by Edward H. Bonekemper III
Spotsylvania, VA: Sergeant. Kirkland’s Press, 1999. Pp. 248.
Illus, maps, notes, biblio., index. . ISBN:1-887901-33-7
Was Robert E. Lee a brilliant general who staved off defeat for four years against long odds? Many historians have held so, and Lee has become arguably the South’s greatest hero of the war – not merely a brilliant general, but a man who later laid the foundations for the reconciliation that followed four bloody years of war.
However, is the first part of that description really the case? Admittedly, the South was facing some very long odds. The North had edges in population and industry that were overwhelming. Furthermore, with the secession of Virginia, and the move of the Confederate capitol to Richmond, the situation got worse for them. They were roughly 90 miles from the Union capitol.
Bonekemper’s argument is not that Lee did not have brilliant victories – Fredericksburg stands out as arguably one of the best. His argument is that many of the other victories (Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville as examples) were brilliantly executed, but they were also phyrric. To put it simply, Lee had the wrong strategy for the South, and he compounded it by selecting the wrong people. It was to the South’s good fortune, Bonekemper argues, that the Union generals (like McClellan and Hooker) were more incompetent than Lee. It was Meade’s competence at Gettysburg and Grant’s perseverance from 1864 on that soon exposed Lee’s shortcomings – when the Army of Northern Virginia had been weakened by the earlier victories.
Bonekemper does not just focus on the time from Gettysburg on – he starts from the beginning of Lee’s career in the Confederate Army. For instance, Lee placed his loyalty to Virginia. This was admirable, as Richmond was the capitol, and a major center of gravity for the Confederacy. However, Lee’s focus, and refusal to support other theaters (most notably Tennessee) led to disaster for the Confederacy. Bonekemper also shows how Lee supported bad commanders, like John Bell Hood, who destroyed his army with frontal attacks.
This is one of the most interesting books on the Civil War. Bonekemper marshals the statistical argument that Lee’s flawed strategy and bad judgement cost the South dearly well, and in a very readable form. This book will also cause many a debate as well, because while it may be unpopular in some areas, it is also very hard to dismiss.