By many accounts, Robert E. Lee was the greatest Civil War general, certainly for the South but arguably on both sides. But Lee’s record is not spotless, and he had his share of grave military errors. When Lee was in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he racked up a total of 209,000 casualties (55,000 more than Ulysses S. Grant, who’s been derided as a “butcher”). Lee’s aggressive tactics were responsible for more than one bloody affair, in which he needlessly sacrificed the lives of his troops with no gain. The following were some of Lee’s biggest military blunders:
Before Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he was overall commander of Virginia’s militia. In 1861, the Confederacy’s prospects were dim in western Virginia, and President Jefferson Davis sent Lee to rectify the situation. That resulted in the “battle” of Cheat Mountain on September 12, 1861. Heavy rains, inexperienced troops, and quarreling generals resulted in a lost opportunity as 5,000 Confederates retreated from 3,000 Union soldiers camped on the mountain, earning Lee the nickname “Evacuating Lee” and “Granny Lee”. Lee’s failure to coordinate Confederate forces in western Virginia lost control over that strategic region, leading to West Virginia separating in 1863 and joining the Union cause.
Battle of Malvern Hill
In the summer of 1862, Union General George McClellan stood outside the Confederate capitol of Richmond with an army of over 100,000 men. Lee was given command of the Army of Northern Virginia, and he took aggressive action to drive McClellan from Richmond. At the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862, Lee ordered an attack over an open field against the Union line, which was well supported by artillery. Despite murderous artillery fire, Lee continued to order reinforcements into the meat grinder, even though he was not present on the battlefield to observe the results. The Confederates suffered 5,650 casualties to the Union’s 3,000.
Perhaps the most well-known of General Lee’s failures, his frontal attack on the Union center on the third day at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, was perhaps his worst. In a repeat of the Malvern Hill disaster, Lee ordered an attack by 12,000 men across an open field. Union forces were well-supported by artillery, and the Confederates lost over 6,800 men, including 2,000 captured, to the Union’s 1,500 killed and wounded. Lee ignored the advice of his most experienced and trusted corps commander, James Longstreet, in ordering the attack. After the war, Maj. Gen. George Pickett commented “That old man destroyed my division.”
Second Battle of Rappahannock Station
After defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg and months of inconclusive maneuvers in northern Virginia, Lee withdrew his army south of the Rappahannock River to wait out the winter. He left a small force on the north bank commanded by Jubal Early to guard a pontoon bridge near Rappahannock Station, where he hoped to compel Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade to divide his 76,000-man Army of the Potomac and expose it to attack. Meade divided his army as anticipated, but things didn’t go well for the Confederates.
Meade tricked Lee into thinking his advance was only a diversion, so Lee sent no help to Early’s isolated units. On Nov. 7, 1863 under cover of darkness, Union troops fixed bayonets and surged over the Confederate earthworks, taking the defenders by surprise. Hundreds fled into the icy river to escape. It was one of Lee’s worst mistakes, costing 70 killed or wounded and between 1,600 and 1,900 captured, while Union forces suffered 419 casualties. Two of Lee’s finest brigades, irreplaceable veteran troops, were taken off the board.
The “Mule Shoe”
During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, May 8-21, 1864, Lee’s army settled into a defensive position behind trenches and breastworks, forming a salient called the “Mule Shoe” because of its shape. It also became known as the “Bloody Angle”. Convinced General Grant was planning to withdraw, Lee removed his artillery from the Mule Shoe, leaving it vulnerable to attack. That was precisely what Grant did. On May 12, an entire Union corps struck the Mule Shoe like a hammer, overrunning it. Lee himself had to take command on the field to avert disaster.
If Lee hadn’t withdrawn his artillery, it’s likely the Union attack would have been repulsed. Lee acknowledged it was a “fatal mistake.” Lee’s chief of artillery, Porter Alexander, remarked “nowhere else, in the whole history of the war, was such a target, so large, so dense, so vulnerable, ever presented to so large a force of artillery.” If Confederate artillery remained in place, “it is quite certain that the charge would not have been successful.”
Edward H. Bonekemper, III, Grant and Lee: Victorious American and Vanquished Virginian (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2012).
James I. Robertson, Jr., Robert E. Lee: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
Gordon C. Rhea, The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997).