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ROBERT E. LEE AND THE WESTERN CONFEDERACY: A Criticism of Lee's Strategic Ability Thomas L. Connelly In a recent essay on Robert E. Lee's generalship, a historian referred to his Army of Northern Virginia as the "varsity team." Such a statement might be expected from an eastern historian. That the comment originated with the biographer of one of the Army of Tennessee's first commanders, however, only reiterates the colonial status of the western Confederate army in both Civil War writing and thinking. The dominance of the eastern theater in Civil War historiography is well known. Beginning with such early works as the Southern Historical Society Papers, the stress has been on the East. Despite recent biographies of western leaders such as P. G. T. Beauregard and Leónidas K. Polk, the overemphasis of eastern matters apparently has not been curbed.1 Many reasons might be given for this imbalance. The proximity of Virginia battlefields to large population centers, the eastern success in battle, the relative isolation of western military areas, and the glamor associated with a Stonewall Jackson or a J. E. B. Stuart certainly are contributing factors. So, too, was the unified nature of the eastern army, both in command structure and later in historiography. Geographically , post-war sentiment and archival materials in the Confederate West were less unified. That eight generals commanded the western army also prevented a later idolization of a single leader as was the case in Virginia. Yet the most enduring reason for the eastern emphasis has been the character of Robert E. Lee. Writings on Lee are voluminous, so much so that the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia in 1951 issued a preliminary checklist. Since then three additional major biographies and two compilations of Lee's papers have appeared. In this morass of over thirty biographies and hundreds of other monographs and articles, the image of Lee has been that of the Christian knightsoldier , magnificent in victory and in defeat. No single war figure stands in greater need of re-evaluation than Lee. On at least three major counts, personality, field success, and strategy, 1 Charles P. Roland, "The Generalship of Robert E. Lee," in Grady McWhiney (ed.), Grant, Lee, Lincoln and the Radicals: Essays on Civil War Leadership ( New York, 1964), p. 48. 116 he may have been the beneficiary of special pleading. Lee's personality has been amplified in every biography. His traits of kindness, patience, generosity, and others have become stereotyped. However, has anyone depicted Lee as he actually was? In the post-war writings of his former generals and staff officers, how much of the adulation of his personal qualities was the human tendency to prove one's closeness and accessibility to a popular hero? Too, in the stress on his virtues noted in late nineteenth-century writings, Lee perhaps has been shaped into a semi-religious symbol of suffering and resignation for a disillusioned, distraught South. There may be some correlation in the obituary in the Halifax Chronicle which declared Lee's life had seen no wrong doing, in Gamaliel Bradford's lengthy portrayal in 1912 of Lee's patience, love for animals, and Christian spirit, and in Douglas Freeman's later account of the young mother who brought her child to Lee "to be blessed." Also, in the many writings on Lee which appeared at the turn of the century, perhaps he was amplified above other Confederate leaders because he allegedly possessed traits which fitted well into the trend of nationalistic historical writing, such as his love for the Union, his generosity, and his single-minded concern with duty. Perhaps not by accident did Bradford label his biography, Lee the American. Later, how much were Lee's personality and reputation enhanced by the literary ability of Douglas Freeman? A balanced treatment of his personality may have been lost in the aura and glamor of the Virginia segment of the war as treated by Freeman, Clifford Dowdey, and others.2 One wonders as well if the depiction of his personal habits has not been a matter of special pleading. For Lee, unlike other Confederate generals, personality faults have become virtues. His weakness in handling...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 116-132
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
N

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