The conventional wisdom concerning the comparative generalship of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant was established almost immediately after the Civil War. Despite his role as, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “the rebel chieftain,” Lee has been portrayed as surpassing all others on both sides of the conflict not only in soldierly virtue but also in magnanimity and humanity. Indeed, for decades, no Civil War figure, not even Abraham Lincoln, has exceeded the reputation of Robert E. Lee.
Lee has been described as the perfect soldier — a Christian and a gentleman as well as a peerless commander who led his renowned Army of Northern Virginia to a spectacular series of victories against overwhelming odds. For three years, he and his army provided the backbone of the Confederate cause. But though his adversaries were far less skilful than he, they were able to bring to bear superior resources, which ultimately overwhelmed the Confederacy. In the words of Gary Gallagher, the conventional wisdom held that “in defeat, Lee and his soldiers could look back on a record of selfless regard for duty and magnificent accomplishment.”
Grant, on the other hand, has been described as a “butcher.” According to the conventional wisdom, Grant lacked strategic sense and tactical competence and was able to achieve victory only by taking advantage of the manpower and material superiority of the Union to bludgeon his opponent into submission. Critics have described him as an unimaginative plodder.
John Maynard Keynes, discussing the transmission of economic ideas, once observed that “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority who hear voices in the air are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of years back.” This applies to historiography as well.
The Lost Cause and Civil War Historiography
For instance, the conventional wisdom regarding the abilities of both Lee and Grant was shaped nearly a century and a half ago by the Lost Cause school of Civil War historiography. As Edward A. Pollard wrote in the 1867 book that gave this interpretation its name, “all that is left the South is the war of ideas.” The Lost Cause thesis was neatly summarized in an 1893 speech by a former Confederate officer, Colonel Richard Henry Lee. “As a Confederate soldier and as a Virginian, I deny the charge [that the Confederates were rebels] and denounce it as a calumny. We were not rebels, we did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes.”
As David Blight observes in his book Race and Reunion, the Lost Cause interpretation of the war was the South’s response to the physical destruction and the psychological trauma of defeat. In this view, the Old South was a racial utopia, an organic society composed of loyal slaves and benevolent masters. The war pitted this “slave democracy” against the “free mobocracy” of the North, and the noble side lost. The matchless bravery of the Confederate soldier succumbed to the “juggernaut of superior numbers and merciless power.” As Robert Penn Warren once wrote, “in the moment of its death, the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.”
Almost from the moment the conflict ended, the Lost Cause came to dominate interpretations of the war, in the North as well as in the South. The works of Douglas Southall Freeman, the Virginian and biographer of Robert E. Lee, represent the epitome of the Lost Cause school, but even writers like Bruce Catton, who interpreted the war primarily from a Northern perspective, accepted many of the Lost Cause assumptions.
There are two parts to the Lost Cause interpretation. The first is political and holds that the cause of the war was not slavery but the oppressive power of the central government, which wished to tyrannize over the southern states. The South wished only to exercise its constitutional right to secede, but was thwarted by a power-hungry Lincoln.
The second part is military: The noblest soldier of the war was Robert E. Lee. For three years, he and his army fought in Virginia, the most important theater of the war; he was more skilful than his adversaries, but went down to defeat because of the North’s superior resources.
The first part of the Lost Cause argument is demonstrably false. Slavery was both the proximate and the deep cause of the war. There was no constitutional right to dissolve the Union. Southerners could have invoked the natural right of revolution, but they didn’t because of the implications of such a declaration for a slave-holding society; they were, therefore, hardly the heirs of the Revolutionary generation.
But there is a great deal of truth to the second part. The South did fight at a material disadvantage. In Lenin’s words, “quantity has a quality all its own.” And Lee was a remarkably skilful soldier who overcame immense odds on battlefield after battlefield.
For the last two decades, historians have been freeing themselves from the shackles of the Lost Cause school. This has led to a revision of the reputations of both Lee and Grant.
For example, an increasing number of historians have come to reject the Lost Cause argument that Virginia was the decisive theater of the war. The key to Union victory, they hold, was the West. Here Union armies used the Tennessee River as the main line of operations to penetrate deep into the Confederate heartland early in the war. By the end of 1862, they controlled most of the Mississippi River except the stretch between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. These fell in the summer of 1863. Union armies in the West then penetrated the Appalachian barrier at Chattanooga, opening the way to Atlanta, the fall of which ultimately doomed the Confederacy. They inflicted defeat after defeat on the main Confederate army in the West, the Army of Tennessee (not to be confused with the Union Army of the Tennessee) and captured vast tracts of territory that were essential to the survival of the Confederacy.
In throwing off the shackles of the Lost Cause school, many historians, including prominent southerners, have gone to the other extreme and attacked Lee, something that was unthinkable only two decades ago. For instance, Thomas Connelly and Alan Nolan contend that Lee hurt the southern cause because of a single-minded offensive orientation that led to casualties the Confederacy could not afford.
According to his detractors, Lee had no grand strategy and, for parochial reasons, focused narrowly on defending his home state of Virginia. In his search for a Napoleonic battle of annihilation, he paid too high a cost in casualties. Lee’s predilection for the offensive not only hastened the defeat of the South but also was a major contributing cause of that defeat. In the words of Connelly, the Confederacy would “have fared better had it not possessed” a leader as aggressive as Robert E. Lee. Indeed, some of these historians have gone so far as to argue that Lee’s reputation as a gifted soldier was “manufactured history,” a postwar invention by such Lost Cause writers as Jubal Early, who distorted the record by vastly inflating Lee’s abilities and wartime stature.
On the other hand, Grant’s reputation has been enhanced. Historians have come to recognize the importance of the West in achieving Union victory, and it was because of Grant’s leadership that the Union was able to wrest the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers from the Confederacy and open the Appalachian corridor to Atlanta. Grant’s Vicksburg campaign is rightfully honored as a masterpiece of operational art.
In my view, it is possible to admire the generalship of both Grant and Lee simultaneously. To praise Lee does not require that we disparage Grant and vice versa.
In Defense of Lee
Gary Gallagher, one of the very best of a new generation of Civil War scholars and arguably the heir of Douglas Southall Freeman as the foremost authority on Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, has emerged as Lee’s most effective defender. In a series of important books, he has argued persuasively that Lee was not overrated as a general and that his reputation among white southerners during the war was not forged by Lost Cause writers such as Jubal Early after the war.
Historians such as Gallagher who closely and objectively examine Lee’s generalship reject the arguments of those who claim that he was interested in Virginia at the expense of the Confederacy as a whole; that he thought only at the tactical and campaign level, lacking any comprehension of grand strategy or the link between war and politics; that he was a throwback to an earlier style of leadership ill suited to the demands of modern warfare; and that he was out of touch with the realities of 19th-century warfare, preferring an offensive strategy that bled the South white.
The evidence supports the view that Lee was a nationalist and understood the relationship between politics and war. He also understood his role and that of his army in maintaining the morale of Confederate citizens. Lee’s penchant for the offensive was not as risky as those with 20/20 hindsight argue.
Despite the post-war claims of key leaders such as Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy was not able to rely on a defensive strategy because the Confederacy lacked the necessary strategic depth. Indeed, during the war, both Davis and Lee recognized that as long as the North remained determined to subdue the South, the Confederacy could not win its independence unless it took the war to the North.
As Joseph Harsh argues, only by recognizing the offensive nature of Confederate strategy can one make any real sense of Lee’s two forays across the Potomac. In both cases, Lee, with Davis’s blessings, aimed to change the character of the war by employing the strategic turning movement and open-field maneuvering by infantry and cavalry to neutralize the Union’s advantage in engineering, artillery, and gunboats. For Lee, maneuver was not an end in itself but only the means to attack the enemy and inflict heavy losses. Only in this manner, Lee believed, could the South convince the population of the North that a costly and interminable struggle lay ahead if the Confederacy were not granted its independence. This perspective makes sense of what otherwise appear to be ill-conceived offensives into Maryland in September of 1862 and Pennsylvania in June and July of 1863.
Those who claim that the Confederacy would have been better served had Lee adopted a defensive strategy are not looking at the whole picture. Indeed, the idea that the Confederacy could have achieved its independence by adopting the strategic defensive is nonsense. For one thing, the Confederacy lacked the necessary strategic depth to follow a “Fabian” strategy of retreat (even if the southern population had stood for it).
In addition, the historical record demonstrates that defensive actions usually cost the Confederacy vast stretches of territory while achieving few tangible benefits. Albert Sidney Johnston’s position-oriented defense of Kentucky and Tennessee in late 1861 and early 1862 sacrificed western Tennessee and led to the loss of some 15,000 troops at Fort Donelson. Pemberton’s defense of Vicksburg cost another 35,000. The defensive tactics of Joseph Johnston almost cost the Confederacy its capital in 1862 and did cost it Atlanta in 1864. Every major siege of the war occurred during campaigns marked by Confederate defensive strategies, and each siege ended in a Union victory.
Nor is it true that Lee was a throwback to an earlier style of leadership ill suited to the demands of modern warfare, or that he granted too much leeway to subordinates and failed to exercise a tight rein at critical moments. The spring-summer Virginia campaign of 1864 demonstrates that Lee effectively dealt with the loss of his most competent corps commanders and replaced those who were not performing up to standards.
The charge that Lee’s high reputation was a postwar creation of the Lost Cause school is also demonstrably false. Relying on wartime sources, “as distinct from postwar accounts informed by full knowledge of how the war unfolded,” Gallagher has shown that southerners, both soldiers and civilians, retained a remarkable faith in the qualities of Lee and the prowess of his army. Indeed, “the Confederate people looked to them as the nation’s best hope for winning independence.” Gallagher contends that southerners did not see the setbacks at Antietam and Gettysburg as disasters, and, even in late 1864, believed that victory was ultimately possible.
In Defense of Grant
In his book A Great Civil War, Russell Weigley, late dean of American military historians, made a strong case for Grant’s generalship. Weigley argued that Grant was a general of unusual capability who possessed a strategic sense as well as an understanding of the necessary relation between policy and strategy. As mentioned at the outset, Grant’s reputation has suffered in the past from the charge that he was a butcher whose only virtue was a doggedness that permitted him to absorb massive casualties in wearing down the Confederacy with overwhelming resources.
Interestingly, Weigley himself contributed to this view of Grant. In his classic study, The American Way of War, he argued that the practice of warfare in America in the 20th century, an approach characterized by the application of overwhelming force for the purpose of annihilating an opponent in the shortest period of time possible, had its genesis during the Civil War with Grant and Sherman. Indeed, in that book, Weigley titled his chapter on the U.S. strategy for Europe during World War II “The Strategic Tradition of U. S. Grant.”
But Weigley, who knew better, in fact confused the operational and strategic levels of war in his earlier assessment of Grant. The former is concerned with the conduct of campaigns to achieve strategic goals. The latter is concerned with the overall conduct of the war. We need to distinguish between Grant the operational commander and Grant the strategist.
As an operational commander, Grant was at least Lee’s equal. Grant’s excellence as an operational commander is illustrated by the Vicksburg campaign, which was a masterpiece of operational art far superior to the example most studied by soldiers: “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign in the spring of 1862.
But his operational excellence is also evident in his conduct of the operations against Forts Henry and Donelson and (as an army group commander) the Chattanooga operation. He was even able to salvage his one operational black mark — being surprised at Shiloh — to eventually drive the Confederates from the field. As an army commander concerned with the operational level of war, Grant was at ease with the dynamic of the geographically extensive Western theater, which was conducive to his preferred operational approach, one that stressed maneuver.
During the Virginia campaign of the spring and summer of 1864, which is the source of Grant’s reputation as an unimaginative butcher, he was not the operational commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. That army was still commanded by Major General George Meade, the victor of Gettysburg. As commanding general of all Union armies, Grant nonetheless chose to make his headquarters “in the field” with the Army of the Potomac.
As the commanding general of all Union armies, Grant’s focus in 1864 was not primarily operational but strategic. Grant understood that the Confederacy could be defeated only if the Union adopted a strategic approach described by the eminent Civil War historian Archer Jones as “concentration in time” — menacing the enemy “with superior forces at different points, at the same time”:
Grant believed that up to that point, Union armies in different theaters had “acted independently and without concert, like a balky team, no two ever pulling together.” Accordingly, his strategic plan for 1864 called for putting five Union armies into motion simultaneously against the Confederacy. While three smaller armies in peripheral theaters (Nathaniel Banks against Mobile, Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley, and Ben Butler moving toward Richmond via the James River) tied down significant Confederate forces, preventing them from shifting troops from one theater to another, the two main armies, Meade’s Army of the Potomac and William Tecumseh Sherman’s army group at Chattanooga, would lock horns respectively with Lee in Virginia and Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee on the road to Atlanta.
Meade’s objective was to hold Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a death grip and defeat him in a war of attrition. The fact is that there was not as much space for maneuver in northern Virginia as in the West, and, when Meade was confronted by an extremely skillful — and still very dangerous — adversary in the constricted Virginia theater, his only operational alternative was the one he pursued — at great cost — in the spring and summer of 1864.
Of course, Grant exercised a great deal of influence on Meade’s decisions. Operationally, the Virginia Campaign of May-June 1864 reflected Grant’s military philosophy. “The art of war,” he maintained, “is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.”
But if Grant can be dismissed as a butcher for the operational choices he faced as a result of his 1864 strategic framework, Lee is vulnerable to similar charges. Indeed, as we have seen, Lee’s critics charge him with being too sanguinary. If Grant can be criticized for Cold Harbor in 1864, Lee must answer for Malvern Hill and Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.
The Lost Cause mythology notwithstanding, I happen to believe that Lee was the greatest general of the war. But praise for Lee does not translate into denigration for Grant. Both faced unique problems. Both rose to the occasion. The American military tradition has been enriched by both.
I would add that in my own judgment, while the key to victory for the Union lay in the West, the Confederacy’s best chance for success lay in Virginia, where it had its best general and its best army. Given the disabilities under which the South labored, there is little the Confederacy could have done differently — no alternative strategy would have led to a better outcome. The ultimate failure of the Confederacy can be attributed to its inability to translate tactical success into strategic victory. While strategy trumps operations and tactics in determining the outcome of a war (the Germans were masters of operational art but were done in by strategic incompetence in two world wars) a successful strategy still requires the right tactical instrument. As good as Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia were, they were never sufficiently better than the Army of the Potomac to constitute that instrument.
— Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College. He also teaches in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program at Ashland University in Ohio. He wrote this article, among others, for his MAHG course on the Civil War and Reconstruction.