A Review of How Robert E Lee Lost The Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III

By Stuart Kay
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved

Robert E. Lee

The number of books published concerning the Civil War or some aspect of that conflict is staggering. Books continue to appear on a regular basis which shows no sign of diminishing in the foreseeable future. Even here in England a quick tour of my local book shop revealed no fewer than 28 Civil War and related titles. For this reason, without extensive research of primary material, it is very hard for an author to come up with anything that has not been covered before. The potential author is therefore faced with conducting painstaking primary research, covering a less prominent aspect of the conflict, or, alternatively places a novel interpretation on existing well-covered fields of research, in an attempt to distinguish their book from all the others on the shelf. Edward Bonekemper’s book is clearly one of the latter.

The author is quite clear in his introduction to How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War that the aim of the book is to place a new interpretation on the contribution of Robert Lee to the Confederate cause. In 248 pages he goes at this aim with relish. Although the title of the book being what it is, the student of military history will be aware before they open the cover that whatever the merits of the book are, objectivity is not going to be one of them.

The book is written in a fairly brisk manner that flows quite well and does not get bogged down in excessive detail, although the reason for this will quickly become apparent. A minor criticism is the use of belittling language throughout the book, such as “an obvious choice…”, “as usual for Lee he…” And “instead of simply…” although in the grand scheme of the book this is a minor problem.

Before going on to address the main body of the book, it might be well to just state that I write this review not as a rebuttal to the author’s claims, but as an assessment of its value as a fair conclusion to arrive at when reviewing all the facts. In doing so I do not intend to whitewash Robert Lee; that he made mistakes, sometimes costly ones is undeniable. The body of recent literature is clear in moving away from his earlier portrayal in the “Lost Cause” style of early post-war portrayals of him. Furthermore, I must point out I’m not a Southerner. I’m not even an American, although I must admit to being an admirer of Lee and his campaigns. I have no national or State allegiance to push, although I should go on record as saying my best friend is a Virginian (albeit one married to an Ohio girl and now living in Dayton) and the source of my initial fascination with the Civil War. I do not intend to influence any potential reader as to the right or wrong of this book. I believe any serious student of the Civil War or military history is quite capable of making their own minds up.

The main question to be addressed is to what extent the claim of the author is based on sound constructive evidence, objectively considered? The observant will note that I do not state the conclusion of the author, as it is quite apparent that the book’s conclusion came first and the body of the book written to support that conclusion. It is also quite apparent that Edward Bonekemper is a lawyer; he builds a case for the prosecution while ignoring or minimizing all contrary evidence, leaving that to the defense.

All writers of military history are to some extent reliant on hindsight; it is the nature of the game so to speak. However, whilst hindsight may well help to show how things happened, it is rarely a useful guide as to why. A General in any war is required to make decisions on the spot, often at times of great stress and confusion. He will make these decisions on information and facts known to him at the time. Often it will turn out that the information he does have is wrong. The General does not have the luxury of knowing what happened before he reaches his decision. As already mentioned above, the author is prone to statements that things were either obvious or there being a simpler way of doing them. It is a weakness of the book that having said this he does not investigate why, if a simpler alternative was so obvious, Lee did not take it. Throughout the book no consideration is given to the fact that what might appear obvious to the historian sitting in the comfort of his study with all the facts to hand, might not be so obvious to the General in the field in the heat of battle.

Many of the decisions made by Lee and others are presented in the book without any reference to external factors. Military action does not occur in a vacuum, and the reason for doing something or the way that it is done can come down to other factors. There is no assessment of what was intended, what was hoped to be achieved, or the factors influencing them.

It is a maxim of historical study that an accusation should not just be made, it must be proven. Throughout the book facts and accusations are made but not investigated or proven. For example, the often made claim that Lee over-concentrated on the Virginia theatre at the expense of the whole is again made. The author is not the first or last to make this statement. However, there is no investigation or assessment of the strategic value of Virginia. No attempt is made to demonstrate Virginia’s relevance or otherwise to the Confederate cause. Likewise, Lee’s position as senior military advisor to President Davis is not assessed for the reality of the position, but is stated at face value. On a similar vein, there is no discussion as to whether Lee, after the dispatch west of the large forces the author states should have been sent there, would have retained sufficient numbers to defend Virginia. Furthermore, there is no consideration given to the logistics of supplying large additional forces in the West, where the Confederacy struggled to support the forces that it did have there.

The more serious reader with more than a glancing knowledge of military affairs will be quickly aware that the author’s lack of understanding of military maxims or his decision to ignore them is unsupportive of his argument. There is no consideration given to the importance of initiative, that often attack is the best form of defense, concentration of resources, or, most importantly, that military actions are difficult! It is a well-known statement that no plan survives contact with the enemy. It is very rare indeed for an opposing force to sit still and comply exactly with how the plan requires them to. The enemy is trying to win as much as you are. Too much of this book is concerned with plans not going entirely to plan and sometimes not at all. This can be the fault of the Generals, but not entirely and rarely exclusively.

Alarm bells will quickly sound in the head of the objective reader when they start to encounter the author’s description of the battles, themselves, and the planning for them. The serious reader will quickly spot that a fair amount of misrepresentation in their description is involved, and the narrative includes a fair amount of what we would today call “spin.” This occurs from the start; for example, the Mechanicsville battle in its description is written in a way to suggest that Lee devised an over-complicated plan to launch a series of frontal attacks. The serious student is aware of the fact that the hoped-for result of the complicated approach march was to obtain the objective by maneuver. Worryingly, at least three of the books listed in the book’s bibliography make this abundantly clear.

Putting to one side the glaringly obvious weaknesses in the author’s portrayal of events and lack of contextual presentation for a moment, the serious historian confronting the book’s main contention, that Lee should have known that the South’s best chance of victory lay in Lincoln’s electoral defeat in 1864, I have two observations.

Firstly, hindsight is the basis of this position. Although, as the author quite rightly points out, Lincoln’s potential electoral defeat was well-known in the South as a chance of victory, it is hindsight that leads the author to claim it as the best chance. The author’s claim that Lee ignored this and went for the win instead is quite puzzling; after all, logically, isn’t a General who is not trying to win, surely trying to lose? Furthermore, no explanation is given as to why Confederate strategy, as the inferior power, should have obviously adopted a strategy of endurance.

Secondly, and quite probably the most obvious weakness of this book, the objective reader will note that the author fails to even justify his own recommendations. Adoption of a passive defense in Virginia with a transfer of forces to the West would have required the South to gradually retreat south, abandoning the economically vital Upper South. The well-informed reader will immediately ask why, with her armies deep in the Southern heartland earlier, with tangible results to show for the cost in lives, and success more easily discernable, would the Northern population be more demoralized and inclined to elect a peace-at-any-cost president in 1864?

The author’s opinions as to Lee resigning once “defeat became obvious” shows a clear lack of understanding of the main subject of the book: Robert Lee, himself, and of Western military convention. It has long been standard in Western armies that whilst a General may offer his resignation, if it is not accepted, he will continue. This is because, in a Western army, whilst a General has the right to resign, his men do not, and as a result Generals have traditionally considered resignation in wartime to be desertion. To suggest that Lee should have done what he would undoubtedly have considered tantamount to desertion and abandoning his post shows a worryingly lack of knowledge about General Lee.

On the plus side, the book does contain some useful statistics in regard to casualties. In many ways casualty statistics are what the book boils down to. The casualty figures reveal the terrible cost of the Civil War in particular and warfare in general. Warfare is risky. If you do not want to suffer casualties, then do not fight wars. As is the case with the rest of the book, the author does, of course, view them as an abstract and not in conjunction with any other factors. It should always be borne in mind that no matter how thorough or clever the plan or maneuver, there will always ultimately come a point when the infantry must advance and engage the enemy. The historian is well aware of the shortcomings of basing any argument purely on statistics, especially when they are viewed out of context of all other consideration and influence on events.

In summary, the author has produced a book based on misrepresentation, selective quotations, statistics, and misunderstanding to support an argument not fully thought through or presented. Whilst the casual reader may find it useful, the more serious or objective student of the Civil War or military historian will quite quickly observe that it is not based upon a realistic assessment of the situation or factors at the time. Whatever the rights or wrongs of his argument, the author has failed to present a credible argument in this book.

How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III

From the publisher: This book challenges the general view that Robert E. Lee was a military genius who staved off inevitable Confederate defeat against insurmountable odds. Instead, the author contends that Lee was primarily responsible for the South’s loss in a war it could have won.

His theory: The North had the burden of conquering the South, a huge defensible area consisting of eleven states. The South only had to play for a tie and only had to wear down the Northern will to win (as insurgents did against superior forces in the American Revolution, the Chinese Communist takeover of China, and the Vietnam War). Specifically, the South had to hold on to its precious manpower resources and convince the North to vote Lincoln out of office in 1864.

Instead, Lee unnecessarily went for the win, squandered his irreplaceable troops, and weakened his army so badly that military defeat became inevitable. Lee’s army took 80,000 casualties in his first 14 months of command-the same number of troops he inherited when he took command. Also noteworthy are Lee’s failure to take charge of the battlefield (such as the second day of Gettysburg), his overly complex and ineffective battle plans (such as the Antietam and Seven Days’ Campaigns), and his vague and ambiguous orders (such as those that deprived him of Jeb Stuart’s services for most of Gettysburg).

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