Tactical strengths and strategic weaknesses mark John D. McKenzie’s reassessment of Robert E. Lee’s generalship. The strengths of this book are many. The weaknesses, however, undercut the very point that the author attempts to make; namely, that Lee was at best an average military leader, and that Lee’s apologists have given us a biased view of the great man. Moreover, the book is informed by certain unstated philosophical presuppositions of which the reader needs to be aware.

What is more, proofreading and double-checking of facts does not seem to be the forte of the editors at Hippocrene Books. Misspelled words are the most annoying problem, and they increase in number as one progresses through the book: Chattahoochee (p. 258), Oostanaula (p. 265), Kennesaw (p. 264), Manassas (p. 320), infection (p. 335), and cannon (several times) are all misspelled. Furthermore, the index is sketchy and unreliable. This lack of precision in a book whose thesis is based on the precision of numbers tends to undermine confidence in the author’s argument.

It is true, as McKenzie claims, that Lee’s reputation was exaggerated by Southern historians from 1870 to 1940. Lee has been a saint, an icon, almost a demigod in the mythic imagination of the South for well over a century. A correction of this viewpoint is surely overdue. After such elevation, iconoclasm is inevitable: the postmodern outlook specializes in deconstruction and demolition. While McKenzie’s book will infuriate some, for Southern partisans like myself it might, on steady reflection, be considered an ironic antidote to postmodern materialism itself.

That Uncertain Glory appears even as a reconsideration of James Longstreet’s generalship is under way (see William G. Piston’s Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant) is no accident, for the two Confederate leaders’ reputations have been linked since at least the 1870’s. Southern historians have long blamed Longstreet for the defeat at Gettysburg. Clearly, however, the defeat stemmed from Lee’s frontal assault and not in any hesitation on Longstreet’s part. When, after the war, Longstreet turned Republican, the vilification of the man was bitter; so bitter, in fact, that Longstreet until recently was the only high-ranking Confederate officer whose memory was not honored by statuary. Thus McKenzie’s book is a useful corrective to the skewed reputations of these two talented warriors.

McKenzie argues forcefully that Lee’s tactics and strategies—and those of almost all other Civil War generals. North and South—were based on military assumptions received from the Napoleonic Wars and, especially, the Mexican War. Yet, advancing arms technology, rifled musket and cannon in particular, had made these older strategies obsolete. That elder generals on both sides were slow to appreciate the destructive power of the new technology is undeniably true; the generals, Union and Confederate, who rose to prominence on both sides were the younger ones able to modify tactics to take advantage of changed circumstances. Of these. Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan on the Union side, and Jackson and Forrest on the Confederate, are clear examples.

In regard to the futility of direct assault on heavily defended positions, McKenzie is on target. Pickett’s Charge was without doubt Lee’s most disastrous tactical blunder, and may be considered the turning point of the war. Whether this single military order was emblematic of Lee’s generalship is another matter. McKenzie’s insistence on the superiority of a defensive stance against increased and longer-range firepower is justified by a few examples, including Grant’s attack at Cold Harbor and the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. As I walk the killing fields of Kennesaw National Battlefield Park, near my home, I often wonder why Sherman attacked an enemy so well entrenched. The earthworks, still visible in some places, were extensive. The so-called Dead Angle at Cheatham Hill earned its name, as far as the Union soldiers were concerned. Only a flanking movement, typical of Sherman, forced Joseph E. Johnston out of his works, back to the Smyrna-Ruff’s Mill line, and into the Atlanta fortifications. McKenzie’s criticism of what he considers to be excessively aggressive tactics is reinforced when one compares the relatively light casualties suffered by Johnston, the master of defense, during the Georgia campaign with the appalling losses of his successor, the audaciously belligerent John Bell Hood who squandered an army in reckless attacks and lost Atlanta for the Confederacy. (Interestingly, Hood was a young general.)

Perhaps the most outstanding merit of this volume is its meticulous marshaling of statistics, eyewitness accounts, and other primary sources. McKenzie has assembled an impressive battery of information from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, and other materials. His basic contention, based on these sources, is that Lee was a poor general whose Virginian provincialism, urge to offensive tactics, and old-fashioned view of battle made victory impossible for the Confederacy. Other historians, however, are likely to reach different conclusions, based on the same evidence. McKenzie’s contribution to the debate is that he has marched new (or largely forgotten) facts to front and center where they can be inspected by historians and Civil War enthusiasts alike.

While the tactical gains of this book through a fresh look at the facts of Lee’s generalship are striking, the strategic losses incurred by a weak perspective on them reveal the author’s own bias and limitation. The Lost Cause was consigned to the grave in 1865. But no cause is ultimately lost, or dead, if it has the stamp of truth on it. Glory, by its nature, is never uncertain.


[Uncertain Glory: Lee’s Generalship Re-Examined, by John D. McKenzie (New York: Hippocrene Books) 384 pp., $29.95]