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Seminar and Book Review - How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War, by Edward Bonekemper III

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 9

Given the wisdom of hindsight, lawyer, author, and lecturer Edward Bonekemper captivated a Smithsonian audience as he laid out his reasoned and well-researched position that Robert E. Lee had indeed lost the Civil War for the Confederacy.

While he never criticized Lee's integrity or skill at motivating his men, he did take him to task for a number of perceived oversights as leader of the Confederate military during the Civil War. He summarized them as follows:

1. Lee took great risks with his forces seeking to achieve a major victory. He believed this would bring considerable European support to the Confederacy, and thus enable it to win the war.

2. Lee's dynamic and aggressive strategy unduly depleted his limited resources in men and materiel in the face of the Union's considerably superior quantities of both.

3. In terms of vision and strategy, Lee placed Virginia ahead of the Confederacy, causing missed opportunities for wins in the west.

4. Lee's staff was too small. When preparing for battle he placed his troops well, gave good orders, but rather than follow up and revise orders to meet changing circumstances, he tended to leave the results to divine providence.

5. Lee failed to recognize the need to adjust outdated tactics to effectively counter the extensive use of rifles and minie balls. These modern rifles increased the effective range of the ordinary soldier's shoulder weapon--from a smooth bore's 50 yards to something like 700 yards. And, Lee still used the massed charge against entrenched troops, rather than maneuver into a defensible position from which to force the enemy to initiate attack.

It is Bonekemper's contention that, given the Confederacy's limited men and resources, Lee should have adopted a defensive strategy. This would then have forced the Union to invade the South where Lee could, by waging a guerrilla campaign, wear away the Union will to fight, foreshadowing what happened to the US during the Vietnam War one hundred years later.

Who is to say which would have been the more successful strategy? Robert E. Lee was certainly a great general and a leader of men. And, he was the man who had to make the tough decisions, basing those decisions on far less information than we have today. This was a thought provoking presentation that will, no doubt, continue to feed the flames of serious debate about the icon of the Confederacy, General Robert E. Lee.

Special thanks to Everett Ladd for this review. Everett and his wife Antigoni are knowledgeable about many things, but especially about how leaders impact history. They are the proprietors of Tigrett Corp., in Arlington, Virginia, which provides today's businesses with "Leadership Workshops Using History's Finest Role Models." They may be contacted at