I’ve been thinking about how we view Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and I’ve hit upon the idea that the two men are two sides of a single coin. Just about any quality one can identify in one leader that makes that man a superlative general can be found in the other leader.
I came across this interesting article on Grant, contemplating his greatness as a general using his Memoirs as a departure point. The author makes an error, in my view, in dismissing Lee early in the article as not being innovative. Anyone who’s looked at the Battle of Chancellorsville and Lee’s multiple divisions of his army can tell you he was an innovative general. He went against the prevalent military doctrine of the time in order to do what was necessary to win. Additionally, while William T. Sherman often gets credit for being the first to target civilian morale, we have to recognize Lee early on saw that civilian morale was his true target, which explains why he always took the offensive. He saw the need to knock civilian morale down in order to remove support for the war in the loyal states before the United States’ superior manpower and manufacturing capability could be brought to bear against the confederacy. He also recognized piling up a record of success would sustain civilian morale within the confederacy, especially in the face of losses in the western theater. Grant’s Vicksburg campaign as well as his initial ideas, rejected by Lincoln and Halleck, for a campaign against Lee show an innovative mind willing to break free of convention.
Much is made of Grant’s clarity in writing, and that is rightly so. But Lee didn’t leave any memoirs and he didn’t write any magazine articles, so we’re stuck with the orders and reports he wrote in the Official Records and his surviving letters to judge his writing, and if we read those we can see a similar clarity of expression. Lee was a terrific letter writer, and in his letters we can see the real man and not the marble model popular view of him has become.
Both men were military geniuses. Both were aggressive generals, both preferred maneuver, both were willing to do what was needed to be done to win, both hated to admit losing, and both made mistakes along the way. Both set traps for the other that the other was able to avoid. Grant recognized the trap Lee set for him at the North Anna, but only after he had marched into it. Fortunately, Lee was ill at the time and couldn’t take advantage, and Grant extricated his army. Grant set the Second Corps out as bait for Lee to attack, and Lee refused to take the bait.
Both men projected humility. Grant’s humility was evident to all, and Lee made a number of self-deprecating statements throughout the war. Grant famously wore a private’s uniform during the war, while Lee wore a colonel’s rank. Yet both men were still proud. They abhorred admitting defeat. Grant’s not meeting the accepted protocol for requesting a truce to bury dead and rescue wounded between the lines at Cold Harbor, along with Lee’s punctilious insistence that Grant scrupulously follow that protocol, led to much unnecessary suffering and even death among wounded Union soldiers lying between the lines awaiting help. Lee was finally compelled to surrender to Grant, and as he put it, he would have rather died “a thousand deaths.”
Both men were intelligent. Lee very famously graduated second in his class at West Point. While Grant was further down in his class, once he learned a lesson he never forgot it, and thus he grew tremendously. Both men learned the lesson of civilian control during the Mexican War by observing Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor and their relationships with President Polk, and they carried that lesson into the Civil War. They each had excellent relationships with their respective commanders-in-chief, and as a result maintained mostly free hands to do what they needed to do, while other generals who had not learned that lesson failed along the way.
If we view the two men as two sides of the same coin, which side is heads, and which side is tails? We normally think of the “heads” side as the primary side and the “tails” side as secondary. During the latter part of the 19th Century, surely Grant was the “heads” side of the coin. A two-term president in addition to being the hero who saved the Union, Grant enjoyed immense popularity, as the erection of Grant’s Tomb in New York City after his death indicates. The influence of the lost cause myth, however, was pervasive, and in the Twentieth Century Grant’s reputation fell while Lee’s grew, and Lee certainly became the “heads” of the coin while Grant was relegated to the “tails” side. Recently, Grant’s reputation has been reevaluated while Lee has had some bad press recently, with people recognizing he was in fact a traitor to the United States and was fighting for the side that fought to perpetuate slavery. So perhaps Grant is now or is about to become the “heads” again. To me, ideally this would be a two-headed coin. I don’t see the utility of trying to figure out which was the better general. The two men were evenly matched as generals. Grant defeated Lee, but if the two men magically switched sides, with Lee fighting for the Union and Grant fighting for the confederacy, the Union still wins. This is not because one man was better than the other, but because the two men were two sides of the same coin. Certainly the criticisms of Lee as being a traitor to the United States and of fighting for an entity dedicated to preserving slavery are true, but those things have nothing to do with his generalship. They may impact whether or not a community feels he is deserving of honor, but they don’t impact his military genius, nor do they impact any of the other qualities that made him a great general, just as Grant’s loyalty to the United States and his acceptance that slavery had to end don’t impact the qualities that made him a great general.
What do you think?