Thursday, August 8, 2013

Inspiring Leaders: General Robert E. Lee Takes Full Responsibility for the Defeat at Gettysburg

This day in history, August 8, 1863 -- Robert E. Lee offers his resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
                "Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Robert E. Lee as commander."
                                                                                                           —Shelby Foote

The Julian Vannerson portrait of Robert E. Lee illustrated by Ron Cole.

A month after Lee's defeat at Gettysburg, the scope of the losses suffered in Pennsylvania was hitting home among the Confederate states. Lee's army was severely weakened by losing 23,000 men during the campaign, about one-third of his army's strength. The Army of the Potomac had returned to Virginia and it was clear the Army of Northern Virginia had suffered a major defeat. The southern newspapers openly questioned Lee's decisions and ability to command.

From the moment Pickett's Charge had failed Lee had taken full accountability for the defeat, telling his men "This has all been my fault." In later days he refused to pin the blame for defeat onto any of his subordinate commanders, even though a few of them had performed poorly at Gettysburg to follow through on his plans of attack or even to obey his orders.

Lee was also suffering from a heart condition and was physically weakened. At Gettysburg he was unable to move about the battlefield as much as he would have liked. He never personally scouted the Union left flank (Little Round Top/Devil's Den) before sending Longstreet's I Corps into the attack there on July 2. General Hood, one of Longstreet's division commanders, later wrote this was the key to their defeat at Gettysburg.

Knowing the public had lost a measure of trust in him and worried about his health and the morale of his army, Lee wrote to President Davis on August 8, offering to resign his command:

"... We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies and to prevent our falling into greater disasters. Our people have only to be true and united, to bear manfully the misfortunes incident to war, and all will come right in the end.

I know how prone we are to censure and how ready to blame others for the non-fulfillment of our expectations. This is unbecoming in a generous people, and I grieve to see its expression. The general remedy for the want of success in a military commander is his removal. This is natural, and in many instances, proper. For, no matter what may be the ability of the officer, if he loses the confidence of his troops disaster must sooner or later ensue.

I have been prompted by these reflections more than once since my return from Pennsylvania to propose to Your Excellency the propriety of selecting another commander for this army. I have seen and heard of expression of discontent in the public journals at the result of the expedition. I do not know how far this feeling extends in the army. My brother officers have been too kind to report it, and so far the troops have been too generous to exhibit it. It is fair, however, to suppose that it it does exist, and success is so necessary to us that nothing should be risked to secure it.

I therefore, in all sincerity, request Your Excellency to take measures to supply my place. I do this with the more earnestness because no one is more aware than myself of my inability for the duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfill the expectations of others?...

Everything, therefore, points to the advantages to be derived from a new commander, and I the more anxiously urge the matter upon Your Excellency from my belief that a younger and abler man than myself can readily be attained..."

President Davis refused the request. He replied, "To ask me to substitute you by someone... more fit to command, or who would possess more of the confidence of the army... is to demand an impossibility."

Indeed, Robert E. Lee was irreplaceable... and he would see his duty to the Confederacy through to the very end.


You can read more about the Gettysburg campaign in my new book, "Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War" written for teens but a great read for anyone interested in the Civil War, Gettysburg and President Lincoln.



*Also available as an eBook on Nook and soon to be available on Kindle.

(The Julian Vannerson portrait of Robert E. Lee was illustrated by Ron Cole. You can purchase prints of this portrait and of General George Meade and a lot more by this very talented artist at his web site:

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