The Confederate Army & “defensive” strategy
By Patrick Teegarden
Contributing Columnist

For a variety of reasons, I’ve always had more difficulty gaining insight, perspective and understanding of the main generals of the Confederacy than of their Union counterparts. One contributing factor is certainly the misleading and often false reporting of “history” through the Myth of the Lost Cause. Likewise, I suspect that it’s more difficult to focus on the positive attributes of those who both started and then lost our Civil War.

But another significant cloud to understanding the upper echelon of the pro-slavery warriors is the looming presence of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. His relationship with his general staff was sometimes overbearing, sometimes dysfunctional, and always complex.

Davis was a West Point graduate and Mexican War Veteran himself, and he also served as Secretary of War in the Franklin Pierce Administration. So, needless to say, Jeff Davis brought his own strong notions about waging war along with him when he assumed the presidency of the rebel states.


The list of top generals for the Confederacy must, of course, begin with Robert E. Lee, and he and Davis are the focus of this column. But also included on most such lists are: Joseph E. Johnston, Albert Sydney Johnston, P.G.T Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and, begrudgingly, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

In addition, a number of lesser-known Confederate generals also played key roles (both positive and negative). This cadre included James Longstreet, Edmund “Kirby” Smith, William J. Hardee, Patrick Cleburne, J.E.B. Stuart, John Pemberton, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jubal Early, Leonidas Polk and Gideon Pillow.

Everyone knows at least the name Robert E. Lee, yet in many ways he remains the most complex and possibly misunderstood of the Confederate leaders. Surprisingly, Lee had never commanded any sizable military force prior to 1862, when he took over the main eastern forces that would come to be known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

After graduating 2nd in his class at West Point (1829), Lee’s military career was primarily as a highly regarded engineer. He served with distinction under the command of General Winfield Scott in the Mexican War. In 1859, still a colonel in the U.S. Army, Lee led the force of Marines which captured abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, VA, ending Brown’s failed attempt to launch a general uprising and revolt among slaves in the region.

Lee remained a protégé of Scott’s until his resignation from the United States Army in 1861 to join the Confederacy. In leaving the U.S. Army, Lee turned down Scott’s offer to make him commander of all Union forces, which certainly conjures speculation on one of those unavoidable “what ifs” surrounding the Civil War.

Lee’s greatest Civil War victories were Second Manassas in August 1862, Fredericksburg in December 1862, and Chancellorsville in April 1863. Additionally, he was the mastermind of several successes in the Shenandoah Valley by Stonewall Jackson and Jubal Early, one of which, led by Early in 1864, included Confederate troops threatening the northwest area of Washington (just south of what is now Silver Spring, MD, at Ft. Stevens in Washington, D.C.).

By contrast, two of Lee’s most well known and devastating defeats occurred immediately after his victories at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville, at Antietam (September, 1862) and Gettysburg (July, 1863). To this day the debate continues as to whether Lee’s decisions to invade the Union (Maryland and Pennsylvania) were the correct military choices at the time.

Of course, his greatest and final defeat came at the end of the yearlong Overland Campaign that pitted Lee directly against Ulysses S. Grant, and included the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor, the Siege of Petersburg, and ultimately the abandonment of Richmond and surrender at Appomattox.

In assessing Lee’s performance and effectiveness as a Confederate general, two less tangible factors are also critical to keep in mind. First, something about Lee inspired the deepest and most enduring levels of devotion and loyalty, verging on worship, from his rank and file troops as well as his officer corps. Second, this sustained loyalty was particularly surprising in light of the high percentage of casualties he sustained repeatedly, even when fighting defensive battles.

Lee agreed with Jeff Davis on the primary strategy of a defensive war, designed to impede the progress of the Union Armies, which would necessarily have to conquer the entire South, and figure out a way to defeat its will to rebel simultaneously. But Lee had a critical difference in perspective as to how to actually fight such a defensive war. Historians often resort to labeling Davis’ philosophy a defensive-defensive strategy, whereas Lee’s is called an offensive-defensive strategy.

When discussing the differences between the two outlooks, Civil War scholars and others will point to the need to maintain morale, the use of interior lines of communication and transportation in defending ground vs. attacking ground, and numerous other factors to be considered in military terms. And, as usual, the very best discussion I’ve seen of these different perspectives is from James M. McPherson. In the final, summarizing essay in a collection titled Jefferson Davis’s Generals, edited by Gabor S. Boritt (1999, Oxford University Press), McPherson applies his typical profound insight and writing ability to assess the pros and cons and considerable gray areas (no pun intended) between the different Confederate approaches to waging war.

McPherson likens the challenge facing the Confederacy to that facing George Washington and his makeshift “band of brothers” at the outset of the Revolutionary War. Both were faced with the ambiguous but attainable goal to “Not Lose.” That is, given the natural advantages to the defensive side in battle, including factors mentioned above, entrenchments, and familiarity with the surrounding topography, lengthy delay and the infliction of heavy casualties on the enemy can be achieved without necessarily winning many battles. McPherson reminds us that it is armies, not cities, which must be maintained, and he points to George Washington and the Revolutionary Americans having lost New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, Williamsburg and Richmond, yet ultimately winning the war. In much the same way, Davis and Lee had the Confederacy well positioned in the summer of 1864 to bring about the defeat of Lincoln at the polls to George McClellan, his Democratic opponent. And while it was indeed the capture of a city, Atlanta, which turned seemingly certain defeat for Lincoln into a relatively easy victory, the change in Northern sentiments to stay the course for a while longer was based on renewed confidence in its own Armies.

If you are inclined to pick up Boritt’s book, Jefferson Davis’s Generals, all of the essays are by noted historians and well worth reading. But if you’re browsing, skip immediately to the last essay (#8 Was the Best Defense a Good Offense? Jefferson Davis and Confederate Strategies) by James M. McPherson, and you will be well rewarded with new insights. He closes that particular essay in wonderful fashion as well. After a discussion of the tendency by many of the Confederate generals and even Davis himself to point fingers and assign blame to others for losing battles and ultimately the war, McPherson finishes with a wonderful quote from the ill-fated General George S. Pickett about Gettysburg. When asked whose fault it was that the Confederates were defeated, Pickett “reflected a moment before replying: ‘I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.’”

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