The number of books published concerning the Civil War or some aspect of that conflict is staggering. Books continue to appear on a regular basis which shows no sign of diminishing in the foreseeable future. For this reason, without extensive research of primary material, it is very hard for an author to come up with anything that has not been covered before. The potential author is therefore faced with conducting painstaking primary research, covering a less prominent aspect of the conflict, or, alternatively places a novel interpretation on existing well-covered fields of research, in an attempt to distinguish their book from all the others on the shelf. Edward Bonekemper’s book is clearly one of the latter.
Edward Bonekemper III is a military historian, teacher, and writer. His writings such as “The Myth of the Lost Cause- Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won”. Bonekemper says that “After the war, the South had a lot of explaining to do.” “The South was in ruins, and twenty-five percent of men aged 20-45 were dead.” Why? Southerners asked. “Slavery was a difficult answer, so they came up with another one instead,” Bonekemper explains. (Emerging Civil War) His books have been appreciated and honored by many career services and has been privileged to receive rewards for his narratives.
Bonekemper is quite clear in his introduction to How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War that the aim of the book is to place a new interpretation on the contribution of Robert Lee to the Confederate cause. Robert E. Lee is widely regarded as the Civil War’s greatest soldier. Terms like “genius” and “invincible” abound in the literature of the war. “Robert E. Lee (1807-70) served as a military officer in the U.S. Army, a West Point commandant and the legendary general of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (1861-65). In June 1861, Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, which he would lead for the rest of the war. Lee and his army achieved great success during the Peninsula Campaign and at Second Bull Run (Mansassas) and Fredericksburg, with his greatest victory coming in the bloody Battle of Chancellorsville. In the spring of 1863, Lee invaded the North, only to be defeated at the Battle of Gettysburg.” (History) As suggested by the title, Edward Bonekemper’s How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War is a wide-ranging negative analysis, beginning with the early field command in West Virginia where Bonekemper sees two of Lee’s faults that persisted throughout his career: failure to take charge of the battlefield and overly complex and ineffective battle orders. Appointed to command the Army of Northern Virginia, in the “slaughter on the Peninsula,” Lee manifested another characteristic, a liking for costly frontal attacks that produced “losses that the outmanned Confederates simply could not absorb.” Bonekemper asserts, simply did not understand Civil War ordnance and his leadership “squandered the Confederacy’s chances of winning the war.”
Before going on to address the main body of the book it might be well to just state that I write this review not as a denial to the author’s claims but as an assessment of its value as a fair conclusion to arrive at when reviewing all the facts. In doing so I do not intend to misrepresent Robert Lee, that he made mistakes, sometimes costly ones are undeniable. The body of recent literature is clear in moving away from his earlier portrayal in the “Lost Cause” style of early post-war portrayals of him. Furthermore, I must point out I’m not a Southerner or a Civil Right movement follower, I’m not even an American, although I must admit to being an admirer of Lee and his campaigns. I do not intend to influence any potential reader as to the right or wrong of this book, I believe any serious student of the Civil War or military history is quite capable of making their own minds up.
Because of Lee’s reckless offensive strategy and tactics, Lee’s battles, won or lost, were failures. His masterpiece at Chancellorsville was really a “victory that wasn’t” because “the Confederates destroyed themselves in frontal attacks on the Union’s defenders.” Bonekemper rejects the Gettysburg scapegoating of J.E.B. Stuart, Richard Ewell, and James Longstreet and attributes their problems to the commanding general. He also charges Lee with the Confederacy’s defeat in the West. He argues that Lee should have cooperated with efforts to reinforce the Western armies from his own force and should have used himself to prevent the appointment of John Bell Hood to command of the Army of Tennessee.
Also, Bonekemper is bitter about Lee’s carrying on the war after it was lost, and this was plain: the war should have been abandoned by the South as of the beginning of the partial siege at Petersburg, surely when Lincoln was reelected, or at several climaxes thereafter. Bonekemper argues, for example, that “On December 31, 1864, less than half of the Confederacy’s soldiers were present with their units. Therefore, 1865 should have witnessed no fighting. But Lee had yet to call a halt to the bloody proceedings. Thousands of deaths that year were a macabre tribute to his chivalry and sense of honor or duty.”
The author’s opinions as to Lee resigning once “defeat became obvious” shows a clear lack of understanding of the main subject of the book: Robert Lee himself and of Western military convention. It has long been standard in Western Armies that whilst a General may offer his resignation, if it is not accepted, he will continue. This is because, in a western army, whilst a General has the right to resign his men do not, and as a result Generals have traditionally considered resignation in wartime desertion. To suggest Lee should have done what he would undoubtedly have considered tantamount to desertion and abandoning his post, shows a worryingly lack of knowledge about General Lee.
“There were some states rights obstructionism in the Confederacy: that was only to be – and was far less than might have been – expected. There were class tensions: there are in any state. There was war weariness: there always is. But even in 1864-5, letters, diaries and newspapers reveal a tenacious popular will rooted in a sense of national community.
As the war progressed, Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia embodied the Confederacy in the minds of most white Southerners. Lee’s military success sustained Southern hopes. Contemporaries understood the centrality of military events to national morale and, by extension, to the outcome of the war. In his second inaugural address Lincoln spoke of the ‘progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends’. But for victories at Atlanta and in the Shenandoah Valley, Lincoln might well have lost the 1864 election. Lee won many, but in the end not enough, victories. The prestige and symbolic importance of the Army of Northern Virginia were such that few Southerners contemplated serious resistance after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, despite the fact that he surrendered only a fraction of Southerners under arms in April 1865. Appomattox was the end of the Confederacy.” (History today)
Lee failed to recognize the need to adjust outdated tactics to effectively counter the extensive use of rifles. These modern rifles increased the effective range of the ordinary soldier’s shoulder weapon–from a smooth bore’s 50 yards to something like 700 yards. And, Lee still used the massed charge against entrenched troops, rather than maneuver into a defensible position from which to force the enemy to initiate attack. the book does contain some useful statistics in regard to casualties. In many ways casualty statistics is what the book boils down to. The casualty figures reveal the terrible cost of the Civil War in particular and warfare in general. Warfare is risky, if you do not want to suffer casualties then do not fight wars. It should always be borne in mind that no matter how thorough or clever the plan or maneuver, ultimately there will always come a point when the infantry must advance and engage the enemy. The historian Bonekemper is well aware of basing any argument purely on statistics especially when they are viewed out of context of all other consideration and influence on events.
It is Bonekemper’s contention that, given the Confederacy’s limited men and resources, Lee should have adopted a defensive strategy. This would then have forced the Union to invade the South where Lee could, by waging a guerrilla campaign, wear away the Union will to fight, foreshadowing what happened to the US during the Vietnam War one hundred years later.
Bonekemper, Edward H., III. How Robert E Lee Lost the Civil War. N.p.: Sergeant Kirkland’s, 1998. Print.
“Why Was the Confederacy Defeated?” Why Was the Confederacy Defeated? | History Today. N.p., 4 Sept. 2005. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.