We’re just getting to the Civil War period in the class that I am serving as a TA. The professor I work for raised an interesting question diving into the realm of counter factual history. What if Robert E. Lee had accepted Lincoln’s offer and commanded Union forces? This automatically raises the question about the outcome of the war. I argue that had Lee taken the offer, the war would have been much shorter, and Grant would not have had his meteoric rise. The Union would have one very quickly, if not outright at Bull Run. Lee, as history has shown, was a skilled officer and countless times demonstrated his ability to the chagrin of Union commanders.
Let’s start in 1861. Lee has accepted command of Union forces. He commands an army of 75,000 volunteers all in or near Washington. I would say that Lee would have moved decisively against the enemy. For the sake of this hypothetical story, I will let Bull Run occur the way it actually happened. The Peninsula Campaign would have actually succeeded, as Lee would have used the Army of the Potomac, unlike McClellan. While the capture of Richmond would have had the same result on the Confederacy as the capture of Philadelphia did during the American Revolution, Lee would still have much of the Confederate army in the East on the run, as well as the government.
I will leave the Western Theater alone to occur as it happened, as its importance to the overall war would be diminished with Lee commanding in the East. The Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville would have been substantial Union victories and would have shattered the will of the Confederacy to fight on. Much of the success of the Confederate army lay in the character of Lee and his leadership abilities. Combine those attributes with the advantages the Union had in terms of manufacturing and sheer numbers and Lee’s Union army would have been a very difficult foe to defeat.
Now this is not to say that the Confederates would stand no chance in such a situation, as they did have some able generals besides Lee. If Lee were in command of Union forces, there are many likely possibilities for commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, like Jackson, Longstreet, Joe Johnston, and Beauregard. Any of these men would have been a worthy opponent for Lee, but I again return to Lee’s abilities, the manpower advantage of the Union, and the manufacturing capabilities of the Union, which would have overwhelmed any of the four.
I will claim that the war, with Lee commanding the Union Army, would have been over by late 1862 or early 1863. Grant would have ended up an irrelevant officer in the West, perhaps at Major General, but would not have had the opportunity to rise as far as he actually did. While Grant may one day rise to the presidency in this hypothetical scenario, I doubt it would have been as assured. I will say that given Lee’s views on secession, the 1864 election may have been quite interesting, as with the war won, Lincoln would stand a chance to win re-election, and Lee, as victor over the enemy would be a logical choice for Vice President on a reconciliation ticket. The ticket wins and Lincoln and Lee usher in the desired Reconstruction that Lincoln intended. After this, who knows?
One thing is certain, we will never know how things would have turned out with Lee commanding the Union army, but that does not mean we can not speculate as to what may have happened. Overall, I submit that the war would have been shorter and less costly than it actually was, that Grant would not have risen to national prominence, as he was overshadowed by the equally successful Lee in the East, and, that Reconstruction would have gone much differently, especially under a reconciliation ticket of Lincoln and Lee.
I have set up my scenario, now it is your turn. Let me know where I may be wrong, or submit your own scenario of Lee taking Lincoln’s offer in the comment section.