Extra Dossier: Robert E. Lee

Library of Congress

For the Dossier section of the Summer 2015 issue of The Civil War Monitor, we asked a panel of Civil War historians a series of questions about Confederate general Robert E. Lee, from what they considered to be his best and least impressive battlefield performances to their favorite book about him. Due to space constraints, we weren’t able to publish all of our panelists’ answers to several of the questions, including, “What do you most admire about Lee?” Below are their answers to this one, in full.

James M. McPherson:

“I admire Lee’s willingness as a commander to take risks and accept the consequences without blaming others.”

M. Keith Harris:

“I admire the man’s audacity; it took a lot of stones to go up against the Army of the Potomac—an army that greatly outnumbered his own in both men and materiel.”

Ken Noe:

“I admire Lee’s stoicism in the face of the disappointments and defeats in his life, especially before and after the war.”

Peter Carmichael:

“An indefatigable optimism spawned Lee’s creative genius on the battlefield.”

Jeffry Wert:

“Lee’s consummate skill as an army commander has been nearly, if not, unmatched in American history.”

A. Wilson Greene:

“Although Lee’s skill as a strategist and military administrator was among the best of any commander on either side, I admire Lee’s ability to manage personnel—whether it was Jefferson Davis, his ranking subordinates, or the common soldier of his army.”

Gregory Urwin:

“I admire Lee’s aggressiveness because it enabled a general with an outnumbered army to repeatedly seize control of the strategic and tactical situation.”

Christopher Stowe:

“Lee’s uncommonly aggressive operational approach, which has been condemned by some in recent decades, was probably the best military option for the Confederacy given the Union’s superiority over both space and time.”

Ethan Rafuse:

“His moral character and basic, fundamental decency as a human being.”

Allen C. Guelzo:

“Lee possessed an uncanny ability to sort out the important from the trivial, and understand where the course of events was most likely to flow. In 1861-65, he understood very clearly that the Confederacy would have to strike fast and strike on northern soil, because the South lacked the resources to sustain a drawn-out war; he also understood that the southern people lacked the level of commitment to their own cause to make this happen, and he lamented before Appomattox that he had expected failure from the beginning.”

Joan Waugh:

“Lee possessed a fierce and unyielding valor in his military leadership.”

Daniel Sutherland:

“Leadership, defined as the ability to inspire. I judge this the principal reason for Lee’s military success.”

Elizabeth Varon:

“I credit Lee for having committed himself so earnestly to his job as president of Washington College; he could have been a mere figurehead, but instead he threw himself with relish into the work.”

William C. Davis:

“His realistic viewpoint, unclouded by enthusiasm or emotion.”

Lesley Gordon:

“Lee had many military skills that were admirable, but I’d say it was his fearlessness as a strategist. As a man, he was courageous and charismatic, resolute and ambitious.”

Brian Matthew Jordan:

“His ability to size up his enemy, not only on the battlefield but—as a result of his steady diet of northern newspapers—on the homefront as well.”

Joseph Glatthaar:

“Lee’s ability to get inside the head of his opposing commanding general and to shape situations that enabled him to exploit their weaknesses. Also, Lee has a clear understanding of the value of initiative in warfare.”

Brooks Simpson:

“I admire his audacity, ambition, and commitment to excellence: he held himself to a high standard.”

Gary W. Gallagher:

“His willingness to take responsibility for his actions at Gettysburg and elsewhere. Like Grant, he stood in striking contrast to soldiers such as McClellan or J.E. Johnston in this regard.”

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