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Robert E. Lee, read your Sun Tzu!


Of course Sun Tzu wasn’t at the battle of Gettysburg, which plenty of historians say was the turning point of the American Civil War. A Chinese royal advisor, he lived in the 6th century B.C. –- a looonnggg time before Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg in 1863, when he took his Confederate troops into Pennsylvania as part of a planned Northern invasion.

But what if the ancient author of “The Art of War” had been there? What would he have said about Union and Confederate strategies?

Those are questions that military historian and author Bevin Alexander answers in his forthcoming book, “Sun Tzu at Gettysburg: Ancient Military Wisdom in the Modern World” (W.W. Norton), a book mentioned Sunday as part of a spring preview of Civil War books coming this year. Jacket Copy talked to the author about the unique angle of his book -- along with Gettysburg, Alexander applies Sun Tzu’s principles to other conflicts in world history including Waterloo, Stalingrad and the Korean War.

Jacket Copy: How did the idea for this book come about?

Bevin Alexander: I can’t claim originality on this one. That goes to a young man named David Baeumler, a producer for the History Channel. He contacted me for a History Channel special on Sun Tzu and "The Art of War." I spent the day, in 2008, talking about Sun Tzu in front of the camera. They wanted to know a good bit about “The Art of War’s” relationship to the present day even though the main emphasis was on Sun Tzu’s historical contributions in China.  After I finished that interview, I thought, my goodness, that’s not a bad idea for a book. I wanted to take the principles that he set down and apply them in a variety of battles, especially Gettysburg in the Civil War.

JC: When you look at the battle of Gettysburg, how do you apply Sun Tzu there? Are his ideas really adaptable?

BA: Oh yes, absolutely. One of his principles is: "The way to avoid what is strong is to strike what is weak." That’s a tactic at Gettysburg that Robert E. Lee started to follow and then abandoned. That's why he lost there. He just had no strategic sense.

JC: Lee, the great Southern general, was a general without strategy? That seems hard to believe.

BA: Well, look at it this way. When you study the battles, you find that he always preferred to wage a fight head on. His idea was that you throw one army against another; you match strength against strength. Sun Tzu said that wars aren’t won that way. Another of his axioms is: "As water seeks the easiest path to the sea, so armies should avoid obstacles and seek avenues of least resistance."

 More after the jump

JC: So what happened at Gettysburg? In your book, you write that, at first, Lee had the upper hand because he did seem to embrace several of Sun Tzu's principles.

BA: Yes, Lee followed them completely by accident.

JC: By accident?

BA: When you really study Lee, you find that his mantra was always to attack things headlong. But when he decided to move his forces into Pennsyvlavian in 1863, he did pick what Sun Tzu called the '"avenue of least resistance" to avoid the Union forces under George Gordon Meade. He used the Cumberland Valley, which gave him easy access into the north. It was something of an accident that he got into a spectacular strategic position.

The Union armies were protecting Washington, D.C., and here's Lee, just 100 miles away, with a straight shot to Philadelphia. He could have broken the North's railroad line. It would have been a devastating blow to the Union war effort. Lee didn’t understand that, though, even though Sun Tzu would have spotted it instantly. Instead, Lee gave up his positions to consolidate and attack the Union forces head-on. Stonewall Jackson knew that was a mistake, but Lee wouldn't listen to him.

JC: Your background says you were a combat historian during the Korean War. What does that mean?

BA: I was part of what they called a historical detachment. Historical detachments were created in World War II so that combat historians would go into the battle, study what took place, analyze it, and create a report that’s uninfluenced by any propaganda. I was young, just out of college, and I was picked for this detachment: We went across the front in Korea and studied battles as they were fought. Some of that work actually helped me with a late chapter in my book about Korea.

Art-of-war-penguin-coverJC: Your book coincides with a reissue, by Penguin Classics, of "The Art of War." Why is Sun Tzu so impressive to you?

BA: There is no one else quite like him in military history. He deals with fundamental principles, and these principles don’t change. 

JC: No one else is like him? Didn't other military leaders, like Napoleon, write down their insights into warfare?

BA: Sure, Napoleon gave advice about waging war, but he never came up with a coherent view. That's the case with many great generals. They know how to fight a war, but they don't know how to explain it. It's like my father, who was a great baseball player. He couldn't tell you how to play, he just did it. Sun Tzu was the one, 2,400 years ago, who gave us a complete doctrine of war. It’s fantastic.

-- Nick Owchar

Photos: A 2005 photo of the statue of Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren of the Union Army on Little Round Top overlooking Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa.; book cover design for a reissue of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." 

Credit: Steve Ruark for the L.A. Times; book cover courtesy Penguin Classics.

Comments () | Archives (21)

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Alexander may well be an authority on Sun Tzu, but how much does he really know about R.E. Lee?

"When you really study Lee, you find that his mantra was always to attack things headlong." What about Chancellorsville, a battle won by a classic flanking movement? Or Fredericksburg, where Lee devastated the Union forces though he remained always on the tactical defensive? Or Sharpsburg, after his division of his already outnumbered forces into three parts to lure the Union army into a trap failed?

"Stonewall Jackson knew that was a mistake, but Lee wouldn't listen to him."

Jackson was dead (after Chancellorsville) before Lee's second foray into Union territory, which culminated at Gettysburg.

M Lawrence I agree with everything you say about Lee, and I wonder what leads Alexander to make that comment. Of course, some people say Jackson was the true genius and Lee without Jackson was just...oh, I won't go there!

But Alexander is right about Lee at Gettysburg. I think Gettysburg is one of the more important events in US and world history. If Lee had been smarter, states' rights might have prevailed. That includes the rights of states vis-a-vis the Confederate government. Some rebel states seceded from the Confederacy!

Thus the US today might be like South America, a bunch of little countries with common language, culture, history, and religion, but with petty jealousies, incapable of trusting each other or doing much together, and having a fairly minor impact on the rest of the world. I wonder if they could have overcome the Nazis as the US and allies did, and I'm confident we'd still have the cold war.

Actually, George Patton pretty much summed everything there is to know about fighting a war when he told his men that the purpose of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his country. Everything else should flow from that. Many of Sun Tzu's so-called principles are just common sense. (E.g., attack where the enemy is weakest; use spies to learn about your enemy; turn captured spies to your advantage and make them double agents.) Sun Tzu was a mercenary, as were soldiers under his commands. His perspective is often that of a mercenary, i.e., someone who does not value the lives of his soldiers but is willing to sacrifice them for the greater good, which was his master's bidding in territorial and tribal feuding. This is why his priniciples should not, and cannot, be applied blindly.

"Stonewall Jackson knew that was a mistake, but Lee wouldn't listen to him."
Jackson was killed months earlier at Chancellorsville. Perhaps he meant Longstreet.

I'm not so sure Bevan Alexander can be taken seriously as a commentator on the American Civil War or its generals. (And I'm shocked Jacket Copy didn't catch this!) When Alexander referred to Stonewall Jackson's disagreement with Lee's decision to attack the Union forces at Gettysburg instead of proceeding against Philadelphia ("Instead, Lee gave up his positions to consolidate and attack the Union forces head-on. Stonewall Jackson knew that was a mistake, but Lee wouldn't listen to him."), he seems to be implying the existence of a heretofore unknown seance -- Jackson died two months before Lee took his army into Pennsylvania.

This gentleman should not be writing or talking about RE Lee. He does not seem to know anything about Lee's tactics in the Civil War (or his ideas in the Mexican War). Lee made a classic mistake at Gettysburg, but the only reason why there was a Gettysburg was Lee's mastery of war prior to it.

Stonewall Jackson was dead before Gettysburg and many said if he was alive the South would have won the battle.

What credentials does it take to be a jouralist?

I understand why Civil War buffs often leap on every comment made by every historian - but take my word for it, Bevin Alexander knows all about when Stonewall Jackson was killed, Lee's previous battles and how they were won, etc...For goodness sake, Alexander wrote an entire book on Stonewall Jackson and another on how the South could've won the Civil War.

This is a very brief interview that was invariably edited down to fit into a book review space. All Alexander was trying to say was that Jackson followed a more Sun Tzu-like philosophy and had advocated a path of least resistance approach to the incursion into the North before he was killed. Lee went against the wisdom of Jackson which was expressed before Chancellorsville - and against Longstreet who was sympathetic to Jackson's way of thinking - and followed his own headlong nature which contributed to his defeat at Gettysburg.

Obviously, there are a ton of factors that went into Lee's loss at Gettysburg that can't be described in three sentence interview answers. Instead of playing "gotcha!" with the interview, I suggest you read Alexander's thoughtful and well researched books. He was an invaluable resource for me when putting together the Art of War show for History Channel.

"Instead, Lee gave up his positions to consolidate and attack the Union forces head-on. Stonewall Jackson knew that was a mistake, but Lee wouldn't listen to him".

The author misspoke. He meant to say, General Longstreet.

Interestingly, Jackson had been killed two months earlier after leading his corps on a successful flanking march that crushed Union forces at the battle of Chancellorville.

After the first day's fighting at Gettysburg, Longstreet counseled Lee that he likewise flank the consolidated Union position with his entire army. Yankee General Meade anticipated that option as a likelihood, and established a fall back position between Gettysburg and Washington D.C.

If you're ever in that neck of the woods, and have never visited the battlefield, by all means make the effort. You won't regret it.

I've read some of Alexander's other books and in my opinion he knows what he's talking about. He obviously meant Longstreet when he said Jackson; it's a simple misspeak, nothing more. Don't crucify a man for something we've all done many times.

Lee was definitely a very good general, but not a great one. I deny him the "great" modifier because of his blunders at Gettysburg. His principle blunder was not following Longstreet's advice (given to him twice) that Lee simply move around the Union position toward Washington, thereby luring the Union off their excellent defensive positions. Lee would then have been able to engage Meade at a location advantageous to the Confederates.

Robert E. Lee was a terrible general.

The great American general was George Washington. Whether he learned his tactics in the French and Indian War or from Sun Tzu, Washington understood how to fight a superior force and win.

If the quote attributed to Mr. Alexander that, "...Stonewall Jackson knew that was a mistake, but Lee wouldn't listen to him..." is correct, then, perhaps Lee didn't listen to Jackson's advice at the Battle of Gettysburg because Jackson was deader than a doornail by that time. It was James Longstreet's advice he refused to heed. Mr. Alexander should read less Sun Tzu and more American history.

Bill Payne

Wasn't Jackson dead by May of 1863?

From The Seven Days to Gettysburg Lee completely dominated the war in the east. When forced to fight defensively, the Army of Northern Virginia was undefeated until Petersburg, the last major battle and the only one where it was driven from the field and pursued until Appomattox Court House. Lee may not have understood war, but he knew how to lead and how to fight.

Stonewall Jackson had been dead for months when Gettysburg was fought. Maybe he spoke to Lee from Heaven.

I would be much more interested to hear how Sun-Tsu's theories hold up in our own two wars, being fought today without a clear strategic plan for success.

Some might say that the high water mark was not on the final day of the battle, nor the Battle itself. They might say that it had taken place at the Battle of Chancellorsville eight weeks earlier, where Union forces had been routed, Stonewall Jackson killed and only the command presence of Winfield Scott Hancock served to prevent annihilation of the Army of The Potomac as it tried to withdraw across the Rappahannock River. If that had happened, Lee would not have invaded Pennsylvania. Rather, he would have crossed the river and headed straight and unhindered towards Washington.

Hancock made the difference both at Chancellorsville and on each of the three days of engagement at Gettysburg. Some might say that Hancock's command prevented a Confederate victory in the war, not that of U.S. Grant.

Interesting it is that one of the great legends of the nation's Civil War has long tied Los Angeles to the great finale at the Battle of Gettysburg. Although that legend has recently been revealed as having been a myth, a fabulous new story about the L.A.-Gettysburg connection suffices, has recently been published within a book of essays published by Visons of L.A., based upon primary sources.

This article is misleading in the sense that it portrays Lee as being reckless. Lee was intent on destroying the Union army and he felt certain his men could whup the Union army and force Lincoln to negotiate terms. Lee wasn't interested in being on the defensive and waiting for the Army of the Potomac to always attack him. Lee was an aggressive commander and didn't adopt the strategy used by George Washington who avoided all out conflict against the British Army. For Washington, survival of his army was enough and soon the British grew tired of the war just like the U.S. in Vietnam.

Had the Army of Northern Virginia moved forward and attacked on schedule as General Lee ordered, the battle of Gettysburg would have ended with the Union flanked by early morning. The horrific loss of life on that battlefield would have been avoided and the war would have ended considerably sooner with a different outcome.

Mr Alexander presents General Lee in light of his wishes rather than the thoughts of those who fought with and against General Lee.

Jackson was dead, Longstreet told him it was a mistake, or actually tried to get him to follow a different strategy. Longstreet was vilified after the war as part of the 'Lost Cause'. js

I don't know. Both times Lee went north it went badly for him. He seemed more like a counter-punch type guy.

Run for Philadelphia? Really? Lee's army is scattered and he's got a mass of yankees in front him and he doesn't know where the rest of them are because he's seriously out of touch with his reconnaissance, JEB Stuart. Meanwhile his army is scattered both ahead and behind his current position. If he makes the run to Philadelphia, far far away, that mass of yankees cuts off his line of communications and splits his army. If he backs away, he risks that part of the army ahead of him getting cut off.

Longstreet took a day at least to catch up to Lee's position and that was on a forced march. I'm not sure the flanking option was there at that point for while the Confederates were consolidating, the Union was preparing also.

I don't see Lee as exactly looking for a head long battle either. He had to be aware that headlong battle in the long run means a war of attrition and considering the resources of the Union, he couldn't win that one. Lee had to pick his battle and this one wasn't his choosing.

Lee got stuck on ground not of his choosing. Had he better control of where the battle was to be fought, it probably wouldn't have been Gettysburg and just may have gone his way.

two cents

M Lawrence I think you're right. Lee did make a mistake at Gettysburg by fighting a frontal battle. But I think that was a major change for him and it cost him. His history up to that point indicates he would rather slip around a strong enemy than tackle it directly. That was the great strength of Grant, that he would dive straight into the mass of the Army of Northern Virginia before it could slip away, and use his better resourced forces to drain it.


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