General Lee’s Standing in the South after Gettysburg

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023-2024, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2024 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

General George Gordon Meade (one of my favorite Union generals and the nautical surveyor of the Great Lakes) was the tactical and strategic victor of the Battle of Gettysburg, arguably the most important battle of the war. In spite of this, Meade conversely faced harsh criticism at the January 2024 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. At that meeting, the Roundtable held its annual Dick Crews Memorial Debate, which in 2024 involved opposing opinions regarding Meade’s post-Gettysburg pursuit of the defeated Confederate army. As affirmed by vote of the attendees at that meeting, the unfavorable opinion of Meade’s actions was considered the appropriate point of view. So be it.

George Meade pointing the way
Robert E. Lee

But what of the commander of the Army of Northern Virgina, General Robert E. Lee’s standing in the South after Gettysburg? In the book The Last Road North, co-authored by Robert Orrison and Dan Welch, the authors assert that when considering Lee’s stated goals, which were also approved by the Confederate military and government for what turned out to be the last full-scale invasion of the North, Lee had been “mostly successful.” His first objective of driving the Army of the Potomac out of Virginia for a good part of the summer had been met. Another objective of turning the Union armies out of the Shenandoah Valley had also been met. However, toward the end of summer the Union army returned to Virginia, so the stated objectives, although met, were only short-term successes.

Orrison and Welch further state that if “viewed as a raid, the Confederate army amassed an immense amount of supplies during their time in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Vital food, fodder, and medical supplies filled a steady stream of wagon trains to the rear as Lee’s army moved north.” However, although Lee met another objective of living off the land, it turned out not to be long enough for Virginia’s farmers to plant and harvest a new crop. Finally, the objective of bringing the Army of the Potomac to battle on northern soil had been met, but the resultant tactical and strategic defeat speaks for itself, and the 28,000 killed, wounded, or captured were disastrous for Lee’s army, including Generals John Bell Hood, J. Johnston Pettigrew, W. Dorsey Pender, and others along with many lower level officers.

After the failed charge toward the “copse of trees” on the third day of the battle, Lee famously told George Pickett that “all this has been my fault.” But, according to Shelby Foote in Volume Two of his The Civil War, A Narrative, Lee needed to contend with generals whose morale was sunk low by holding onto the opinion that they had let Lee down. Foote points out that General Richard Ewell stated that “it took a dozen blunders to lose Gettysburg and I committed a good many of them.” Further, General James Longstreet wrote in a letter, “If the blame, if there is any, can be shifted from him (Lee) to me, I shall help him and our cause by taking it.” Unfortunately, Pickett made a highly critical report of the other units involved in his charge, but Lee told Pickett to burn it and that “we have the enemy to fight and must carefully, at this critical moment, guard against dissensions which the reflection in your report would create.”

Indeed, as Allen C. Guelzo points out in his book Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, not just generals were feeling low, but common soldiers as well. Randolph McKim, who had witnessed the Confederate failure at Culp’s Hill, wrote in his diary on July 11, “I went into the last battle feeling that victory must be ours – that such an army could not be foiled, and that God would certainly declare himself on our side. Now I felt that unless He sees fit to bless our arms, our valor will not avail.” Another soldier of the 11th Georgia, who fought in Devil’s Den, wrote his mother that “the Armey is Broken hearted…and…don’t care the way the war closes, for we have suffered very much.” Further, by July 12, Richmond newspapers were gloomy with defeat. The Richmond Enquirer opined that “after three days’ fighting in Pennsylvania, with we know not what success, General Lee has fallen, withdrawn his forces backwards,” and on the 13th the Richmond Examiner stated that “the Confederates did not gain a victory.” Finally, on the 24th the Enquirer stated that “it cannot be denied that the invasion was a failure.”

This began to affect Robert E. Lee’s morale. Again, from The Last Road North, “The general took the loss seriously and personally. As the southern press and some in the Confederate Congress began to question…the campaign.” Ultimately, Lee decided that the correct course of action was to resign. On August 8, “at his headquarters in Orange Court House, Lee sent his letter of resignation to President Jefferson Davis: ‘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.'”

Jefferson Davis

Contrary to President Lincoln’s consternation over Meade’s inability to bag Lee’s army during its retreat from Gettysburg and despite all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune coming down on Lee, the Confederacy’s President Jefferson Davis’s opinion mattered the most – and he was unwavering in his support of his finest army commander. James M. McPherson, in his book Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, points out that in late July, Davis authored a letter to Lee in which he wrote, “I have felt more than ever the want of your advice during the recent period of disaster.” Further, a prominent Texas senator in the Confederate Congress, Louis Wigfall, noted that Davis was “almost frantic with rage if the slightest doubt was expressed as to Lee’s capacity and conduct.” Lastly, Davis wrote to Lee after his offer of resignation, “There is nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant…Your country could not bear to lose you. To ask me to substitute you by someone in my judgement more fit to command, or one who would possess more of the confidence of the army, or of reflecting men in the country is to demand an impossibility.”

So it was, that General Lee, although heavily criticized by many pundits and commentators in the South, was supported by Davis, who kept him in command, and over time Lee regained whatever prestige and luster he had lost on the fields of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863.

Click on the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.

Related link:
The Hero of Gettysburg Surveyed the Great Lakes.