How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War

by Edward H. Bonekemper, Fredericksburg, Sgt. Kirkland's Press, 1997


The premise of this work is incredible: that George McClellan would have sought peace with the CSA had he been elected president in 1864, and that therefore the Rebels need merely have engineered his election by holding more territory, better and longer in order to get their way.

Is there anywhere a single historian who holds that view? The author of this work apparently has never heard of one either because -- in an extensively notated book -- he relies on his own arguments exclusively to put this assertion across. I will quote his arguments in full:

"... the South could have negotiated an acceptable peace with the compromising McClellan. Although some have contended that McClellan would not have allowed the South to remain outside the Union, he often had demonstrated his reticence to engage in the offensive warfare necessary for the Union to prevail; he also had demonstrated great concern about southerners' property rights in slaves."

That's it, the premise of this book. It is repeated almost verbatim a second time later on, in case you skipped the introduction.

If he had left McClellan out of it, Edward H. Bonekemper III would have had a fighting chance. His book could more aptly have been titled, "How Robert E. Lee Wasted the Lives of His Soldiers." This is not a hard thing to prove and the author ties together all available strands of Lee criticism, such as Connely's Marble Man, McWhiney and Jamieson's Attack and Die, etc. He then jumps to the conclusion that Lee's expenditure of lives debilitated Secessia rather than strengthened it. He has no grasp of the paradox posed by Lee's extending the war by wasting lives in campaigns that excited CSA imagination and support. Furthermore, it does not occur to him that Lee's casualty list might have served a "political" purpose in demonstrating to the rest of the CSA the overriding importance of the Virginia theatre to the cause and its first claim on manpower and other resources.

If the North's 1864 elections mark the CSA finish line, did not Lee enable the South to reach that line at all? Friends of Lee might rightly wonder if, had Johnston not fallen and Lee not stepped in, would there have been a Confederacy after 1862? Many think not. Lee's early reputaion hinges on his stopping McClellan outside Richmond and once Lincoln removed McClellan from command, Lee, in a sense, owned the Civil War and it was his to do with as he pleased, extending it or shortening it, Bonekemper or no Bonekemper.

There are more than a few good points here, however. The work is written by an enthusiast, on a contrarian theme, published in beautiful style by a small press, and distributed to mammoth chain stores (where I found my copy). Applause is due on all these counts. I also found the revival of the measure called "hit ratios" fascinating. By the way, McClellan severely embarasses Lee in hit ratio analysis, but Bonekemper dislikes McClellan and so discounts the usefulness of hit ratios in McClellan's special case only. Hmmm.

Bonekemper made my day with a table comparing various historians' force strength estimates (which is reproduced in a related review on this site, that of Fishel's Secret War for the Union). Historians who confidently assert that McClellan had his enemy estimates wrong are shown to be absolutely all over the playing field with their own estimates.

The good does not outweigh the bad, however, and the crux of Bonekemper's failure is this. He subscribes to the prevailing battlemindedness in CW historiography and takes it down to the next level of primitivism, which is statistical analysis. This makes for a a final stop at a place where Lee ranks far, far below Bragg in capability. Thus the "novelty" of this work, its special thrill, is that it applies the current wisdom against the leading beneficiary of the current wisdom, Mr. Robert E. Lee.

If you believe in warrior generals, if you believe battle management = generalship, come ride your petard. Bonekemper is hoisting fast and furiously.

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(c) 1998 The McClellan Society