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Robert E Lee Tactics

Although Lee’s purported “tactical genius” was trumped by Grant’s “superior talent in grand strategy,” Lee is famed for his tactical management of battles. He was the tactical victory in several 1862–63 battles and generally performed well on the tactical defensive against Grant in 1864. However, Robert E Lee Tactics proved fatally defective. His tactical defects were that he was too aggressive on the field, he frequently failed to take charge of the battlefield, his battle plans were too complex or simply ineffective, and his orders were too vague or discretionary.

Problems with Robert E Lee’s Tactics

The first problem was that Robert E Lee’s tactics, like his strategy, were too aggressive. Bevin Alexander pointed out that in 1862 alone Lee had “an obsession with seeking battle to retrieve a strategic advantage when it had gone awry or he thought it had.” Thus, at Beaver Dam Creek (Gaines’ Mill), Frayser’s Farm (Glendale), Malvern Hill, and Antietam, he resorted to “desperate, stand-up, head-on battle” that resulted in great losses. “This fixation was Lee’s fatal flaw. It and Lee’s limited strategic vision cost the Confederacy the war.” Elsewhere Alexander concluded, “Lee never understood the revolution that the Minié ball had brought to battle tactics. . . . This tendency to move to direct confrontation, regardless of the prospects of the losses that would be sustained, guaranteed Lee’s failure as an offensive commander.”


Although sometimes creative (particularly when Stonewall Jackson was involved), too often those tactics failed to adequately consider the advantages new weaponry gave to defensive forces. Rifled muskets (ones with grooves rifled in their bores to spin bullets for accuracy) and bullets which expanded in the bores to follow the grooves (Minié balls) greatly increased the accuracy and range of infantry firepower (from 100 yards to between 400 and 1,000 yards), thereby providing the defense with an unprecedented advantage. Fuller called the Civil War “the war of the rifle bullet,” and rifle bullets (primarily Minié balls) accounted for 9 0 percent of the about 214,000 battlefield deaths and 469,000 wounded during the war. This advanced weaponry made assaults increasingly difficult.

Despite the fact that seven of eight Civil War frontal assaults failed, Lee just kept attacking. Battles in which Lee damaged his army with overly aggressive tactics include the Seven Days’ (particularly Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, and Malvern Hill), Second Manassas, Chantilly, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Rappahannock Station, the Wilderness, and Fort Stedman. Archer Jones pointed to Lee’s periodic misplaced elation when he refused to “quit while he was ahead,” and cited Malvern Hill, Chantilly, the end of Chancellorsville, and Pickett’s Charge as examples.

The North had more advanced weaponry and had it earlier in the war. Its Model 1861 Springfield rifle, with an effective range of 200–400 yards, could kill at a distance of 1,000 yards or more. Most infantrymen (especially Federals) had rifles by sometime in 1862, Union cavalry had breech-loading (instead of muzzle-loading guns) repeating rifles by 1863, and even some Union infantry had these “repeaters” (primarily Spencer rifles) in 1864 and 1865.

Demonstrating this trend, Rhode Islander Elisha Hunt Rhodes experienced an improvement in weaponry during the war. In June 1861 he was first issued one of many muskets that he described as “old-fashioned smooth bore flintlock guns altered over to percussion locks.” Late the following month, when other Rhode Islanders’ enlistments expired after First Bull Run, Rhodes’ unit members traded their smoothbore weapons for Springfield rifles. Three years later, in July 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley, Captain Rhodes wrote: “I have forty of my men armed with Spencer Repeating rifles that will hold seven cartridges at one loading. I have borrowed these guns from the 37th Mass. who are armed with them and have used them for some time.”

Appreciation of the great reliance upon rifles by both sides in the conflict can be gleaned from the following estimates provided by Paddy Griffith in his thought-provoking Battle Tactics of the Civil War. He estimated that the Confederate Government procured 183,000 smoothbore muskets and 439,000 rifles and that the Union obtained 510,000 smoothbores and an astounding 3,253,000 rifles, including 303,000 breechloaders and 100,000 repeaters. The increased effectiveness of breechloaders, rather than muzzleloaders, was demonstrated by Union cavalry on the first day at Gettysburg (July 1, 1863) and by Union defenders on the second day at Chickamauga just two months later.

Musketry and the new lethal force of rifle power accounted for as many as 80 percent of the Civil War’s battlefield casualties. The improved arms gave the defense a tremendous advantage against exposed attacking infantry or cavalry. Use of trenches from 1863 on further increased the relative effectiveness of infantry defenders’ firepower. Similar improvements in artillery ranges and accuracy also aided the defense. Rhodes, for instance, wrote on February 14, 1862: “The 4th Battery ‘C’ 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery came over [to Washington, D.C.] from Virginia this morning and exchanged their brass guns for steel rifle cannon.” The old smooth-bore cannons had ranges of 1,000 to 1,600 yards while the new rifled artillery had ranges of 4,000 to 6,000 yards.

Despite these significant new advantages held by the defense, during battle after battle, Lee frontally attacked and counterattacked with his splendid and irreplaceable troops. Military historian Bevin Alexander asserted that Lee’s obsession with seeking battle and his limited strategic vision lost the war. The short-term results of Lee’s overly aggressive tactics were his troops’ injury, death, and capture; the long-term results were dissipation of the South’s finite resources and loss of the war.

Lee was not alone in failing to adequately compensate for the new effectiveness of defensive firepower, but, as the leading general of a numerically inferior army for almost three years, he could not afford to make that mistake. In fact, Lee lost 20.2 percent of his soldiers in battle while imposing only 15.4 percent losses on his opponents. This negative difference in percentage of casualties (4.8 percent) was exceeded among Confederate generals only by Lee’s protégé Hood (19.2 percent casualties; minus 13.7 percent difference) and by Pemberton, who surrendered his army at Vicksburg. For example, neither Joseph Johnston (10.5 percent casualties; minus 1.7 percent difference), Bragg (19.5 percent casualties; minus 4.1 percent difference) nor Beauregard (16.1 percent casualties; minus 3.3 percent difference) sacrificed such percentages of their men in unjustified frontal assaults as did Lee. Lee’s statistics substantially improved when he generally went on the defensive—finally and much too late—after the Battle of the Wilderness in early May 1864.

In addition to his aggressiveness, Lee had other tactical problems. His second problem was his failure to take charge on the battlefield. Lee explained his approach to a Prussian military observer at Gettysburg: “I think and work with all my powers to bring my troops to the right place at the right time; then I have done my duty. As soon as I order them into battle, I leave my army in the hands of God.” To interfere later, he said, “does more harm than good.” “What Lee achieved in boldness of plan and combat aggressiveness he diminished through ineffective command and control.”

The third problem with Robert E Lee’s tactics was his propensity to devise battle plans which either required impossible coordination and timing or which dissipated his limited strength through consecutive, instead of concurrent, attacks. For example, the Seven Days’ Battle was a series of disasters in which Lee relied upon unrealistic coordination and timing that resulted in Confederate failures and extreme losses. Again, the second and third days at Gettysburg featured three uncoordinated attacks on the Union line by separate portions of Lee’s forces when a simultaneous assault might have resulted in an important Confederate breakthrough or seizure of high ground.

Lee’s fourth tactical problem was that his orders often were too vague or discretionary, an issue discussed more fully below. The pre- Gettysburg orders to Stuart and the Gettysburg Day One orders to Ewell are examples of this problem. In Philip Katcher’s words, “Lee’s failure adequately to order his generals to perform specific actions or discipline them if they failed was probably his greatest character defect. . . . One of his staunchest defenders [Fitzhugh Lee] agreed: ‘He had a reluctance to oppose the wishes of others or to order them to do anything that would be disagreeable and to which they would not consent.[’]” Almost a century ago, George Bruce concluded, “Every order and act of Lee has been defended by his staff officers and eulogists with a fervency that excites suspicion that, even in their own minds, there was need of defense to make good the position they claim for him among the world’s great commanders.”

Grant’s tactics proved superior to Lee’s. While Grant was aggressive, he was compelled to be so by the North’s burden to win (not stalemate) the war. Of all his assaults, only Cold Harbor, the second assault at Vicksburg, and the post-Bloody Angle assault at Spotsylvania were, in hindsight, unjustified. Grant was well-known for his control of the battlefield (e.g., Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Champion’s Hill). His battle plans were rarely too complex. Finally, his orders were neither vague nor too discretionary; those to Sherman and Sheridan were masterpieces.

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