Robert E. Lee's Civil War Strategy

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  • 0:00 The Man, The Myth, The Legend
  • 0:46 Early in the Civil War
  • 1:51 On the Offensive
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Many people know Robert E. Lee for his leadership during the Civil War, however few are truly familiar with his distinct military strategy. This lesson explores Lee's Civil War strategy.

The Man, the Myth, the Legend

Few Civil War leaders are as iconic or memorable as Confederate General Robert E. Lee. For historians and history buffs alike, he is a complex and fascinating man. He owned slaves but wasn't exceptionally attached to the institution of slavery. He was against secession and did not want to see the Union fall apart, but he fought for the Confederate States of America.

First and foremost he was a Virginian, not an American, and felt it was his duty to lead his great state instead of fighting for his country. Lee came from a military family and was a career military man, so it was only fitting that he would rise to the highest ranks of the Confederate Army as a general. For four years, Lee influenced Southern military strategy, making him one of the most revered generals in American history.

Early in the Civil War

Early in 1861, Robert E. Lee took command of Virginia's troops as a major general. After Virginia officially seceded from the Union and joined the Confederate States of America, Lee was quickly moved up to the rank of general of the entire Confederate Army, a very important position.

Within his first few months as a general, Lee suffered some major setbacks that damaged his reputation as a brilliant military mind. Educated at West Point, Lee's battle plans were complex. While they appeared fine on paper, his troops were a rag-tag bunch of volunteers who were untrained and unprepared to follow such an advanced plan of attack. Lee's forces were defeated, and he was removed from a direct leadership position. Instead, Lee acted as a military adviser during the spring of 1682.

At the time, the South's military minds were conflicted over how to fight and win the Civil War. Many favored a strategy similar to George Washington's during the Revolutionary War. Strike when the time was right, but retreat when necessary to avoid devastating casualties. The concept of retreating and operating defensively ran counter to Lee's personal strategy, which became evident during the summer of 1862.

On the Offensive

General Robert E. Lee was sent back into the field during the summer of 1862 to deal with Union General George McClellan. Throughout the Peninsula Campaign, Lee went on the offensive. He countered McClellan's more reserved military strategy with his own daring, and often reckless strategic style.

In August of 1862, Lee led Confederate forces at the Second Battle of Bull Run, also called Second Manassas. Despite suffering heavy casualties, Lee was undaunted. In fact, he was still incredibly willing to continue fighting the Union troops, even at the expense of an increasing Confederate death toll. This unwavering offensive mentality became the hallmark of Robert E. Lee's Civil War strategy.

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