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The truth about Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee: He wasn’t very good at his job

Gen. Robert E. Lee on his horse, Traveler, surrounded by his officers. (AP)

In the June 1969 issue of Civil War History — Volume 5, Number 2, pages 116-132 — a renowned Southern historian attacked the legacy of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“No single war figure stands in greater need of reevaluation than Lee,” wrote Thomas L. Connelly, the late University of South Carolina professor. “One ponders whether the South may not have fared better had it possessed no Robert E. Lee.”

Connelly’s essay was among the first academic musket shots fired on Lee’s standing as an outmatched but not outwitted military genius presiding over a Lost Cause — a reputation celebrated in fawning biographies and monuments like the ones removed earlier this year in New Orleans, Baltimore and other cities across the country. Even the mayor of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, is mulling what to do about its huge statue of Lee and other Confederate heroes on its iconic Monument Avenue.

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But nowhere has the fight over Lee’s image been more contentious than Charlottesville, where an August 2017 a “Unite the Right” rally by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members ended in violence and the death of a counterprotester. The city was trying to remove its Robert E. Lee statue.

On Friday, President Trump called Lee “a great general” while defending his comments after the violence in Charlottesville in 2017. He said something similar — that Lee was a “true great fighter” and a “great general” — at a rally in October 2018.

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Though Lee remains an important, powerful symbol in the South, his reputation among scholars has evolved to the point that many either question or outright ridicule his stature as a battlefield savant.

To Edward Bonekemper III, the author of “How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War” and several other books on the war, Lee is not the humble, proud battlefield loser presented by documentarian Ken Burns and other popular works of history, but a bumbling strategist and the central character in “the most successful propaganda campaign in American history.”

He’s talking about the Lost Cause — or as he titled a recent book, “The Myth of the Lost Cause.”

The tenets of the Lost Cause are that slavery was already dying before the war, that states’ rights were really the issue anyway, that the South did the best it could against a powerful killing machine (an early version of a participation trophy), and that Lee’s subordinates (especially James Longstreet) bungled the war, most notably the Battle of Gettysburg.

“A big part of this myth is the adulation of Robert E. Lee,” Bonekemper said in an interview. “He has gotten a lot of really good press.”

That began, Bonekemper and other historians have written, shortly after the war ended.

The narratives of war are usually shaped by the winning side, but after Lee surrendered, the North got on with life and rebuilding the economy. Meanwhile, prominent Southerners set out on a spin offensive, forming the Southern Historical Society, which published hundreds of papers telling its side of the war and shaping its history.

Lee was elevated to the highest status possible — Southern Savior.

“The white light that falls directly upon him,” one booster wrote, was “from the smile of an approving and sustaining God.” One of his former officers wrote, “The Divinity in [Lee’s] bosom shone translucent through the man and his spirit rose up to the Godlike.”

One can’t do much better than that, bosom and all.

It would take decades of academic hand-to-hand combat to unravel the myth.

Connelly’s 1969 essay, which among other things criticized Lee’s obsession with defending his home state of Virginia at all costs, was met almost immediately with scorn. In the next issue of Civil War History, historian Albert Castel wrote that “Connelly set out to do a job on Bobby Lee.”

But Connelly was not alone in his critique. Other historians began piling on.

Lee, they wrote, mishandled overall strategy of the war. Outmanned, Lee should have taken a more defensive posture, drawing the North into difficult Southern terrain. Instead, he was constantly on the offensive, which resulted in heavy casualties and broken spirits.

“All the Confederacy needed was a stalemate, which would confirm its existence as a separate country,” Bonekemper wrote. “The burden was on the North to defeat the Confederacy and compel the return of the eleven wayward states to the Union.”

Historian James McPherson put it this way: “The South could ‘win’ the war by not losing.” However, “the North could win only by winning.”

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The noted military scholar Russell Weigley compared Lee — unfavorably — to Napoleon in his landmark 1973 book, “The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy.”

“Like Napoleon himself, with his passion for the strategy of annihilation and the climactic, decisive battle as its expression, he destroyed in the end not the enemy armies, but his own,” Weigley wrote.

Lee’s ineptitude was most damaging at Gettysburg.

On the third day of battle, in what became known as Pickett’s Charge, Lee ordered his troops across an open field, subjecting them to heavy fire. Lee did this against the advice of his subordinates. The rebels suffered more than 6,000 casualties.

Lee apologists blamed Longstreet’s execution of the attack, which many historians and military strategists now find laughable.

In a 2006 briefing paper, the Center for Technology and National Security Policy — a Department of Defense research center — called Lee’s effort at Gettysburg a “blunder” that “doomed the hopes of the Confederate States of America.”

The attack was poorly planned. Lee continued even as the battlefield scene suggested he shouldn’t — information he either didn’t seek out or ignored.

“Rapid adaptive decision-making might have saved Lee’s army,” the briefing paper argued.

“The ultimate lesson for the U.S. military is that it is not enough to have battle-wise decision-makers; they must be more battle-wise than their enemies.”

Bonekemper has been speaking across the country — including in the South — about Lee’s faults and the Lost Cause myth for more than 20 years.

Early on, he faced a lot of resistance to his conclusions.

“Now people don’t get nearly as emotional as they used to,” he said. “They are more open to hearing that there is another side to the story.”

Monuments fall. So do their legends.

This post has been updated. Gabriel Pogrund contributed to this report. 

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