US Civil War without Robert E. Lee

If, for whatever reason, General Robert E. Lee wasn’t available for the US Civil War…

Would it have ended much sooner than it did?
Say, in one year instead of five?

Seems like reasonable speculation given Lee’s
battlefield record & abilities, but did he really make that much of a difference?

Oooooops, I meant to say FOUR years in my
previous message.

US Civil War
Apr 12, 1861 to Apr 9, 1865

Without Lee, the conflict probably would have ended sooner, but how much?

I daresay that the good folks in Great Debates will find this a nice change from their usual fare. As it is a question that does not lend itself to a definite answer, I’ll move it over there for you.

I guess it depends upon who you replace Robert E. Lee with.

Lee came in to replace Joe Johnston, who was wounded at the battle of Seven Pines. At that point, the main part of the Union Army was trying to fight its way from Norfolk to Richmond.

Lee fought a well-led campaign (the Seven Days Battle) in which he lost most of the battles but won the campaign by intimitading the hell out of McClellan (not too tough a job, admittedly) and getting McClellan to retreat back to Washington.

With no Lee, I’m not sure who would have been sent to take command of the Army of Northern Virginia; but one could certainly make the argument that had the new commander been less assertive and/or less capable, McClellan would have started the seige of Richmond in mid-62 rather than Grant finally starting in in late '64, and I’d be willing to believe that the war would have ended a year or two earlier (the fall of Richmond would have been a major prestige/political/strategic blow to the Confederacy).

But I guess it comes down to who you replaced Lee with. I think it’s possible that Stonewall Jackson would have gotten the nod- he was just coming off of his brilliant success in the Valley, and Jackson may well have led his armies as well- or possibly better- than Lee (Jackson was very much in favor of taking the war to the North, an action that Lee only took very reluctantly; I think that Jackson might have been able to pull off a victory on Northern soil, which may have helped convince Europe to recognize the CSA or the Union to start talking peace; but we’re into serious “multiple if” realm here). But then, if Jackson got the nod, there’s the question of who would have led his old corps; after all, it was the team of Lee-Jackson-Stuart that did so well (note how downhill Lee’s fortunes went after Jackson’s death); finding someone to run a corps as well as Jackson did- well, that was something that Lee himself was never quite able to do.

So I think without Lee, the South probably would have folded a good year earlier than it did. Though I can make a semi-plausible scenario for a lack of Lee actually extending the war (Richmond falls, but that doesn’t deter the Confederate cause, or possibly sparks a “dire-straits and everyone pitches in harder” mentality, meanwhile, the savior McClellan is now firmly entrenched in command of the Army of the Potomac and continues his eternal quest to do absolutely nothing), it’s really only semi-plausible at best.
Now, another intersting question- what if Lee had taken up Scott’s offer to head the Union armies? With Lee as CinC for the Union, how long do you give the Confederacy?


“Y’know, I would invite y’all to go feltch a dead goat, but that would be abuse of a perfectly good dead goat and an insult to all those who engage in that practice for fun.” -weirddave, set to maximum flame

Hold on there, John, I’m not done with the first one yet. There are several ways to look at the OP. First, one needs to determine how much of the longevity of the war can be credited to Lee’s abilities, and how much is due to the incompetence of the Union generals. Perhaps the war would have been much shorter if Grant and his bulldog atitude had replaced McClellan early in the war rather than later.

Second, Lee’s bigest failing was that he was tied too tightly to Virginia. The war was lost in the West. One could make a respectable arguement that without Lee, another, more stratigicly thinking General could have prevented the many Union successes in the West and pushed the war to a stalemate leading to the election of McClellan in '64 and forcing a peace treaty. Lee fought for the South because of his allegance to Va., and throughout the war was adament about preventing Northern incursions there, sometimes at the cost of reinforcements along the Mississippi.

Third, either Jackson or Longstreet would have been capable commanders of the A of NoVa. Longstreet, in fact, was in many ways a MORE tacticaly advanced general then Lee. The Late Unpleasantness was the first war fought with modern weapons, and while Lee was a brilliant general, Longstreet saw the beginnings of a new type of warfare, one based on manuver and position, rather than brute force. I am firmly of the opinion that if Lee had listened to Longstreet at Gettysburg, the A of NoVa would have flanked Meade to the south, sacked Washington, and gotten the recognition they needed from France and England, ending the war diplomaticaly, fall of Vicksburg or no.

Finally, Don’t take any of the above as a criticism of Lee, IMHO, he was a brilliant general and an extreme gentlemen. The OP does raise some interesting points, and they must be examined completely. The problem with this, of course, is that it’s all revisionalist history and basacaly a series of WAGs. But it’s fun!

Cecil said it. I believe it. That settles it.

Relax, I’m not as Dave as I look!- A Wallified sig!

I agree partially with John Corrado; it depends on who gets command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

OTOH, I would argue that, with the exception of Johnston, all of the Confederacy’s significant political and military leaders were too aggressive. The war was never the Confederacy’s to win, it was the Union’s to lose (I agree that the pre-Meade Union commanders did their best to lose it).

No possible commander with that attitude could have made much difference in the outcome or length of the war (I would argue that Forrest could have extended it, at least as a guerilla conflict, and Hood would have been beaten much faster, but neither could have been selected for command at that time). Only an unwounded Johnston could have failed to lose the war, and he probably would have been sacked or rusticated by Davis.

“I don’t just want you to feel envy. I want you to suffer, I want you to bleed, I want you to die a little bit each day. And I want you to thank me for it.” – What “Let’s just be friends” really means

weirddave said:

Agreed; but I don’t think Longstreet would have been as effective at turning plans into actions- Longstreet was capable and calm, but lacked the aggressiveness and willingness to take risks that Lee and Jackson had. If Longstreet had been in command of the AoNV, I’m not sure he truly would have accomplished much.

He also said:

Well, it was less Grant’s bulldog attitude than Grant’s bulldog attitude combined with a good sense of strategy and tactics. Burnside had a bulldog attitude as commander of the AoP, and he probably screwed up worse than the other commanders.

In fact, I’d lay a lot of the blame for the timidity of Hooker and Meade squarely on their opponents- Lee, Jackson and Longstreet’s penchant for pulling victory out of the jaws of defeat probably struck a lot of fear into Hooker and Meade’s hearts.

Akatsukami said:

Actually, in my opinion that’s exactly what happened. Johnston did a great job of fighting against Sherman in Sherman’s march towards Atlanta; Johnston moved and manuevered his army expertly in blocking up Sherman’s advance and then retreating before Sherman could actually begin an assault on Johnston’s position. Had Johnston been left in charge of the Army of Tennessee, it’s quite possible that Sherman might not have made it to Atlanta before the Presidential election, and Lincoln may very well have lost (remember that Fremont was running as the Radical Republican candidate for President, and threatened to draw off a lot of voters who wanted to keep fighting, but didn’t think Lincoln was the right man for leading the fight; Fremont withdrew his candidacy shortly after the fall of Atlanta).

Unfortunately, because Johnston was giving up territory and wasn’t winning big battles, Davis got impatient and replaced him with Hood. Davis said of Hood, “This man will fight,” and Hood did fight. And lost because he chose stupid battles and led his army poorly. End result- the broken Army of the Tenessee had to simply give up the fight, and Sherman sailed the rest of the way into Atlanta.


“Y’know, I would invite y’all to go feltch a dead goat, but that would be abuse of a perfectly good dead goat and an insult to all those who engage in that practice for fun.” -weirddave, set to maximum flame

Now, I am NOT an admirer of Robert E. Lee, whom I considered one of history’s most overrated generals. I think his OVERALL tactics were rash and foolish. The South could not afford the turn the conflict into a war of attrition, but Lee’s policies turned it into just that.

Still, it’s worth noting that, years after the war, Lee called George McClellan the best of the Union generals!!!

You won’t get that from most history textbooks, of course. The standard line seems to be that the Civil War SHOULD have been over in a few weeks, but that wussy wimp McClellan wouldn’t march right into Richmond the way Lincoln wanted him to!

That line reflects wishful thinking and the foolish notion that “good” must necessarily triumph over “evil.” Since Lincoln was “good” (against slavery) and the South was “bad,” some historians seem to think it was a foregone conclusion that the Union would triumph, just as soon as it got a commander who wasn’t a coward.

I find this simplistic and just plain wrong. Though Abraham Lincoln was a great man and a great humanitarian, he was a very bad general! He ignored the advice of outgoing general Winfield Scott, who told him that winning the Civil War would require a much larger army than the US had ever dreamed of putting together, and that victory would require years of slow strangulation of the South. Lincoln chose, instead, to put together an army of 90 day volunteers, thinking this would be sufficient.

Even after Bull Run showed that the South would not be bested quickly or easily, Lincoln failed to grasp how serious the situation was. He also never grasped just how precarious his own situation was. Washington D.C. was, essentially, in the middle of hostile territory. George McClellan understood that the capital was vulnerable, and was not about to go off half-cocked, no matter how much Lincoln urged him to.

Today, most of us see slavery as so evil that ANY sacrifice was worthwhile, so long as slavery was ultimately abolished. Still, I wonder- if you were a Union soldier, would you want to serve under George McClellan (who didn’t want to throw away lives and resources) or under U.S. Grant (who figured, correctly, that 200,000 casualties were okay, as long as the enemy suffered 300,000)?

astorian said:

Well, Lincoln wasn’t alone in his thinking- most of politicians and editors of the North felt that the war would be quick and decisive- a single battle in which the ‘Confederacy’ was quickly routed, and then the whole thing would be over. So if you want to castigate Lincoln for believing what nearly everyone around him believed, go ahead. I’d also point out that even if Lincoln agreed with Scott (and note that Scott’s original Anaconda plan was eventually adopted as the plan to fight the war), there wouldn’t have been any political support in Congress for raising the troops and building the weapons necessary for a long war- it wasn’t until the defeat at Bull Run that the country in general began to realize that it would be a long, drawn-out affair.

So if you wish to call Lincoln stupid for believing what everyone else believed, and for not taking a course of action he couldn’t have taken even if he had wished, go right ahead.

Wow, astorian, I’d love to read your sources on this, because it’s the exact opposite of everything I’ve read on the subject.

See, the way it’s been presented in every book I’ve read is that Lincoln was extremely concerned about the defense of Washington, and insisted on keeping McDowell’s corps in Northern Virginia just in case the Rebs tried an assault on Washington while McClellan was down in Norfolk. McClellan continued to insist on having McDowell’s corps sent down to him, and refused to move for several weeks while bickering with Lincoln over where McDowell’s corps would be. It was McClellan who wanted to nearly abandon the defenses of Washington in the hopes of assaulting Richmond. Meanwhile, the delay in McClellan’s operations allowed the Army of Northern Virginia to get into position and set up defenses, thus enuring that McClellan’s job would be even tougher.

Quite frankly, you’ve got your roles seriously reversed in this one.

McClellan didn’t throw away lives and resources? Quite frankly, McClellan was a bigger wastrel of lives and resources- like time- than Grant ever was.

McClellan was handed the biggest opportunity of any Union general. Lee’s entire battle plans for the invasion of Maryland fell right into McClellan’s hands. McClellan knew exactly where Lee’s troops were, how they were divided into four parts, and exactly where each part was going. There was never a better opportunity to defeat Lee in detail by moving quickly and destroying each section of the AoNV before the other parts could join together. End result- AoNV destroyed, Richmond falls shortly thereafter, war ends quickly.

But instead, McClellan dithered and he delayed, and he was so cautious and ponderous in his movement that the AoNV had plenty of time to realize that their plan had been folied and to reunite their army. End result- the AoP has to face the entire AoNV in the defensive terrain of the AoNV’s choosing.

And as for wasting men- at least during a battle, Grant stayed in control and kept an eye on matters, moving forward reinforcements and giving orders in order to grab any chance of victory he could. But at Antietam, McClellan gave his orders the night before the battle and spent the actual battle hiding in his tent, sending telegrams to Lincoln and Stanton claiming that all was lost and it was all their fault. The Union attack on the Confederate positions was a terrible mismash, with each corps attacking one at a time, allowing the AoNV to easily move reinforcements around in order to deflect each threat. Had even half the corps attacked simultaneously, the AoNV would have been broken under the constant pressure. But because McClellan couldn’t be bothered to actually take command of the battle and give orders, the AoNV was able to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.

So quite frankly, McClellan was the biggest wastrel the Union armies were ever led by. He wasted time, he wasted ammunition, and he wasted lives.


“Y’know, I would invite y’all to go feltch a dead goat, but that would be abuse of a perfectly good dead goat and an insult to all those who engage in that practice for fun.” -weirddave, set to maximum flame

I’m not a big Civil War buff, but my impression has long been that students of the Civil War believed Northern victory nearly inevitable, not due to the goodness of the cause, but due to the tremendous Northern advantage in resources - several times the manufacturing capacity of the South, much larger population, and so forth.

The South had most of its resources in play from the very beginning of the war, and was able to replace very little of what it lost in men and materiel. The North, OTOH, could keep on manufacturing guns, ammunition, boots, whatever was needed - and could replace its fallen and wounded soldiers throughout the war. If I’m not mistaken, this is why historians generally believe that a Northern victory was the likely outcome.

Astorian: In his book “Ordeal by Fire” Fletcher Pratt says that Lincoln liked the idea of Scott’s Anaconda, but had legions of politicans and newspaper publishers screaming for swift action. Pratt points out that we in the 20th Century tend to forget that Lincoln was elected by a minority of Americans, and that the majority tended to believe he was a simpleton who was the tool of Seward or some other high-ranking Republican.

Lincoln may have over-estimated the time required for subjegating the South, but I would hardly call him a bad general. He noted that Appalatchia contained many people who were loyal to the Union and he wanted the northern Armies to open a cordon to that area ASAP. Pratt makes the remark that Lincoln often meddled with early Union commanders like Halleck, Hooker and McClellan because he thought his ideas were as good as theirs – he meddled little with Grant and Sherman because finally he met a couple of real generals.

Pratt also gives an interesting analysis of McClellan’s failures. He does not fault either McClellan’s courage or military skill – he thinks McClellan did not understand that ANoV existed to serve the nation’s purposes and lacked confidence. I believe Pratt made the comment “Little Mac was one of those generals who would have felt inadequate with the Golden Horde of Tamerlane behind his back.”

All very interesting stuff.
I’d like to toss in another, related question/idea if I could.
Lee’s decisions at Gettysburg have long troubled me, as they seem to lack a rational basis. Why stick around and order Pickett’s Charge? By that point, JEB Stuart was back, and Lee knew that he was outnumbered and that the Union held the superior ground. He wasn’t blind, either – he had to look at that field and see that a tight, ordered march was suicide.
A great chance taker, he could have even have made for Washington at that point, leaving that turtle Meade dug in at Gettysburg. Could he have made it to Washington? Well, it was a long trip, but Bad Old Man Jubal Early made it pretty far, later, with a smaller number of troops.
I’ve read that he had a heart condition, that he was tired, and not really thinking clearly at the time. I don’t buy that argument, though. For a soldier as tough and smart as Lee, the idea that he was “tired and sick” doesn’t cover it. I would think he’d of got used to such things, and being “tired and sick” – everybody’s tired and sick during a war – didn’t stop him at Chancellorsville.
What, then?
Religion, maybe. That’s the only thing I can think of. Lee was a devout man, and he’d come to believe he was leading God’s Chosen. In fact, this army’s success, against all odds and superior numbers and resources, maybe convinced him that there was indeed a higher power at work. A higher power that would not allow him to lose, so long as he continued to show absolute faith in that power. How to show faith? How about ordering a “suicidal charge” and trusting in God’s hands?
In such a way, he might have viewed the recent death of Stonewall Jackson (a tenacious man, a brutal, bloody warrior, but even more fanatically Christian than Lee) as another testing of that faith. Jackson, dying at the scene of his and Lee’s greatest victory. Jackson, dying at the hands of his own men.
Lee loved his Army, loved his men, loved Virginia. At Gettysburg, as he contemplated Pickett’s Charge, did he think of God, perhaps, saying to Abraham, “Kill your son, the thing you love most, to prove your faith in me?”
I don’t know. But I still can’t find a rational basis for his decisions, there.

My hunch (and it’s only a hunch, since I have no more insight into Lee’s thinking than anyone else) is that Lee knew the North could and would win, if the war came down to attrition, and decided (wrongly, in my opinion) that the South’s best hope was to win big in Northern territory, and break the North’s will to win.

Certainly, he had to be aware that most Northerners were not eager to pursue the war to its logical end- the draft riots in New York certainly proved that few Yankees were eager to fight to the bitter end for the rights of “niggers” (like it or not, that’s how millions of Northerners saw the conflict). Perhaps Lee believed that a victory in Pennsylvania would do for the SOuth what the Tet Offensive did for the Viet COng- win or lose, it might convince the enemy that he was fighting in a hopeless cause, and that it was time to quit and go home.

Actually, astorian, Lee did believe that a big win in Pa. would go a long way towards winning the war, and it would have, but not entirely for the reasons you gave. He believed, ( and he was probobly right ) that a big win would win the South the recognition of England and France and lead to an alliance with these European powers. This is probobly what would have happened, except he didn’t win. Had he won, had England and France recognized the Confederacy and formed an alliance, IMHO, the North sues for peace, Lincoln leaves The White House in discrace- The worst president ever.

The answer to your question lies in fact that the War of Yankee Agression was the first war fought with modern weapons. Less than a hundred years earlier, the British were confounded by Colonial soldies who attacked from cover. The way things were done then, two sides would face each other in ranks and fire away, and the inaccuracy of the weapons used ment that lots of them didn’t die. A charge to overcome the enemy was a holdout from those times. In fact, Longstreet wanted to flank the Union army to the south, and had Lee followed that plan, it would have been Meade who would have been forced to attack a dug in enemy. The ground around Gettysburg is vary favorable to the defenders, and I don’t think he could have done any better than Pickett did. J.E.B. Stuart would then have been free to raid Washington, and IMHO, this would have ended the war. What happened was that the nature of war was changing, and Lee, brilliant as he was, did not recognise that fact at Gettysburg.

One would think the British had never fought with/against Indians.


The British were confused that Englishmen( as they saw the Colonists ) would fight that way. And yes, they learned little from the French and Indian wars.