AUDACITY PERSONIFIED: THE GENERALSHIP OF ROBERT E. LEE
Edited by Peter S. Carmichael
Louisiana State University Press
$24.95, 174 pages
“Audacity Personified: The Generalship of Robert E. Lee,” a collection of essays
by assorted Civil War experts, tackles head-on the controversy over Lee’s daring style.
The title comes from a term in common use at the time. Once a young Confederate asked an older one if Lee had “audacity.” The answer: “If there is one man in either army … head and shoulders above every other in audacity, it is General Lee. His name might be audacity.”
The source for use of the word in the 19th century is uncertain, but one thing is clear: It was prevalent in martial circles as the highest compliment. Napoleon, the colossus who bestrode the epoch’s military thinking, described his own method as “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace” (“Audacity, audacity, always audacity”). In West Point classrooms, built when Napoleon was at his zenith, it was inculcated as speed, daring and attacking with confidence.
Like Napoleon, who divided his forces in lightning victories over larger armies at Austerlitz (1805) and Jena (1806, the year before Lee’s birth), the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was no stranger to similar risk-taking and tactical brinkmanship, especially at Chancellorsville and Second Manassas.
Lee’s genius for attack has been a key topic ever since Douglas Southall Freeman’s magisterial “R.E. Lee” (1934), a book that provides a partial jumping-off point for “Audacity Personified.”
The new book takes up not where Mr. Freeman left off, but with his current critics, especially Edward H. Bonekemper III and his “How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War” (1998).
Mr. Bonekemper says that, far from bringing the South close to victory, Lee’s attacks bled the South to death. The Army of Northern Virginia, he and other revisionists say, should have stayed put, fought defensively and waited out the North.
The great thing about such debates by historians — and, especially in some cases, for historians — is that argument about such issues can last as long as a June sun at the North Pole.
Yet “Audacity Personified” does good service in reviewing the controversy, clearing up some issues and providing nuance, especially in the first essay, by the editor, Peter S. Carmichael, author of “Lee’s Young Artillerist: William R. J. Pegram” and an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Mr. Carmichael and his colleagues suggest that there is no easy answer to the issue of Lee’s audacity, in terms of both its results and its consistency.
Certainly, they are united in rejecting most of what Mr. Bonekemper suggests — as well as the theories of armchair psychobiographers who attribute Lee’s aggressive streak to the “repression” they claim lay behind his courtesy and Victorian good manners.
As Mr. Carmichael notes, few military men lacked aggressiveness back then. Think of George Custer; think of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson; think of Ulysses S. Grant, of whom Lincoln is variously quoted as saying he couldn’t spare or needed Grant because, the president concluded, “he fights.”
The most notable nonaggressive general was McClellan, whose interior, I suppose, psychobiographers might find clean as a whistle because he didn’t fight. But who praises McClellan? He prolonged the bloodletting more than anybody. (About the only person at whom McClellan ever got angry was Lincoln).
On Lee, Mr. Carmichael argues for a nuanced point of view: Lee attacked in some cases out of desperation, such as at Chancellorsville, where he had been outmaneuvered and could respond only by the high-stakes gamble of dividing his army in three and attacking an exposed Union flank; there was no other choice.
As Mr. Carmichael shows, early in the war, Lee — as well as President Jefferson Davis and most Southerners — wanted to sock it to the North for both psychological and political reasons: They felt they had been insulted for years by Yankee moralizing on slavery and also knew any victory on Northern soil could bring foreign recognition. Many also knew that the superior resources of the North meant that a long, drawn-out struggle would lead to certain defeat.
The South’s “offensive-defensive” and the invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania were thus not Lee’s invention, Mr. Carmichael shows, but expressions of a collective will. He even persuasively argues, in the book’s best passage, that Lee’s order for Pickett’s Charge was not unreasonable — wrong, but not unreasonable, given the results of the first two days at Gettysburg and his army’s miracles in the months before.
On the other hand, Mr. Carmichael says, partly nodding to Mr. Bonekemper, Lee failed to grasp that circumstances had changed after Gettysburg. In Mr. Carmichael’s view, Lee never fully realized how much the Southern political and military situation had gone downhill, and in 1864 and even 1865 at times initiated offensives that should have been curtailed.
Although convincing in part, this conclusion should be qualified by an essay from the famed historian of the 1864 Overland campaign, Gordon C. Rhea, who shows that Lee ordered improvised attacks as occasion arose, responding to happenstance more than any plan.
Rhea disputes the image of Lee as keenly aware of Grant’s intentions as he trundled his wagons through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and finally the Richmond area. Lee was not a genius at foreseeing events, Rhea argues, but at improvising responses, which at times included attacks, but not as gospel.
A third essay, by William J. Miller on the 1862 Seven Days’ Battles, supports this view. Lee’s orders to his generals — documents all the essayists believe have been too much overlooked — prove that he was not seeking a battle of annihilation against McClellan’s troops on the Virginia Peninsula.
Indeed, he was worried that McClellan would discern how he had weakened his forces in front of Richmond and attack the city. In character, McClellan retreated, and Lee sent various corps to attack when withdrawing Union forces appeared vulnerable. Mr. Miller even argues that the slaughter on the Southern side at Malvern Hill did not result from an order by Lee to mount a frontal assault but from bad timing, bungled communication and misunderstanding of the terrain.
How can so much go wrong, you wonder? Leo Tolstoy wrote in “War and Peace” that in battle, all is confusion, like playing chess in three dimensions on a zero-gravity board.
In the case of the Army of Northern Virginia, essayist Robert E.L. Krick gives a specific answer: Lee did not have adequate staff. His was not yet a modern army. The generals who had large staffs normally peopled them with cousins, nephews and attention-hogging politicos. Lee wanted as many able-bodied men in the field as he could get; he refused his son a staff spot. Over the course of the war, Lee’s staff increased and improved — not without, occasionally, a tirade from the reputedly mild-mannered commander.
Several other essays close the book — one by Max Williams on the relation of Lee and North Carolina Gov. Zebulon Vance as the war neared its end and Gen. William T. Sherman’s forces approached. The last, by Mark Bradley, concerns Lee and Gen. Joseph Johnston — friends before the war, rivals in Johnston’s eyes during most of it and friends again as they mounted last-ditch efforts to save the Confederacy.
By spring 1865, Lee knew the war was lost, but he could neither tell Davis nor admit it to himself. Either fact underlines the inclination and improvisational skill for the offensive that the rest of the book supports.
Tom O’Brien is a Washington writer.