Two Distinct Legends: George Washington and Robert E. Lee

Understanding who did, or did not, influence General Robert E. Lee allows historians tobetter comprehend his military and command decisions. The problem is misperceptions can get passed down through the generations. Many Lee advocates and critics would agree with Michael Korda’s most recent assessment: “there were two major influences in Lee’s life, each of which was to play a major role in forming not only his character, but his tactics and strategy as a general. The first was George Washington himself . . . .”[1]  The facts, however, just do not support this notion. A comparison of these legends illustrates that other than some casual parallels, their strategic leadership, military strategy/tactics, and command style were distinct.

Robert E. Lee by John Adams Elder (Image by © The Corcoran Gallery of Art/CORBIS)

General George Washington

What connections did Washington and Lee share?  Both were born in the winter— Washington, Feb. 22, 1732, and Lee, January 19, 1807. There was a distant familial relationship. Lee married the granddaughter of John Parke Custis who was Washington’s stepson, and the two were third cousins, twice removed.[2] Both families called Virginia home. Their mothers raised them predominately on their own, and both families attended the same church in Alexandria.[3] Washington and Lee believed in the Trinity and had faith in Providence. Both shared some personality traits: charm, humor, and humility.  Lastly, the men served as senior generals. While interesting, Lee’s ties to Washington did not transfer to the battlefield.

For one, General Washington and General Lee viewed their functional duties differently, especially in respect to their role as a politically adroit commander or strategic leader. The Revolutionary forefather willingly waded into the political-military dimension as he considered the army and Continental Congress as one. He wrote often, and at times quite curtly, to the President of Congress and pressed them to pass domestic, foreign, and economic legislation that directly addressed the military’s needs and affected strategic interests.[4] This was not the case with Lee. As the highest ranking general in the Confederacy in March 1862, he was now operating in the strategic realm where political-military matters collided, and he was obligated to comment on such topics. Lee, all the same, believed that “the military and civil talents [were] distinct” and remained “in the background” on political decisions that had military implications.[5] His antithetical interpretation of his strategic leadership role was not the only dissimilarity to his ancestor.

General Washington embraced a different strategy and tactical approach as well. His military plan began with a war of posts and then developed into a war of maneuver. He embedded in both the classical Fabian strategy: “defeat and light losses tolerable, and victory with heavy losses intolerable.”[6] With this philosophy in mind, and in his theater of operations, he employed an active defense. This meant he positioned some troops in forts, but he moved his army around and actively defended his line of communications. Depending on the individual campaign, he either employed offensive tactics, attacking the British army, or he applied defensive tactics, maneuvering away from the British, or he utilized a combination of defensive and offensive tactics.

Fast forward to the Civil War, General Lee, with President Jefferson Davis, adopted a firm military strategy that relied on offensive tactics. The plan sought to primarily defend Richmond and secondarily threaten Washington City. Lee concluded this could be done by achieving a “crowning victory” in the Eastern Theater; one that eroded Northern support for the war and depleted the ranks of the Army of the Potomac to such a degree that it was critically crippled.[7] This required he try and out-kill or out-wound his opponent in disproportionate numbers. As such, he first applied an active defense and launched offensive tactics from the summer of 1862 to summer of 1863. Then, in the spring of 1864, he employed an active defense and used defensive and offensive tactics, i.e., he maneuvered into the path of the Army of the Potomac, set up a defensive line, let his opponent hit him, and then viciously counter-attacked (save for the battle at Cold Harbor). Finally, in the last year of the war, Lee directed his men to dig trenches and combined passive and offensive tactics (maneuvering, assaulting, and counterattacking).[8]  Thus, unlike Washington, Lee was willing to accept high losses to attain that crowning victory.

General Washington rallies the troops at the Battle of Princeton, Jan. 3, 1777 Painting by Don Troiani

So, what about command styles? The two Soldiers possessed distinct and similar qualities, but not for the reasons some indicate. Some historians believe General Lee sought to measure himself to General Washington’s “firm hold on his own temper,” his “courage,” and his “ability to keep a ragtag, poorly supplied army together for years against a” superior foe.[9] Not exactly. First, it is well-recorded that Washington had a quick temper as demonstrated by violent public outbursts, some justified, others questionable.[10] That was not Lee’s personality. For the most part he kept his emotions in check, for better or worse; and still the Confederate snapped on several occasions.[11] In regard to courage, indeed both Commanders illustrated this trait on the battlefield, but their bravery was due to the fact both had experienced and withstood the test of battle in previous wars. In addition, as professionals, the Generals ascertained when a personal bold response was required in battle and that reaction inevitably placed them in harm’s way. Lastly, yes Washington and Lee shared an ability to lead a ragtag, poorly supplied army.  This ability, though, was not due to common ties but had to do with their charisma, intelligence, and management capabilities.

General Robert E. Lee rallies the Texans at the Battle of the Wilderness, May 6, 1864. Painting by Don Troiani

In the end, sure General Lee admired his legendary ancestor, but he was very much his own man and set in his ways. He did not ask himself “what would Washington do” or fret that he was not living up to him. Could he have benefited from critically studying his Revolutionary relative? Sure. Would he have? Nope. Herein is a peek at part of the paradox in which Lee was caught. His education prepared him to serve the early Republic faithfully and without question. This service was engrained in him even when he became the most senior military commander in what was a revolutionary movement. Lee did not see it that way. In 1862, he noted the “proper rule in republics . . . should have neither military statesmen nor political generals.” The only historic figure he felt was an “exception” to this rule was . . . George Washington.[12]

Sources & Notes:

[1] For quote see Michael Korda, Clouds of Glory (2014), 6.   For other historians who believe that Washington influenced Lee see Michael Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000), xv and 8, and Thomas Nelson Page, Robert E. Lee, Man and Soldier (1911), vol. 1, 12–4, and J. F. C. Fuller, Grant and Lee (1933), 102, and Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee (1934), vol. 1, 20–2.

[2] Both men were descended from Augustine Warner, Sr., and Mary Towneley Warner (George Washington by way of their son, Augustine, Jr., and Lee by way of their daughter, Sarah), see http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/project/faq/index.html.

[3] Page, 12–3.

[4] Jarred Sparks, The Life of George Washington, 262.

[5] For rank, see General Orders No. 14 in O.R, Ser. 1, vol. 5, 1099.  General Lee oversaw “the conduct of the military operations in the armies of the Confederacy.”  This put him in a strategic leadership role.  For quote by Lee, see Benjamin Hill, Jr., Senator Benjamin H. Hill of Georgia: His Life, Speeches and Writings (Atlanta, GA: T. H. P. Bloodworth, 1893), 407.  For staying in the background, see Walter Taylor, General Lee, 32.  Some political-military matters included the relocation of the capital to Richmond and the conscription law passed in the Confederate Congress in the spring of 1862.

[6] Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause, 2nd ed., 304 and 353.  General Washington, New York, September 8, 1776 and Washington, Trenton, New Jersey, January 1, 1777, in The Writings of George Washington, vol. 4, 81 and 256.  Fabian strategy is named for the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus who fought against Hannibal in the Second Punic War.  This approach aims to avoid large-scale, open battles for fear of the outcome and instead seeks to win by wearing down the opponent over time.  For definition of Fabian strategy, see James Bartholomees, Jr., “A Survey of Strategic Thought,” vol. 1 (2010), 31.  See also, Polybius, The Histories, Book 30, trans. Chambers Mortimer (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966), 169.

[7] R. E. Lee to Davis, Headquarters, April 15, 1864, O.R., Ser. 1, vol. 33, 1283, and R. E. Lee to Davis, Headquarters, April 18, 1864, Ibid., 1290–291.

[8] For battles during the Petersburg siege, see U.S. Grant, Personal Memoirs, vol. 2, 307–15, 323–25, and 439–53, and Richard Sommers, Richmond Redeemed, 2nd printing.  During the siege, both sides counteracted the passive aspect by constant maneuvering, assaulting, and counterattacking in an attempt to defend or capture the town’s roads and railroad.  Historian and Lee advocate, Joseph Harsh, provides a good study of Confederate strategy, 1861-1862.  See Joseph L. Harsh, Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861–1862 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1998).

[9] Korda, 6.  Other Lee biographers agree, see Michael Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee, xv and 8, and Page, vol. 1, 12–4, and Fuller, Grant and Lee, 102, and Freeman, R. E. Lee vol. 1 (1934), 20–2.

[10] Michael E. Newton, Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years (Phoenix, AZ: Eleftheria Publishing, 2015), 423–39, and Middlekauff, 309 and 355, and Douglas Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, 7 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), vol. 4, 189–95.  For general who spoke about his quick temper, see George Washington Greene, The Life of Nathaniel Greene: Major-General in the Army of the Revolution, 3 vols. (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1871), vol. 2, 94.

–8 and 429.

https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Life_of_Nathanael_Greene/qUkSAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=George+Washington+Greene,+The+Life+of+Nathanael+Greene:+Major-General+in+the+Army+of+the+Revolution+1867&pg=PA482&printsec=frontcover.  See also, http://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/general-george-washingtons-temper-shaped-the-man-who-forged-a-new-nation/

[11] One of the most famous episodes occurred during the Battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam.   After he caught one of his starved soldiers hauling a pig to the rear, Lee became furious and ordered Major General Jackson to immediately shoot the thief.  Jackson put the culprit on the front lines rather than execute him on the spot.  Somehow, the pig thief survived at least the Battle of Sharpsburg.  Armistead Long, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee: His Military and Personal History, Embracing a Large Amount of Information Hitherto Unpublished (New York: Stoddart, 1887), 222, and James V. Murfin, The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign, September 1862 (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1965), 231.

[12] Hill, Jr., Senator Benjamin H. Hill of Georgia, 407.  For discussion on Lee not being a revolutionary leader, see Walter Taylor, Four Years with Lee (1878), 147-48.

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8 Responses to Two Distinct Legends: George Washington and Robert E. Lee

  1. W Charles Young says:

    Between the time of Washington and the time of Lee, two important events helped cause the differences between them. The first was about 80 years of the successful implementation of the US Constitution that subordinated the military to the civil authority. The second was Napoleon Bonaparte whose genius was in the offensive. These made a huge difference in how Lee approached his role vis a vis Washington.

    • JoAnna McDonald says:

      Mr. Young, agree these were significant events. I would add even in a Constitutional Republic, senior military leadership are obligated to provide honest professional advice about political-military matters, even if this advice goes against the policymakers ideas. General Winfield Scott successfully confronted political-military problems in the Mexican War. And, true, President Polk couldn’t stand him, but Scott got the job done. Lt General Grant and Maj Gen Sherman had a great, open relationship with President Lincoln, to the point Lincoln backed down on some arguments. He trusted his generals. Grant, Sherman, Lincoln trio is a the best example of how the military and executive are partners. The two entities work together by debating the issues in private. I point out in my book, subordination does not mean silence.

  2. grego says:

    I am glad to see a good post on this topic!

    Washington was certainly a presence in Lee’s life. Lee spent 30 yrs at Arlington, and heard stories (both real and exaggerated) about Washington from his father in law, GWP Custis, while surrounded by what Custis called the Washington “Treasury” (furnishings, artwork, etc. from Mt. Vernon). I have no doubt Lee admired Washington and tried to follow his example in terms of personal demeanor, character and leadership.

    But I’ve read many books and articles that try to make the case that Lee’s military actions were based on the “what would Washington do” principle, and I just didn’t see it. Lee felt he had a different war to fight and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, emulate Washington’s tactics and strategic approach.

    Well said!

  3. Bob Ruth says:

    JoAnna:

    Very insightful and interesting article.

  4. Douglas Pauly says:

    The opening paragraph has this in it: “there were two major influences in Lee’s life, each of which was to play a major role in forming not only his character, but his tactics and strategy as a general. The first was George Washington himself . . . .”

    I’ve browsed over this article a few times since I first read it and I can’t see the other influence Lee reportedly had besides Washington. Was it Napoleon? I have read in several sources over time how he wished to impart a result like that of “Cannae” on the Union forces. Cannae was Hannibal vs. the Romans. So I am curious as to whom that second influence on Lee was?

    Personally, I see many similarities between Washington and Lee. I don’t think it’s fair to classify either one as being ‘offensive’ or ‘defensive’ minded. Both tried to use what they had when they had it. Both were on sides that were trying mighty hard to secure foreign assistance against their foes, and in this Washington’s side succeeded, and that would prove decisive. Both chomped at the bit to be able to take the fight to their opponents. Both faced opponents who had superior navies and resources. I can see where Lee would want to emulate Washington AT TIMES while trying to avoid the mistakes Washington made, and that he could be both inspired and influenced by him. .

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