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POLL: Joseph E. Johnston or Robert E. Lee?

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Personal logo The Tin Dictator Supporting Member of TMP writes:

I have always thought that Jackson was the best Confederate General.
Right up until he got shot by his own troops.

After that he wasn't much good.
Being dead, and all.

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Joseph E. Johnston
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Robert E. Lee
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no opinion
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KTravlos Supporting Member of TMP says:

Before I start I want to be upfront about two things

1) I am not a specialist in the ACW
2) I am biased against the Confederacy (I did go through a phase of guarded sympathy for the CSA, and have the articles to prove it, but it's long past)

That said my visit to Keensaw Mountain this year was a great chance for me to become more familiar with the Western Theater. Now I have read some stuff on the Eastern and Western Theaters, but the operations out west were more of a blur in my image of the ACW.

After a bit of reading I began to think that between J.J. Johnston and R.E. Lee, the first might had been the better general on some aspects. I am not saying Lee was a bad general, and in some aspects he was better than Johnston. I just think Johnston was the better one on average.

Let me go a bit into detail

I think Lee was a better Politician than Johnston. People might snicker at this statement, and even say I selling Lee low, but frankly in war political acumen is paramount especially for officers with Theater command. Clauzewitz and Luttwak both make that case and I buy it. Lee knew how to play the political game much better than Johnston, and even post-bellum was better at balancing his image (while Johnston, or in a more extreme form Longstreet were perceived as too unionist).

I think Lee was a better operational general than Johnston. With that I mean that he was more able to do more things with his army within a battle. Chancellorsville is indeed a work of art as an example of the operational level.

But I think Johnston was the better Theater commander. I fully consider his Georgia campaign a work of art at the theater level of analysis,considering the situation he faced (Indeed in my Military Strategy we did a comparative analysis of the Georgia and Overland campaigns and my students were more impressed by Sherman and Johnston then Lee and Grant). At his basic Lee was a army smasher. He might have been someone with extreme competence in using the indirect approach, but the operational risks he was willing to take with his army could had led to its destruction. Luck, Union command issues, and the specific character of warfare in North America meant that many of his gambles worked out, or fizzled with mild consequences, but it could had easily led to catastrophe. Lee was not John Bell Hood, but he was fundamentally someone that was willing to see his army destroyed if it could attain the objective and there are many instances in which he was willing to risk massive combat risks to attain an objective (at least that is my view). Johnston it seems to me was not like that. We can debate if that attitude is the mark of a good general or not in general. But within the specific context of the ACW I believe it was wrong.

Which brings me to my next point which is that Johnston in the end was the better at grasping and dealing with the consequences of the grand strategic situation of the Confederacy. I think both he and Lee understood, especially after 1863 that the jig was up. But I think Johnston's decision to save the army even if it meant sacrificing territory was the right one. As long as the CSA had armies in the field, the chance of a negotiated end was possible. Once those armies became destroyed, it would be an imposition. It was also the humane thing to do. Why sacrifice those boys needlessly. Lee on the other hand still sought the miracle at the operational level that would make up for the deteriorating situation at the Grand Strategic and Theater level (or at least that is how I see it). Partly this might had been due to the fact that Lee was the better politician and understood that he had to tread carefully around Richmond. But I cannot but see it as a lesser form of generalship.

Well that is my cant. And to be frank most of it is based on comparing the Overland and Atlanta Campaigns (though Antietam, the Peninsular, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville were also in my mind) So what do you think. Who was better as a general from a holistic point of view?

Poll set up by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian, based on this pre-poll discussion.