One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 7, Number 3
March 1999

Famous last words: “Genl Robt Lee is in command of our front—Johnston is under him! I learn that there has been quite a struggle on the subject between Davis & his Congress, Davis insisting upon Johnston. I prefer Lee to Johnston—the former is too cautious & weak under grave responsibility—personally brave and energetic to a fault, he yet is wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid & irresolute in action.” Quoted from a letter to Abraham Lincoln on April 20, 1863, from—George B. McClellan!

That’s bad enough, but guess what Lee said about McClellan after the war: “I have always entertained a high opinion of his [McClellan’s] capacity, and have no reason to think that he omitted to do anything that was in his power.” Somehow I get the feeling that Lee had his tongue in his cheek when he made the above statement. This may be borne out by a comment that Lee made upon hearing the news of McClellan’s dismissal from command after Sharpsburg: “We always understood each other so well. . . . I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find someone whom I don’t understand.” Yeah. Bobby, it sure was nice to have ole Mac around wasn’t it? You understood him!

But, back to the main subject. How about the role of Robert E. Lee during the War for Southern Independence? As a Southerner and native Virginian by birth, I never gave much thought to the possibility that Lee was anything less than near-perfect as both a soldier and a man. To me, he was always someone of mythical proportions—beyond reproach. There was never any “Lost Cause.” Hell. We just ran out of time!

But then, along came Thomas L. Connelly, and now an Indianapolis lawyer named Alan T. Nolan, writing books that question whether Lee was all that great. As a matter of fact, if you believe Nolan, Lee’s aggressive tactics and lack of strategic thinking caused the South a chance to win the war! He goes so far as to suggest that if Lee knew that the war could not be won as early as the beginning of 1864, then he should be condemned for continuing to fight a losing battle. I’m still looking for a general in history who gave up the fight before being conquered, because he didn’t think he could win. He forgets also, that Lee didn’t have to win, they just had to keep from losing. Fortunately there are some intellectually stout historians around—such as Bob Krick, Albert Castel, Charles Roland, Bud Robertson, and Gary Gallagher, to name a few, to help set the record straight.

The revisionists have even gotten after Douglas Southall Freeman, one of the country’s most respected Civil War historians. His magnificent four-volume R. E. Lee and the classic three-volume Lee’s Lieutenants, while being exhaustively researched and documented, have been criticized for being too apologetic, and denying Lee’s imperfections. Freeman is even faulted for suggesting that a lack of human and material resources had much to do with the South’s defeat. For the latter critics, I suggest that they do a little basic research and study, for example, just one Confederate artillery battery and learn about the chronic absence of reliable guns and ammunition, horses to pull the guns, food for the men and horses, harness for the horses, blankets, and myriad other supplies needed to be an effective fighting unit.

As to Freeman’s alleged one-sided view of Lee, one only needs to read a few pages to decide for yourself—West Virginia, post-Second Manassas, Jackson’s expedition to Harpers Ferry, Longstreet at Suffolk, the promotion of Ewell, Gettysburg, Rappahannock Bridge, the Bloody Angle, are just a few of the events in the war where Freeman finds Lee at fault. Then, of course, there was Lee’s “excessive amiability” towards some of his subordinates when stern measures were required. So much for Freeman’s failure to define Lee’s faults.

As you might guess, I am a fan of Douglas Southall Freeman. To this day, I consider R. E. Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants the ultimate in Civil War books—from the perspective of the Army of Northern Virginia. As far as I am concerned, Freeman’s books represent the standard by which I judge others. Freeman is, of course, long since dead, but I remember him very vividly from his editorials in the Richmond News Leader and his weekly radio program called “Lessons in Living” that my parents listened to avidly on every Sunday morning during the 30’s and 40’s.

Every now and then I am asked, what book or books on the Virginia Civil War do you recommend? If the question is serious, my answer is always the same: Freeman’s two volumes. If you read those seven books, you’ll be well ahead on the learning curve.

But, just to prove that I’m not some old curmudgeon locked into the past, there are some first-class historians around today who are writing wonderful books that are extensively documented with new information and fresh perspectives. Three relatively recent examples at the top of my list are: Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, Conquering the Valley by Robert K. Krick, and Ewell by Donald C. Pfanz. There are more, but these, I think, are especially well researched, present new material and interpretations, and are very readable.