Robert E. Lee, US Army

I have been reading about the Civil War lately, and I wondered (alternate history alert!) what would the war have been like if Lee had remained loyal to the Union instead of to Virginia and had gone on to glory and fame as a Union general?

I suppose he would have taken the timorous McClellan’s place and pursued the war more vigorously. Also, who would have led the Army of Northern Virginia instead of Lee?


Instead of Lee? Maybe Stonewall Jackson? JEB Stuart? Forrest? Yeah, sure, Forrest was an utter asshole of a racist, but as a cavalry commander, he was a very good tactician.

He would have become famous for digging entrenchments around Washington and might never have had the opportunity (due to political connections and doubts as to his loyalty) to command in the field.

Interesting. General Winfield Scott, who was the commanding General in 1861 (he retired soon after the war started) supposedly offered Lee the top command. Without a doubt he would have prosecuted the war more vigorusly than McClellan or Buell (the Western Commander) would have, and might have ended the business in 1862 or 1863. And then; President Robert E. Lee? Because the war would have ended before Grant could have become as famous as he did…

As for the Confederacy, one problem in promoting someone like Stuart or Forrest is both were relative unknows at the start. Another problem was that President Jefferson Davis was renowned for his feuding with his generals, and Joe Johnston and PGT Burearegard, among his most capable field generals, didn’t like him (or each other, for that matter) very much.

It might have been Albert Sidney Johnson, who Jefferson sent to the West (Kentucky/Tennessee) to oppose the Union troops there, and who lost his life at Shiloh. He was well-respected in the pre-Civil War Army and Davis liked him and he probably could have gotten Johnston and Beauregard to work together…

What might-have-beens is always fascinating, because we already know what did happen.

Press on.

Probably Jackson, he was a redleg (taught arty at VMI before the war) and Lee’s right-hand man IRL. Stuart and Forrest were great cav Brigadiers, but I doubt they’d be any good at commanding an Army. Tactical vs. strategic, y’dig?

Lee was an aggressive general. Which was the wrong type of general for the Confederates but would have been the right general to lead the American forces. Lee wouldn’t have hesitated in the face of battle like McClellan did.

Lee probably would have been fighting against Johnston. Or maybe Johnston. Joseph Johnston was the original commander of the Army of Northern Virginia before being wounded and replaced by Lee. Albert Sidney Johnston was probably the most highly regarded Confederate general at the beginning of the war.

Quick Civil War trivia question: In 1861, the CSA promoted five men to the rank of full general and listed them by their seniority. The second through fifth were:

  1. Albert Sidney Johnston
  2. Robert E. Lee
  3. Joseph Johnston
  4. P.G.T. Beauregard

But without looking it up, can you name the senior general in the Confederate army?

Samuel Cooper. He was a staff officer who was in charge of organizing the Confederate army.

Plus Forrest was a barely literate civilian with no military training. I’m not saying he didn’t earn his points, but it was always going to take time no matter who was in command.

I don’t think there would have been much difference on the Union side. Lee was a competent General, but not an earthshaking genius. The Union had many competent Generals. The only significant difference I can think of is if, through some circumstance, Lee replaced McClellan. McClellan was straight-up incompetent and his refusal to act offensively probably lengthened the war considerably. If Lee was subordinate to McClellan, there’s not much that would change.

On the Southern Side, I don’t see the incursion into Northern Territory happening. It is conceivable that they could have replaced him with Forrest or someone else that had an aggressive mindset. More likely, the war would have settled into a defensive stance earlier than it did in history, and would have just taken that much longer to resolve. I always interpreted Lee’s invasion as an act of desperation rather than a stroke of strategic genius.

Lee’s REAL genius lay in the area of people management. We all know that (for example) Jackson was a better tactician. But Lee could take a group of people who were hungry for glory, and who didn’t always like each other all that well, and make them work together.

During the first two years or so, the Union had two major disadvantages: (1) McClellan, and (2) there was no coordination between the various armies. If Lee had accepted Scott’s offer, both of those problems would have been fixed.


“So that’s the map you wanted me to see, General Lee?”
“Quite right, Colonel; to defend Washington, march your men to this spot.”
“Yes, sir. I take it other Union officers will be defending the city’s other sides?”
“Hmm? Uh, yes; yes, that is, of course, totally a thing which is also happening.”

Jackson really wasn’t a great tactician. He never really did anything brilliant on the actual battlefield. His genius was at the operational level. He maneuvering his units around so well that they were attacking places where the American forces weren’t expecting attacks and were caught by surprise.

There was another Confederate advantage: they were a new army.

Prior to 1860, the United States had an army that was relatively professional but very small. In 1860, that army was essentially divided in half. The half that stayed in the American army remained in their existing units. But the Confederate army didn’t have any existing units.

Both sides then began to greatly expand the size of their army. But the Confederates were able to create each new unit around a cadre of pre-war professionals. A typical Confederate unit might be 95% raw recruits - but the other five percent would be experienced soldiers who could show the recruits how to do things the right way. In contrast, the American army had a small handful of pre-war units that were almost entirely made up of professionals and a large majority of new units which were entirely made up of raw recruits. So the average Confederate unit was better than its American counterpart in the early part of the war. This advantage faded as units gained experience from the war and the American units caught up with the Confederates.

If Lee had been subordinate to McClellan, I don’t think he would have stayed so. One of McClellan’s faults was that he liked to surround himself with yes-men. He wanted subordinates who would agree with anything he said. I can’t see Lee doing so for very long. Lee would have questioned McClellan’s judgement and been reassigned to a western command.

I agree completely. And in that scenario the overall picture of the war changes very little, hence my point.

Didn’t he ask Scott for that, if he stayed in the US army, to ‘keep out of the war’?