Robert E. Lee was not a great general; he is honored only because he fought for white supremacy and honoring him filled a national felt need to provide a "heritage" for Jim Crow.

All of the Generals were people, first and foremost. This was a human conflict, and humans if nothing else are flawed - we make mistakes. US Grant was not so well praised after Shiloh, remember, when he let his forces be marched on almost unawares by a large secessionist force. In fact at times in this phase of the war and those following until the habitual failure of the US commanders to meet their political aims depleted most of the viable leadership options it may seem he was lucky to have remained in the Army.

I am not a historian nor an expert, but if Johnston had remained unhurt and held command of the secessionist forces there is no reason to expect that Richmond would not have been successfully besieged and maybe eventually taken by McClellan. It is by doing the unexpected and splitting his forces, something Johnston never was willing to do, that Lee was able to throw back the immediate threat to a central area of the confederacy. Yes of course, both commander's hold responsibility for how the campaign progressed including the many failures on both sides. Of these the US failure to take advantage of their initiative is key (or to even believe they had the initiative), and Lee's poorly synchronized army undertaking complicated maneuvers against an overwhelming force is the least of. What was it Napoleon said about maneuvering?

Long story short - as others have touched on - this was a period of the war when the fate of electoral/political pressure in the north and foreign intervention from Europe was widely unknown. All Secessionists knew was if they suffered defeat now, there was no chance for them to succeed. For good or for worse, they were not defeated and the conflict instead of rolling back only began to heat up.

Through the looking glass of history we know they only prolonged and even increased the hardship. At the time it was the peak of Valor and both sides paid the human price for that. If any blame is to be laid at Lee I feel it is that his success lead to the hottest part of the conflict that would eventually consume the largest share of lives and resources.

The political reasons for the secession and of the war are pretty well documented. But I don't think that once the struggle began in earnest and the irons of war were white hot that anything mattered beyond the struggle for survival and independence. To suggest anything less seems to undermine the history of this great conflict of people. The rest was politics. And Lincoln would have ended it with or without slavery.

/r/USCivilWar Thread