Friday, January 4, 2008

Robert E. Lee: The armchair general

Robert E. Lee could play the role of an armschair general. Does this comment surprise you? I hate to break it to some people but R.E. Lee was a human being and could be critical of his subordinates. Confederate General Richard S. Ewell was the subject a postwar conversations that Lee held between 1868-1870 with William Preston Johnston and William Allen. This blog isn't meant to be a personal attack on Ewell or Lee but rather a discussion of Lee's critical opinion of Richard Ewell.

Due to ill health and the management of Washington College, R.E. Lee was unable to write his memorirs. Other than Lincoln, these unwritten memoirs would have become the most important Civil War manuscript ever.

It would have been interesting to see what Lee thought of his conduct during the war, his government in Richmond and he strategy in several campaigns. It seems that Lee remained repressed is several of his writings about the war and avoided critizing his subordinates publicly.

This fits Lee's command style and his beliefs of what an armycommanders role was is well documented by Civil War historians. But what of Ewell?

In May 1863, Richard S. Ewell took over the 2nd Corps of Lee's army after Stonewall Jackson crossed over the river and rested under the shade of the trees. His conduct at the 1863 Battle of Wincheser and during the Gettysburg campaign concerned Lee. Ewell did not demonstrate the potential that he had shown as a division commander and his handling of the final moments of July 1, 1863 (prior to sundown) have been debated by historians for decades. One could argue that Ewell was timid and lacked the decisiviness needed to excel as a corps commander.

By the beginning of the 1864 spring offensive it was obvious to some that Ewell needed Lee's guiding hand in order to be successful. General Lee made the unwise decision (though its easy to be an armchair general myself) to not alter his supervisory style with Ewell. Lee had the habit of issuing discreationary, vague orders that allowed his corps commanders to make their own decisions. From these orders the corps commanders would issue their decisions to their division commanders and so on.

James Longstreet and Thomas J. Jackson worked very well under Lee because they knew what he expected and they were excellent commanders in their own right. Ewell was promoted to replace Jackson but he was unable to. Lee's opinion of Ewell (granted it is in hindsight) were pretty straightforward. He told Allan that Ewell had "faults as a miltary leader-his quick alternations from elation to despondency, his want of decision" Lee must have believed that these issues contributed to the Conferate defeat. Although they do not emancipate Lee from his own failures as a commander.

The history of Lee's failure to supervise Ewell are well documentated. As he marched north in June 1863 Lee ordered Ewell to smash Union forces at Winchester, Virginia. A victory there would open up the road north and fulfill the first part of Lee's invasion plans. Ewells orders from Lee instructed him to "be guided by his own judgement in any unforseen emergency." Ewell fullfilled his commanding officers 1868 judgement of him at Winchester with his inital confidence when he saw that he could destory the Federals. However, once Ewell inspected the enemy's works his emotials turned from "elation to despondency." He quickly sent a message to Lee asking for directions from headquarters. The Battle of Second Winchester was a Confederate victory but this was most likely due to the fighting prowess of Jackson's old corps rather than the new 2nd corps commander.

At Gettysburg Lee expressed that Ewell had fought the battle in an "imperfect, halting way" and seemed utterly disastatified with the performance of Mr. Ewell. If Lee realized that Ewell had these weaknesses in 1863 he failed to change his command style with his 2nd corps commander. In hindsight however, it is easy to say that Lee should have fulfilled his subordinate's need for close guidance and explicit orders. In closing, he should have been more forceful with Richard S. Ewell. Cambell Brown, the stepson of Ewell and his staff officer noted than General Lee's "instructions to his Corps Comrs are of a very comprehensive, general description & frequently admit of several interpretations."

Between 1868-1870 Lee expressed concern over Ewell's performance during the Battle of the Wilderness. During this contest Lee issued more unclear oders to Ewell, whose Second Corps occupied the Rebel left flank. The excellent tactictian eye of R.E. Lee saw that victory for the South was at hand if Ewell could cut the Federals off from Germanna Ford. Lee's orders asked Ewell to conduct the attack but only if it could "be done without too great a sacrifice." The ambiguous language of these orders allowed Ewell to remain on the defensive.

In his 1868 conversation with William Preston Johnston the general reminisced about the Wilderness stating that "Ewell showed vacillation" during the battle and "If Jackson had been alive and there, he would have crushed the enemy." William Allan noted that Lee told him that Ewell's movement was meant to be " full attack on flank & intended to support it with all of Ewell's rout the enemy." We've established that Lee was correct in his assumptions about Ewell but where his orders on May 6, 1864 at the Wilderness a possiblity?

First, Ewell had to attack an entrenched Federal force across rugged terrain. To make matters worse, frequent Union demonstrations had pinned down the Second Corps so that Ewell could not shift units from his right flank without exposing the Army of Northern Virginia to a disasterous counterattack. Ewell had no reserve troops to support his attack or to protect the before mentioned Confederate flank to a Federal countercharge. Ewell was overly cautious but I have to give him credit for not over committing his troops. R.E. Lee....being a human correct in his assumptions about Ewell but his thoughts concerning Ewell's attack on May 6th border on fantasy.

As history records Ewell carried out the attack but his forces were too small to achieve the results that R.E. Lee needed. The limited attack captured two Union generals, captured some needed supplies and a few hundred prisoners. If "Jackson had been there" I doubt that he would have made a different decision. Perhaps Lee was thinking back to 1862 1863 when his army had the offensive firepower to carry out his brilliant attack schemes.

In the end one cannot doubt Lee's critical analysis of Ewell's career as a soldier. Perhaps, as some historians attest that the Jackson's guiding hand that had helped Ewell perform very well during Southern victories was missing. Lee failure to fill contributed to the Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and the draw at the Wilderness as much as Ewells own deficiencies as commander. If you are on Lee's side, Ewell's side, somewhere in between or indifferent you cannot deny that Lee was actually critical of a subordinate. Lee the critic is a microcosm of Civil War history that fascinates me. I will continue to look for more of his critical analysis.

91 blogs so far. Nine more means that I reach 100!!!


Anonymous said...

Hello Madness Mike

I enjoy your blog very much, keep up the good work. Not 100% sure, but I think in Gordon Rhea's study of The Wilderness, A case may be made that the first day in the battle may have been one of Ewell's better days. Rhea came to a CWRT meeting a number of years ago and discussed his book. I may be mistaken.
Not that my opinion has diminished any of lee's ability, however some of his orders are a little sketchy.

P.S. I'm a big fan of Gordon Rhea's 4 and soon to be 5 books detailing the Overland Campaign. I think they are generally accepted as well done by both readers like me and historians. He is also a fine speaker and have had 4 or 5 chances to hear him.


Mike said...

Hey anonymous,

Thanks for posting comments. I highly appreciate it. I agree with you that some of Lee's orders were sketchy but I agree with Gary Gallaghers assessment that the loss of Jackson and Longstreets Wilderness wounding cost Lee dearly during the Overland Campaign. Rhea may make similar claims. I've never read Rhea's books but I will read them eventually. In the past few years I have read every major publication on Lee's generalship and I am taking a break from that subject. Currently I'm reading Shelby Footes narrative of the Civil War.