19th Century US History

Robert e Lees Leadership at Gettysburg



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General Robert E. Lee was the beloved and respected leader of the Army of Northern Virginia. His leadership style was that of a genteel southern aristocrat, who treated subordinates with respect and courtesy. Regarded as somewhat of a legendary military leader and hero by his men, Lee relied on personal example rather than coercion or stern discipline to win battles.

Up to the summer of 1863 Lee's leadership style proved effective, as the Confederacy amassed an impressive record of military successes over his Union foes. Even his failed expedition into Maryland the year before and the resulting lack of success at the battle of Antietam had not diminished Lee's reputation and the high regard of the Confederate government and public.

Lee banked on that reputation when he convinced President Jefferson Davis that another invasion of northern territory could a success and convince the war-weary North to sue for peace and allow the Confederacy its independence. Davis, who was more inclined to fight a defensive war - which resulted in Lee's victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville - agreed with Lee's deviation from that strategy.

Lee marched his Army north into Pennsylvania in the hopes of luring the Army of the Potomac for which he had scant respect - into a final battle. Lee likewise had absolutely no respect for the succession of Union generals whom he had soundly defeated or fought to a standstill. Generals McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and Pope were no match for Lee; but Lee did have a grudging respect for General Meade, now in command of Union troops: "General Meade will commit no blunder in my front," he said, and if I make one he will make haste to take advantage of it." As it turned out, Lee was correct. Lee's blunder was a frontal attack against overwhelming firepower. Lee also underestimated the will of Yankees to fight on their home ground.

As he entered Pennsylvania, Lee's leadership style and his handling of his subordinate generals was not quite so effective. His normally reliable cavalry leader, Jeb Stuart, failed him miserably. Instead of shielding Lee's advance and serving as his forward reconnaissance, Stuart completely disappeared and went on a "joy ride" around the stalking Union army's supply trains. When Lee arrived at Gettysburg, he had no clear picture of the tactical situation nor the disposition of Meade's forces.

Lee was also let down by the desultory behavior of General Dick Ewell, who failed to follow Lee's orders to attack the Union flank and who failed to coordinate his efforts with General Longstreet. The first two days of the battle then, failed to achieve the results Lee desired. Better coordination and timing could have dislodged the Federals from its flanks and unraveled the entire Union line.

Lee's second in command, General Pete Longstreet, was also slow in carrying out Lee's orders. Longstreet realized that Lee had allowed the Confederate Army to be maneuvered into a disadvantageous tactical position. The Union held the high ground, covered it with massive artillery and defended it with thousands of troops along a narrower front and who could maneuver and reinforce at will.

What Longstreet urged was that Lee wheel the army to the east and get between the Union forces and Washington, D.C. Longstreet figured that such a maneuver would draw the Union into an attack where the Confederates had defensible ground. Lee refused, citing the difficulty of coordinating such a move. Although he was not at his choice of battlefields, Lee was in no mood to delay the battle. "His blood was up." As it turned out, however, Lee should have listened to Longstreet.

Lee also refused to listen to Longstreet's advice on the third day of the battle when Lee decided to make a frontal assault up a hill to the Union center. "General Lee," Longstreet urged, "I've been a soldier all my life and I know what soldiers can do. In my opinion there never was a body of fifteen thousand men who could make such an attack successfully."

Lee disagreed. He remembered a European battle at Solferino in 1859 where Napoleon III "had broken through the Austrian center with a frontal assault after an intense artillery bombardment. In a rare show of temper, Lee insisted, "The enemy is there, and I'm going to hit him there." Unfortunately, his artillery let him down as well. The opening barrage before Pickett's charge was aimed too high. Most Union casualties were in the rear of the battlefield.

The resulting failed charge up Cemetery Ridge cost Lee the battle and ultimately ended the hopes for Confederate independence. As his men retreated using rifles for crutches, and others "who had their feet or legs shot off were crawling down the slope," Lee realized he had failed. Said Lee, "It caused a hurt I cannot describe."

In a show of remarkable leadership, Lee took full responsibility and mounted his horse and rode out to rally the survivors in the event of a counterattack. "It's all my fault," he told them. "I've lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can. Form your ranks again when you get back to cover. We want all good men to hold together now."

Lee's leadership style failed to win a victory at Gettysburg. His subordinate generals also behaved with uncharacteristic poor judgment and lack of decisive leadership. At the end of the day, though, Lee encouraged his beaten army to regroup and return south, where he would eventually lose by sheer force of numbers and resources pitted against him not because of any want of leadership.

Source for quotes:
Oates, Stephen B., The Whirlwind of War, Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865. Harper Collins Publishers, 1998 (P.370-371)

More about this author: Jerry Curtis

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