Robert E. Lee: the Civil War’s Hannibal

Go ahead, laugh, but think about it for a moment and you may see some similarities. I watched a documentary on the story of Hannibal, the famed Carthaginian general who handed Rome a few humiliating defeats during the Second Punic War and it caused me to think about parallels between the famed ancient general and one of the most beloved generals in American history, Robert E. Lee.

First, both men were raised in a martial tradition. Hannibal’s father was a leading Carthaginian general and raised Hannibal and his two brothers to be future warriors. Lee’s father was Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse” Harry Lee, and Lee’s attendance at West Point is likened to Hannibal’s accompanying his father in Spain, as Hannibal gained important knowledge of military strategy and experience, just as Lee gained the knowledge he would need at West Point to be a successful general.

Second, both men achieved early and significant victories against larger forces. The Battle of the Trebia (218 BC) can be likened to the Battle of Fredericksburg, as the Union army, much like its Roman counterparts centuries earlier, crossed the Rappahannock River into Fredericksburg, just as the Roman army had crossed the Trebia to attack Hannibal. Like Trebia, where the Romans then proceeded to attack the Carthaginian forces, the Union army under Burnside then attacked the heights, where Lee’s men waited behind the stone wall. Just as Hannibal inflicted massive casualties on the Roman army at Trebia, so did Lee inflict high casualties at Fredericksburg.

Similarly, Hannibal’s victory against the Roman army at Lake Trasimene (217 BC) is likened to the Battle of Chancellorsville. At Lake Trasimene, Hannibal hid in the hills above the lake and ambushed the much larger Roman force and handily defeated them. At Chancellorsville, Lee divided his smaller army and sent “Stonewall” Jackson on a daring march that resulted in the ambush of the 11th Corps.

Unfortunately for both men, their luck would run out, as both men were eventually defeated. While Lee did not spend the later war years roaming the Union countryside, he did end up roaming through Virginia trying to keep his army alive, just as Hannibal did in Italy so long ago. Hannibal would ultimately face defeat at the Battle of Zama (202BC), near his home at Carthage, just as Lee would face defeat during the siege at Petersburg and the Appomattox Campaign near his home in Virginia.

While the comparisons are not identical, it is interesting to consider some of the similarities between Hannibal and Lee. Both men came from a martial tradition, both men won early victories against larger enemies, and both men were eventually defeated near their homes. This illustrates the importance of understanding ancient warfare, as their may always be parallels to more moder times. Just with the small comparison between Lee and Hannibal, one could claim our Civil War to be an American Punic War.

3 thoughts on “Robert E. Lee: the Civil War’s Hannibal

  1. Unfortunately for Lee, and fortunately for the Union, he never managed to duplicate Cannae.

    In all seriousness, Hannibal was by far the greater general. He took the war to the enemy, in the enemy’s country, for 15 years. At Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae, he destroyed four Roman armies (counting Cannae as 2). Lee’s greatness encompassed a year (mid-1862 to mid-1863), which you can stretch to three if you’re determined. During that period, he was extremely effective, but he never destroyed even a single enemy army, and when he tried to take the war to the enemy in 1862 and 1863 he failed both times.

    So if Lee was Hannibal, does that make Grant Scipio Africanus?

  2. I see this is an old blog entry, but I will remark that I had a similar mental connection after recently watching documentaries on Hannibal and my favorite war hero Robert E. Lee. I wanted to add some points of similarity in the overall picture. Flavius Maximus could easily be compared to General Mclellan in his strategy of essentially waiting things out and taking defensive postures rather than taking the battle to Lee (or Hannibal in the case of Maximus).
    Another comment asked of Grant could be compared to Scipio. I certainly see the parallel! A much younger opponent in both cases of Grant and Scipio. Both had to learn to respect and anticipate and “get in the head” of their opponent. To not do what was expected and to expect the unexpected. Both were not traditional natural born soldiers (Scipio a son of a Roman politician who only by luck rose to a command and Grant a mediocre unaccomplished general with a bad reputation (nearly lost his command many times) who was forced to greatness by fate. Lee OTOH was much like Hannibal. A strategist with usually inferior forces. He heavily relied on the spirit of his men to fight for pride rather than “just following orders”. Union troops and roman troops were
    Conscripted into service and often their hearts weren’t quite in it as much as the Conferederates and Carthageans. Union and Roman forces usually had better supply lines while Lees and Hannibals were often living off the land. Finally, just as the Romans distracted the Carthageans by dividing their battle fronts between home, Italy and Spain, grant sent Sherman into Southern territory to pillage just as Rome sent forces into Carthage and Spain to burn it down.
    I think the Civil war and Punic wars contain many parallels!!

  3. I actually wrote my Master’s thesis on this very topic. There are many parallels between these two generals including tactics and similar conditions. However, there are some distinct differences. Lee’s forays into enemy territory all failed while Hannibal’s successes all happened in enemy territory. Hannibal also had to feed his army off of the land in Rome while Lee resided in home territory. Logistically, Lee had a better system but seemed inept, or at least the CSA government seemed inept, at being able to feed, cloth, and keep a war machine going. I would argue that Chancellorsville is equivalent to Cannae, and may have been even as devastating to the Union if, and this is the big IF, Jackson had not been shot. As far as Lee’s upbringing, his time spent in Mexico at the right hand of Scott is where he really received his training in warfare and the impact that swift, and decisive, flanking movements can have on an enemy force. Something that Hannibal gained perspective on while fighting in Spain. One final point, before I get too long winded, is the idea of familial pride. Both men worked very hard to prove themselves worthy of their ancestors and this is another interesting parallel.

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