Daily Archives: February 10, 2014

The Gettysburg Campaign: Lee Decides to Go on the Offensive


I am preparing to lead a Staff Ride of our students to Gettysburg in early March. As part of my preparation I am doing a lot of study to refresh myself on both the campaign and the battle, not only as an operational study, but at the strategic level. This short essay deals with Lee’s decision to invade the North following his victory at Chancellorsville. I will follow it up with other articles the next talking about the Northern strategy at both the strategic and operational levels.

In early May 1863 General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia realized that the Confederacy was in desperate straits. Despite numerous victories against heavy odds, Lee knew that time was running out. Though he had beaten the Army of the Potomac under General Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, he had not destroyed it and that Army, along with a smaller force commanded by General Dix in Hampton Roads still threatened Richmond.

The strategic situation was bad, even if many Confederate politicians realized it or cared in the post Chancellorsville euphoria. In the west the strategic river city of Vicksburg Mississippi was threatened by the Army of Union General Ulysses S Grant, and Naval forces under the command of Admiral David Farragut. If Vicksburg fell the Union would control the entire Mississippi and cut the Confederacy in two. Union forces also maintained a strong presence in the areas of the Virginia Tidewater and the coastal areas of the Carolinas, while in Tennessee a Union Army was stalemated, but still threatening Chattanooga, the gateway to the Deep South. The blockade of the United States Navy had crippled the already tenuous economy of the Confederacy.

Some Confederate leaders realized the danger presented by Grant in the West. Secretary of War James Seddon recognized the danger in the Winter of 1862-1863 both suggested to Lee that he detach significant units to relieve the pressure in the west and blunt Grant’s advance. Lee would have nothing of it, he argued that the war would be won in the East. It was his view that if Virginia was lost, so was the Confederacy, and was concerned that whatever units left behind should he dispatch troops from his Army west, would be unable to defend Richmond.

On May 14th Lee travelled by train to Richmond to meet with President Jefferson Davis and War Secretary James Seddon. At the meeting Lee argued for an offensive campaign in the east, to take the war to Pennsylvania. Lee had two goals three major goals, two which were directly related to the immediate military situation and one which went to the broader strategic situation. Unfortunately no notes from that conference are known to survive.

Lee had long believed that an offensive into the North was necessary, even before Chancellorsville. Lee did not believe that reinforcing the Confederate Armies in the West would provide any real relief, instead he believed that his Army, flush with victory needed to be reinforced and allowed to advance into Pennsylvania. Lee’s Chief of Staff Colonel Charles Marshall crafted a series of courses of action designed to present the invasion option as the only feasible alternative. Although both Seddon and Davis had reservations about the plan they agreed to it, unfortunately for all of them they never really settled the important goals of the campaign.

Lee believed that his offensive would relieve Grant’s pressure on Pemberton’s Army at Vicksburg. Likewise Lee believed that if he was successful in battle and defeated the Army of the Potomac in Pennsylvania that it could give the peace party in the North to bring pressure on the Lincoln Administration to end the war.  He also believed that if he could spend a summer campaign season in the North, living off of Union foodstuffs and shipping booty back to the Confederacy that it would give farmers in Northern Virginia a season to harvest crops unimpeded by major military operations.

However, the meeting evidently did not have all the results that Lee desired. Davis refused Lee reinforcements from the coastal Carolinas, and insisted on units being left to cover Richmond in case General Dix advanced on Richmond from Hampton Roads. Much of this was due to political pressure as well as the personal animus that existed between General D. H. Hill in the Carolinas towards Lee.

Likewise Lee’s decision revealed an unresolved issue in Confederate Grand Strategy. Many in the Confederacy realized that the only hope for success was to fight a defensive campaign that made Union victory so expensive that eventually Lincoln’s government would fall or be forced to negotiate.

However, Lee was convinced that ultimate victory could only be achieved by decisively defeating and destroying Federal military might. His letters are full of references to crush, defeat or destroy Union forces opposing him. His strategy of the offensive was demonstrated on numerous occasions in 1862 and early 1863, however it was unfeasible and counterproductive to Southern strategy. His offensive operations cost his Army dearly in the one commodity that the South could not replace, nor keep pace with its Northern adversary, his men.

When Lee fought defensive actions on ground of his choosing, like a Fredericksburg he was not only successful but husbanded his strength. However, when he went on the offensive in almost every case he lost between 15 and 22 percent of his strength, and the percentage of soldiers that he lost was always more than his Federal counterparts, even when his army inflicted greater aggregate casualties on his opponents. Lee recognized this as was evident in his correspondence but it did not deter his strategy of the offensive until after his defeat at Gettysburg.

The course of action was decided upon, but one has to ask if Lee’s decision was wise decision at a strategic point level, not simply the operational or tactical level where many Civil War students are comfortable. General Longstreet’s artillery commander, Colonel Porter Alexander described the appropriate strategy of the South well, he wrote:

“When the South entered upon war with a power so immensely her superior in men & money, & all the wealth of modern resources in machinery and the transportation appliances by land & sea, she could entertain but one single hope of final success. That was, that the desperation of her resistance would finally exact from her adversary such a price in blood & treasure as to exhaust the enthusiasm of its population for the objects of the war. We could not hope to conquer her. Our one chance was to wear her out.”  (Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC, 1989 p.415 

What Alexander describes is the same type of strategy successfully employed by Washington and his more able officers during the American Revolution, Wellington’s campaign on the Iberian Peninsula against Napoleon’s armies, and that of General Giap against the French and Americans in Vietnam. It was not a strategy that completely avoided offensive actions, but saved them for the right moment when victory could be obtained.

It is my belief that Lee erred in invading the North for the simple fact that the risks far outweighed the possible benefits. It was a long shot and Lee was a gambler, audacious possibly to a fault. His decision to go North also exhibited a certain amount of hubris as he did not believe that his army could be beaten, even when it was outnumbered.  Likewise he took the offensive in spite of the fact that many of his commanders were untested at the levels of command that they exercised. He had lost his right arm, General Stonewall Jackson, who died following being wounded at Gettysburg.

He knew from his previous battles the heavy casualties that even a victory over the Army of the Potomac would entail deep in Northern territory and the effect that a costly victory would have on his operations, but he still took the risk. That was short sighted and diametrically opposed to the strategy that the South needed to pursue in order to gain its independence. Of course some will disagree, but I am comfortable in my assertion that it was a mistake that greatly affected the Confederacy’s only real means of securing its independence, the breaking of the will of the Union by making victory so costly that it would not be worth the cost.


Padre Steve+

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