By Dan Zeiser
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in December 2002.
The age-old question. The two best-known generals of the war. The commanders who battled one other at the end of the war. Lee’s surrender to Grant is generally, and incorrectly, considered the end of the war. Given his besting of Lee, is Grant the better general? Much has been written over the years, yet the question remains.
Here we go again.
Lee, second in his West Point class, an engineering officer, a career military officer, truly was a great general. As a tactician, he was head and shoulders above Grant. (Thomas, however, is another question.) Good defensively, Lee was even better on the offensive. He was bold and decisive, a calculating gambler. Can anyone who has studied the battle of Chancellorsville deny it? Splitting his army on several occasions, he surprised his opponents and won the day. Lee was a master of the holding attack, a tactic George Marshall would later instill as the only tactic taught at the Army War College prior to World War II.
As do all great generals, Lee knew his commanders and his opponents. With Jackson as his right arm, he had the confidence to divide his command and attack whenever he saw the opportunity. After Jackson’s death, he realized his subordinates were not cut from the same cloth. Never again would he attempt a Chancellorsville type maneuver. He was a wise evaluator of his opponent’s capabilities, also. Prior to Antietam, with McClellan again in command, Lee knew he would have time to take Harpers Ferry before McClellan attacked. At Gettysburg, Lee realized Meade was a solid, if not spectacular, commander who would likely not make a mistake.
Because of these traits, he won battles – one of the measures of a great general. His men loved him and would do anything for him. They fought when they were cold, tired, hungry, and hopeless. They did everything he asked, except win the war.
However good he was, Lee was flawed. Two flaws in particular come to mind, one minor, one major. As a minor flaw, Lee was not a good quartermaster. The Army of Northern Virginia was always poorly equipped. Much of its equipment and supplies were taken from the Army of the Potomac after their numerous victories, but there was never enough. Not all of this blame can be laid at the feet of Lee, though. The Confederacy was woefully short of the industry needed to supply its armies, and the Northern blockade prevented adequate supplies from being imported as the war dragged on. Some may lay additional fault on the South’s lack of railroads to deliver supplies. Virginia, however, did not suffer from this lack. Finally, northern Virginia was fought over so much that it simply could not feed the army.
While these factors played a role, Lee, as commander, shoulders much of the blame. He never seemed overly concerned about the supply situation, leaving it to the government in Richmond. For instance, a major reason Lee invaded the North in 1863 was the lack of food to be found in northern Virginia following the wintering of both armies there. Rather than deal with the supply problem at home, he chose to invade Pennsylvania and live off the land. But how long could he possibly stay? This only solved part of his problems. More important, a battle was inevitable. He would have to return to deal with his wounded and replace his losses, even if he were victorious.
Lee’s major flaw, though, was as a strategist. In a word, he was not. His concern was northern Virginia and nothing else. Throughout the war, he resisted attempts by Jefferson Davis to draw forces from the Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce the western armies. Only once did it happen, when Longstreet went west and fought at Chattanooga, but not without Lee’s efforts to stop it. He also opposed attempts to make him commander-in-chief of Southern forces until it was too late for it to be of any benefit.
Additionally and most importantly, he failed to realize that the Confederacy’s best hope of survival was to hold out. Since the South had a lack of fighting men compared to the North, its best hope was to keep casualties to a minimum, to live to fight another day. Lee’s offensive tactics ensured the Army of Northern Virginia sustained greater casualties than it could afford. Had he fought defensively most of the time, Lee would have saved soldiers who could fight again, perhaps outlasting the North’s will to win.
In some ways, Grant is the mirror image of Lee. He was a mediocre student, 21st in a class of 39, and a failure as a career military man. He was not very good as a civilian, either, failing as a farmer and a president. And, unlike Lee, he was a good quartermaster who made certain his men were well-supplied. In other ways, they were very much alike. Like Lee, Grant was decisive and bold. The Vicksburg campaign alone proves this. Grant also was not afraid to fight. He won battles and his men loved him.
Grant also had his flaws. As a tactician, he was horrible. He seemed to know only one tactic – the frontal assault. Time and time again, he threw troops at entrenched positions, only to suffer incredible casualties. At Vicksburg, he attacked strong fortifications and suffered accordingly. Did he learn to try other methods? No. At Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor he did it again on an even grander scale, suffering even grander casualties. Grant seems to be one of those Civil War generals, of whom there are quite a few, who did not understand the changes the rifled musket forced on tactics. Frontal assaults no longer worked, but many a general seemed to think if only another division were thrown in, the result would be different. Only once did Grant try a flank attack. At Chattanooga, Sherman was to strike the right flank of Bragg’s army, but was defeated by Cleburne’s division. Seeing it fail, Grant seems to have discarded the idea as antiquated.
Grant’s true talent lay as a strategist. He saw the big picture clearly. His Vicksburg campaign was brilliant, even though the battles were won in a pedestrian manner. He outmaneuvered his opponent and prevented him from combining forces. As commander of all the armies in 1864, Grant understood two aspects of the war that those before him did not.
First, the North had to keep pressure on all of the South’s armies simultaneously to keep the Confederacy from using its interior lines of communication to shift forces quickly. Second, he realized the North had greater manpower and could replace its losses more easily than the South. If he kept pressure on Lee’s army and kept it fighting, eventually Lee would run out of men. While this increased Grant’s casualties in the short term, it shortened the war and lessened overall casualties.
So, who was the better general?
Both were fighters who won battles. Both were decisive, bold men. Lee was clearly the better tactician. In the end, however, Grant must be seen as the better of the two. No man, other than Lincoln, did more to win the war than Grant. His strategic vision enabled him to maximize his advantages and Lee’s disadvantages. He forced Lee to fight and continue fighting without rest. Grant could replace his losses, Lee could not. In the end, this is what proved the difference. At Appomattox, the Army of the Potomac continued to grow stronger. The Army of Northern Virginia could field no more than 20,000 men, many of whom could no longer fight. As a result of Grant’s strategic talent, the Army of the Potomac was able to do the one thing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could not – win the war.
Why Grant Won and Lee Lost