Saturday, September 20, 2014

Robert E. Lee is the most shameful American of all time

Note: This post was written in response to a discussion on the Quora website, where participants elected Andrew Jackson the most shameful American of all-time. I disagree.]

Robert E. Lee was the most shameful American. The Civil War was started in South Carolina. The slave owners who desired the war mostly resided in the deep south, where cotton was grown. At the time of the war (1860), Virginia no longer had a serious slave economy.

Virginia is filled with remembrances of the Lee family, who undoubtedly helped found the United States and win the war of Independence. Robert E. Lee was born into this family of great fame and wealth. He attended West Point, where he was trained to be an officer in the United States Army. He took a solemn oath to preserve, protect, and defend the United States.

Lee broke that oath. He joined the Confederacy and led the Army of Northern Virginia for 5 years. His army slaughtered hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who came to fight against him. In return, his soldiers died by the hundreds of thousands in a brutal bloodbath for which Lee alone was responsible.

When the southern states began to secede, President Lincoln asked Lee to lead the Union Army. Lee was the best general officer in the army and was duty bound to accept the offer of his Commander In Chief, President Lincoln.

If Lee had accepted the leadership of the Union Army, the Confederacy would have had no general who could take his place. Every other Confederate Army was defeated by 1863. The Battle of Vicksburg, which ended the war in the West, was won on the same day that Lee lost the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee could have surrendered at that time and saved the country, his country, and Virginia from 2 more years of pointless slaughter. But Lee fought on.

Although Lee has enjoyed a great reputation as a general, in one aspect at least he was greatly deficient. He fought his battles using Napoleonic tactics, for he had learned in school that massed infantry charges should be employed against massed artillery. 

The Napoleonic wars ended in 1815. The United States Civil War began 45 years later. During those 45 years, technical improvements in rifles and cannon had rendered the earlier tactics obsolete, even inhuman. In particular, rifles carried by infantrymen during the Civil War were far more accurate than they had been 50 years earlier. 

A musket fired during the battle of Waterloo was only accurate at a distance of 35 to 50 yards. In addition, the smoke created by firing muskets so obscured the battlefield that little could be seen beyond a few feet. This made the bayonet, which was attached to the end of the rifle, as important as the bullets fired from the rifle.

By the time of the Civil War, muskets had been replaced by rifled muskets, which had grooves inside the barrels that gave them superior accuracy. Accuracy was improved for both hand-held rifles and cannon. A rifled musket was accurate up to 200-300 yards. In the hands of an expert, it was accurate at 500 yards. 

A rifled cannon was accurate up to a mile. A Confederate soldier at the battle of Atlanta reported that a 3-inch cannon, made from wrought iron, could hit the top of a flour barrel at any distance up to a mile. The deadliest projectiles fired by cannon were canisters filled with shot and accurate up to 400 yards.

As a General who had experienced many such battles, Lee knew the deadly accuracy of the modern arsenal. Yet he persisted in ordering his soldiers to attack entrenched enemies in massed groups, as prescribed in the old manuals he had studied at West Point. 

Lee's reluctance to change tactics led most famously to Pickett's charge at the battle of Gettysburg (1863), where Lee ordered 15,000 infantrymen to charge at the center of the Union lines. The soldiers had to cross 3/4 of a mile of open fields and broken ground.

Pickett's charge was caught in a crossfire of musketry and cannon. On that one afternoon, 5,000 Confederate soldiers died without gaining a single inch of enemy ground. 

Brigadier General Longstreet had warned Lee several times that morning and in the previous days that the charge would fail. Lee persisted.

Longstreet, it turned out, had been right. The extent of the slaughter caught everyone by surprise, though. The Confederate soldiers, when they fought through to the stone wall which sheltered the Union soldiers, turned around, expecting to see battalions of men behind them. But no one was there. The isolated vanguard either surrendered or were killed where they stood.

The deaths of the men who followed his orders should have weighed heavily on Lee, but in his reports of the battle he mostly blamed others.

Obviously others had responsibility for the secession of the Southern states. But without Lee the war might have been over in a few weeks, because there was no general officer even close to him in skill, experience, and military talent. So Lee must bear major responsibility for all the people who died in the war, which amounted to between 850,000 and 1,100,000 people.

All of this death and destruction should be enough to make Robert E. Lee the most shameful American, but one fact alone carries more shame than all the others: Lee had taken an oath of allegiance to the American flag. When he arrayed his troops against it, he became a traitor to his country.

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