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Grant and Lee: A Study In Contrasts

From the earliest postwar days, Robert E. Lee was praised as a military genius. Typical is this statement by Lee’s Adjutant-General Walter H. Taylor: “It is well to bear in mind the great inequality between the two contending armies, in order that one may have a proper appreciation of the difficulties which beset General Lee in the task of thwarting the designs of so formidable an adversary, and realize the extent to which his brilliant genius made amends for paucity of numbers, and proved more than a match for brute force, as illustrated in the hammering policy of General Grant.” Taylor typified the denigration of Grant that accompanied the deification of Lee. The cult of Lee worshipers began with former Civil War generals who had fought ineffectively under him. They sought to polish their own tarnished reputations and restore Southern pride by deliberately distorting the historical record and creating the myth of the flawless Robert E. Lee.2 More recently, Richard McMurry wrote, “[Lee] stands as the colossus of Confederate military history—the only Southern army commander to enjoy any degree of success.”


Although Lee was generally worshipped for the first hundred years after the Civil War, there were exceptions. In 1929 and 1933, British Major General J. F. C. Fuller criticized Lee while praising Grant. He described Lee as “in several respects . . . one of the most incapable Generals-in-Chief in history,” and criticized him for his narrow Eastern perspective and his over-aggressiveness in several campaigns. The works of T. Harry Williams and Thomas L. Connelly (especially his The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society [1977]) tied Lee to the Myth of the Lost Cause, explained deliberate pro-Lee distortions of the historical record, and further questioned Lee’s strategy and tactics. A classic reevaluation of Lee was Alan T. Nolan’s Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (1991). Currently, the reappraisal of Lee continues, and, as J. F. C. Fuller said, “The truth is, the more we inquire into the generalship of Lee, the more we discover that Lee, or rather the popular conception of him, is a myth. . . .”

On the other hand, Grant’s often-tarred reputation has ascended while Lee’s has declined. In his memoirs, Grant noted the impact of those Southern historians who were creating the Myth of “The Lost Cause”:

With us, now twenty years after the close of the most stupendous war ever known, we have writers—who profess devotion to the nation—engaged in trying to prove that the Union forces were not victorious; practically, they say, we were slashed around from Donelson to Vicksburg and to Chattanooga; and in the East from Gettysburg to Appomattox, when the physical rebellion gave out from sheer exhaustion.

In fact, several pro-Confederate writers attacked Grant as soon as the shooting stopped. One of those was Richmond newspaperman Edward Pollard, who, in The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (1866), said that Grant “contained no spark of military genius; his idea of war was to the last degree rude— no strategy, the mere application of the vis inertia; he had none of that quick perception on the field of action which decides it by sudden strokes; he had no conception of battle beyond the momentum of numbers.”

Even Northern historians criticized Grant. In 1866, New York Times war correspondent William Swinton wrote in his Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac that Grant relied “exclusively on the application of brute masses, in rapid and remorseless blows.” John C. Ropes told the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts that
Grant suffered from a “burning, persistent desire to fight, to attack, in season and out of season, against intrenchments, natural obstacles, what not.”

Mediocre Confederate General Jubal Early led the way, along with incompetent Confederate General William Nelson Pendleton, in creating the Myth of the Lost Cause. In doing so, they felt compelled to belittle the accomplishments of Grant. In 1872, in a speech on Lee’s birthday, Early said, “Shall I compare General Lee to his successful antagonist? As well compare the great pyramid which rears it majestic proportions in the Valley of the Nile, to a pygmy perched on Mount Atlas.” At least, he admitted that Grant was successful.

Historian Gary Gallagher fairly recently criticized the selectiveness and merits of Early’s (and others’) criticisms of Grant:

Absent from Early’s work, as well as that of other writers who portrayed Grant as a butcher, was any detailed treatment of Grant’s brilliant campaign against Vicksburg, his decisive success at Chattanooga, or his other western operations. Moreover, critics failed to grasp that Grant’s tactics in 18 6 4 went against his preferred style of campaigning. He fought Lee at every turn primarily because he wished to deny Jefferson Davis the option of shifting Confederate troops from Virginia to Georgia where they might slow Sherman’s progress.

In 1881, Jefferson Davis joined the parade of Grant critics when he launched this criticism of Grierson’s effective 1863 raid (which barely affected civilians in Davis’s native Mississippi): “Among the expeditions for pillage and arson [Grierson’s raid] stands prominent for savage outrages against defenseless women and children, constituting a record alike unworthy a soldier and a gentleman.” The 1880s publication of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, containing the recollections of the war’s participants, provided former Confederates with an opportunity to impugn Grant. For example, Lieutenant General Evander M. Law wrote, “What a part at least of his own men thought about General Grant’s methods was shown by the fact that many of the prisoners taken during the [Overland] campaign complained bitterly of the ‘useless butchery’ to which they were subjected.”

Easterners, who controlled most of the newspapers and publishing houses, did not like Grant, “whom they saw as an uncouth westerner.” In the wake of the numerous scandals in which his presidential appointees were involved, Grant’s continuing support for the rights of African Americans and Native Americans during his years as president, and intellectuals’ revulsion at the materialism of the Industrial Age, many Northerners joined Southerners in glorifying Lee and his army and in attacking Grant as a butcher. It is difficult to overestimate the damage to Grant that these writings caused and the virtual indelibility of the image they created of Grant the Butcher.

In fact, it was another Richmond newspaper reporter-turned historian, Douglas Southall Freeman, who placed Lee on a pedestal at Grant’s expense. In his four-volume treatise, R. E. Lee, Freeman idolized Lee in describing all the details of his generalship. Freeman criticized Grant for hammering Lee’s forces instead of maneuvering more, but even Freeman did concede that Grant’s efforts had not been in vain: “Lee did not lose the battles but he did not win the campaign. He delayed the fulfillment of Grant’s mission, but he could not discharge his own. Lee found few opportunities of attacking the enemy in detail or on the march. . . . And in some subtle fashion General Grant infused into his well-seasoned troops a confidence they had never previously possessed.”

A pro-Lee disciple of Freeman’s, Clifford Dowdey, was harder on Grant than Freeman was. In his 1960 Lee’s Last Campaign: The Story of Lee and His Men Against Grant, Dowdey described Grant as a “boring-in type of attacker, who usually scorned finesse.” The anti- Grant tradition is not dead. It has been recently continued in Paul D. Casdorph’s 1992 Lee and Jackson: Confederate Chieftains and Ernest B. Furgurson’s 2000 Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864. Casdorph grossly overestimated Grant’s Cold Harbor casualties as including 13,000 killed (“dead or dying”) and referred to “union hordes” and the “Yankee Goliath.”

Grant and Lee:  A Study In Contrasts-Praises to Grant

Significant praise for Grant, other than from his subordinates and fellow officers, first came from overseas. British military historian and Major-General J. F. C. Fuller strongly endorsed the greatness of Grant in “The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant in 1929” and then in “Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship” in 1932. Fuller concluded that Grant was a superior strategist, possessed common sense, recognized what needed to be done to win the war, and deserved the major credit for doing so. He compared Grant quite favorably to Lee, found that Lee consistently throughout the war lost a higher percentage of his troops than Grant or other adversaries he faced, and that Lee much more than Grant—and for no good reason—sacrificed his troops in frontal assaults and continued to do so until he had no more to sacrifice.

Another British military historian, John Keegan, also found cause to praise Grant. He did so in The Mask of Command (1987). There he discussed Grant in a chapter entitled “Grant and Unheroic Leadership.” He praised Grant’s fighting skills and concluded, “But in retrospect, great though Grant’s generalship is seen to be, it is his comprehension of the nature of the war, and of what could and could not be done by a general within its defining conditions, that seems the more remarkable.”

The most comprehensive sympathetic treatment of Grant came with the works of Bruce Catton. He first wrote of Grant in the second and third volumes of the famous Civil War trilogy, Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951), Glory Road (1952), and the Pulitzer Prizewinning A Stillness at Appomattox (1953). Having come to admire Grant above other Civil War generals, Catton then proceeded to write U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition (1954) (the bulk of which is entitled “The Great Commander”), This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side in the Civil War (1956), Grant Moves South (1960) (describing Grant’s Civil War career through Vicksburg in glowing terms), and Grant Takes Command (1968) (taking him through the end of the war). The prolific Catton also produced The Coming Fury: The Centennial History of the Civil War (1961), Terrible Swift Sword (1963), and Never Call Retreat (1965). Like Grant himself, said Stephen W. Sears, Catton was “quiet and unassuming and unpretentious and business-like.”

A contemporary of Catton’s, T. Harry Williams, was a renowned Civil War scholar and a strong proponent of Grant. Williams found him superior to Lee and others in Lincoln and His Generals (1952) and to his fellow Union generals in McClellan, Sherman, and Grant (1962). In the former book, Williams succinctly stated, “Grant was, by modern standards, the greatest general of the Civil War.”

In their exhaustive 1983 study of the war, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War, Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones concluded that Grant was responsible for recognizing the North’s need to effectively use its superiority. Although they disclaimed the significance of turning points, they concluded that Grant’s seizure of Fort s Henry and Donelson and his approval of Sherman’s March to the Sea were decisive events.

Although he relied on Bruce Catton’s work, William S. McFeely treated Grant with much less sympathy in his 1981 Grant: A Biography. McFeely’s Grant seemed uncaring about the death around him. This first “modern” biography of Grant reinforced earlier negative impressions with such characterizations of Grant as “a man of limited though by no means inconsequential talents to apply to whatever truly engaged his attention.” McFeely made it appear that Grant’s second-day offensive at Shiloh was a spur-of-the-moment idea conceived only that morning, and he then criticized Grant for failing to pursue the Rebels with his exhausted army. He claimed it was Grant’s rivalry with McClernand that got him focused on Vicksburg. McFeely asserted that “Grant’s strategy was to make sure more Southerners than Northerners were killed. It was a matter of simple arithmetic. . . .” Of the Overland Campaign, he said, “In May 1864 Ulysses Grant began a vast campaign that was a hideous disaster in every respect save one—it worked. He led his troops into the Wilderness and there produced a nightmare of inhumanity and inept military strategy that ranks with the worst such episodes in the history of warfare.” Jean Edward Smith later cited McFeely’s work as a biography written by an academic historian who was influenced by the Vietnam War and denigrated Grant’s critical role in Union victory.

A return to the Catton sympathetic approach marked the 1997 Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President written by Geoffrey Perret and the 2000 Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822–1865 by Brooks D. Simpson. Perret praised Grant’s “military genius” and credited him with creating two concepts that the U.S. Army has been using ever since: the use of converging columns (Grant’s 1864–5 national strategy) and the wide envelopment (Grant’s sweeping around Lee’s flank throughout 1864 and 1865). Simpson described a non-idealized Grant and praised his common sense, imagination, and perseverance. On the issue of Grant’s tactics,
Simpson concluded:

He was less successful at shaking the perception that he was a ham-handed tactician who freely wasted the lives of his own men. This reputation was largely based on the pervasive impression of his generalship left by the 1864 campaign in Virginia. That during the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns combined, Grant’s forces suffered fewer losses than did Lee’s troops at Gettysburg escaped most people’s notice; that he was far more frugal with human life than his leading Confederate counterpart .. . is recognized by only a few. He preferred to take prisoners than to slay foes; he emphasized movement and logistics over slugging it out. Even his campaigns in
Virginia shows a general who . . . shifted units and probed for weaknesses, mixing assaults with marches, constantly seeking new approaches.

Jean Edward Smith’s 2001 book entitled simply Grant is an excellent, sympathetic biography of Grant. He pointed to Grant’s decisiveness at Fort Donelson, his Vicksburg campaign’s amphibious crossing, his moving forward after the Wilderness, and his surreptitious crossing of the James River as examples of Grant’s greatness. He contended that Grant was the strategic master of his Confederate counterparts, had a lower casualty rate than Lee, and demonstrated his strategic skills by focusing on enemy armies rather than on mere geographic goals. Smith not only described the greatness of Grant as a Civil War general but also the many overlooked positive aspects of his eight-year presidency. Smith detailed President Grant’s efforts to protect Negroes’ rights in the postwar South and Indians’ rights in the West and said that “mainstream historians, unsympathetic to black equality, brutalized Grant’s presidency.”

In the past several years, Grant’s conduct of the Overland Campaign has received exhaustive and generally positive treatment at the hands of Gordon C. Rhea. His four books were The Battle of the Wilderness (1994), The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern (1997), To the North Anna River (2000), and Cold Harbor (2002). In those volumes and a series of contemporaneous articles, Rhea contended that Grant had been unfairly labeled a “butcher,” that his casualties were proportionately less than Lee’s, and that Grant was an innovative and effective general who focused on and achieved his strategic objectives.

In summary, Ulysses Grant got off to a bad start among postwar historians, but his military accomplishments have received increasing, if erratic, recognition since about 1930. Serious historical reestablishment of his multi-theater, war-winning record continues. With this historical perspective as background, we can now undertake a comparative analysis of Grant and Lee.

Those two generals shared many characteristics, but in many ways, they were quite different. An examination of Grant and Lee’s general military skills, military management skills, and personal attributes reveals why Grant won and Lee lost the war.

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