Robert E. Lee has a reputation, in many ways deserved, as one of the greatest of American military commanders. No other general of the modern period—possibly excepting George Washington—accomplished more despite holding such a poor hand. Utilizing only interior lines and the difficult geography of northern Virginia, Lee succeeded in keeping the might of the industrial north at bay for nearly four years. He defeated several separate armies sent against him. He gained some of the most crushing victories ever witnessed on the North American continent. He not only defeated but utterly humiliated the Union commanders opposing him—many of them his former classmates. He staved off the defeat of Confederacy longer than almost anyone thought possible.
But he didn’t stave it off long enough. Avoiding defeat was Lee’s major strategic goal. All that he needed to do was to keep the Confederacy intact long enough for exhaustion to take the Union out of the war. It is there, on the strategic level, that Lee failed. Though a master tactician—one of the most skilled on record—Lee was no strategist.
The strategy for winning the Civil War and gaining southern independence was straightforward: hold northern forces off by defeating any attempt at invasion of the southern heartland while at the same time keeping the north off-balance by continual raids, feints, and threats against high-value targets. Such a strategy would have forced the north to tire itself out while preserving southern assets.
Instead, Lee carried out a continual series of invasions of the north that wasted southern manpower and resources and finally left the South so exhausted that defeat was inevitable.
Why? What was Lee thinking? What encouraged him to adapt a strategy in many ways the exact opposite of what was called for?
The answer is in no way obscure. Like many nineteenth-century commanders—and for that matter, many from both preceding and following centuries—Lee was a disciple of the doctrine of decisive battle, the theory that wars can be won with a single crushing victory that annihilates an opponent’s military assets and fatally undermines his will to continue battle.
Decisive battle had its origins in the warfare of the eighteenth century. It’s true that there have been no lack of decisive battles in previous history—Guagamela (331 BC), Philippi (42 BC), and Manzikert (AD 1074), just to mention three, clearly and permanently settled the issues that triggered them—but it required the Enlightenment and the onset of rationalism for decisive battle to become a doctrine. Something that both generals and politicians planned for, sought out, and based their strategies on.
The early eighteenth century marked the peak of the short-lived “star fortress” era. European wars during these decades were fought over the possession of star-shaped border fortresses secure from conventional artillery and infantry attacks. Engineers such as Sébastian le Preste de Vauban reduced these fortresses through prolonged sieges in which sappers laboriously (and usually under fire) dug their way to the fortifications. When the outlying bastions were reached, the fortress surrendered, often ending the war at the same time.
This relaxed and relatively bloodless epoch was ended with the mammoth victories of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim (1704) and Ramillies (1706)—truly “decisive battles” in anybody’s book. A half-century later Frederick the Great fought titanic battles of near-annihilation at Leuthen (1757) and Rossbach (1757).
But it was with the campaigns of Napoleon that decisive battle achieved the status of a mature ideology—a widespread school of thought that affects the thinking and behavior of both adherents and opponents whether they are consciously aware of it or not.
Napoleon essentially took mass mobilization, the great martial innovation of the French revolutionaries, and dropped it on top of Europe. Utilizing the vast manpower of France—along with the “liberated” European states—Napoleon totally rearranged the structure of European politics. His victories—Austerlitz (1805), Jena-Auerstadt (1806), and Wagram (1809)—were the stuff of legend. For the first time since Alexander, a single military genius made it incontestably clear how much could be accomplished by mere force of arms.
Napoleon became the dominating military figure of the nineteenth century. Apart from the bizarre “geometric” tactical theories of Antoine-Henri Jomini—of which it can be said that no one ever used them twice—Napoleon’s methods set the pattern for a century of warfare. (Carl von Clausewitz, for his part, remained untranslated and not well known until late in the century.) Napoleon’s example dominated the thinking of such figures as Otto von Bismarck and Helmuth von Moltke, not to overlook his nephew Napoleon III. All paid serious attention to, and in many cases patterned themselves after Bonaparte.
And that was a problem. Because, as is true of most legends, that of Napoleon Bonaparte failed to fit very well with the facts. His “decisive battles,” were, in truth, not very decisive at all. The magnificent, brutal spectacle of Austerlitz (2 December 1805) may have broken up the Third Coalition, forced Great Britain off the Continent, and left the rulers of Europe cowering. But that interlude lasted only months before the Fourth Coalition was formed and the troops were once again on the march.
No matter how many near-cosmic victories Napoleon achieved, they would never overcome his political problems. Napoleon had insulted, cheated, and outraged every royal house in Europe. He had crushed the remnants of feudalism everywhere but in Russia, and threatened to do the same to the royal absolutism that the European monarchs had spent centuries perfecting. He had helped unleash and channel forces that have not exhausted themselves to this day. A man responsible for actions on such a scale automatically has a price on his head, a price that can be paid only through his personal destruction. The sole method of avoiding this was through exquisite diplomatic tact and political acumen, both of which Napoleon lacked. The Napoleonic legend obscured the truth revealed by Clausewitz’s great insight that war is simply an aspect of politics, and that politics must always remain dominant. Most of Napoleon’s disciples—excepting only Bismarck—also overlooked this, and paid the price. (Ironically, the actual “decisive battle” of the Napoleonic era was Waterloo, the one that brought it an end—and largely because it undermined Napoleon politically to a point where he could no longer survive.)
Robert E. Lee was as much a captive of the Napoleonic mystique as any other officer of his era. He received his military education at West Point little more than twenty years after Napoleon’s death. He gained his baptism of fire under General Winfield Scott, whose march on Mexico City was the most Napoleonic gesture ever made by an American commander. We can all recall Lee’s words—largely taken from the record—quoted in the film Gettysburg, in the scene when Lee and Longstreet are arguing over the attack that was to culminate in Pickett's Charge, revealing that his thinking concerning attacks on the strategic center were strongly influenced by Napoleon.
For the first years of the Civil War, the Napoleonic example served Lee well. He was opposing generals cast from the same mold, and, being a superior tactician to all of them, generally swept them aside. Lee’s early victories—Second Bull Run (28-30 August, 1862), Fredericksburg (11-15 December, 1862), and Chancellorsville (30 April—6 May, 1863)—sit high among the most crushing victories on the record. Bull Run and Chancellorsville ended as routs, while Fredericksburg was a massacre so complete as to weigh heavily on Lee’s own spirit.
Did Lee face incompetent or overconfident opponents? Of course—but so did Napoleon. Did luck play a large role? (After all, it was one lucky cannon shot that left Hooker concussed and confused at Chancellorsville.) Very true—but it was Napoleon who asked of his candidates for marshal, “Is he lucky?”
But even with victories outmatched only by those of the emperor himself, Lee was stymied. He found himself in the same predicament as Napoleon sixty years before. The “decisive” battles were simply not decisive enough. No matter how many blue-clad corpses were left at Marye Heights, the Union could simply train more in their thousands—many taken from the constant flow of European immigrants—and send them south. Abraham Lincoln was adamant that the United States would not be divided. (And rightly so, despite the many constitutional arguments attempting to validate the concept of secession. It’s often overlooked that the Confederacy would not have been the last of these. North America might today hold a half-dozen republics—on the Pacific coast, in Texas, and in the Southwest, among other pathetic statelets. Think of the United States transformed into a New World Balkans. Then think of that situation in a twentieth-century world overrun with demented dictators and bloody ideologies.) Between Lincoln’s iron will and the endless resources of the Union, no victory was ever going to be large enough.
As in the case of Napoleon, Lee was facing a political problem for which there was no military solution. His only hope was to grind down the Union forces until a political solution at last opened up. But his strategy of repeated invasions of the north in search of that final, decisive Armageddon rendered such an outcome impossible. The victories became less stunning, the advantages less clear, and eventually the tide turned inexorably against the Confederacy. Like Napoleon, Lee never found the key to his strategic conundrum.
Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, was the farthest thing in the world from a Napoleonic figure. Grant was a competent tactician—though in no way the equal of Lee. But it was as a strategist that Grant outdid Lee, along with every other American commander of his era.
Doctrine played no role whatsoever in Grant’s method of waging war. Grant was a nearly pure pragmatist, his method of warfare constructed not from theory but from his own rough practice as a soldier. Grant built his campaigns as an artisan—and one accustomed to using second-rate materials at that. Rather than consider battle as the ultimate goal of any workable strategy like most other general officers of his generation, Grant viewed it as one solution among many. Grant’s toolkit also contained marches, maneuver, feints, and sieges, all of which could be utilized as the situation required. Generally, it was only after confusing and overwhelming his opposition with a selection of these tactics that Grant committed to actual battle. Grant was like a boxer who tired out his opponent with fancy footwork before moving in to trap him on the ropes and pound him into submission.
This can be seen clearly in the Mississippi Valley campaign. Grant spent months on marches, probes, and feints—even engineering work—without actually closing with Confederate forces. Only when he was ready did he finally plunge across the river deep behind enemy lines, leaving a thoroughly confused General James Pemberton to flail around trying to cut supply lines that didn’t exist. After throwing back General Joseph Johnston’s troops attempting to relieve Pemberton at Jackson (May 14, 1863) and punishing Pemberton himself at Champion Hill two days later, Grant chased the Confederate forces into Vicksburg and settled into a two-month siege. (In the process he completely abandoned Jackson, Mississippi’s state capital—an unheard-of move at the time. But the city played absolutely no further role in his plans. So why bother to hold it?)
Vicksburg finally surrendered on July 4th—a day after the fighting ended at Gettysburg. At a fraction of the cost in casualties to the Army of Potomac in Pennsylvania, Grant had obtained what most historians consider to be an even more critical victory. (Seizing Vicksburg effectively cut the Confederacy in two, opened up the Mississippi to full exploitation by Union forces, and created a base area from which Sherman was to invade the southern heartland a year later.)
When Grant headed east to take command of the Army of the Potomac, he brought his bag of tricks along with him. So novel were his methods, so different from the accepted military principles of the day, that it’s unlikely that any commander on either side would have been able to handle them. Despite his tactical mastery and unmatched skill as a commander of men, Robert E. Lee was no exception. Along with everyone else, Lee was taken aback when, following the unquestionable Confederate victory in the Battle of the Wilderness (May 4-7, 1864), Grant’s troops, instead of retreating across the Potomac like those of McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker before them, turned south toward Richmond. In a real sense, the war ended at that moment. Everything afterward can be viewed as an epilogue.
How does all this come into play in The Day After Gettysburg? Often overlooked as regards Alternate History fiction is the fact that, whatever the changes in the historical record, the personalities and mindsets of the major figures—the “icons,” as critics call them—remain the same. Robert E. Lee is not going to be transformed into a heartless brute and Ulysses Grant will not be transformed into a wild-eyed gambler.
It’s also the case here. Lee’s decision to remain in Pennsylvania has a political basis, but is also underwritten by his confidence in his strategic vision. His dedication to decisive battle (though he might not recognize the terminology) has paid off with enormous dividends. Lee has repeatedly destroyed the armies sent out to challenge him. He has defeated every last Union commander he has gone into the field against (Antietam [September 17, 1862] being only half an exception). Though well aware of the dangers of remaining so deep in enemy territory with no possibility of relief or reinforcement, Lee can look back on an almost unbroken record of victory. The tantalizing possibility exists that one more such triumph may be in the wings, perhaps the victory at last, the one that will utterly destroy Union hopes and finally give the South its independence.
So, while he may have his doubts—particularly in his inability to grasp exactly what Grant is up to—he remains well behind Union lines, convinced that the rolling hills of Pennsylvania will not become for him what Russia was for Napoleon.
As for Grant, he enters into battle with his actual plans perhaps incomplete and inchoate, but with a clear vision of his goal unblinded by doctrine or ideology, certain that his talent for innovation and ability to select the right tool for the circumstances will lead him to victory. So the stage is set for the climacteric of the greatest struggle ever seen on the North American continent, in Pennsylvania in 1863 as it was in Virginia 1865.
The Napoleonic legacy continued into the twentieth century, as found in the U.S. Army’s obsession with striking the enemy’s center of mass, which led to appalling casualty levels on battlefields as separate as Monte Cassino (1943) and Okinawa (1945). (The military historian Victor Davis Hanson believes that General Simon Bolivar Buckner might well have become the first American general court-martialed for incompetence for his performance on Okinawa, had he not been killed by a Japanese sniper.) But as it stands today, the Revolution in Military Affairs, along with the innovations in tactics and strategy of such figures as John Boyd, have created an American military that is unmatched on the conventional battlefield. The emphasis on maneuver, feints, speed, and overall innovation that comprises current doctrine resembles that of no other previous American commander more than Ulysses S. Grant.
Acknowledging Lee’s shortcomings does nothing to downgrade his legacy. As long as this country exists, Lee will stand as an example of the nobility, largeness of spirit, and humanity that an American commander must possess. But it is Grant who must get the credit for creating the American way of war.
J.F.C. Fuller, Grant and Lee. A Study in Personality and Generalship (1936)
J.F.C. Fuller, The Generalship of U.S. Grant (1927)
Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs (1886)
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. The Civil War Era (1988)
Alan T. Nolan, Lee Considered. General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (1996)
Copyright © 2017 J.R. Dunn
J.R. Dunn is the coauthor of alternate history novel The Day After Gettysburg, along with the late Robert Conroy. He’s the author of time travel novels This Side of Judgment, and Days of Cain—widely hailed as one of the most powerful time travel novels to deal with the Holocaust—as well as Full Tide of Night. He’s also the author of the nonfiction examination of American politics Death by Liberalism: The Fatal Outcome of Well-Meaning Liberal Policies. Dunn was the long-time associate editor of The International Military Encyclopedia and is now an editor at The American Thinker. His nonfiction appears regularly on Baen.com. He lives in Pittsburgh.