Robert E. Lee Was a Great American, but Not a Great General

October 18, 2018 Updated: October 18, 2018


President Donald Trump committed another in his long list of supposed sins that progressive America deems unpardonable last week, when he publicly declared that Robert E. Lee was a great general. Use of the word “great” to describe any American even remotely associated with the Confederacy is absolute proof of racism among many Americans today.

Based solely on martial acumen, I respectfully disagree with Trump’s assessment of Lee as a military commander. He was brave, skilled, and formidable, to be sure. His personal charisma and devotion to his troops made him a leader of the first order. It was said that Confederate troops would charge the gates of hell if Lee led the attack, and I have no doubt that was true. And, yet, Lee was flawed.

On July 3, 1863, Lee ordered 12,500 troops in nine brigades under the commands of Confederate Gens. George Pickett, Isaac Trimble, and Johnston Pettigrew to cross open ground and assault heavily fortified Union positions on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The inevitable slaughter that followed the doomed attack, popularly known today as “Pickett’s Charge,” was the death knell of the Confederacy.

Good generals make mistakes. But errors in judgement that large, errors that led to so much needless loss of life, aren’t the hallmarks of truly gifted commanders.

Failure at Gettysburg meant that starting on July 4, 1863, Lee would fight a doomed, defensive battle against the Union and, for that, he had only himself to blame. Great generals don’t risk everything on one roll of the dice. Great generals recognize when they are in danger of doing so. At Gettysburg, Lee either didn’t understand the gamble he was undertaking or he didn’t care. Either way, Gettysburg was proof that Lee—however formidable—was not a “great” general.

A Great American

While I will nitpick in granting that Lee was formidable and brilliant as a leader of men, but not quite “great” as a general, the following is undoubtedly true: Robert E. Lee was a great American. He was a great American because he did more than any American this side of Abraham Lincoln to start the slow, painful process of healing that followed the War Between the States. And, like Lincoln, he put ego and personal agendas aside in order to do so.

Lee’s behavior at the end of the Civil War qualifies him as an American hero. There can be no question of that.

At the beginning of the Civil War, virtually everyone, on both sides, recognized that Lee was the most talented American general serving in uniform—with the possible exception of the aged Winfield Scott.

Lincoln offered Lee command of Union forces, but Lee believed he owed a moral obligation to his home state of Virginia, which counted for more than whatever obligation he might have felt to the union of independent states that we call “America.”

To be perfectly clear, Lee served the Confederacy because he was a proponent of states’ rights, not because he was determined to defend the institution of slavery.

Was Lee a racist? By 21st-century standards, of course he was. He was a racist by today’s standards just as Lincoln was a racist, Grant was a racist, Sherman was a racist, et cetera.

There were a few who wouldn’t have been judged racist by 21st-century standards—abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and Anna Dickinson—but they were the exceptions that proved the rule.

The majority of Americans, both north and south, condemned people like Garrison, Truth, and Dickinson as dangerous fanatics. It was a different time.

Lee wasn’t going to alter the attitude that his fair-skinned fellow citizens displayed when dealing with people of red, yellow, brown or ebony tones. He knew that. But, he also knew that if the Confederacy were to lose the War Between the States, the manner of its loss was enormously important.

A Losing Battle

In the spring of 1865, it became increasingly clear that the Confederacy was doomed. Grant and Sherman had finally unleashed the full weight of Northern power. There was no way that the South could survive the body blows the pair inflicted. What to do?

Many of Lee’s subordinates urged the general to break up the Army of Northern Virginia. Shouldn’t he order them to take cover in the hills and mountains of the Appalachian chain? Shouldn’t he direct them to harass Union troops as guerrilla warriors for years to come? The Union forces were occupiers, were they not?

Further resistance by unconventional, irregular forces was clearly justified in the minds of the hard-core rebels. All that was needed was for an honorable, charismatic, southern leader to sound the charge. Millions of southerners would have responded. But, only one Confederate citizen alive in 1865 could have effectively encouraged continued southern resistance: Robert E. Lee.

But for Lee, the end of the American Civil War might have thus led to the sort of long-term unrest and sectarian violence that scarred Northern Ireland, the Kandahar, and Afghanistan for so long.

Before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, he famously declared that he would gladly “suffer a thousand deaths” rather than submit to his opponent. Yet, Lee didn’t allow his personal feelings of failure to bleed into what he believed what was best for his country and what was best for the citizens of that country who looked up to him.

In his final message to his troops, Lee urged the soldiers who had served him so well, so bravely, and so honorably to return to their homes and once again assume the role of peaceful, hard-working American citizens. It was a noble gesture that had tremendous effect.

It was the first tentative, but all so important, step on the road to healing the divisions among us, following the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Every American owes a debt of gratitude to Lee for making the right choice at the end of the war. That, more than anything he did on the battlefield, makes him a great American.

Richard J. Trzupek is a chemist and environmental consultant as well as an analyst at the Heartland Institute. He is also the author of “Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.