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"R E Lee's effect on union troops morale early in the war?" Topic


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02 Sep 2017 9:09 p.m. PST
by Editor in Chief Bill

  • Changed title from "R E Lees effect on union troops morale early in the war?" to "R E Lee's effect on union troops morale early in the war?"


689 hits since 1 Sep 2017
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gamer102 Sep 2017 8:51 p.m. PST

I have seen research on both sides, some suggesting that union soldiers and officers became intimidated by Lee's reputation early in the war and that some union generals even refuse command because they had political ambitions and didn't want them damaged by being beaten in battle by lee. I think I read Grant even complained he was tired of hearing about what lee was going to do to them all the time.
On the other side, the union did fight and defeat Lee in several battles so obviously the union army from top to bottom was willing to fight him and they did win some important fights during those early "critical" years.
So….that being said does anyone know or has read one way or another if Lee did have an air of invincibility that had an actual effect on the union army and perhaps gave them a defeatist attitude before a battle actually began, from the commanders on down? Obviously later in the war Grant destroyed this myth if it did actually exist. So has anyone run across any info one way or the other? Thanks.

Dynaman878903 Sep 2017 4:31 a.m. PST

Early in the war? He was behind a desk most of the time. Personally I'd call the time he took over the CANV the start of the mid part of the war. The final part being either just after the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg or when Grant was given command of all Union armies.

ANYWAY, when Grant took command he did have to put up with talk from his Corp or Division commanders about "Lee would do this" or "Lee will put him in his place". To which Grant gave that famous line about focusing more on what he (Grant) was going to do then on what Lee was going to do. So fear of Lee was certainly a thing.

Personal logo herkybird Supporting Member of TMP03 Sep 2017 5:17 a.m. PST

A similar phenomenon occurred, of course in the western desert in WW2, with Rommel. The case for fearing the enemy general only (I think) affected the generals, and their Strategy, not so much the army as a whole. I think having a famous General in charge of a force would have a positive morale effect on the troops under his command.

rmaker03 Sep 2017 9:01 a.m. PST

Early in the war? He was behind a desk most of the time.

And when he wasn't behind a desk, he was getting chased out of West Virginia by G B. McClellan.

Ryan T03 Sep 2017 9:17 a.m. PST

If you want to explore this question in further detail I would recommend Micheal C. C. Adams, Fighting for Defeat: Union Military Failure in the East, 1861-1865, (1992). This book was first published in 1978 with the title Our Masters the Rebels: A Speculation on Union Military Failure in the East, 1861-1865. Part of Archer Jones' review in Civil War History can be seen here: link

gamer103 Sep 2017 12:49 p.m. PST

Thanks guys for the input, sorry for over simplifying the time periods but for me there was mainly two parts, the time before Gettysburg and the rest of the war after. I find both periods are very different for both sides in many ways.
Anyway, sounds like more than likely there was, atleast for a time, a period when the AoP from the commander on down had a defeatist or "well guess we will just lose this one to or maybe we will get lucky this time" attitude and just hoped the defeat wasn't that bad or if they could get a draw. Interesting.
I also agree that this was by no means the first or last example. I'm sure after awhile there were many generals and soldiers that performed worst because they were fighting the likes of Napoleon, Alexander the Great, etc, etc. Just as in sports, I remember in high school the players on our team didn't look forward or get excited about playing certain schools during football season because they always seemed to lose to them most of the time, were as some other schools that didn't have as good a program and they normally beat, many times with ease they were a lot more excited about.
Of coarse being over confident can have its own negative effects but that is getting off in the weeds some from the post. Thanks again all.

Bill N03 Sep 2017 5:31 p.m. PST

I think the soldiers in the AoP had come to the conclusion it could go toe to toe with the ANV before the army leadership did. From the end of Bull Run until Grant took command of the Union forces the prime directive for the senior leadership of the AoP was don't get beat bad enough that it puts Washington at risk. In this environment senior leadership is on the lookout for developments which might make a catastrophic defeat happen. When they saw the potential the tendency was to pull back rather than double down and fight it out.

Lee was able to exploit this. He knew he could throw his last reserves into a fight to gain an advantage, because his opponent would withdraw rather than throwing their last reserves in. Lee could maneuver his opponent back on Washington because he knew the opponent would withdraw to keep between Washington.

Personal logo gamertom Supporting Member of TMP03 Sep 2017 5:55 p.m. PST

I just finished reading "Extraordinary Circumstances" by Burton which is a description and analysis of the Seven Days Battle campaign. This is the campaign that started Lee's reputation (even though he erred several times during it). And it is obvious Burton believes McClellan defeated himself with his beliefs that he was outnumbered, Lee was using fresh troops at each battle, and warfare was about position and not bloodshed. The psychological impact of the Union's retreat from the outskirts of Richmond was larger on the Union side than the Confederate. Within 2 months this was followed up by the destruction of John Pope's forces. That's when I think fear of Lee really became strong.

gamer103 Sep 2017 10:45 p.m. PST

Thanks for that interesting info. I know that at least for awhile Lee was considered the best general on either side but as to how that "psychology" actually makes an army "underperform" were as if they were fighting a general with a much less impressive record they would have fought better, been more confident, bolder, etc.
Well, interesting to ponder anyway:)

Dynaman878904 Sep 2017 5:14 a.m. PST

What it did was make the Union generals cautious. Often thinking they had to make a grand plan to defeat Lee, usually ending up with them defeating themselves or not taking any action. Grant was the one that just decided to head south and just kick Lee's butt…

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP04 Sep 2017 7:05 a.m. PST

Hooker had a very good plan at Chancellorsville and it worked. Then he froze, and it wasn't such a good plan any more.
Fear of Lee? Most likely.

Many Union officers had Lee as a teacher at Wedt Point. I hear he was a tough grader. grin

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP04 Sep 2017 1:53 p.m. PST

I think the "cult of Lee" in the AoP high command runs from somewhere in the Seven Days through about Mine Run. Note that generals coming in from the west were not as worried by Lee, though Perhaps Pope should have been. And yes, it probably cost them a couple of wins--Antietam and the retreat after Gettysburg. Maybe Chancellorsville, though Hooker may have been concussed. People were just never sure what rabbit Lee was going to pull out of the hat.

I don't think Union soldiers in the east felt themselves to be overmatched, but they did feel themselves to be outgeneralled. I keep thinking of the Union troops surrendering at Harper's Ferry and the NCO looking at Stonewall Jackson and saying "boys, he don't look like much, but if he'd been on our side, we wouldn't be in this mess."

Probably true.

gamer104 Sep 2017 4:12 p.m. PST

Good points and info all, and I tend to agree. Bill I think you summed up the leadership problem good, and the fact some had political ambitions "after the war" probably didn't help either:) Your point reminds me of Jutland, Jellicoe, IMHO did the right thing, his main job wasn't so much to destroy the German fleet as it was to make sure the British fleet didn't get so beat up that they could not continue the blockade. To bad the newspapers didn't understand that:)
I also agree it was probably more a leadership problem then the common soldiers fault, after all there is no doubt that when properly lead on the regiment, brigade or division level more often then not union units would stand toe to toe and give as good as they got. Like I said interesting topic although I'm sure there are several threads in here on it already.

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