This week in history: Gen. Robert E. Lee offers to resign

By Cody K. Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 6 2014 7:25 p.m. MDT

Following the disaster for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg in early July 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee offered to resign his command on Aug. 8 after he had brought the remains of his forces back to Virginia. Lee's offer to resign stemmed from his military failure, as well as his belief that the public had lost confidence in his ability to command.

Lee's plan in invading the North in the late spring of 1863 had been to seek out the Army of the Potomac and crush it in battle. The resulting July 1-3 Battle of Gettysburg proved the largest battle of the American Civil War, in which both sides lost roughly 23,000 men. Lee had made several costly errors during the campaign, including abandoning his original plan to pick ground to hold and defend against the Union army once in the North, as well as the disastrous Pickett's Charge, which turned the battlefield into a Confederate slaughterhouse on the third day of battle.

Following the battle, a demoralized Lee led a demoralized army back into a demoralized Confederacy. On July 4, the day after Gettysburg, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant succeeded in taking Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last Confederate strong point on the Mississippi River. With the fall of Vicksburg, the Confederacy was cut in two. Indeed, knowing that Vicksburg would soon fall, Lee had invaded the North in the East with the intention of mitigating the effects of the catastrophe and hoping to deal the North a complementary, and perhaps war-winning, blow.

In his book, “Look Away: A History of the Confederate States of America,” historian William C. Davis wrote, “Lee's incredible victory at Chancellorsville in May swung the pendulum back to confidence, only to have it swing yet again after his crushing defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July. 'The prospect is a dark one,' (journalist Littleton B.) Washington recalled a few weeks later. 'Nothing could exceed the public depression.’ ”

After Gettysburg, the South could not win a military victory in the Civil War. It lacked the resources and manpower to launch another offensive campaign into the North, even as the Union army grew stronger. Increasingly, the Confederate strategy was to wear down the Northern armies as they came south, and hope for a military stalemate and acceptable political solution.

As Northerners rejoiced over their twin victories, many believing that an end to the war was in sight, Lee made his initial report to Confederate President Jefferson Davis on July 31. Magnanimous as always, the Confederate general accepted personal responsibility for the defeat: “No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me. … I am alone to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess & valor.”

Despite the old adage that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan, Lee's most able corps commander, James Longstreet, (Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson having died the previous May after the Battle of Chancellorsville), also believed he himself deserved a measure of blame. Biographer Jeffry D. Wert wrote in his book, “General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's most Controversial Solider":

“In a July 24 letter — which he subsequently published — Longstreet (wrote) that he 'would prefer that all the blame should rest upon me. As General Lee is our commander, he should have the support and influence we can give him. … I leave to show that much of the responsibility of Gettysburg rests on my shoulders.’ ”

Longstreet had advised Lee against Pickett's Charge, and even encouraged Lee to stick to the original plan of a tactically defensive battle in the North. Despite this, Longstreet knew Lee's value as a symbol to the Confederate people and his ongoing popularity with the Army of Northern Virginia. Though his battlefield criticisms would later come out, in the weeks following the disaster at Gettysburg, Longstreet saw value in keeping Lee in charge of what was arguably the Confederacy's most important army.

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