Saturday, March 29, 2008

Was Ulysses S. Grant a butcher? Was Robert E. Lee the Civil War’s best general? The answer to both questions is a resounding no.

The respective casualty figures of these two generals contradict the myth about who, if either, was a butcher. For the entire war, Grant incurred about 154,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing, captured) while imposing about 191,000 casualties on his foes. Lee suffered about 209,000 casualties while imposing about 240,000 casualties on his opponents.

Lee, who should have been fighting defensively and preserving his precious manpower, instead exceeded Grant’s understandable aggressiveness and incurred 55,000 more casualties than Grant.

Because Southerners were more greatly affected by the war and had a need to rationalize its origins and results, Southern-oriented historians dominated Civil War historiography for the first century after the war.

They created the myth of the Lost Cause and designated Lee as the god of this minireligion. Their creation was so effective that many Americans have perceived Lee as the greatest general of the war (and perhaps in American history), while Grant often was denigrated and rebuked as a butcher, a drunk and a victor by brute force alone.

I disagree. Grant, a national general, was the most successful Union or Confederate general of the war. He drove the Confederates from the Mississippi Valley, the primary western theater of the war, through a series of brilliant battles and campaigns — from the early capture of Forts Henry and Donelson through the unparalleled Vicksburg campaign.

Then it took him a mere month to save a Union army trapped in Chattanooga and drive the Rebels there back into Georgia — with a giant assist from Lee (more on that later).

Finally, Grant was brought to the East to face Lee’s army, which he defeated within a year to effectively bring the war to a close.

Although Lee has been praised for his offensives against the Union Army of the Potomac, he was carrying out an aggressive strategy with aggressive tactics that were inconsistent with what should have been a Confederate grand defensive strategy.

The Union, not the Confederacy, had the burden of winning the war, and the South, outnumbered about 4-to-1 in white men of fighting age, had a severe manpower shortage.

Nevertheless, Lee acted as though he were a Union general and attacked again and again as though his side had the burden of winning and also had an unlimited supply of soldiers.

Showing initiative

Although Grant initially had difficulty obtaining a Civil War command, he soon achieved success. When Grant suggested to Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck that a joint Navy-Army force capture Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, Halleck told him such a campaign was none of his business.

However, after Lincoln tired of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s “slows” in the East and ordered all Union forces forward, Halleck authorized the attack on Fort Henry. Within days, Grant and Navy Flag Officer Andrew Foote launched an upriver assault and quickly captured the fort.

Grant, on his own initiative, then moved on to Fort Donelson. Within two weeks, he captured that better-defended fort and a 14,000-man army in a manner that earned him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. The February 1862 capture of Forts Henry and Donelson was a major blow to the left flank of the Confederacy and ranks among the most significant actions of the Civil War.

After advancing his Army of the Tennessee deep into the Confederacy — to Pittsburg Landing, or Shiloh, in far southwestern Tennessee — Grant was so focused on moving on to capture Corinth, Miss., that he became careless. His army was surprised at Shiloh in April 1862 by a massive attack by Rebel forces that had been gathered from around the Confederacy.

On the first day of “Bloody Shiloh,” Grant saved his army, and on the second he daringly counterattacked and drove the enemy forces from the battlefield and back toward Corinth. Despite its disastrous start, Shiloh was a major strategic and tactical victory for Grant.

Maryland campaign

After assuming command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, Lee achieved fame and success through victories over McClellan and Maj. Gen. John Pope.

With high casualties, Lee drove McClellan away from Richmond during the Seven Days battles and then moved into central and Northern Virginia to sweep Pope’s army, undermined by McClellan, off the battlefield at Second Manassas (also known as Second Bull Run).

On his own volition, Lee then overextended his army by invading Maryland, splitting his army into five segments, incurring almost 14,000 casualties on a single day at the Battle of Antietam, and retreating back to Virginia.

That Maryland (Antietam) campaign cost Lee irreplaceable troops and also lost the Confederacy its last real chance for European intervention on its behalf.

In December 1862, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside ordered suicidal Union attacks at Fredericksburg, Va., that gave Lee a major defensive victory.

By the end of 1862, therefore, both Lee and Grant had won significant victories, but the results of those victories were quite different. Grant’s victories greatly expanded Union control in western Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as northern Mississippi. Grant’s successes had been achieved with a little over 20,000 casualties while he imposed more than 35,000 casualties on his opponents.

Meanwhile, Lee’s victories had foiled Union strategic offensives, but his embarrassing Maryland campaign had lost the possibility of European intervention and nearly cost Lee his army.

Lee’s constant demand for reinforcements and his 50,000 casualties, incurred during the Maryland campaign, had drained other areas of the South of many of their soldiers. That drainage made Grant’s and other western generals’ jobs easier.

Taking Vicksburg

In late 1862 and early 1863, Grant undertook a number of initiatives aimed at capturing Vicksburg, Miss., the last significant Rebel bastion on the Mississippi River.

Although stymied at first, he persisted and ultimately carried out one of the greatest military campaigns in history.

While employing three major diversionary feints, Grant moved the bulk of his army down the west bank of the river, conducted a huge amphibious crossing of the river to the Mississippi shore, and headed inland.

Although they initially outnumbered Grant in the theater, the befuddled Rebels could not ascertain his movements and whereabouts. Thus, Grant could pick his times to attack when he had a numeral advantage and defeat the Confederates in each of the five battles he fought in the 18 days following his troops’ landing.

After two unsuccessful assaults on Vicksburg itself, Grant settled into a siege. Six weeks later he accepted the surrender of the city and a 28,000-man army — a surrender regarded by many as the most important of the war.


Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, which gave the Union control of the entire Mississippi Valley, was greatly assisted by Lee. In early May 1863, Lee had repelled a Union offensive commanded by Gen. Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, but subsequent Rebel frontal assaults (often ignored by historians) cost Lee many casualties.

Riding the crest of his influence after Chancellorsville, Lee convinced Jefferson Davis to allow him to keep Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s 1st Corps with him in the East for what became his Gettysburg campaign.

Longstreet had been seeking new opportunities in other theaters, but Lee argued that Longstreet’s corps was needed for an offensive in the East and that the semitropical Mississippi climate would defeat the Vicksburg campaign of Grant, who was sweeping through Mississippi at that very moment.

Instead of sending the 1st Corps to oppose Grant in Mississippi or even to aid the outnumbered Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, Lee retained that corps for his own offensive campaign in the East.

Early in June 1863, while Grant besieged Vicksburg, Lee began troop movements toward Pennsylvania. In the ensuing Gettysburg campaign, Lee committed a series of costly errors, and his army suffered 28,000 casualties before retreating back to Virginia once again. By the close of the Gettysburg battle, Lee’s cumulative casualties had reached more than 80,000.

Costly delay

In late 1863, these two generals’ activities became even more intertwined. After the Gettysburg defeat, Lee’s political capital ebbed, and he could not prevent the transfer of Longstreet and most of his corps to another theater — the Confederates’ one significant inter-theater transfer.

Lee’s opposition, however, caused the initial transfer of those troops from Virginia to northern Georgia to be delayed from Aug. 20 to Sept. 7. That delay proved devastating because Union Gen. Burnside’s capture of Knoxville, Tenn., on Sept. 2 converted a two-day rail journey to a 10-day one and kept Longstreet’s artillery and most of his troops from arriving in time for the two-day Battle of Chickamauga in northern Georgia.

Those missing troops and guns probably allowed the escape, rather than the destruction, of Union Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans’ army, which fled back to Chattanooga, Tenn.

But Lee did even more damage.

He successfully recommended that Longstreet and 15,000 troops be sent away from Chattanooga and then back to Virginia. The departure of Longstreet played into the hands of Grant, who had been brought to Chattanooga to save the nearly besieged Army of the Cumberland.

Grant arrived there on Oct. 23, created a lifesaving supply line within five days, and began gathering Union troops from around the country (including two corps from Lee’s theater) for a breakout from Chattanooga.

While Grant built his forces up to perhaps 75,000, the Lee-inspired exodus of Longstreet’s troops simultaneously reduced Rebel strength in the area to a mere 36,000. Thus, when Grant’s troops successfully charged up Missionary Ridge, the spread-thin Confederates fled in disarray into northern Georgia.

Re-electing Lincoln

In their well-known head-to-head confrontation in 1864-65, Grant achieved complete success in less than a year after launching his Overland campaign on May 4, 1864.

Expected to produce results in time to aid Lincoln’s critical bid for re-election in November 1864, Grant took his aggressiveness and persistence beyond the levels he had demonstrated in the western and middle theaters. But he also continued to demonstrate his dexterity and cunning.

After bloody conflicts at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River and Cold Harbor, Grant disengaged his entire army from Lee’s without Lee’s knowledge, sent it across the James River, and attacked Petersburg, the key to Richmond, before Lee could reinforce it. Because Grant’s subordinates failed miserably, Petersburg held. Thus, Grant won the war in the East in 11 months instead of two.

Gen. William T. Sherman’s Sept. 2, 1864, occupation of Atlanta virtually ensured Lincoln’s re-election, which doomed the Confederacy. Lee had facilitated Atlanta’s fall by vouching for John Bell Hood’s fighting capabilities and also by not reinforcing the outnumbered opponents of Sherman.

Such an inter-theater transfer was the worst nightmare of Grant and Sherman as they planned and executed their simultaneous 1864 campaigns.

But Lee, a Virginian first and a Confederate second, never considered that option. Proof of its feasibility is that Lee sent Lt. Gen. Jubal Early on a long-shot mission against Washington instead of proposing to send his 14,000 to 18,000 troops south to oppose Sherman and at least keep Union forces from capturing Atlanta before the crucial presidential election.

Summing up

Grant’s performance outshone that of Lee. Grant, a national general, won the Mississippi Valley Theater, saved a trapped Union army in the Middle Theater, and won the Eastern Theater (with fewer casualties than incurred there by his Union predecessors).

The North had the burden of winning the war to end Southern independence, and Grant’s aggressive actions (including the capture of three Rebel armies) were consistent with achieving victory. Grant won the war and was the greatest general of the war.

On the other hand, Lee was a one-theater general who adversely influenced Confederate prospects in his own and other theaters. Although the South needed only a stalemate to maintain its independence and was badly outnumbered, Lee gambled for victory, initiated the disastrous Maryland and Gettysburg strategic campaigns, used overly aggressive tactics that decimated his army, and placed the Confederacy in a weakened condition that assured the re-election of Lincoln and doomed the Confederacy.

Edward H. Bonekemper III, adjunct lecturer in military history at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pa., has written four Civil War books. The essay above was based on his latest, “Grant and Lee: Victorious American and Vanquished Virginian.”

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