Why Grant Won and Lee Lost

By Edward H. Bonekemper III
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: Edward H. Bonekemper is the author of several Civil War books. His latest, Grant and Lee: Victorious American and Vanquished Virginian, was published in 2007 by Greenwood Praeger. This article is an excerpt from that book and appears here through the courtesy of the author.

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were the generals primarily responsible for the outcome of America’s great Civil War. Superseded in overall importance only by their respective presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Grant and Lee were the key players on the war’s battlefields.

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 mini-religion. 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.

This article presents a different view of the performances of Grant and Lee as Civil War generals. 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. 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 four-to-one 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. Lee’s aggressiveness resulted in a single general’s record 209,000 casualties for his army (55,000 more than Grant’s); those were casualties the South could not afford. After Lee’s first fourteen months of command, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had incurred an intolerable 98,000+ casualties by the close of the Gettysburg Campaign. These losses left Lee’s army too weak to effectively stymie Grant’s Overland Campaign to Richmond and Petersburg in 1864 and eventually resulted in Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865.

Ironically, Grant, who could not even obtain a command at the beginning of the war, rose to the top of the Union armies and oversaw victories in three theaters of war. Lee, on the other hand, started near the top in the Confederate hierarchy of generals, and oversaw the slaughter, decline, and surrender of his army – despite the fact that the rest of the Confederacy was drained of soldiers to replace those killed and wounded under Lee’s command. A study of the roles and actions of Grant and Lee, and the interplay between their activities throughout the war, is critical to an understanding of their positive and negative influences on the war’s outcome.

The antebellum experiences of these two generals affected their Civil War careers. Grant’s small-town childhood was unremarkable, his first military career ended in an alcohol-related resignation and disgrace, and his seven years of civilian jobs immediately prior to the Civil War were marked by uninterrupted failure. Although Lee’s childhood was marred by his father’s abandonment of the family, their survival on intra-family charity, and his father and brother’s scandalous behavior, he married into the wealthy Washington/Custis family, had a successful 32-year antebellum military career, and was recognized as one of the nation’s leading military officers when the Civil War erupted.

Winfield Scott

Grant and Lee’s Mexican War experiences were marked by both similarities and differences. Both of them performed heroically and were awarded multiple brevet (temporary and honorary) promotions as they played key roles in General Winfield Scott’s war-winning campaign from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Grant, however, had the advantage of also serving under Zachary Taylor, a less formal and more communicative officer than Scott, in the similarly successful early Mexican War campaigns in Texas and northern Mexico.

Zachary Taylor

Because of his disastrous, alcohol-related exodus from the army in 1854, Grant was unable to interest George B. McClellan, John C. Fremont, or anyone else in the Union army in offering him a commission when the Civil War began. Only by training novice Illinois volunteer regiments was Grant able to earn the attention and respect of Illinois’ governor and thereby obtain a colonelcy in the Union army. Lee, on the other hand, had his choice of plum assignments for either side in the Civil War. His mentor, Union General in Chief Winfield Scott, offered him command of all Union armies, but then-Colonel Lee declined the offer, resigned his United States commission, immediately took command of Virginia’s military forces, and soon was appointed the second-highest-ranking operational full general in the Confederate army. In the opening months of the Civil War, therefore, Grant started at the bottom while Lee started at the top.

In Richmond, a desk-bound and frustrated Lee effectively supervised Virginia operations of other Confederate generals in the early stages of the war. He was particularly disappointed about missing the field action during the Rebels’ initial victory at First Manassas (First Bull Run) in July 1861. When at last he was given a field command in northwestern Virginia, Lee failed dismally. At Cheat Mountain in September, he devised a complicated battle plan that resulted in Rebel defeat. After other failures and final loss of control in the mountains that would become the new state of West Virginia, Lee was withdrawn to Richmond and then assigned to improving Confederate defenses in the Southeast.

Grant, meanwhile, was on a roll. In September 1861, just after the Rebels violated Kentucky’s neutrality, Grant’s troops seized the crucial Kentucky towns of Paducah and Smithland, where the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers respectively meet the Ohio. Two months later, Grant commanded his first battle at Belmont, Missouri. As he conducted a raid, he relied on diversionary feints to keep the enemy guessing about his intent.

Henry Halleck

When Grant suggested to Major General Henry 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 Major General 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. On his own initiative, Grant 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. It earned Grant a promotion to Major General of Volunteers.

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, Mississippi, that he became careless. His army was surprised at Shiloh in April 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.

Adverse public reaction to the numerous casualties at Shiloh led Halleck to take command of the combined armies of Grant, John Pope, and Don Carlos Buell, relieve Grant of his army command, elevate Grant to a meaningless deputy position under Halleck, and almost cause Grant to resign his commission. Halleck went on to win a hollow victory at Corinth but then dispersed his huge armies. After Halleck was promoted to general in chief and left for Washington, Grant resumed command of the Army of the Tennessee. He spent most of 1862 protecting his hard-earned territorial gains with the forces left to him in the Mississippi Valley. While the bulk of “western” Union troops moved to the Middle Theater (between the Mississippi Valley and Eastern/Virginia theaters) to repel a Rebel invasion of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, Grant won victories at Iuka and Corinth, Mississippi, with his limited number of troops.

George B. McClellan

While Grant had won significant victories that weakened the Confederate left flank, Lee remained in the background building defenses in the Southeast and then (beginning in March 1862) serving as Jefferson Davis’ military advisor in Richmond. Lee’s opportunity for major field command came with Joseph Johnston’s wounding on May 31, 1862, at the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks) just outside Richmond. That battle marked the first serious fighting during McClellan’s slow and deliberate Peninsula Campaign from Fort Monroe in Hampton up the Virginia Peninsula toward Richmond.

After assuming command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, Lee achieved fame and success through victories over McClellan and Major General John Pope. With high casualties, Lee drove McClellan away from Richmond during the Seven Days’ Battle and then moved into central and northern Virginia to sweep Pope’s army, undermined by McClellan, off the battlefield at Second Manassas (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 losses and also lost the Confederacy its last real chance for European intervention on its behalf. But for McClellan’s cowardly and incompetent conduct, Lee would have lost his army at Antietam.

Lee’s good fortune in the Union selection of commanders of the Army of the Potomac continued when Ambrose Burnside replaced McClellan and then was replaced by Joseph Hooker. In December 1862, Burnside ordered suicidal Union attacks at Fredericksburg, Virginia, 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 at Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Iuka, and Corinth 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 at the Seven Days’, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, and Fredericksburg engagements 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 had drained other areas of the South of many of their soldiers. That drainage made Grant’s and other “western” generals’ jobs easier.

In late 1862 and early 1863, Grant undertook a number of initiatives aimed at capturing Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last significant Rebel bastion on the Mississippi River. Although stymied at first, he persisted in his efforts 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, he outnumbered and defeated them in each of five battles fought in the eighteen 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.

James Longstreet

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 Hooker at Chancellorsville, but Rebel frontal assaults on the final days of that battle (often ignored by historians) cost Lee many casualties. Riding the crest of his influence following Chancellorsville, Lee convinced Jefferson Davis to allow him to keep Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First 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 semi-tropical Mississippi climate would defeat the Vicksburg Campaign of Grant, who was sweeping through Mississippi at that very moment.

Braxton Bragg

Instead of sending the First Corps to oppose Grant in Mississippi or even to aid the outnumbered General 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 Campaign, Lee’s cumulative casualties had reached more than 80,000 while he had imposed about 75,000 on his Union opponents, who could afford the losses much more than he. Lee’s army thereafter would remain relatively inactive until it faced Grant in 1864.

With Lee’s assistance in ensuring that his Mississippi Valley foes received no help from the East, Grant completed his Vicksburg Campaign with little difficulty. As he had done at Fort Donelson, Grant maneuvered so that he would capture a Confederate army as well as a critical place. Those two armies who surrendered to Grant were the only Civil War armies that surrendered to their opponents before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Their surrenders demonstrate Grant’s focus on going after enemy armies as well as places – a focus shared by Lincoln and critical to Union victory. After Vicksburg, Grant’s cumulative casualties were about 31,000 while he had imposed over 77,000 on his foes. So Grant had gained control over a wide swath of the western Confederacy and made Confederate armies pay the price for opposing him, while Lee had decimated his own army in a series of strategic and tactical offensives that were unnecessary to the stalemate the Confederacy needed.

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, resulted in the start of the transfer of those troops from Virginia to northern Georgia being delayed from August 20 to September 7. That delay proved devastating because Union General Burnside’s capture of Knoxville, Tennessee, on September 2 converted a two-day rail journey to a ten-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 Major General William Rosecrans’ army, which fled back to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

But Lee did even more damage. Within days after Longstreet started his ten-day trek, Lee began a series of letters to Davis and Longstreet urging that Longstreet be sent to clear Burnside out of Knoxville and then be promptly returned to Lee. Amazingly, Davis carried this suggestion to Bragg and Longstreet during a trip to Bragg’s headquarters to resolve a dispute between Bragg and all his subordinate generals (including the borrowed Longstreet). Because Bragg and Longstreet wanted to be rid of each other, they agreed to Lee’s proposal, and Longstreet and 15,000 troops were sent away from Chattanooga on November 5.

The Lee-generated 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 October 23, created a life-saving 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 thus built his forces up to perhaps 75,000, the Lee-inspired exodus of Longstreet’s 15,000 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 considerable disarray into northern Georgia.

William T. Sherman

Grant’s victory at Chattanooga, with the unintended assist from Lee, ended any semblance of Rebel control in Tennessee and set the stage for Sherman’s 1864 Atlanta Campaign. Having won the Mississippi Valley and saved the trapped Union army in the Middle Theater, Grant was the obvious choice to be brought east and promoted to general in chief. His troops’ total Western and Middle Theater casualties were 37,000, and they imposed 84,000 casualties on their opponents. He had won the West and was expected to win the East, the Middle Theater, and the war. With Sherman’s help, he lived up to those expectations.

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 reelection 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 eleven months instead of two.

While Grant and Lee fought in Virginia, Sherman advanced three armies toward Atlanta. Although Lee had succeeded in getting Longstreet’s troops back to Virginia, the Union 11th and 12th corps, which had been transferred from Virginia to Chattanooga as part of Grant’s build-up there, remained in the Middle Theater as the new Army of the Ohio. Sherman’s armies thus outnumbered Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee and continually moved around its flanks toward Atlanta. While all those armies were in the Atlanta environs, Davis (with Lee’s blessing) replaced Johnston with John Bell Hood – one of the major mistakes of the war. A protégé of Lee’s, Hood wanted to attack whether or not circumstances justified attacking. Hood proceeded to go on the offensive, weaken his army, lose Atlanta, and virtually destroy his army in a quixotic foray into Tennessee late in 1864.

The fall of Atlanta virtually ensured Lincoln’s reelection, which doomed the Confederacy. Lee had facilitated Atlanta’s fall by vouching for 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, first a Virginian and second a Confederate, never considered that option. Proof of its feasibility is that Lee sent Lieutenant General 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. Lee’s failure to reinforce the Confederates in Georgia demonstrated that Lee was a one-theater general (while Grant was a national general).

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 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 reelection of Lincoln, whose defeat had become the South’s best hope for victory.

Finally, the respective casualty figures of these two generals contradict the myth about who, if either, was a butcher. For the entire war, Grant’s soldiers incurred about 154,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing, captured) while imposing about 191,000 casualties on their foes. In all their battles, Lee’s troops incurred about 209,000 casualties while imposing about 240,000 casualties on their opponents. Thus, both generals armies imposed about 40,000 more casualties than they incurred. However, 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.

In summary, Grant’s aggressiveness in three theaters was consistent with the Union need for victory and resulted in success at a militarily reasonable cost while Lee’s aggressiveness in a single theater was inconsistent with the strategic and tactical defensiveness the Confederates needed to preserve their limited manpower and force the stalemate that was sufficient for Southern victory.

Edward Bonekemper is the author of four books and many published articles on the Civil War. His articles have appeared in the Washington Times, the American Bar Association Journal and the Journal of Afro-American History. Mr. Bonekemper has lectured or served as an adjunct professor of history at Muhlenberg College, George Mason University and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and has made over 250 appearances as a speaker on the Civil War to groups at the Smithsonian Institution, the NYC Military Affairs Symposium, the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, as well as to Civil War Roundtables in California, Washington State, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, and all the Mid-Atlantic states from New York to Virginia.

Mr. Bonekemper is a graduate of Yale Law School and was awarded an M.A. in history by Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA and a B.A. in American History by Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA. He worked as a U.S. Government attorney for 34 years for the United States Coast Guard and the Department of Transportation and is now retired. He lives in Willow Street, PA.

Edward Bonekemper’s books are:

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