by Rod D. Martin
July 18, 2021

Long topic, which I cannot address fully here, though I won’t just say “look who won and who lost”.

Bobby Lee made multiple critical errors, the biggest of which was making the defense of the South Virginia-centric (thus allowing Grant and Sherman to divide the South in three, taking the Mississippi and then splitting Georgia). He was wedded to his beloved home state and made it a waste as a result; and he completely missed the overall strategic picture.

The second critical error was his persistence, indeed insistence, on fighting a war of attrition from a position of inferior manpower and supply. It’s worth remembering that Lee consistently lost the largest proportion of his men per battle of any Civil War general. He did not have those men to spare, and (as just noted), the other side did, but didn’t waste them as wantonly as Lee. This dramatically and needlessly increased the manpower gap over time. Contrast especially Sherman, who split the Deep South with one bold, light, rapid campaign from which the South could not and did not recover. Gettysburg notwithstanding, Lee was incapable of such thought, which is more reminiscent of Guderian and Manstein than Napoleon.

Which brings me to my third point: Lee forever sought that one set-piece battle in which all would be decided. He longed for an Austerlitz or a Waterloo, in a completely changed environment to which he never really adapted. He would have been a master of any of the major wars of the preceding century. But that century was gone.

It’s easy to say greater manpower and materiel made a Northern victory “inevitable”, but that’s poppycock. There was precious little support for the war in the North, one of the two major political parties opposed the war (in league with its Southern branch, which ruled the CSA) even after the fall of Atlanta, and it took Herculean effort for Lincoln to maintain the political ability to continue. Like Churchill a century later, but for one man, the war would have ended early, if it had happened at all, with a completely different outcome.

No, in fact, Lincoln held the Union together by force of will and intellect until he found the leaders who could think beyond their textbooks and the past to see the entire chess board. Lee (and an entire Southern government who handled the war about as well as their party later handled Vietnam) never could see that bigger picture, but Grant and Sherman (and Thomas, and others) saw it flawlessly, and pursued the first truly modern war.

But to be fair to Lee, had those men fought, or had Lincoln kept McClellan to fight, the war Lee wanted, Lee would have mopped up the floor with the North, and the South would have won the war.

That, of course, is the biggest lesson of all.

Why the South Would Have Won With Grant or Sherman originally appeared as a Facebook post by Rod D. Martin.

Rod’s article on Robert E. Lee.