Washington and Lee University

Lee and the Bullet of the Civil War
Kirkwood Mitchell

Note: The following is taken from the January 1936 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly (second series, volume 16), pp. 26–37.


Under the title, “Why Lee Lost Gettysburg,” Captain Liddell Hart reviews in the Saturday Review of Literature, March 23d, 1935, the last two volumes of Dr. Freeman's, “R. E. Lee.”

The article hardly attempts a review of Dr. Freeman's work; it is given up almost entirely to criticism of Lee. Captain Hart severely censures Lee's methods at Gettysburg, and he is equally severe on what he believes constituted the fundamental strategy of that soldier in the conduct of his campaigns throughout the war. Coming from a critic who has shown a large knowledge of war in all ages, together with a clear grasp of its problems, these charges deserve consideration.

From the comments on Gettysburg, all in condemnation of the Confederate assaults on the Federal position, the following sentences being the most pertinent, are selected:—

Dr. Freeman's conclusion is entitled, “The spirit that inhibits victory.” I suggest that a fundamentally truer title would be, “The bullet that forbids assault.” The American Civil War was the first war of the mechanical age . . . tactically in the dominating part played by the projectile . . . In this war the growing power of fire definitely shifted the balance of advantage from the offensive to the defensive . . . As a strategic artist Lee has had few equals; he was a master of logistics . . . But he did not appreciate the effect of fire . . . or know what couldn't be done . . . The more one reflects on Gettysburg in the light of fire-power, the more one is driven relentlessly to the conclusion that no great commander has been guilty of madder action . . . the more one is brought to realize that power of command is compatible with complete lapse of common sense . . . resulting in failure to distinguish what is desirable and what is practicable.

These strictures, along with others of similar import, may all be reduced to the statement that Lee, not realizing the destructive effect of fire power, wasted his army in futile attacks against the Federal lines, a course of action impracticable to the point of madness.

In support of the conclusion that these assaults were impracticable, Captain Hart limits the illustrations to the attack of Longstreet on the second day and to the Pickett-Pettigrew attack the third day.

A relevant digression will be ventured on at this point.

In the early and critical hours of that July morning, while the Federals were still engaged in consolidating their lines, it is well known that Longstreet vehemently and at length opposed the attack and urged instead a move around Meade's left flank. As this plan accords with Captain Hart's own opinion on the course to have taken in the circumstances, he naturally gives it preference. On this debatable issue high professional opinion can be cited against the expediency of this movement in the uncertainties at the time surrounding the Confederate army. Further, whatever value one may allow to Lee's judgment, the excellence of his memory is undenied. At this juncture, then, he doubtless remembered certain incidents in military history full of warning to an army commander in his situation. To his mind must have come. as Longstreet argued, the disaster that befell the French at Rossbach, the Russians at Austerlitz, the French again at Salamanca, when each attempted a flank march in full view of the enemy; and he realized the hazard attached to a similar move before the eyes of the vigilant Meade. Longstreet had finally to attack.

The story behind Longstreet's failure to obtain more substantial results is told by Dr. Freeman with unequalled care and fullness. It requires mention here only to let it be seen that factors other than fire-power shared in deciding the issue. That officer's obstinate insistence on his own plan when prompt action was essential, dilatory moving of his troops and late sullen compliance with orders—when in addition he threw away his usual keen battle sense in ignoring Hood's information of a more promising path of attack—are established facts. They fasten a weight of responsibility on the man that not his admitted ability, nor his contradictory statements, nor special pleading in his behalf, can remove. A nearly insurbordinate lieutenant may be as potent a hindrance to success as fire-power: combined they definitely prohibit success.

With singular remissness Captain Hart fails to mention the attack made by Wilcox's brigade or that by Wright's brigade on the Federal center, or Early's attack against the north end of Cemetery hill, or that of Steuart's brigade on Culp's Hill. An understanding of what these attacks were able to accomplish against the fire-power of 1863 supplies valuable evidence on the practicability of assault at that period.

When on that afternoon the time came for Hill's corps to take its part in the battle, only three brigades of Anderson's division were used. Wilcox's brigade, supported by Perry's small one, broke through two lines of the enemy, captured eight guns and maintained themselves for thirty minutes near the crest of the ridge; but receiving no support, had to retire when assailed on both flanks by troops from adjacent parts of the line. “With a second supporting line the heights could have been carried,” reports General Wilcox.

Further to the left Wright's brigade, in its attack, penetrated the center of the Federal position, drove the defenders from the crest, captured twenty guns and caused great disorder in the enemy's ranks. In his report General Wright continues, “We were now completely masters of the field, having gained the key, as it were, of the enemy's whole line;” but as neither Posey's nor Mahone's brigade, who both were to have united in this attack on his left, came up in support, Wright, with the enemy converging on his front and both flanks, was forced back. He further reports, “I have not the slighest doubt but that I should have been able to have maintained my position on the heights and securely captured the artillery, if there had been a protecting force on my left or if the brigade on my right had not been forced to retire.”

Let Federal officers, who certainly do not exaggerate Confederate success, speak.

General Doubleday, commander of the 1st corps, writes in “Chancellorsville and Gettysburg”; “On this occasion Wright did what Lee failed to accomplish the next day at such a heavy expense of life, for he pierced our center and held it for a short time, and had the movement been properly supported and energetically followed up, it might have been fatal to our army, and would most certainly have resulted in a disastrous retreat . . . Both Wilcox and Wright were repulsed for lack of supports.”

Captain Tidball “found Wright's rebel brigade established on the crest barring the way back.”

General Williams, commanding the 12th corps, writes, “We passed large masses of our disorganized men. We saw not a line or body of our troops in position. The enemy seemed to have a clear field in that part of the field and were helping themselves to our artillery.”

General Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery in the Federal army, describing the situation at the close of the second day in “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” writes: “At the center the partial success of Anderson's three brigades in penetrating our lines from which they were expelled only because they lacked proper support.”

From these statements of eyewitnesses may be realized the results accomplished by isolated brigades. Had the brigades of Posey's and Mahone's advanced along with Wright, as was ordered and expected; had Hill, seizing the opportune moment, then thrown forward Pender's whole division, standing ready and in line—a move expected, and plainly demanded by the occasion—the Federal army, hard pressed as it was at that hour, could hardly have escaped disaster. Fortune being never a more capricious jade than in war, what might have happened in battle tends usually but to fruitless argument; yet this assumption of disaster, based, one sees, on the confident belief of both Federal and Confederate officers who were present, rests an a highly justified probability.

Against the north side of Cemetery Hill units of Ewell's corp made attacks with an outcome in direct refutation of the assumption that the assault was at that period impracticable.

Late in the afternoon Early assailed this position with two brigades, Hay's and Hoke's. He reports: “I . . . was informed that the advance would be general and be made by Rodes' division and Hill's divisions on my right . . . These troops, Hay's and Hoke's brigades . . . moving up this hill in face of two lines of infantry posted behind stone and plank fences; but these they drove back, and passing over all obstacles they reached the crest of the hill and entered the enemy's breastworks crowning it, getting possession of one or two batteries. But no attack was made on the immediate right by Rodes' division, as was expected, and not meeting with support from that quarter, these brigades could not hold the position they had attained, because a very heavy force of the enemy was turned against them from that part of the line which the divisions on the right (Rodes' and Pender's) were to have attacked, and these brigades had to fall back, which they did with comparatively small loss.”

General Hunt writes of this action: “Early's attack was made with great spirit; the hill was ascended through a ravine . .  . a line of infantry on the slope was broken and Wiedrick's 11th corps and Ricketts' reserve batteries near the brow of the hill were overrun, hut the excellent position of Steven's 12 pounders, the arrival of Carroll's brigade and the failure of Rodes to cooperate with Early caused the attack to miscarry. After an hour's desperate fighting the enemy was driven out.”

Captain Wiedrick reports: “About 8 P.M. the enemy charged on the battery with a brigade of infantry and got into the entrenchments of the battery.”

Against Culp's Hill on the elxtreme left Steuart's brigade in its attack compelled the abandonment of the enemy's entrenchments, and three regiments and one battalion “occupied the works,” reported General Steuart.

Through these reports and writings, all reaching a substantially like conclusion, forming the testimony of both Federal and Confederate officers who saw the factors that determined the fortunes of the battle, it is established that at three points the heights of Gettysburg, in face of the firepower, were attacked and taken. The same witnesses state also that these Confederate brigades had to retire only because they were unsupported and were in addition attacked by troops from adjoining parts of Meade's lines. No supports, not the severity of the fire, clearly appear the cause of final failure. Nor were the losses suffered in making these assaults excessive: except in the case of Early—who withdrew in the obscurity of late evening—the larger part of the losses, killed, wounded, and missing, were inflicted during retirement.

Many causes have been assigned for the failure at Gettysburg; each of them, doubtless, contributed its share, great or small. They are clearly and impartially set forth in Dr. Freeman's judicial summing up of those causes; but neither in his pages nor in the statements of the men who attacked or of those who drove back the attackers can anything be found to sustain Captain Hart's conclusion. Not in Dr. Freeman's account, for he had no preconception to maintain; not in the words of the men engaged in the struggle, because they simply reported events as they happened.

One must believe that Captain Hart has not given his customary care to the study of Gettysburg, else he would not have reached a deduction so at variance with the facts of that battle. In preferring Longstreet's plan he is but exercising a trained military sense; when he goes further to lay the cause of defeat solely to fire power (except in the sense that every battle since the year 1700 has been won or lost by fire arms) he is ignoring facts, or perhaps assuming them. He ignores what was accomplished by the attacking forces, and, more, he ignores what was not done to support these forces.

A measure of validity belongs to his conclusion when applied to the Pickett-Pettigrew charge on the third day, yet that effort was no unconsidered gamble to snatch victory.

It has been shown by General Eben Swift, U.S.A., in his penetrating analysis of Lee's generalship, “The Military Education of Robert E. Lee,”—which supplies in part the excerpts from Federal sources used in this paper—that the place penetrated by Wright was the weakest part of the Union line. Wright's success there revealed that weakness to Lee, and justified him in the belief that an attack on that section by a stronger force than one brigade—and that force supported—might win the day.

The incidents and fate of that attack have frequently been the subject of description and comment. It may be Lee erred in thinking this strengthened position could be carried. While the outcome sustains this view, it should be remembered that the attack was not made at the favorable time, when considerable part of Meade's army was engaged in fighting Johnson's division, but delayed by Longstreet until that struggle had been decided and the Federals could concentrate the more against Pickett. Again there were no supports and again the larger part of the losses were incurred in getting back to the Confederate lines.

General Joseph B. Kershaw, capable commander of a brigade, then of a division, in Longstreet's corps, will be called on to add his conclusive though melancholy convictions on Gettysburg. After describing in “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” the part taken by his brigade in Longstreet's attack, he ends with the following words: “It will be evident to the reader that the causes of the failure of the operations here described to achieve greater results may be reduced to one, to wit, the want of simultaneous movement and cooperation between the troops employed. A careful examination of that eventful series of battles will show that this was the cause of all the failures. Every attack was magnificent and successful, but failed in the end for want of cooperation between corps, divisions, brigades and, in some instances, regiments of the same brigade. The want of cooperation . . . caused the loss of Gettysburg to the Confederates.”

Captain Hart's censures of Lee may have their origin in his first-hand acquaintance with the assault, as he saw its misuse render the World War such a cruel trial to millions. Entrenchments, barbed wire, repeating rifles, numerous artillery and machine guns do forbid the assault; and the minor gains, often complete breakdown, of these attacks, yet all attended by frightful losses, possibly impressed him to the extent of influencing his whole military thought. The experience apparently turned him definitely against the attack, unless made under conditions of surprise or through the help of protective mechanical means. Contemporary opinion probably agrees with Captain Hart in this distrust of the attack against the nearly impregnable devices and highly destructive weapons of today. It is in the extension of the conclusion back to periods of simpler weapons, when his views have not the obvious application they have to World War conditions, that dissent would begin. When and where this dissent becomes valid raises an issue which can be discussed only by those of sufficient competency. The subject is mentioned here merely to call attention to a certain obsession of Captain Hart's usually clear and independent mind.

Even with this quite inadequate indication of Captain Hart's outlook on the art of war, there will be no surprise in reading the following comments on Lee's generalship:—“Steeped in the military doctrine . . . that victory can only be won by offensive action, he could not adapt his strategy to the limiting conditions of the Confederate situation. His offensive strokes were brilliant as artistry, but too expensive to be profitable as contributions to the object for which the South was contending . . . He did not adopt offensive strategy with defensive tactics . . . It fitted not only the new conditions of warfare, but the special conditions of the South—whose best chances lay in making the North sick of the war by making it pay too dearly for profitless gains. The most likely way to create this impression was to lure the Union armies into attacking under disadvantageous conditions . . . While the ratio of prisoners was certanly a tribute to his military artistry, the ratio of casualties in general spelt bankruptcy to his country. Its chief soldier, if a true general strategist, should surely have kept sight of such calculations in framing his military strategy . . . By contrast the longer one ponders on the data collected in Dr. Freeman's volumes, the further one is led toward the conclusion that Lee's virtuosity combined with too literal loyalty hastened the ruin of the Confederacy.” Altered only in expression, the condemnation of Confederate methods at Gettysburg here reappears, though now applied to the larger field of Lee's conduct of the war.

Captain Hart holds this conduct to have been fatally unsound. Lee, discerning neither the new limitations of warfare nor the special limitations affecting the Confederacy, attacked inconsiderately, in obedience to an implanted doctrine; and, achieving no gains sufficient to compensate for the losses suffered, vainly wasted his man-power to final exhaustion. A policy more likely to succeed consisted in limiting the offensive to strategic maneuvre, but tactically to act on the defensive. Induce the enemy to attack under disadvantageous conditions, that he may become “sick of the War” by reason of the large losses incurred.

These comments and suggestions constitute high military wisdom—but they are ideal, as if war could at will be conducted in any desired way. In relation to the Confederate States they descend to military pedantry, and have little to support them in the circumstances weighing on that improvised nation. For a country at war to adhere advantageously to such a course of action, conditions must exist that permit it to be followed without entailing crippling damage as a consequence. Clinging to his view of ideal warfare Captain Hart fails to make allowance for conditions affecting all Confederate armies or for a menace often hanging over them.

Early in the war Lee realized that the main problem confronting the government lay in that of supply; providing food and clothing for the men, horses and forage for the horses. At all times supplies were scant, at times the War Department was wholly unable to furnish necessary articles. The blockade, progressively strangling in its effects; the occupation of more and more territory by the Union armies; the irreparable deterioration of transport facilities, were all increasingly cutting off sources of supply of clothing, food and men. Under these conditions the question, how long can this army retain its efficiency? how long can it be kept together? became anxieties not always absent from the mind of every army commander.

In a situation laden with these possibilities, long drawnout operations could offer but a highly precarious dependence for obtaining final success. And the offensive-defensive so easily outlined by Captain Hart involves protracted campaigns—unless the enemy promptly and obligingly attacks a well chosen defensive position.

The Confederate commander, after his offensive maneuvre, would have to stop somewhere and there wait for the Federal commander to act; either to attack or dangerously expose his own army to attack. And in the main, Federal commanders refused to do either. A Union general did not have to attack; in Virginia, with his superior force and through control of the water ways, there was no line of defense he could not turn by a move round the flank. Unless the Federal advance was stopped, retreat after retreat became inevitable for the Confederate army, as each flanked position was abandoned in turn, and the loss of valuable producing territory, the exposure of vital railroads to destruction, be the consequences.

Meanwhile, time and the economic situation were both working ceaselessly against the South. Clearly a strategy adapted to meet these realities enforced positive action; any other course implied certain defeat. “Still, we cannot afford to be idle,” wrote Lee, in August, 1862, and in that one sentence revealed the dilemma of the Confederacy.

Had not Lee seen in that very year a policy unrelieved by an effort to stop the enemy's advance bring the Confederacy to the verge of ruin? Had it been continued, the end would probably have come then; at least, a disaster of demoralizing proportions would have taken place. And when given command, he assumed a bold offensive, both strategic and tactical. In three months the Federal armies were driven from virtually the whole of Virginia, and the harvests of that year secured to the country.

We have no general nor abstract expression from Lee on the art of war, only the frank statements about his views and purpose found in his dispatches. Always he is dealing with a concrete situation urgently demanding to be met; and his suggestions, when the information justified it, embody a comprehensive yet elastic outline of operations, which he hopes will meet the threatening danger. A common idea, apparently basic in his mind, underlies many of these suggestions. He would keep the Federal armies away from as large a part of southern territory as possible by maneuvre; through the proper direction of these movements he trusted to harass the enemy, frustrate his design, and, if opportunity came, to seriously cripple his army.

Astonishingly daring as Lee could be in his attempts to turn the balance of circumstances in favor of the South by unexpected strokes, he yet looked upon the attack as a means to be used only after the most careful consideration. “Attack to advantage,” a phrase frequently found in his dispatches, marks the limit beyond which he did not wish to go; and a study of the decisions reached during his campaigns will disclose that he steadfastly maintained this attitude. He realized with keen poignancy—for he mentions the subject often—the necessity lying on the South to “measure and husband” its resources in men, the difficulty of obtaining replacements for the losses suffered by the army, and with that in mind wrote more than once of his purpose to “avoid a general engagement”—unless such a test of fortune could be made under conditions favoring his own army. He would have only pity for the idea that possessed the French mind in 1914, “attack always and to the utmost;” a conception that the Germans shattered, and Captain Hart has consigned to military infamy.

It would seem from all this, from Lee's words, from his actions, that he had a very just estimate both of what could be done and what couldn't be done at that period; it would seem also that his general policy comprehended the offensivedefensive to the full extent permitted by the contingencies and uncertainties of a war abounding in them.

Of Lee's eleven pitched battles he attacked in five, and three of these, Gaine's Mill, Glendale, Malvern Hill, he fought in the first active week of his army command. During the following thirty-three months of his military career, two, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, comprise the total number of his offensive battles. In four he acted on the defensive. At Second Manassas his attack was a counter attack. At the Wilderness it is difficult to pick the main assailant; on Lee's part he there forced Grant to give battle in a terrain where the latter's superiority in equipment and numbers were successfully neutralized. Subsidiary attacks also he used, but who shall say that each did not mark the effort of a resourceful, yet considering, mind to meet the exigencies of war?

On this record of declared intention and of acts it is wholly an assumption to say that either the offensive or defensive dominated his military thought: to him each was but a practical means to be used indifferently as occasion offered.

The results actually accomplished by these offensives on the battlefield fell short of those hoped for: at times they failed. This does not mean the action was not the one called for in the situation then existing, nor that it was impracticable. The records of the Civil War disclose a fault in Confederate offensives that seriously interfered with the attacks undertaken by Lee. That appeared in the stumbling execution of the orders by those carrying them out, in effect, the lack of cooperation between the different units of the army. What a bar that defect raised to clean cut results in the offensive operations of the Army of Northern Virginia! for never did that army strike with the united power of its individually formidable units. Nor did it seem possible to avoid a recurrence of this defect in an army unsurpassed in other respects for its fighting qualities. Strange, that those commanders of brigades, divisions, corps—gallant, earnest, willing, capable officers, as most of them were—failed to attain the concert of action so essential to successful attack! The like fault handicapped all the other armies of the Confederacy, and, fortunately for the South, it handicapped equally, perhaps more than equally, the armies of the North. But the North could make good the losses consequent on this common defect; the South could not.

There has been no intention in this paper to minimize the destructive power of the fire arms used at Gettysburg, or in other battles of the Civil War. These many words have been largely concerned with the question, did the bullet of that period forbid assault? a question involving, in certain of its aspects, the quality of Lee's generalship. In course of the discussion evidence giving facts, not mere opinion, was presented to show that it did not. In that war, as in previous wars, there were positions too strongly defended to be carried by even the best managed assault; on the other hand there were positions that could be carried and were carried, without undue loss. In short, at the period of the Civil War the attack still remained, according to circumstances, a practicable measure of battle, which, if well executed, might give decisive results. And in decisive results lay the South's only chance of winning the war.

Lee had to act under pressure of the existing circumstances, with the men and means at hand, from his own gathered experience. It is the unique distinction of Dr. Freeman's biography that it enables the reader to see all those items, to discern the nature and urgency of the varied tasks, even the latent ones, crowding upon this one man. He was very human, he commanded armies in a difficult war, and it followed of necessity he made mistakes.

The American Civil War was no more a perfectly fought war than was the World War or any other war recorded in history. Even the American people may now—using some degree of insight—properly appraise its events and actors, its blunders, its achievements; and as they follow the drama with its diverse characters, among them the figure of Lee will inevitably stand out in an impressive clearness. For three years, with an ill-supplied army he upheld, promisingly upheld, against mighty and tenacious forces that persistently sought its destruction, a hastily and loosely knit confederation of unmanageable states.

Upon that his military fame may rest.