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Civil War Round Table of Kansas City

October 2023

At the dinner meeting on October 18th, Dr. Ethan S. Rafuse, professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, gave an excellent presentation titled: “Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy, 1863- 1865.” Attendance at the October dinner meeting was 65. The following is a summary of Dr. Rafuse’s program:

At Chancellorsville VA on May 2-3, 1863, Robert E. Lee divided his army and Stonewall Jackson routed the Union right flank. After two days of bloody fighting, Union General Joseph Hooker decided to retreat. This was Lee’s great pinnacle of triumph. However, two years later, Lee surrendered. 

On March 9, 1865, Lee wrote to Secretary of War, John C. Breckenridge and gave his assessment of the Confederate fortunes. The military situation was not favorable. Lee had seen defeat coming for a long time.

Confederate Strategy, April 1861-May 1862:

The Approach:

  • Defensive strategically.
  • Defensive operationally.
  • Attempt to cover all avenues of approach.


  • Middle and western Tennessee is lost.
  • Union coastal enclaves in NC, SC, GA, LA.
  • Manassas, Fredericksburg, Yorktown, and Norfolk VA are lost.
  • McClellan is at the gates of Richmond.

The Confederacy tries to defend all states equally. Although the Confederates won at Manassas and Wilson’s Creek, their strategy allowed the Union to pick and choose where to fight. Union General McClellan wants to use artillery, the navy, and fortifications to dig into Richmond. This will take a long time and Lee is forced to change the Confederate strategy.

Confederate Strategy, June 1862-May 1864:

“Offensive-Defensive” Approach:

  • Strategic defensive.
  • Operational offensive.
  • Concentrate forces in field armies.
  • Take initiative to impose a war of maneuver.
  • Exhaust Northern will to fight.


  • Richmond saved.
  • Central Virginia regained.
  • Union offensives stalled in the west.
  • Confederate hearts and minds sustained.
  • Union frustration until 1864.

The Union has more men, artillery, etc. The Confederates have less, but can maneuver and move faster. The goal is to inflict enough defeats on the Union, in order to exhaust the North’s will to fight.

Will the Confederates stay loyal to the Confederacy? It works until the spring of 1864.

Richmond to Sharpsburg and Back, 1862-1863:

Lincoln did not like McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. Lee defeats Union General Pope’s army and advances into Maryland. McClellan moves slowly into Maryland and takes no risks. McClellan hopes that his plan will exhaust the Confederates. Following the battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam), Lee has to retreat back to Virginia. Burnside is defeated at Fredericksburg. Hooker tries to fight like Lee but is defeated at Chancellorsville.

Making of Confederate Strategy, May 1863:

Lee wants to take the offensive into Pennsylvania. Hopefully, this will break the Northern will to fight. Lincoln gets the casualty numbers at Fredericksburg. If the North fights like this, Lee will lose more men that he cannot afford to lose. This is the cold arithmetic of attrition. Stonewall Jackson is frustrated. The Confederates can win a battle, but they can’t do anything with it. The attrition at Chancellorsville is not good. Jackson is wounded by his own men and later dies.

Lee is then authorized to go fight the Gettysburg Campaign. Hooker is replaced by Meade, who will fight a McClellan type campaign. The Union wants to fight Lee on the Union’s terms.

The Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863:

  • Day 1: Lee’s army runs into Union forces northwest of Gettysburg. This is what Lee is looking for. He wants to crush the Union advance by using a mass of the Confederate army against part of the Union army. Two Union Corps are isolated and the Confederates win a big victory on July 1.
  • Day 2: Transition Day. The Union wants to concentrate superior numbers. The battle transitions from a Lee type of battle to a Meade/McClellan type of battle. This leaves Lee no good option.
  • Day 3: Lee’s infantry fights against Meade’s artillery. Pickett’s charge fails, but what was Lee’s alternative?

The Hard Road to Petersburg – Overland Campaign:

U.S. Grant is now in charge of the Union army. Lee wants an aggressive campaign. Grant has troubles fighting Lee at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. However, the attritional results are worse for the Confederates. Grant keeps moving south. Lee has to confront Grant. Grant gets close to Richmond. Grant looks at the campaign and wants to work with the Union navy. In June of 1864, Lee says he must destroy Grant’s army before Grant can get to the James River.

The Final Offensive 1865:

By March 29, 1865 Lee is in trouble. On April 2-3, 1865 Lee decides to evacuate Petersburg VA. The Confederates are ground down by Union artillery.

Why Did the Confederacy Fail?

Similar to what Lee wrote to Secretary of War Breckenridge on March 9, 1865, the Confederates were worn down by superior resources. In Lee’s farewell address to his army after the surrender at Appomattox, Lee said his army was compelled to yield to superior resources. The Union had overwhelming numbers and resources.

What Do Prominent Authors Say?

  • Bell I. Wiley – The Confederacy died of “Bigman-me-ism.” Some of the Confederate leaders had big egos and didn’t support Lee.
  • Frank L. Owsley – The Confederacy died of States’ Rights.
  • David Donald – The Confederacy died of Democracy.
  • Richard Beringer, etc. – The Confederacy died due to loss of will.
  • Edward Pollard – The Confederacy died because of a “V.” At the Battle of Buena Vista, during the War with Mexico, Jefferson Davis formed his regiment into a V, in order to stop an attack by the Mexican forces that threathened to collapse the American line. As a result, Davis thought he knew everything about war.
  • Richard N. Current – God was on the side of the heaviest battalions.
  • Thomas Connelly – The Confederacy died because of Robert E. Lee, “The Marble Man.” Lee was too aggressive and outnumbered. He did not have enough resources to sustain an aggressive approach.

After the Civil War, when asked why the Confederacy lost, General Pickett said: “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

In summary, Dr. Rafuse said Lee needed to wear down the Union, but he didn’t have the resources to do it. Also, the North sustained their will to fight.
Historian Gary Gallagher said Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was the Army of the Confederacy. Lee’s defense of Virginia was sound. The Confederacy could not afford to lose Richmond. Lee had to defend the southern Capitol. There was a strong sense of States’ pride.

President Lincoln met with General Grant at Petersburg and said: “I thought you were going to wait until Sherman showed up.” However, Grant wanted the Army of the Potomac to win the war. The big battles and casualties occurred in the East

Civil War Round Table of Kansas City
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