A tragic irony of history: without Lee’s brilliant generalship, the Southern way of life would have survived

David G. writes:

One of the most overlooked dates in American history is the 1st of June 1862. This was the day when Robert E. Lee was given command by Jefferson Davis of the Confederate Army of the Potomac, after Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had been wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines outside Richmond. The promotion of Lee changed everything for the South and it would change the course of the entire nation. Lee renamed his command the Army of Northern Virginia and infused it with the martial ardor necessary to win Southern independence on the battlefield.

By May of 1862 the Confederacy was in deep trouble. The war in the West had been going poorly for the Confederate Army of Tennessee. It had suffered setbacks in Arkansas and Kentucky and at Shiloh and Fort Donelson in Tennessee. To make matters worse, the eastern Confederate army was besieged by Union General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, the narrow strip of land between the York and James River southeast of Richmond, the Confederate capital.

Through superior generalship and sheer audacity Lee maneuvered the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond during a series of battles known as the Seven Days, while later directing Generals Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet to reach extraordinary heights during the Battle of Second Manassas. Civil War historian James McPherson notes that had the Confederacy been defeated in 1862, before Lee took charge of the Army of Northern Virginia, the South would have remained a viable culture with slavery intact. Think of that: no Emancipation Proclamation; no 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution; and, at worst, a mild, Lincoln-directed Reconstruction policy.

McPherson notes the irony of Lee’s career. Essentially, all of his successes—the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville—served to ensure that one day the Southern way of life would be gone with the wind.

LA replies:

That’s an interesting, tragic way of seeing it.

By the same token, we can imagine that if Germany had defeated France at the Marne in the opening months of the Great War, which it came very close to doing, the war would have quickly ended and not led to the four-year horrible stalemate and the catastrophic consequences for our civilization that actually resulted.

However, was the South really that close to defeat in early 1862?

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David G. replies:

If McClellan had advanced and captured Richmond, which his army was eminently capable of doing, the war would have ended. The Confederate Army of Tennessee in the West never had a capable commanding general and only won one significant battle, at Chickamauga, and that was accomplished through the breakthrough effort of Longstreet who was on loan to Bragg from the Army of Northern Virginia. Remember, too, that Johnston had been largely retreating when Lee took over for him. Also, the warrior tradition was embedded in the Army of Northern Virginia; defeat them, and the rest will follow. For more on this see Richard M. McMurry’s Two Great Rebel Armies.

Also, on a recent visit to the Seven Days battlefields I came across a marker that read in part:

“By mid-May the Army of the Potomac lay on the outskirts of Richmond, hoping to capture the capital of the Confederacy and perhaps end the war. If that strategy succeeded the nation might be reunified, but without abolition of slavery.”

While McClellan’s failure on the Peninsula may be his defining moment, Lee’s ascent is equally stunning and primarily why Lincoln stated after Second Manassas: “I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 01, 2012 09:44 AM | Send

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