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 85.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The professor is excited and so are we Southern generals have been a topic of interest to us for decades. This course has helped immensely. Professor Gallagher's enthusiasm, admittedly falling on friendly ears,is contagious and would probably affect even the mildly interested. He distinguishes between fact and his personal opinions. While we have 6 lectures to go, he has so far been objective.
Date published: 2019-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great! And Now for the Union I quite liked Professor Gallagher’s section in the “History of the United States” and gave his course on the Civil War five stars across the board. Therefore I had high expectations regarding this course. And those expectations were met. Dr. Gallagher’s delivery is smooth and for me he does not push the pace, although some other reviewers have found him to be occasionally rushed. His delivery conveys a confident competence as to the subject matter and in his interpretation of each General’s abilities, triumphs and failings. Often Dr. Gallagher, when stressing a point where some others disagree with his assessment says “well they must not have read …”. At other times he allows for some considerable diversion of opinion. The course itself is laid out in terms of individual analysis of each selected General, with Lee getting by far the largest number of lectures devoted to him as well as the numerous references during the other lectures. Key subordinates Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet and Jubal Early each get two lectures, while the other selected Generals get one lecture each and in some cases share a lecture with another General. Dr. Gallagher takes time for an occasional detour from the biographical approach to devote a lecture to a topic such as “Was Lee an Old-Fashioned General” or “The Problem of Attrition”. Included in these side topics is the last lecture on “The Lost Cause”, perhaps my favorite lecture of them all. In this course Professor Gallagher takes a slightly differing and more direct approach than the slightly more nuanced one in the concluding lecture on the Civil War. Here he hits the nail on the head, countering the apologists who claim that the war was not about the slavery issue. And it is not surprising that this concluding lecture has been set up in preceding lectures that included the positions taken by some of the various Generals both before and during the war. The portraits of General Lee and his generals are finely drawn. Even for those about whom I thought that I knew quite well, there were a few surprises and in every case I felt that I had a better understating of the General as a man—warts and all. I thought that the discussion as to what Lee expected from his subordinates and what he was willing to tolerate and what he was not, I found particularly enlightening (at one point Dr. Gallagher compares Lee’s difficulties in having to deal with prima donna Generals to General Eisenhower waking up each morning and realizing that he still had both Patton and Montgomery in the same army). I learned the most about the younger officers, whose names and (some of their) actions I had known, but was completely clueless about their lives and views. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a long-held interest in the war and that likely colors my review. Still, get the course. I took it in audio and that seemed sufficient. Those who don’t have a sense of Civil War battles and geography may like to opt for the video version. And along with many other reviewers, I am still waiting for a course on the Union Generals.
Date published: 2019-02-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Balanced and insightful Prof Gallagher speaks of Gen Lee as a truly superior person, which is how almost everyone who knew Lee seemed to think of him. I gained new insights from this course. The Lost Cause writings of the post-War period elevated Lee into a godlike figure, which happens from time to time. People and nations do this because they seem to need a figure that rises above all others. Certainly this elevation occurred in the national perception of George Washington in the 1820's. He became larger than life because the nation needed a unifying figure. More recently, in the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal became Ataturk, "Father Turk" after he transformed the former Ottoman culture into the modern nation it is today. His people needed him to be larger than life. So too with R.E. Lee. The crushed South needed his legend to give form and purpose to the mind-numbing devastation, death, and destruction that resulted from the War. But what was the purpose of that War? All my life, I have thought there were two purposes based on where people lived--Emancipation at the north, and States' Rights in the South. Prof. Gallagher has helped me see that there really was only one cause, and that cause was slavery. Makes sense. Follow the money. He points to the 1860 and 1861 speeches of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, both of whom emphatically declared they were going to war to preserve slavery and the way of life supported by slavery. Another thing Prof Gallagher taught me. I have never thought that Gettysburg was the turning point of the War. It's just not that simple, but I never understood why. Gettysburg was the last opportunity for the Confederacy to win the War by military prowess, but the last opportunity to lose the war came in the summer and fall of 1864, culminating in the national Presidential election. In that election, the United States reaffirmed President Lincoln's policies and sealed the Confederacy's fate. The election could have easily swung the other way for the Peace candidacy of George McClellan. Thus, there were two turning points, and I thank Prof Gallagher for helping me understand all this.
Date published: 2018-10-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Accurate description of material I found this series of lectures to be very informative. I have only 1 area of disagreement. The professor stated that Stonewall Jackson's tactics were weak. If this was the case, why has our Armor school at Ft. Knox, Ky. made his tactics a lmportant part of their officer's training coures for Lt's, Majors, Colonels, and General's. I had the privilege to attend two of these. I also portray him for the W.Va History Alive! and have done extensive reseach on him for the passed eight years. I will admit that he had some faults and made a few misjudments; however to state he was tactically weak or unsound is blatantly wrong. That made me question whether there were errors made about other subjects in the lecture that I was not that familiar with?
Date published: 2018-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Leadership During Chaotic Times! This course is well written, presented with enthusiasm and entertaining for the listener! I immensely enjoyed Dr. Gallagher's presentation style and the thoroughness of his research. Not only does the professor describe and define the very details of General Lee's uniform and horse, he vividly paints a picture of the battle scenes to place the listener within the chaotic battle. By examining the history and experiences of most of General Lee's leadership corp, one can, easily, gain an understanding of the flaws and strengths of each general. Too many of the generals were indecisive at critical points of battle or we would be a separated nation to this day. The time invested in this course will pay dividends for years to come! I am a fan of this era of U.S. History and was facing difficulty stopping the course to gain some sleep. Excellent course and one that will be enjoyed by any person who truly wants to understand history.
Date published: 2018-04-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Worthwhile Being a big fan of The Great Courses, most of my reviews are strong endorsements for courses that have been particularly impressive which I would like recommend to others. True, there have also been a couple of strongly negative reviews for courses that seemed to miss the mark and in my opinion were best avoided. This is my first ‘middling’ review - it was good, glad I listened, but could have been better. I imagine that most listeners look for the same things from a Great Course that I do - some deep insights that give us a new perspective, some interesting ‘nuggets’ of the ‘take home message’ variety, and some entertainment. Prof. Gallagher’s overall main insight is very interesting - that during the course of the Civil War there were only three men - Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, and Jubal Early, from all the officers available to the Army of Northern Virginia, capable of command at the corps level. Many others did quite well as divisional commanders but were found wanting when they were promoted. Part of this was undoubtedly the structure of the army, which was divided into only two, then three corps. At Gettysburg, for example, the 90,000 Union troops were in seven corps, the 70,000 confederate troops were in three. Expecting one general to control a corps of 25,000 to 30,000 men was apparently a mistake. Paradoxically, the Union army could never find a good commanding general of the army, but developed several very solid commanders for their smaller corps. Most readers with knowledge of the Civil war are aware of this, but the fact that only three men arose who could handle the task is a valuable insight. The course is divided into several sections - Lee’s generalship, Jackson and Longstreet, the corps commanders who didn’t get the job done, and promising younger commanders who might have been promoted. The section on Jackson and Longstreet, easily the most interesting, is very repetitive. Prof Gallager’s main point is that Jackson was better at independent command while Longstreet was the better battlefield tactician under Lee’s direct supervision. Honestly, this oft repeated argument is not convincing. The case against Jackson is made based on deficiencies in the Seven Days Battles and Fredericksburg, in both of which Jackson was successful. Yes, it is true Longstreet bungled badly in his one true independent command, the Knoxville campaign against Burnside, but by far Longsteeet’s best performance was at Chickamauga, where he was virtually an independent commander. Given their personalities and relationship, one can hardly imagine Longstreet would take any orders from Braxton Bragg more specific than ‘ Put your Corps in the right flank.’ The sections on Early, and on Rhodes, Ramseur, Gordon and other promising younger generals, are largely confined to the second Shenandoah campaign - (not “Jackson’s” but “Sheridan’s”. )You will learn a LOT about this campaign and, honestly, having occurred after Gettysburg, the Wilderness etc etc, where the issue of the war had already been decided, this is a bit of an afterthought. Had any of the younger generals proven themselves worthy of corps command, (almost all were killed), it would not have mattered as there was little left to command. All in all a good listen, an interesting comparison of the eccentric Jackson and the stolid Longstreet and how Lee attempted generally with great success, until Jackson’s death, to utilize the talents of each, but with a bit too much ‘dead space’ to rank with the best of The Great Courses’ offerings.
Date published: 2018-01-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very good presentation. Exposed to much detail previous unknown reference Confederacy.
Date published: 2017-12-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Strengths and Weaknesses An in-depth account of the strengths and weaknesses of the command structure of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Date published: 2017-10-12
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