to wait for others to act. The best you can hope for on the defensive is for your opponent to give up and go home.

    Lee knew he had to win victories to keep his army supplied. To do that, he had to force his opponent to flee the field – abandoning their supplies for capture.

    Lee knew that he had to force the pace of the war quickly before the South’s advantages (generalship, morale, interior lines, initiative) were subsumed by the North’s (industry, population, improving generalship). If he waited on the defense, he knew he would eventually be overwhelmed. His only hope was to win a victory large enough to win foreign intervention. It’s doubtful that was ever possible with the South’s refusal to renounce slavery, but it was their only chance.

    With all that said, Lee was not adverse to the defense when it was the best course available. Remember he was mocked as the “King of Spades” for digging trenches by the southern press when he was in charge of Richmond’s defenses. (Those trenches proved quite valuable later in the war). And Fredericksburg was a defensive battle. Lee set his troops up on the hill and mowed down assault after assault of Union troops.

    And, with the notable exception of Gettysburg, Lee’s assaults were designed to sustain as few casualties as possible while inflicting the most. Time after time he was able to maneuver so that he could assault an exposed flank causing panic and flight among the Union soldiers.

  4. And I can’t comment well on Alexander and Caesar, but Napoleon spent troops like I spent quarters at the arcade back in the day.

    Because they were conscripts, Napoleon attacked in column, battering enemy lines. This helped give his troops courage of the group and got them close to the enemy quickly, but the columns were incredible targets for artillery. Troops formed in line (especially British) could get off round after round before going into hand-to-hand combat. In an age where muskets couldn’t hit the side of a barn (literally), having such large targets made musket fire all the more effective. Worse, the French troops had to simply take it.

    It worked, without question. These tactics took Napoleon to Moscow (and back). But he bled France white in the process

  5. Outstanding points Alex!!! I agree that the war was won in the west, Thomas and Rosecrans may well be the subject of future trolls. My point about the south being stacked at the beginning of the war made me laugh while I was making it. Both sides had outstanding leaders and some complete failures. In fairness, once the North didn't give up after Bull Run I think the South should have adopted a defensive strategy overall with targeted attacks to gain artillery. 20/20 logic for sure, but Washington's use of intelligence to gain artillery from Ticonderoga instead of risking manpower was a feasible alternative to attacking. That said, you nailed it, I absolutely made to much of the similarities with Washington.

    Your point about Lee's need to drive the fight hits home. I bet he wished he could have used his skill at entrenchment to do what I proposed but always had your logic in mind. I bet that internal thought process was torturous!!

    I love that you brought up Napoleon!!! I wonder how Lee dealt with the huge influence Napoleon had on his tactics (all the civil war officers really) and the body counts. Lee loved his men yet one of the biggest influences of his day was a guy who was known for thinking that his losses were replaceable. I've wondered how the civil war generals dealt with the reality of executing the ideas of Napoleon and seeing all those casualties. The same point I made about Lee is thought provoking regarding Napoleon. Despite it working well for a long period of sustained winning, in the end Napoleon, like Lee, ended up out manned and unable to use his brilliance.

    Honestly, all rebutting aside, this troll was tough to do. I almost gave up when I was researching it for many of the reasons you have mentioned! Lee's performance was outstanding given the task he faced. He did use both offensive and defensive strategies and I was flat out being opportunistic cherry picking Cold Harbor and ignoring Fredericksburg. I do think Lee's only shot at a knock out was from an entrenched position. Thinking about what might have happened had he followed Longstreet's advice at Gettysburg often gets me speculating that he went with his gut when he probably had the best opportunity to lure the North into a catastrophic loss. Of my three supports the Gettysburg angle is the only one where I feel one could justly blame the whole loss on Lee. It was his Saratoga, his must win and he did blow it. Yet I also wonder what would have happened if Custer hadn't almost accidentally been in the right place to stop the attack from the rear during Picket's charge! So many variables, glad I wasn't in Lee or Meade's shoes.

    This is exactly the kind of great call out I was shooting for THANK YOU for taking the time to comment!!!

    From my reading the British didn't outnumber us at all during the Revolution, at Saratoga we had them 2 to 1 by our numbers and when you look at British sources it was 3 to 1. We actually had a lot of advantages in my opinion. The British gave us time to come together and lost their advantages. I get into Saratoga, artillery issues and similar themes in my next troll, Without Benedict Arnold we'd be British and I look forward to see what you think of that one!!

    1. I remember reading somewhere - Killer Angels, Longstreet's biography, somewhere that the Civil War was death knell of Napoleonic tactics.

      Napoleon's wars were fought with small arms that had negligible accuracy and minimal range. So the mathematics of crossing an open field in line or column were acceptable because for the first part of that attack, the enemy couldn't do anything but watch (and fire artillery, or course).

      But by the Civil War, muskets (maybe they were rifles by then?) were much better in both range and accuracy, allowing the enemy to engage farther away and making frontal assaults prohibitively expensive. A few Civil War generals realized this (notably Longstreet) and wanted to adjust tactics accordingly, but Lee and Grant did not. Well, maybe Grant did, but he also knew that he could afford the losses his tactics incurred while Lee could not.