Recently published is Michael Korda’s historical biography – Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee. The biography provides an admiring portrait 0f Lee. Korda writes Lee’s “strengths were his courage, his sense of duty, his religious belief , his military genius, his constant search to do the right, and his natural and instinctive courtesy .” After the Civil War Lee ascended the pantheon of American history as legend and admired hero but a least understood legend. Korda writes to disentangle Lee from the myth and “take the marble lid off the Lee Legend to reveal the human being beneath”. (ipad 1838) Clouds of Glory provided an interesting and stimulating read. What drew my particular attention was the Battle of Antietam and Lee’s responsibility, in Korda’s view, for what proved for the Confederacy a fateful stalemate.
The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Lee’s leadership after a succession of battles cleared Virginia of the Union Army of the Potomac. Wishing to capitalize on his success Lee crossed the Potomac River into the United States and Maryland. Lee’s bold maneuvering, however, ended with his retreat from Maryland after the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.
Throughout Korda’s biography regarding Lee’s human characteristics and military leadership are discussed. Both character and leadership suggest his responsibility for the fateful stalemate at Antietam. As a gentleman Lee did not force his will on subordinates to “avoid confrontation”. The author observes trenchantly: “A great man’s actions are indeed determined, if not foreordained, by his character – not necessarily just the faults in his character, but sometimes, even more tragically, the virtues. Lee was a gentleman, and the need to behave like a gentleman was perhaps more important to him than anything else, perhaps even victory”. Lee “possessed every quality of a great general except the ability to give a direct order to his subordinates and ensure they were obeyed.” (ipad 1536 – 37; 1225)
Lee’s motivation for invading Union territory was logistical, political, and offensive strategic. Logistically war ravaged northern Virginia needed gathering food and provisions from bountiful Pennsylvania or Maryland.. Politically a decisive Confederate victory would favor a Democratic victory in the fall elections. The war weary North might in that case be amenable to peace negotiations. Maryland as a slave state might provide recruits and provisions for the Confederate forces. Offensive strategically Lee planned to flank the enemy north of Washington making mandatory for Union forces to protect Washington. This would free Richmond, the Confederate capitol, from danger.
Federal forces of 90,000 under Maj. Gen. George B McClellan marched on Frederick outflanking Confederate forces. Forced to retreat to Sharpsburg Lee took a defensive position behind nearby Antietam Creek with the back to the Potomac. Korda discusses Lee’s fateful misreading of the situation. Concentrating forces is the first rule of warfare. Lee divided his army into thee columns and Jackson’s forces into thee columns. Operating in enemy territory communication between Confederate forces was doubtful. Lee, Korda concludes, had overconfidence in his troops. “The battle of Sharpsburg into which he had been forced was at best a costly if heroic stalemate, in which neither side could claim victory, Lee escaped by the skin of his teeth.” The retreat of Lee across the Potomac into Virginia “gave Abraham Lincoln the ‘victory’ he desired before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation — Whether Lee wished it or no, the war now no longer just about whether the Federal government had the right to coerce Virginia by armed force, as Lee saw it; the issue was slavery. He had inadvertently brought about a shift in politics that by a supreme irony, was exactly what John Brown had sought to achieve in raiding Harper’s Ferry.” (ipad 1838)
(Blog 1/3/2013 Emancipation Proclamation Sesquicentennial where I commented that the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure that freed only those slaves in Confederate areas as of Jan.1, 1863. My argument: “Paradox – Abraham Lincoln freed no slaves in the particular – but as a result freed all.”