Reconsidering Robert E. Lee


The pro-freedom view of history can be depressing at times. Every new epoch seems to render western society ever more regimented and at the mercy of a centralized state. In the U.S., statists, centralists, latter-day Hamiltonians, and imperialists have their deified Lincoln for their pantheon. The old right, "classical liberals," and libertarian decentralists have sometimes canonized — perhaps understandably — the defeated foes of the Great Centralizer.

Jefferson Davis gets honorable mention occasionally; but it is Robert E. Lee who always gets top honors in the minority report of American history. He is cast by his fans, both scholars and amateur "Civil War buffs" as the Washington of the 19th century. The trouble with this is that…they are right!

Washington and Lee, both Virginian gentlemen, were devotees of conventional state warfare and disdained partisan and irregular actions. Washington had no choice (to his fortune). The Confederate leadership did and largely rejected it. Washington had sought and was denied a regular commission as a British army officer, and had something to prove. The wealth of experience in irregular war from a century of conflict with tribes on the frontier and their French allies, indeed his own experience from Monongalia…was wasted for the hope of respectability in the eyes of his enemies. The stately Virginian adopted the Fredrickan System of linear tactics as taught by a mercenary Prussian ex-captain von Steuben, and wed America fatefully to conventional war. Use of cover/concealment by the line-infantry was shunned wholesale for l'Ordre Mince the 2-deep line of infantry exchanging volleys with a similarly deployed opponent in open ground, followed by a bayonet charge by whichever side's salvos had the most effect (who had been able to fire the most volleys). War was a chess game played by gentlemen officers with human pieces. My fellow history buffs will be quick to pounce on the 18th Century musket's inaccuracy as an individual weapon and vigorously assert the necessity of these Frederickan phalanxes, given the technology. I'd respond by pointing again to Monongalia, and also to European experimentation with skirmishers (Croats in Austrian service and Prussian Jagers), who's use was limited (for socio-political reasons) but always effective. In any case, the common militia in America didn't take well, to being cannon fodder, as Washington bemoaned at New York in the 1776 campaign (modern anti-gunners revel in the Colonial militia's supposed uselessness). In any case, implementation of regular tactics with troops other than Continentals (always few in number) was faulty at best and logistical challenges, administrative decentralization, and difficult terrain ensured that partisan, decentralized warfare still played a pivotal role in the 1776–83 Independence war.

Following the debacle that was the defense of New York, Partisan actions by New Jersey Militia against Howe's isolated posts played just as big a role in denying New Jersey to the British as the immortalized Trenton and Princeton campaign. A generation earlier, German Immigrants from Pennsylvania had introduced their slow-firing but accurate hunting arm, the Pennsylvania Rifle, and the appearance of Patriot sharpshooters from the Frontier on the heralded the return of formidable light infantry to the battlefield and foreshadowed the end of close order, linear infantry tactics. Militia, employed in small skirmishes, in a protracted campaign of harassment, became the formula for success. As well, the proficiency of motivated local militia against isolated detachments of foreign troops in an area invaded by a regular expeditionary force, like Burgoyne's in Northern New York proved invaluable to success. Like the Roman Legions at Teutoburger Wald, the British army advancing from the St. Lawrence found itself deep in hostile territory with enemy irregulars in control of his communications. Small actions, waged by local troops against Burgoyne's detached forage parties, drained the regular army's strength, and denied it a local base of supply. In the South, small-scale skirmishes at Cowpens and Kings Mountain fought with imaginative tactics by mixed forces of militia and Continentals, negated British success in set-piece battles, like Camden and the Siege of Charleston. As well, both Marion's Guerilla activities and Greene's policy of dividing his forces ensured that the war in the Carolinas would be protracted to the point that Cornwallis would have no secure rear-area when he invaded Virginia and thus set the Stage for Yorktown.

Four score and seven years latter, the irregular heritage in American tradition of fighting had been all but supplanted by the universal adherence to a post-Napoleonic system of le patrie in armes fighting conventional total war. It was people's war, co-opted by the state. In the Robespierreian tradition, Napoleonic war called for entire nations to be turned into war machines; armed camps garrisoned by the populace. Mass production of muskets and latter, rifles as well as steel artillery, itself with rifled bores, armed the new legions of nation states. A logistical revolution by the use of railroads, steamboats and the telegraph meant that General Staffs could mobilize, concentrate, direct and maneuver fielded forces from the comfort the War Office of a capital city, at least in theory. Conscription would replace enthusiastic volunteers should popular sentiment falter. Both sides were guilty of this. If the North become a gigantic recruit and supply depot, the South became a colossal besieged garrison.

Theorists like Jomini and Clausewitz (who addressed guerrilla warfare condescendingly, at best) were the new apostles of the "God of War" (Clausewitz's nickname for Napoleon). Napoleonic tactics as well as strategic and logistical doctrine were holy writ at West Point and an obsession in all military circles. Aristocratic commanders were supplanted by technocratic bourgeois officers for whom war was a near-exact science. Among these, Lee and Beauregard were the bridge between the old gentleman and the new military professional. Napoleonic war called for 18th century techniques to be distilled to their essences so as to be easily applied to new mass armies. Skirmishers were used en masse, but only as a screen for infantry deployed in line and column. Massed artillery and cavalry alternately wore down or shattered an enemy as the situation dictated. Tactically, it favored the offensive (thus ensuring the bloodbath in light of more lethal 19th century weapons). It sought the wholesale destruction of the opposing state's army on the battlefield, accomplished by concentrating superior force in every engagement (achieving superior concentration was where the science supposedly came in). Lee, like every other Victorian general, dreamed of re-fighting Austerlitz or Jena and Auerstedt, hoping that by sheer skill at maneuver, they could inflict a ruinous defeat on the Army of the Potomac or the Army of the Tennessee. Shiloh, the Seven Days, the Second Manassas, Antietam, and Gettysburg; they all represent failed attempts by Lee and Beauregard to completely destroy their opponents with either envelopment or defeat in detail. While some may have been tactical victories, the ultimate goal, forcing the destruction of Yankee fielded forces was never realized. All the while, the Confederate leadership poured more conscripts into the field armies as they lost them at about the same rate.

To Davis' credit, the historical record indicates he may have favored a protracted war, swapping "space for time" and concentrating the bulk of the army to win in on one theatre then switching to another (exploiting Napoleon's superb "central position" strategy of fighting outnumbered). However, Davis was a military man and government man as were Lee and Beauregard, and he presided over a Confederate Levee en Masse of sorts. Herein lays the breakdown of classical liberalism and the "old right": laissez faire gets shelved for wartime. Bureaucratic control was established over all resources, material and human in a vain effort to industrialize the South and to support the Provisional (conscript) Army. In the process, southerners found themselves undefended. Their husbands and sons (along with food and resources) went east, down the railroad to be concentrated in the field armies of Bragg, Johnston, and Lee, to fight their war of mass-maneuver. Richmond was defended as if it were Paris, an administrative and industrial hub without which the "departments" would plunge into chaos. Costly tactical victories and costlier defeats left the Southern interior uncovered and open to Federal forces and Yankee commanders. Their policy of terror and scorched earth were nothing new in western war. Destruction of infrastructure and economy were logical objectives in total war. Indeed Sherman simply carried out the manifesto that Brunswick never got a chance to, thanks to a French victory at Valmy. But against such, a Napoleonic defensive strategy was as useless as stone mason walls against rifled artillery. The Western Theatre Gave observers a pre-mechanized look at the nature of modern war with Grant's Jackson-Vicksburg operation, Banks' Port Hudson, Sherman's March to the Sea, and Sheridan's Shenandoah campaign.

Scholars today ridicule the Confederate leadership for not centralizing as efficiently as their opponents. If the bad old state governments of North Carolina, Georgia and Texas had been "team players" and listened to the former U.S. Secretary of War, then Lee and Beauregard's Napoleonic proficiency would had ended the war quicker than von Moltke in the Austro-Prussian War! The well, documented conflict between Davis and the supposedly selfish governors is always taken as deficient southern will to "do what is necessary" to win the war. The general line essentially states that the South simply failed to out-empire the imperialists! I too blame these Southern Certified Great Men: For trying to centralize at all. Had Richmond fallen as easily as New York did in 1776, it would have been a good thing in the long run. What the Southern people really needed was a Mao, or Troung Chinh, not politically or socially, mind you, but tactically and operationally. The "bloody mayhem" of Michael Collins stood a better chance of succeeding where stately obstinacy failed.

General Lee regarded guerilla war as an "unmixed evil". Southern Gentry, like their Victorian English cousins, considered conventional war as a bastion of civilization. Washington knew that defeat would likely result in him hanging for treason. Lee could reliably count on some chivalry on the North's part. And the Yankees did well to show it, given his rebuke of those who still wished to fight. This part of Lee's Legacy is what I find most troubling: he fits all too neatly into the official narrative. He is the worthy foe, who played by the rules (the statist rules) lost and thereby validated they righteousness of the northern cause. Lee's admirers aren't to be blamed. However, this also fits neatly into despairing narrative of lost freedom and the march of imperialism witnessed in private sorrow by classical liberals, Old Right conservatives and all who think that the 1787 Constitution came down from Mt. Sinai (When liberty and justice cry out for the return of the Articles of Confederation). This admiration isn't without merit. By the same token, however, I also admire King George of Hanover, who fought briefly and unsuccessfully against Prussian hegemony a year after Appomattox. In any case, liberty cannot be won in statist war. The only thing that emerges from such a conflict is…another state.

In 1789, as the Unpleasantness in France got underway and the States clustered on the North American Eastern Seaboard embarked upon the road to tyranny, a Hessian veteran of the American Revolution wrote his treatise on partisan warfare. It has been ignored to the peril of all conventional state armies ever since. The Peninsular War (1808-1814) had shown, for all who were willing to acknowledge, that mass partisan conflict (or Spanish Guerillas) could swallow a large occupying force of conscripts and allow a much smaller field army to chip away at the invading force. Napoleon's army under his brother Joseph in Spain numbered 350,000 yet could only concentrate about 70,000 or less against Arthur Wellesley on any battlefield in either Spain or Portugal. Michael Collins and Tom Barry prevailed in the 1919–21 war when faced with even greater odds. The Cossacks maintained their independence for over four centuries, though beset on all sides by powerful empires. Mao's forces were entirely armed with captured weapons until after WWII.

True, international treaties condemning privateering may have hampered more liberal naval strategies. However, policy of impressing private ships into national service, building costly ironclads domestically (and watching them get captured) and banning the importation of luxury items (thus making blockade-running unprofitable) made the Northern Blockade work better than the skill of the U.S. Navy. Buying superior breach-loading small arms and other weapons from Europe (and relying on captured weapons in the northernmost states) has been suggested as a superior alternative to holding for dear life on to a few foundry cities. In any case, the British had even greater naval superiority for most of the 1776–83 war, central administration didn't exist, nor did domestic arms production, yet they prevailed.

During and after the war, Southern partisan activity was left to the more vulgar elements of the southern war machine. These men, unlike Mosby, represented the dark-side of irregular war. Their use of terror and murder should be viewed as a perversion of irregular war. Yes, some will jump all over this assertion as naïve, believing that murder and terror are essential to all guerilla war. This is understandable, given numerous atrocities by irregulars in history (in contrast, the legitimacy of the state covers a multitude of sins, it seems). Nevertheless, Mao's dictum that a revolutionary has to live amongst the people "as a fish in the sea" wasn't for nothing. An irregular force is more dependent on their reputation as humane, just and civil fighters than one covered by the cloak of statist auspices. Indeed, irregular forces that resort to terror do so when they're supported form outside the territory (Viet Cong) or when the brutality is directed towards an unarmed, isolated minority. In any case, Northfield, Minnesota awaited any brigands or renegades who truly became lawless. Had irregular tactics remained reputable, the brutal Quantrill's and Forests would never have had the prominence they enjoyed. And leaders such as Patrick Cleburne would have had greater prominence as competence such as his would have been too valuable to pass over due to his advocacy of freeing slaves and arming them. As a former subject of the British Empire, Cleburne had no desire to preserve the "peculiar institution" at the expense of local control. Two centuries earlier, Bacon's Rebellion demonstrated the viability of a biracial movement against a common perceived threat…and also against the status quo. For the Richmond leadership, if it was a question of independence or continued slavery, all records indicate they'd pick the latter.

Neither the Southern gentry nor the plantation system would probably have survived a partisan war of secession. As a protracted Southern War of secession wore on, slavery would disintegrate and attempts to restore it would lack the support of the veterans, who by and large wouldn't wish to risk their lives to restore the privilege of a few at their expense. Yes, Black Americans would have had many more battles to fight. The 1676 Bacon's rebellion had shown the American proto-ruling classes the danger of black-poor white solidarity and national leadership, in Richmond would be sure to stir up racial strife in order to further its power (thank goodness the rulers of Rome on the Potomac never stooped to such!). But each victory would have left the freedmen in far wealthier, materially, and less vulnerable to the white majority than a North that lost interest when the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes needed southern support. In states such as Mississippi, Perhaps, the decentralization would have gone further. Perhaps the West Florida Republic would once again raise the "Bonnie Blue Flag" (which originated there). Perhaps a Free City of New Orleans, wished for by some since1768…and perhaps and independent Acadiana. For the elite, truly decentralized war would have been a "burn it to save it" bargain.

A true Southern-centric reading of history is not a collection of biographies of their Certified Great Men. No, a true reading would be the story of the Southern people is one of the Scots-Irish and the slaves predominantly, but also of Creoles/Acadians and all in all a populace that, left to their own devices, in control of their own property and the fruit of their own labor, would become ungovernable once more. God, I hope I live to see the day!

February 8, 2007