Robert E. Lee and His High Command

Course No. 8557
Professor Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D.
University of Virginia
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Course No. 8557
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Course Overview

Few events have captivated students of American history like the Civil War. Its battles are analyzed repeatedly, studied and "what-ifed" by professional tacticians and tireless amateurs. Its profoundly dramatic implications and moments have no parallels in our history, whether it be friend fighting friend, the end of slavery, or an entire society and way of life burned away, sometimes literally. The war's most striking personalities seem somehow magnified—and few among those personalities have ever held our attention like General Robert Edward Lee.

An Embodiment of the Confederacy Itself

With his Army of Northern Virginia, he came to embody the cause of the Confederacy itself, inspiring a commitment from troops and civilians that eventually overshadowed even those given to its political leaders and institutions.

How did this come to pass?

In a war that produced no other successful Confederate armies, how was Robert E. Lee able to create and inspire an army whose achievements resonated not only across the Confederacy but also in the North, as well as in foreign capitals such as London and Paris?

Answers to the Most-Asked Questions about Lee

This course addresses and answers the most-asked questions about Robert E. Lee and the men he chose to serve under him:

  • What was Lee actually like?
  • Was he someone whose character and ideas—as some have claimed—were mired in the past?
  • Was he really an "old-fashioned" general who was too much of a traditionalist and gentleman to fight the kind of modern, ruthless war demanded by the times?
  • Or was he a brilliant and aggressive strategist and tactician who understood exactly the kind of war he would need to wage, the size of his window of opportunity, and the kind of senior officers he would need if his strategy was to succeed?
  • How did he choose those officers, and what personal and tactical characteristics did they share?
  • What experiences shaped them?
  • Why did they succeed or fail?
  • How did what happened on the war’s extraordinarily bloody battlefields influence public opinion on the home fronts of both the Confederacy and the Union?
  • And how did that opinion, in turn, shape the actions of Lee and his officers?

Gain a New Understanding of How the War Unfolded

This course addresses these and other issues with an approach designed to appeal to everyone who wants to understand more about the Civil War and why it unfolded as it did:

  • It’s a course that will appeal whether your interest is in the strategy and tactics underlying its major battles or in the broader context within which those battles took place.
  • If you’re relatively new to exploring this conflict, these lectures offer a refreshingly balanced starting point.
  • And if you’re already knowledgeable, this course will deepen your appreciation of the decisions made by Lee and his generals and the implications they had both on and off the battlefield.

Perhaps more than anything else, you gain a tremendous depth of insight into how those decisions were a function of the individuals who made them. You learn how Lee’s choices in elevating these 15 men to high command influenced, for better or worse, the course of the war.

Guiding you through this human and strategic drama is Professor Gary W. Gallagher, whose 48-lecture course on The American Civil War remains one of our most popular.

Professor Gallagher’s teaching, writing, and research skills have made him one of the most respected Civil War authorities in the world.

Meet the Men Who Waged the Confederacy’s War

As you would expect, these lectures contain vivid portraits of the men whose names are familiar to anyone with even a passing curiosity about this great conflict:

  • Lee himself, whose striking appearance undoubtedly helped contribute to the almost mystical aura with which many authors have endowed him but whose experiences serving under the famous Winfield Scott in the war with Mexico taught him invaluable practical lessons about modern warfare.
  • Lee’s skill at managing military resources and his awareness that audacity and ruthless aggressiveness can contribute to victory against a more powerful opponent threatened to disrupt the Union war effort more than once.
  • "Stonewall" Jackson, whose dogged purpose and initiative helped forge, with Lee, a military partnership second only to that of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
  • "Jeb" Stuart, the great cavalryman whose flamboyant battle dress, complete with scarlet-lined cape, yellow sash, and an ostrich plume in his hat, belied his superb skills at reconnaissance and screening, the crucial responsibilities of Civil War cavalry
  • James Longstreet, whom Lee warmly greeted as "my old war-horse" and who served as Lee’s senior subordinate throughout Lee’s tenure at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia.

And you’ll meet others as well, from the profane and acerbic Jubal A. Early, a West Pointer who had chosen law over the military before joining the Confederate forces, to a fascinating group of younger officers.

You also learn how Lee’s officers were often distinguished by extraordinary aggressiveness and courage on the battlefield, often at great personal cost.

A Human-Sized Look At the War

Among them was a young general named Stephen Dodson Ramseur, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Cedar Creek.

The retreating medical wagon carrying him from the battlefield was captured by Union forces. And Professor Gallagher paints a deeply moving scene of several Union officers who had been cadets with Ramseur at West Point—including George Armstrong Custer—coming to sit with him through the night until he died.

This West Point connection was not an isolated incident.

With a wealth of officers who had been trained at West Point—Lee himself had been superintendent—along with those who had come from prestigious academies such as the Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel, the Confederacy had a distinct advantage in the depth of its officer corps.

This was especially evident during the first two years of the war, when many young Union officers were still gaining experience in military basics.

The Confederacy’s Extraordinary Problem of Attrition

Ramseur’s death also illuminates the extraordinary problem of attrition faced by Lee.

You learn that in this last war in which generals actually commanded from the front, attrition among the Confederacy’s generals sometimes exceeded 25 to 30 percent in a single campaign.

The struggle to replace them forms a leitmotif throughout the history of Lee’s army.

Examine the Idea of the "Lost Cause"

Professor Gallagher concludes the course with a highly critical look at the body of post-war writings embodying the viewpoint that came to be known as the "Lost Cause."

This viewpoint, much of it orchestrated by Jubal Early, shunted aside the issue of slavery and used States’ rights and other arguments to defend the Confederacy’s actions. It emphasized Lee’s greatness and the Union’s massive advantage in men and other resources.

You learn that although most modern historians have long abandoned it, the "Lost Cause" continues to be evident in popular conceptions of the war.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia
    Professor Gary W. Gallagher begins by examining the factors that helped make Lee and his army the most important national institution in the Confederacy long before the end of the war. x
  • 2
    The Making of a Confederate General
    Robert E. Lee's early military career affords him a range of experiences and highlights disparate talents that will influence his role as the Confederacy's most famous field commander, even though many would not have predicted success. x
  • 3
    Lee’s Year of Fabled Victories
    Lee's first year in command of the Army of Northern Virginia catapults him to a position of unequaled fame and popularity, cementing a remarkable bond with his soldiers that would endure during the trying times ahead. x
  • 4
    Lee From Gettysburg to Appomattox
    Lee and his army continue to carry the hopes of the Confederacy on their bayonets through the remainder of the war. His surrender to Grant represents the practical end of the war. x
  • 5
    Was Lee an Old-Fashioned General?
    This lecture examines one of the most common portrayals of Lee—as a throwback to an earlier style of warfare, far different from the modern approach attributed to the Union's Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. x
  • 6
    The Making of the Mighty “Stonewall” Jackson
    With this lecture, focus shifts to Lee's most famous subordinate, a once-obscure military instructor whose battlefield record won him renown as Lee's "right arm." x
  • 7
    Stonewall Jackson as Lee’s “Right Arm”
    Lee and Jackson form a legendary partnership, with Lee developing strategic plans that often place Jackson in the role of a semi-independent commander. x
  • 8
    James Longstreet’s Road to Prominence
    James Longstreet stands next to Jackson as one of Lee's two premier lieutenants. With the loss of Jackson at the war's midpoint, he stands unchallenged as Lee's most important subordinate and the Confederacy's best corps commander. x
  • 9
    Longstreet’s Later Confederate Career
    The last two years of Longstreet's Confederate career include more negative than positive experiences, though at the time of surrender, none of Lee's senior subordinates stand higher in his estimation. x
  • 10
    The Rise of Jubal Anderson Early
    Experienced as a lawyer rather than a soldier, this West Point graduate's ability to function in a semiautonomous manner impresses Lee and sets him apart from most of his peers in the army. x
  • 11
    Early’s Path to Defeat
    This lecture examines operations in 1864 and 1865, during which Early justifies Lee's confidence in his abilities yet suffers a series of defeats that eventually brings his removal from command. x
  • 12
    “Jeb” Stuart as Soldier and Showman
    The gaudy trappings affected by this superb officer cannot obscure his superior record as a cavalryman whose skills at reconnaissance and screening—the crucial tasks of Civil War cavalry forces—are unexcelled on either side. x
  • 13
    One Promotion Too Many—A. P. Hill
    We shift our focus to the first of two famous commanders who never fulfilled their early promise and stand as examples of soldiers promoted beyond their levels of competence. x
  • 14
    Forced from Center Stage—Richard S. Ewell
    Richard Stoddert Ewell's record, like that of A. P. Hill, marks him as one who cannot make the transition from division to corps command. x
  • 15
    A Straight-Ahead Fighter—John Bell Hood
    Though few so personify the type of offensive spirit Lee seeks in his officer corps, John Bell Hood's lack of the administrative and political skills needed for high command make failure the dominant feature of his record. x
  • 16
    Could Robert E. Lee Make Hard Decisions?
    Though both historians and Lee's own contemporaries have accused him of being too much of a gentleman to make hard personnel decisions, the historical record suggests otherwise. x
  • 17
    The Problem of Attrition
    With battlefield attrition among generals sometimes exceeding 25-30 percent in a single campaign, Lee's efforts to replace officers wounded or killed forms a leitmotif throughout the history of his army. x
  • 18
    Younger Officers I—Robert Emmett Rodes
    This is the first of four lectures examining a group of talented junior commanders who climb rapidly to positions of considerable authority and directly control much of the most successful fighting in the army's history. x
  • 19
    Younger Officers II—Stephen Dodson Ramseur
    Stephen Dodson Ramseur shares a number of characteristics with Rodes and other successful young officers, including aggressiveness on the battlefield, conspicuous bravery that inspires his soldiers, and a habit of getting wounded that ultimately costs him his life. x
  • 20
    Younger Officers III—John Brown Gordon
    Though entering Confederate service with no formal military training, John Brown Gordon's record compares favorably to those of all but a handful of the most accomplished Confederate generals in the eastern theater. x
  • 21
    Younger Officers IV—Edward Porter Alexander
    "One of a very few whom General Lee would not give to anybody," this young artillerist's eye for ground, grasp of artillery tactics, and overall brilliance places him in a position to affect the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. x
  • 22
    Gifted but Flawed—J. E. Johnston and Beauregard
    Though they consider themselves Lee's peers—if not his superiors—as field commanders, the records of Joseph E. Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard reveal an absence of the key attributes that helped fuel Lee's accomplishments. x
  • 23
    Drama and Failure—Magruder and Pickett
    The careers of both John Bankhead Magruder and George Edward Pickett reveal much about what Lee required in his senior leadership. x
  • 24
    Before the Bar of History—The Lost Cause
    This final lecture critically examines an interpretation of the war that remained influential for many decades afterward and continues to be evident in popular conceptions of the war. x

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Your professor

Gary W. Gallagher

About Your Professor

Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D.
University of Virginia
Dr. Gary W. Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia. He graduated from Adams State College of Colorado and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to teaching at UVA, he was Professor of History at The Pennsylvania State University. Professor Gallagher is one of the leading historians of the Civil War. His...
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Reviews

Robert E. Lee and His High Command is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 96.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Overview of Commanders Prof. Gallagher is one of the foremost Civil War experts. He gives a brief biography of each General before giving a thorough overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each. Prof. Gallagher doesn't whitewash their faults nor excessively praise them either. You will learn exactly when and where they performed best and worst, and in a few cases Prof. Gallagher illustrates just where popular perception is wrong.
Date published: 2020-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Robert E Lee and his high command Enjoyed the video and the book that accompanied it as well. Lots of great new information.
Date published: 2020-05-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Super Course! I have read several books on the Civil War, each with lots of information about Robert E. Lee. But this course is a must see for anyone interested in a "down to earth" and detailed account of Lee and his generals. This oral presentation converts Lee and the war from dry history to what almost seems like a current event. This is made possible by Professor Gallagher's insights which combines scholarship with a teaching style that is easy to understand. The result is a experience that seems immediate, not historical. I think what is most interesting is how Lee is presented in human terms (i.e. personality) and how his judgements and decisions were based not only on military considerations but also political and emotional considerations. I have never gotten this treatment to this extent in any of my reading. I very much recommend this course, and of course, Dr. Gallagher.
Date published: 2020-05-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from In-Depth Treatise of the Confederate High Command One of the only positives of quarantine was the opportunity to finally get around to reading/watching things I had long meant to get to. So it was that deep in the dark days of COVID19 I purchased this course from the Great Courses. Although it was audio-only (and I would have really liked a few or even just one slide say of General Lee to be shown during playback) the lectures themselves are very insightful and afford a glimpse of the Confederate High Command that I had never thought possible. Professor Gallagher is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate on this topic and it comes through in spades in his lectures. I feel I have a greatly enhanced knowledge of the Civil War and quite aside from any political analysis of the motives or beliefs of that time, I was more concerned with the real people and their personal stories who lived and died for their country. I thought the lectures would be overkill and could not imagine how the 24 sessions would be filled but at the end of it I could only ask for more. Kudos to Professor Gallagher and the Great Courses for another superlative effort.
Date published: 2020-04-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really enjoyed the course I have had the hobby of reading about the Civil War history for over 40 years and I thought this course by Gary Gallagher was great. I hated to see it end.
Date published: 2020-04-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Spellbinding Prof Gallagher is one of the better profs I've had in the Great Courses DVDs. He made me feel like I was witnessing Civil War events as they were actually happening. No nodding off in his lectures!
Date published: 2020-04-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Best Lecturer Gives OK Course Dr. Gallagher is the best lecturer I have ever heard. His 48 lecture course on the Civil War is a masterpiece. He is just as good in delivering these 24 lectures on Lee's subordinates, but I was not so keenly interested in the careers of the different CSA generals to love the course. The series on the Civil War is worth listening to again and again. The course on Lee's generals is once-is-enough.
Date published: 2020-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Robert E. Lee and His Motley Crew Professor Gallagher of UVA has a unique approach to the study of the Civil War: he integrates the outcome of the many Civil Wsr battles with the varied personalities and erratic behaviors of Lee’s high level officers. His last lecture brings the Civil Warnal the way to the 21st Century as the influence of the Confederacy is slowly waning but not without a fight. A glossary, biographical notes, timelines, and 2 maps of important sites help someone with minimal knowledge of the Civil War follow the presentation
Date published: 2020-02-03
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