Bevin Alexander’s “How Great Generals Win” was an intellectual watershed in my life. By applying the wisdom of Sun Tzu to famous Generals throughout history Alexander makes clear that battlefield wisdom is based in practical reason not passion. War is a contest of mind not muscle. His list of who counts as a truly great General is both iconic and at the same time iconoclastic, bolstering the reputation of universally acknowledged geniuses like Scipio Africanus and Napoleon but also busting many myths along the way.
Sadly one of those busted myths was the greatest symbol of southern resistance next to the Bonnie Blue flag itself. Alexander completely changed my perspective on General Robert E. Lee, and it was not a favorable change. For years afterwards I was fond of shocking folks by saying that I thought Lee was a terrible general. It’s amazing how many outside of the south buy into Lee’s mythology, at least the martial aspect. A mythology that I came to believe was entirely a sham.
My reasoning for Lee’s inferiority was simple and straightforward. One of the greatest war fallacies is a frontal assault on a defensive position. Lee did this all the time. He was reckless in battle failing time and again to show that better part of valor: discretion. Under normal conditions this would have been devastating to any army but ultimately Lee’s brutal offensive methodology lost the war to the tyrant who need not always be named. For Lee skeptics (of which there are many varieties) his ultimate folly of course comes at Gettysburg when he ordered almost a dozen brigades to march a mile under fire against a defensive position. From this perspective it’s simple arithmetic that dooms his legacy. The soldiers of the Tyrant suffered relatively normal casualties in the engagement, about 1/10. But tragically when all was said and done almost half of the men Lee sent out that day were killed or wounded.
Just to be clear that’s about 10% casualties to 50%, aka utter devastation. And famously Longstreet was against it. Some even blame Longstreet’s hesitancy and failure to execute on that fateful day with the tragic defeat. But it was a plan conceived in folly, no matter the execution it was doomed to fail. The miracle is that the Tyrant’s lines were broken at all that day. The infamous Bloody Angle is one of the most amazing feats of daring in United States martial history. Those lines should not have broken, and it was only because true Patriots of the Old Dominion marched upon it that they were…however briefly.
The Gettysburg film captures the tragedy of Lee’s folly perfectly when Martin Sheen confronts a confounded Picket (brilliantly played by Stephen Lang) who is wandering alone making his way off the battlefield. With great concern Lee says to Pickett “General, you must look to your division.” Then with unbearable shock and sadness Pickett responds “General Lee… I have no division.”
I have NO division.
Great Generals do not attack defensive positions with frontal assaults. It is folly. And so for years I thought that Lee was a fool. A total failure as a general and solely responsible for the Tyrant’s victory over Dixie.
When I watched Gettysburg as a child it was hard not to be swept up in the tragic romance of the whole thing. After all Lincoln’s War is the closest thing America has to an Iliad. It wasn’t really until I read Bevin Alexander that I understood just how devastating war was because most generals are truly awful. The NeoCon indoctrination program teaches us that wars are glorious and inevitable. This is especially true of Lincoln’s War. The Myth of the Righteous Cause is always draped in eschatological patriotism. But the wisdom of Sun Tzu washes away all the romance of war focusing on the truly essential and for a long time General Lee had been washed away for me as well in the ice cold waters of rational sobriety. The man so many Americans revered for his martial prowess had become my ultimate symbol of a false idol…maybe not as ultimate as the Tyrant himself but close. How could Lee have been so foolish? And not just at Gettysburg. He repeatedly made this same mistake throughout the war. Did he not realize that rifling had made the weapons both sides used twice as deadly? The horrific casualty ratios became an unforgivable blemish on his myth.
And to add insult to Southern injury Alexander rightly includes Sherman in his pantheon of great generals. Lee and Sherman are polar opposites in every way. Sherman was a horrible segregationist that pioneered total war whereas Lee was a conflicted but mostly benevolent slave owner who brought gentlemanly grace to the battlefield. But more importantly their tactics were also polar opposites. Sherman only engaged in a full on frontal assault once: the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. According to Alexander, one of the reasons he did this was that he had never done it before. His tactics in Georgia had been as near to perfect from a Sun Tzuian perspective as any General is capable. He always avoided the enemies strengths while exploiting their weaknesses, flanked and forced enemy withdrawal with as little energy expended as possible. But he thought that the utter surprise of his tactical change at Kennesaw would win him the day. The Gray did withdraw but at great cost to Sherman’s men. It was a tactical error and, to my knowledge, he never made the mistake again.
Yes those of us who love the South justly hate Sherman for being the Tyrant’s greatest stooge. He should’ve been strung up as a war criminal regardless of which side won. But facts are facts and the fact is that he was a brilliant tactician.
But recently my mind changed concerning Lee. This change came from an unlikely place: the Great Courses. You see there’s an entire great Course dedicated just to General Lee and his high command. It is an absolutely essential listen for any student of Lincoln’s War and the South. The instructor is Gary Gallagher and he does not paint a rosy picture of Lee, Jackson, Jeb and the others but he also doesn’t tear them down. Professor Gallagher portrays them with utmost accuracy taking pains to bust myths along the way. And he convinced me that I had completely misunderstood General Lee.
Tactically Alexander’s deconstruction of Lee is sound. He was recklessly offensive and made numerous mistakes from a purely theoretical perspective. But that’s the problem. Lee wasn’t fighting a theoretical war. Lee was fighting a holistic war and the choices he made impact all of us lost causers down to this day.
What Lee did on the battlefield was always intentional. He wasn’t a fanatic who believed that the South was invincible and he wasn’t a fool who didn’t realize how much more dangerous rifles were from smooth bore muskets. He fought in the Mexican war with basically the same martial technology. He knew how it worked. He was reckless for a reason. He understood the politics and the psychology of the great struggle better than any of us could possibly imagine. He understood how razor thin the chances of success were and that his approach was the only way the South had any chance of emerging victorious.
Every Southerner needs to read this little book called “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger. His conclusions are unfortunately a sort of soft nationalism along Roussean lines, but the story he tells about what war does to people is surprising and profound. During the blitz in London all the elites and leaders assumed that the city would go mad. They assumed it would be utter anarchy. But it wasn’t in fact it was the opposite. With demons in the air Londoners became angels on the ground. Mental and emotional health improved. Everyone got along. No one acted out of individualism or selfishness because they understood that there was a War on. The National Socialists turned London into an exemplification of the Golden rule. The luftwaffe turned them into a tribe.
In fact morale was so great that the allies were absolutely terrified of what it would be like to invade Europe. The same psychological rules should apply. They weren’t wrong. The closer they got to the lion’s den the fiercer the fighting.
I believe that General Lee understood this. He understood that everything was stacked against the South with one exception: they were fighting for home. And he used that one advantage as much as possible. He formed the South into a tribe.
High casualty rates did not destroy Southern resolve, it strengthened it. They knew they were fighting for hearth and home. They were fighting for something real whereas the Tyrant was fighting for the imaginary eternal union, centralization, and money. The North was not fighting for anything except their tyrant. Lee understood that he needed to simply fight the tyrant to a stand still to win. And since the North had nothing to fight for and the South had everything to fight for that meant making the battles as bloody as possible. They must be more aggressive than their foe to win. They needed to be build Southern resolve throughout the society and all eyes were on the Army of Northern Virginia. His tactics were political and long term. His tactics were designed to exhaust northern resolve and strengthen southern morale.
And the proof is ultimately in the pudding, the lost cause pudding that is. TS Eliot famously said:
“If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.”
I take this to mean that eschatological causes are false. Nothing is resolved until the Lord returns to earth and the final restoration begins. Until then we labor for causes and none of our causes are completely lost or entirely won. That’s the real myth about the lost cause: the cause was never lost. Lee fought a brutal war without ever succumbing to Sherman’s barbarism. When it became clear that they had lost he could have started a Guerrilla campaign that would’ve lasted for God knows how long. But he chose to trust providence instead knowing that defeat is always what we make of it, that no cause is ever truly lost unless we lose ourselves.
And this is the truest brilliance of Lee as a General. He still gives us reason to fight not just for the South but against the cult of the tyrant (Lincoln or otherwise). He gives us reason to fight for our black brothers and sisters because he stood up to those who would ship them back or recolonization them elsewhere. He reminds us that there is dignity in the struggle itself, that self defense is the only just cause for war, and that the cause is not lost because we’re still here keeping it alive.
But most importantly he reminds us that humans are at their biggest when they are small, when they realize and embrace that only God is God and none of us truly understands what is coming down the road. These words of Lee cannot be quoted enough:
“My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them, nor indisposed me to serve them; nor, in spite of failures, which I lament, of errors, which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present state of affairs, do I despair of the future. The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient, the work of progress is so immense, and our means of aiding it so feeble, the life of humanity is so long, and that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave, and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”
And it is still General Lee that teaches us to hope.