Lee and Guerrilla Warfare

TurningPoints-logoTwo days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, a council of officers in what was left of the bedraggled Army of Northern Virginia hashed out three possible options for Robert E. Lee to consider. General John Brown Gordon, who was not present at the meeting but who heard about it later, said that the first option was “To disband and allow the troops to get away as best they could, and reform at some designated point.” In other words, Lee could later rendezvous with the remains of his army and then try to drag out the conflict indefinitely, perhaps through guerilla warfare, with the aim of wearing down the Northern will to carry on. In fact, this would be the very strategy Southern resistance would adopt during Reconstruction, eventually wearing down the will of the North to support continued occupation of the South. 

According to Gordon, though, in early April 1865, “This was abandoned because a dispersion over the country would be a dreadful infliction upon our impoverished people, and because it was most improbable that all the men would reach the rallying-point.”

Apparently no one from the weary group of officers dared bring the idea forward to Lee, but artillerist Edward Porter Alexander gave voice to the same idea on the morning of April 9. “We must either surrender,” Alexander told Lee, “or the army may be ordered to scatter in the woods & bushes & either to rally upon Gen. Johnston in North Carolina, or to make their own way, each man to his own state, with his arms, & to report to his governor. This last course is the one which seems to me to offer us much the best chances.”

“Well, what would you hope to accomplish by that?” Lee asked.

“If there is any hope for the Confederacy it is in delay,” Alexander replied, hoping for foreign recognition or northern frustration to somehow end the hostilities.

Lee demurred. His men, with no rations and under no discipline, “would have to plunder & rob to procure subsistence,” he said. “The country would be full of lawless bands in every part, & a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover.

As a soldier and an officer, Lee had determined to win or lose the question of independence not just through armed conflict but, specifically, on the battlefield. “[A]s for myself,” Lee told Alexander, “while you young men might afford to go to bushwacking, the only proper & dignified course for me would be to surrender myself & take the consequences of my actions.”

These exchanges have given birth, over the past 150 years, to the idea that Lee considered the possibility of a guerrilla war of some sort rather than outright surrender. To read Alexander’s account—which can be found on pp. 530-533 of his memoir Fighting for the Confederacy—Lee doesn’t seem to consider the idea at all, dismissing it casually and instantly.

Does that make his decision a kind of turning point—one nearly invisible to us because his choice really seemed like no choice at all? And because it led so quickly to the ending so well known to us?

As it happens, two of Emerging Civil War’s historians formerly worked at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, so I posed the question to them. Was Lee’s dismissal of guerrilla warfare a turning point of sorts?

Bert Dunkerly:

Lee the soldier knew that a guerrilla war was not sustainable. If his army moved west to fight unconventionally, how would he sustain it? With no base of supply or an infrastructure supporting it, how would they obtain food, medicine, and ammunition? Successful guerrilla operations often depend on outside support, as Washington knew well from the Revolution with his army’s invaluable support from the French. The North Vietnamese support from China is another, more recent example.

More importantly, however, a guerrilla war would not obtain the result Lee or anyone in the Confederacy wanted: independence. Washington certainly knew this very well. Without any of the trappings of an independent nation: a capital, a currency, a government, an established military, and most importantly, territory, such a struggle would not deliver independence. A guerrilla force fighting without those elements, without “Respectability,” as George Washington once wrote, would lack legitimacy.

Dan Davis:

On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union armies under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Questions still abound regarding Lee breaking up the army to engage in guerrilla warfare and continue the conflict. To a certain degree, this option was certainly feasible for Lee; however, it was not likely to be sustainable.

Despite the fact that his army was surrounded the morning of its capitulation, elements from Lee’s cavalry corps had successfully slipped through the Federal vice and headed for the city of Lynchburg. This movement showed that small pockets of Confederate soldiers could evade capture to rendezvous at a pre-determined location. Elements from other Confederate armies were able to accomplish similar feats in the following weeks and months.

Should Lee haven taken this route and been successful, though, he would have other factors to consider—chiefly that of logistics.

One of Lee’s main concerns during the retreat from Richmond and Petersburg was the ability to supply his army. Had Lee ordered his small force to disperse, the issue of supply would have remained. Much of Virginia, and the Confederacy for that matter, had been devastated by the Union war effort. The means of subsistence for an army, even one relatively small in number, was difficult to procure.

Another element necessary for the successful operation of a guerilla effort is the support of the local population. It is difficult to determine if the Southern people, after four years of death and destruction, would have been willing to support such an endeavor.

Perhaps, however, asking such questions are moot. Guerrilla warfare simply was not in Lee’s DNA.

Lee was a strong admirer of and follower of the precepts of George Washington. Like Washington, Lee was bound by his honor and duty to do the right thing for the men in his charge. Two days prior to the surrender, in correspondence with Grant, Lee had expressed his “desire to avoid the useless effusion of blood.” Lee understood that any further combat, especially guerrilla-type warfare, would be devastating not only to the soldiers, but to the civilians as well. The morning that Lee met Grant in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house, he commented to his aide, Walter Taylor, that such actions would be “cruel.”

Much to Lee’s credit, he made a decision that set in motion a series of events that brought about the end of one of the worst conflicts in the history of the United States.

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15 Responses to Lee and Guerrilla Warfare

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  2. Douglas Pauly says:

    It stands to reason that Lee ‘would consider it’. But what does ‘consider it’ mean here? His subordinates were evaluating the situation and offering alternatives as they saw them. He listened to them. He explained why that option was not an appetizing one, for him or the country. I don’t think it was so much a matter of Lee ‘considering’ the option of guerilla warfare as it was the opportunity to reject it. He heard his men out, and that was that.

    • I’m intrigued by the moment because it’s nearly invisible because of the choice Lee *didn’t* make. It *could* have been a turning point–although to explore it too deeply gets into the sticky realm of “what if…?” Instead, Lee let the situation play out to what he saw as its inevitable end, which helps makes the ending seem inevitable to us, too. But it *could’ve* gotten ugly….

      • Douglas Pauly says:

        Agreed Chris. I think that as it all ‘played out’, Lee showed he was an honorable man doing the honorable thing. After 4 years of horrible bloodshed, enough was enough. He saw it was time to move on, and he was not going to put his ‘stamp’ on further mayhem. They (the Confederacy) had given it their best shot, and they had lost.

      • Chris Kolakowski says:

        Agreed. It shows both the leader’s influence but also that nothing in history was preordained to work out as it did.

  3. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Agreed ^. I’d also add that it showed Lee’s vision – he understood that war’s end was also peace’s beginning, and the healing started right here at Appomattox. He knew the game was up, and prolonging the Confederacy’s life in guerrilla war would be highly destructive and likely to still produce the same result as if he capitulated the army. Emotionally he may have wanted to fight on, but rationally, he knew the best choice was to face Grant.

    • Although, to some extent, I think the way Reconstruction played out vindicated the idea that prolonged guerrilla-style resistance would wear down the Northern will.

      • Chris Kolakowski says:

        True. But I’m not sure how visible that was on April 9, 1865.

      • Chris, I’m sure it wasn’t visible at all. It’s only one of those “lenses of hindsight” things that even got me thinking about it. I do think one could look at the guerrilla warfare in Missouri as a better example of a contemporaneous view that Lee’s subordinates might’ve been able to consider, although even then, I wonder how good the “view” of Missouri would’ve been from Virginia at that late stage of the war.

    • Douglas Pauly says:

      Well stated…

  4. Bob Ruth says:

    Sorry to disagree, but using the eventual failure of Reconstruction as evidence that guerrilla warfare might have succeeded in bringing about an independent South is just plain wrong for a number of reasons:

    1) To the vast majority of Northerners, the main goal of the Civil War was the preservation of the nation as a single entity. This goal was worth the terrible cost in men and treasure. Defeating guerrillas who continued to threaten the nation’s very existence would have still been worth the cost.

    2) The main goal of Reconstruction was to better the lives of black ex-slaves. This goal was not worth the cost to most Northerners. The failure of Reconstruction did not threaten the very existence of the nation like guerrilla warfare would have.

    3) Mountainous regions provide some of the best places for guerrillas to hide. Yet most mountainous regions of the South were pro-Union, i.e. eastern Tenn., western NC, northern Ala., etc. Guerrillas can’t exist without support from the local population.

    4) Lee knew a guerrilla war would have further destroyed the South. Think of what Japan and Germany looked like after WWII and you’ll get some idea of what the South would have looked like, if guerrilla tactics had been used to continue the war. James Wilson’s devastating and destructive cavalry raid through the deep South in the waning days of the war was just a harbinger of what was in store for the South. Grant had planned further cavalry raids, if the war continued. Lee’s decision to surrender at Appomattox was not brave and visionary. He had no choice. His army – and the South – were beaten.

    • Nothing to necessarily disagree with, Bob–I was musing, not stating categorically that the two were equitable. However, I do think some of your counter-arguments are flawed. Defeating guerrillas might have been worth prolonged time and treasure, but protracted combat with no discernible progress eventually creates war-weariness (look at Reconstruction and, more recently, Vietnam). You’re right that the mountains provide the best cover–but not the only cover, as Mosby demonstrated in northern Virginia, where he had support from the local citizenry. The armed mobs during Reconstruction also had the support of (and consisted of) the local citizenry. The parallels are not perfect, but I thought there was enough there to merit some discussion.

      • Bob Ruth says:

        I guess my main disagreement with your musing is the use of Reconstruction as an example of the North becoming weary of fighting the South. The South’s support for secession posed an existential threat to the nation and was, therefore, worth the heavy cost. The South’s opposition to Reconstruction never posed such a threat. Vietnam is a much better analogy, in my opinion, although there are a multitude of differences between Southeast Asia and the American Civil War.

        And I firmly believe guerrilla warfare by the South would have been a fool’s errand. It took the South more than 100 years (and the widespread use of air conditioning) to fully recover economically from the Civil War. With a protracted – and losing – guerrilla war, recovery would have taken decades longer. As I know you’re aware, by the final year of the war, the Lincoln administration and its top generals, i.e. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, etc., were committed to a “hard” war against the South as the only way to subdue the stubborn Rebels. Guerrilla warfare would have resulted in Union cavalry burning everything in their paths throughout the South. There is a reason many Southern civilians called the invading Yankees “Huns.”

        There are many fascinating “what-ifs” involving the Civil War. The potential for guerrilla warfare successfully leading to an independent South is not one of them.

    • Douglas Pauly says:

      I suspect Lee knew a ‘Lost Causer’ when he saw one. He certainly had to know that were those who really wanted to punish the South after hostilities ceased. A guerilla war would have provided that faction with the excuse to go in and really do some damage and inflict even more pain, over and above what transpired from Reconstruction and other actions. Guerillas then as now didn’t tend to get any protections like those rendered upon regular troops, and that lack of protections no doubt would have extended to any people who were suspected of providing aid to any guerillas. Other than continuing the killing, a guerilla war really wouldn’t serve any purpose. The manpower in the South had been devastated, and the rank-and-file had families and homes of their own to tend to, so numbers (for the guerillas) would have been problematic as well. Any chances of foreign recognition had long ago evaporated. There really would have been nothing to be gained other than more mayhem.

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