Robert E. Lee’s Greatest Military Blunders

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:

Cheat Mountain

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.

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Fort Fisher State Historic Site in New Hanover County, North Carolina

The fall of Fort Fisher in January 1865 marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy in North Carolina.

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The Union Army and Navy made two attempts to capture Fort Fisher during the American Civil War. The first, in December 1864, was unsuccessful. The second battle, fought from Jan. 13 to Jan. 15, 1865 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry and the Confederate garrison commanded by Maj. Gen. W.H.C. Whiting and Col. William Lamb, was a complete Union victory.

After Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s embarrassing failure in December 1864, Generals Adelbert Ames, Alfred Terry, Charles Paine, and Admiral David Porter were determined to take Fort Fisher and close the Confederacy’s last trading port. These supplies were critical to keeping Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of North Virginia fighting in the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia.

On January 12, 1865, the Union fleet returned, this time carrying approximately 9,600 troops and 2,260 sailors and marines. Alfred Terry planned a three-pronged assault: a division of United States Colored Troops commanded by Charles J. Paine would attack Confederate Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke’s division south of Wilmington, Adelbert Ames’ division would attack Fort Fisher from the north, and 2,000 sailors and marines would attack from the sea.

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The Hotel Strasburg

Neon sign for the Hotel Strasburg, 213 South Holliday Street in Strasburg, Virginia. The hotel was originally built in 1902 as a private hospital run by Dr. M.R. Bruin. In the 1970s, it was converted to a hotel.

The Hotel Strasburg
The Hotel Strasburg, 213 South Holliday Street in Strasburg, Virginia. I believe it was designed in Second Empire style.

When Freemen Shall Stand

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) was a Maryland lawyer and author who wrote the poem that became famous as the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner“, our national anthem. During the War of 1812, Key was aboard a British ship negotiating the release of American prisoners during the Battle of Baltimore and witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843)

The sights inspired him to write a poem called “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, which was later put to music and re-titled “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Key and his wife were buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery Frederick, Maryland and this monument was erected in his honor.

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park in Leesburg, Virginia

A small park and cemetery memorializes one of the most lopsided and controversial battles of the American Civil War.

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The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was fought on October 21, 1861 between Union forces commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone and Col. Edward D. Baker and Confederate forces commanded by Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans near Leesburg, Virginia during the American Civil War. The battle was a humiliating defeat for Union forces, including the loss of a U.S. Senator, and led Congress to establish the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

After the First Battle of Bull Run ended notions of a quick Union victory, President Abraham Lincoln authorized Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to form the Army of the Potomac and plan another advance into Virginia. Leesburg, Virginia was a strategic town on the Potomac River, so McClellan ordered Brig. Gen. George A. McCall to investigate Confederate troop movements in the area. McClellan was under the impression that Confederate Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans had abandoned Leesburg, when in fact his withdrawal was temporary.

On the night of October 20, 1861, Col. Charles Devens of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry sent a patrol across the Potomac River to recon the area. A jittery officer sent word that he had seen a Confederate camp, so Devens sent a raiding party of 300 men across the river the next morning. Though there was no camp, Colonel and U.S. Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, ordered more Union troops to reinforce the 15th Massachusetts.

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Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, New York

This magnificent fort at the mouth of the Niagara River preserves the scene of several battles, including a 20-day siege during the French and Indian War.

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The Battle of Fort Niagara was fought from July 6 to July 26, 1759 between French forces under the command of Captain Pierre Pouchot and British forces under the command of Brig. Gen. John Prideaux and their American Indian allies at the confluence of Lake Ontario and the Niagara River during the French and Indian War. The 20-day siege ended in British victory and French capitulation after French reinforcements were scattered at the Battle of La Belle-Famille.

In early July 1759, Brig. Gen. John Prideaux marched approximately 3,500 British and Iroquois forces along Lake Ontario to Fort Niagara, floated a battery of artillery across the Niagara River to Montreal Point, and began to lay siege. Captain Pierre Pouchot had sent away most of his troops, so he had about 520 French regulars, militia, and Seneca Iroquois allies on hand to defend the fort. Unfortunately for him, many of his Seneca allies deserted when the British arrived.

To make matters worse, the British ambushed and destroyed a relief column under the command of Col. François-Marie Le Marchand de Lignery at La Belle-Famille on July 24. Pouchot sent an officer to British lines to meet the wounded Lignery and confirm reports of the ambush. Seeing little hope, he surrendered on July 26.

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Unfortunately, Just Mercy Was Based on a True Story

This film about one of the most egregious modern cases of racism and injustice mostly sticks to the facts.

One thing I didn’t like about Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) was that it invented events to make its antagonists more menacing than they really were. It’s a habit in Hollywood to insert or amplify racism in historical films, which is weird because there are plenty of actual historical examples of racism to make movies about.

Case in point: Just Mercy (2019), written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham and directed by Cretton, based on the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Just Mercy follows the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was wrongly convicted of the 1986 murder of a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama and sent to death row. Years later, attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) successfully appealed McMillian’s conviction and won his freedom.

McMillian, who was having a very public affair with a white woman named Karen Kelly, was hosting a fish fry at his home with his wife, Minnie (Karan Kendrick), surrounded by about a dozen witnesses, when the murder occurred. Despite this, Sheriff Tom Tate (Michael Harding) arrested him for the crime. And despite not yet being convicted, he was sent to death row while awaiting trial.

Judge Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. (yes, that was actually his name) moved the trial to a different county where it would have a majority white jury. The judge overrode the jury’s decision of life imprisonment and imposed the death penalty. McMillian sat on Alabama’s death row from 1988 to 1993, when the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled he had been wrongfully convicted.

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