No general in U.S. history was defeated as unequivocally and as totally as Lee. For all his supposed strategic skill, his army was entirely destroyed. One-quarter of those who served under him were killed, and an additional half were wounded or captured.
He was a traitor to the United States who killed more U.S. soldiers than any other enemy in the nation’s history, for the supremely evil cause of slavery. To boot, he was a cruel enslaver and a promoter of white supremacy until his death.
It is ridiculous that, in the year 2021, these simple truths are in dispute. But here we are.
As the massive statue of Lee and his horse finally came down this week from its pedestal in Richmond, former president Donald Trump, the unquestioned leader of the Republican Party, penned an impassioned defense of the Confederate commander. It was ugly in its embrace of the themes that have powered white supremacists for generations. It was also fake history.
“Robert E. Lee is considered by many Generals to be the greatest strategist of them all,” Trump wrote. “President Lincoln wanted him to command the North, in which case the war would have been over in one day. Robert E. Lee instead chose the other side because of his great love of Virginia, and except for Gettysburg, would have won the war. He should be remembered as perhaps the greatest unifying force after the war was over . . .
“If only we had Robert E. Lee to command our troops in Afghanistan, that disaster would have ended in a complete and total victory many years ago. What an embarrassment we are suffering because we don’t have the genius of a Robert E. Lee!”
For a point-by-point grading of Trump’s history paper, I checked in with Ty Seidule, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and military historian who is the former head of the U.S. Military Academy history department. Now at Hamilton College, he’s the author of “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning With the Myth of the Lost Cause.”
Greatest strategist of all? “Well, he’s a loser,” Seidule responded. “He wasn’t just defeated; his army was destroyed. The idea that he’s the greatest strategist of all is just ludicrous.”
War would have been over in a day? If it had, Seidule argued, then slavery may have survived. Emancipation wasn’t U.S. policy until 1863. “So the fact that Lee was able to keep the war going as long as it did helped add to the eventual destruction of that which he fought for.”
Lee chose the Confederacy because of his great love of Virginia? Seidule said Lee was one of eight U.S. Army colonels from Virginia at the time of secession in 1861. The other seven remained loyal to the United States—as did Virginian Winfield Scott, the U.S. Army’s commander, and 80% of all colonels from the South. “Lee’s the outlier,” Seidule said. That may be because at that level of Army officers “no one benefited from slavery more than he did.” Lee ran an enslaved-labor farm—a plantation—from 1857 to 1860. He wasn’t even a resident of Virginia for most of his prewar life; Alexandria, his hometown, was part of the District of Columbia until 1847.
Would have won but for Gettysburg? The day after Gettysburg, Ulysses S. Grant triumphed at Vicksburg, giving the U.S. Army control of the Mississippi River and splitting the Confederacy. Lee’s army couldn’t function without thousands of enslaved people working as servants or in factories and on farms, and after Vicksburg, Seidule said, “they lose all that enslaved labor” as the U.S. Army pushed into the South.
Greatest unifying force after the war? Grant called Lee’s actions “forced acquiescence” that was “grudging and pernicious.” Though more conciliatory than others, Lee testified to Congress in 1866 that Black residents “cannot vote intelligently” and that “it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them.” In 1868, Lee joined in issuing the White Sulphur Springs manifesto, which argued that Black people had “neither the intelligence nor the qualifications . . . for political power.” Argued Seidule: “His idea of reconciliation is only if the White South is given complete political control over Black people.”
Afghanistan would have been a total victory under the “genius” Lee? If the U.S. military had suffered the same casualty rate in Afghanistan that Lee’s army did, 200,000 American troops would have been killed, not the actual 2,400. Some 400,000 would have been injured or captured instead of 20,000 injured.
“No one has lost more completely in American history than Robert E. Lee,” Seidule said. “There is no general that has been more crushed, more defeated, at the strategic, tactical, operational level. . . . How much genius does it take to lose absolutely and completely?”