Did you ever walk on a balance beam when you were a kid? Confidently, you increased the speed of each step – “Mom, Dad, look at me!” And then what usually happened? Well, if you were like most kids, you fell off just as Mom looked your way.
There’s something about pride. The moment we think we’re invincible, something happens to prove we’re not. The Bible talks about this…Proverbs 16:18 – “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Now imagine you’re the commander of a large army that has really only had one major defeat in the last two years of campaigning. You have some of the most devoted soldiers on the planet and have (make that past tense – had) some of the best “take the initiative” generals in history. Meet Confederate General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg.
Road to Gettysburg
Having graduated second in his class at West Point without a demerit on his record, holding a distinguished military record from the Mexican War, superintended engineering projects and mischievous cadets, and captured a notorious radical abolitionist, Colonel Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Union army in the spring of 1861. In the end, he decided to follow his home state – Virginia – to the Confederate side and resigned his commission.
Robert Lee had strong familial ties to Virginia. The state had been the Lee Family’s home for several generations and Robert Lee’s father had been a commander for George Washington. Also, his property – inherited by marriage to Mary Custis – was on Virginia soil. But perhaps just as magnetic as his family and his home were his beliefs in the fundamental liberty of a state to control its own business with little interference from the Federal government. State’s Rights was a cornerstone of the Confederacy; it was a cornerstone in Robert Lee’s beliefs, too.
Having cast his lot with Virginia – Lee was commissioned as a Confederate general. His early assignments included a “defense” of western Virginia and overseeing the fortifications of Charleston, South Carolina. Then he became a military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and when Richmond’s defender – Joe Johnston – was wounded in 1862, Davis put Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
With his trusted generals Jackson and Longstreet, Lee swept a chain of victories for the Confederacy: Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville. By summer 1863, he was ready to make his second northern invasion, perhaps capturing Washington City and ending the war.
Plans Unravel at Gettysburg
Like his opponent – George Meade – Robert E. Lee didn’t initially intend to fight at Gettysburg. By the time Lee discovered the started battled, quite a few troops had been committed and he thought he could go ahead and sweep the roads clear and get victory. It actually worked…but Union retreated to a strong defensive position. And lack of initiative from Lee’s new subordinate commanders let opportunities slip away.
On July 2, Lee planned simultaneous attacks on both Union flanks. In the age of GPS and radios, it might have worked brilliantly, but in 1863 it devolved to uncoordinated assaults and heavy casualties.
Observing that his enemy’s flanks were strong, Lee guessed that their center was weak. It was a valid, but unconfirmed surmise. Despite the protest of General Longstreet, Lee launched a two hour artillery barraged followed by a “charge” of 15,000 men against the Union line on July 3. The guess and gamble failed.
Ever the leader, Lee tried to comfort his troops…and he prepared to retreat. There would be no capture of Washington City – no Confederate victory.
Returning to Virginia, Lee sent a letter of command resignation to President Davis who refused to accept it. Lee was the best general they had to command the Army of Northern Virginia. So Lee stayed and fought defensively through Mine Run Campaign, Overland Campaign, Petersburg Siege, and eventually surrendered at Appomattox.
In the post war years, Robert E. Lee became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. Robert E. Lee died on October 12, 1870, and was mourned throughout America.
Remember the balance beam? Remember that moment you’re “invincible”?
I think Lee was very confident – maybe overconfident, maybe “invincible” – as he approached Gettysburg. He was undoubtedly a brilliant tactician and leader. At Gettysburg, his strategies were good, but they were also flawed by lack of information and lack of follow-through by his subordinates.
There have been books written to defend Lee at Gettysburg…and there have been books written to blame him. Neither is my goal. My dad always said if you point your finger to blame, remember there are three fingers pointing back at you.
The better question is: what should we learn from General Lee at Gettysburg?
The negative: be careful of overconfidence.
The positive: when you make a mistake, take responsibility.
P.S. Your thoughts about Lee at Gettysburg?