Grant and Lee

This book is a result of Major General John Frederick Charles Fuller’s comparative study of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee and their generalship. You can download and read this book for free here. This is an important book because this study led to a change in the author’s outlook as a result of it. In the Preface, he writes, “Until a few years ago I accepted the conventional point of view that Grant was a butcher and Lee one of the greatest generals this world has ever seen. I accepted this because I had been taught to think that this was so. Then, after the close of the World War, it occurred to me that a study of the American Civil War might have taught us, not only how better to have waged the European Civil War, but even how to have altogether avoided it. From school history I turned to the sources of history–the records, the memoirs, the letters, and soon discovered that much I had been taught as fact was little short of fiction. Like most British officers, I had been fed upon Henderson’s Stonewall Jackson [G. F. R. Henderson’s book, Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War]; but historical research soon revealed to me that this justly popular book was almost as romantic as Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. Interesting and instructive both these works are, but neither can be considered as wells of historical truth. Cyrus of the Cyropaedia is Xenophon’s ideal of a soldier, and so is Jackson of Henderson’s only less famous book. What was my astonishment when I discovered that Jackson, though he possessed certain remarkable qualities, was possessed by so many equally remarkable idiosyncrasies as to leave one in doubt as to his sanity. Then I turned to Grant, and found him to be nothing like the Grant I had been led to picture; lastly to lee, to discover that in several respects he was one of the most incapable Generals-in-Chief in history–so much for school education.” [pp. 7-8]

This also being a comparative study of personality, Fuller begins with Grant’s personality. He writes, “In the Pantheon of War he [Grant] has remained uncanonized, and not only in the common opinion of his fellow-countrymen does Lee rank above him, but not a few consider that Sherman, Joseph E. Johnston, Jeb Stuart and Stonewall Jackson showed superior generalship. Yet what did he do? He won the Civil War for the North, and so re-established the Union which to-day has grown into the vastest consolidated power since the fall of Rome. He fought some of the greatest campaigns in history; was never defeated, and after the war was twice chosen by his countrymen as their President.” [pp. 57-58] We also learn, “Ewell, in Richmond [in May of 1861], discussing the merits of the officers of the old army with a friend, said: ‘There is one West Pointer, I think in Missouri, little known, and whom I hope the Northern people will not find out. I mean Sam Grant. I knew him well at the Academy and in Mexico. I should fear him more than any of their officers I have yet heard of. He is not a man of genius, but he is clear-headed, quick and daring.’ ” [p. 59] Among Grant’s character traits Fuller discusses his simplicity and self-reliance, his modesty and common sense, his physical and moral courage, and his magnanimity. In discussing Lee’s personality Fuller wrote, “Nearly all his letters are like these two, full of commonplaces and good advice. In them his nature appears distinctly soft and proper, and because of this I think we can trace many of his failures as a general, which on account of his self-sacrificing dignity and austerity were lost to sight in that sanctity which soon began to envelop him, until the man was frozen into the saint. Yet in spite of this unsought halo, Lee was a man.” [p. 101]

Fuller writes about Lee’s reliance on God and his overriding faith that the outcome of the war was in God’s hands. In that he was very fatalistic. This, along with his sense of duty, was also the root of what Fuller identifies as a weakness of Lee’s. “This sense of duty was carried to such an extreme, that as Jefferson Davis said: ‘He was unwilling to offend anyone who was wearing a sword and striking blows for the Confederacy’; consequently, incompetence, if devout, was no blemish in Lee’s eyes.” [p. 112] Fuller also writes regarding Lee’s humility and his submissiveness to Jefferson Davis. “Politics were not his business, even policy was not his business. Let others plan, he would carry out; for, as General Long says, and in order to compliment him: ‘If it should be asked, what was General Lee’s opinion in regard to the defence of Richmond? It might be said that he was too thorough a soldier openly to question the wisdom of the Government in forming its plan of operations or to employ less than his utmost ability in his efforts to execute them.’ Even towards the end of the war, when asked by a leading member of Mr. Davis’s Cabinet: ‘General, I wish you would give us your opinion as to the propriety of changing the seat of Government and going further south,’ Lee replied: ‘That is a political question … and you politicians must determine it. I shall endeavour to take care of the army, and you must make the laws and control the Government.’ Yet at this moment it was a question of vital strategical importance, of life or death to the Confederacy, whether Richmond should be held or not–it was essentially a strategic question.” [pp. 113-114] Fuller tells us, “He nearly always submitted questions to Davis’s decision. … His subservience is more utter, more abject, than that of any other noted general to any other Government in history.” [p. 115]

In another section, Fuller discusses what he calls Lee’s “want of authority and inexhaustible tact.” He writes, “What this bootless, ragged, half-starved army accomplished is one of the miracles of history. It was led by a saint, it was endowed with the sanctity of its cause, and yet had its leader been more of a general and less of a saint, even if this had filched from it a little of its enthusiasm, its hardships would have been vastly reduced.” [p. 117] I can’t say I agree with his characterization of the Army of Northern Virginia. Fuller also writes, “That his example did influence his army is beyond doubt–it sanctified it and him; yet its discipline remained beneath contempt. Towards it he acted like a soft-hearted father; he was its exalted leader, its high priest, but not its general. ‘Colonel,’ he said to an officer who begged for a visit, ‘a dirty camp gives me nausea. If you say your camps are clean, I will go.’ A normal general would not have avoided dirty camps, but would have sought them out, so that the officers in charge might suffer for their uncleanness. But Lee was not a normal general; in place of the hot word he relied upon the half-disguised censure. He was always tolerant, even when tolerance was little short of criminal. … So deep was his horror of friction and dissensions that after the battle of Gettysburg he asked General G. E. Pickett to ‘destroy both copy and original’ of his report, ‘substituting one confined to casualties merely.’ ” [pp. 118-119]  Further, Fuller says, ” ‘An army,’ so said Napoleon, ‘marches upon its belly’; but Lee, though a saint, and because he was a saint, was no quartermaster. He said: ‘I am content to share the rations of my men.’ On one occasion he wrote to Richmond: ‘Nothing prevented my continuing in his [the enemy’s] front but the destitute condition of my men, thousands of whom are barefooted, a greater number partially shod, and nearly all without blankets, overcoats, or warm clothing. I think the sublimest sight of the war was the cheerfulness and alacrity exhibited by the army in the pursuit of the enemy under all the trials and privations to which it was exposed.’ It was sublime, one of the grandest pictures in history, this all-gripping misery of his men. But it was a picture of which he was the artist. Though again and again he pleads for supplies, his pleadings are so tactful that they are disregarded. He never thunders for them, they are not his personal concern; even at the beginning of the war, when Commander-in-Chief, he never insisted upon their collection or economy.” [pp. 123-124]

In a section about Lee’s audacity and resignation, Fuller writes, “Lee was no grand-strategist, for he refused to be influenced by policy or to influence it. His theory of war was based upon the spirit of his army which he considered to be invincible. He undervalued the valor of his adversaries, though he read like a book the character of many of their generals, and on the whole had the highest contempt for their abilities.” [p. 126] He continues, “He relied on manoeuvre more than on attack. Manoeuvre he understood, and he was a past-master in field movements; attacking he did not, and most of his offensive battles failed. Grant, understanding this, understood Lee so well that at the outset of the Wilderness campaign he said that he did not intend to manoeuvre; he refused to dance to Lee’s pipe. Once Lee was cooped up behind the Richmond defences he could no longer indulge in his favourite pastime of turning the Valley of Virginia into a race-course. The only time he attempted to do so was when Early raided up to Washington; yet on this occasion, in spite of all his psychological insight, Lee failed to gauge the temper of the North. There was no panic as in 1862, Lincoln quietly saying: ‘Let us be vigilant, but keep cool.’ As a general Lee was a mixture of caution and audacity. His theory of war was that ‘in planning all dangers should be seen, in execution none, unless very formidable.’ At Richmond, on June 15, 16 and 17, he did nothing to support Beauregard, at Chancellorsville he acted like lightning, and, I suspect, because Jackson provided the ‘sunshine’ he so needed.” [p. 127] In comparing Jackson and Lee, Fuller says, “Without Jackson, Lee was left a one-armed pugilist. Jackson possessed that brutality essential in war; Lee did not. He could clasp the hand of a wounded enemy, whilst Jackson ground his teeth and murmured: ‘No quarter to the violators of our homes and firesides,’ and when someone deplored the necessity of destroying so many brave men, he exclaimed: ‘No, shoot them all, I do not wish them to be brave’ ” [p. 129]

In the concluding chapter, Fuller compares the two generals head to head. He says, “At Belmont, at Donelson and at Shiloh Grant’s mistakes were profound, but he did not repeat them; in his West Virginian Campaign Lee’s mistakes were equally profound, yet he learned nothing from them. Grant at Vicksburg is a totally different general from Grant at Belmont; but Lee at Gettysburg is the same man as Lee at Cheat mountain: there is the same lack of order, of combination, of central control and of authority. Whilst Grant learned how to stamp his mind on his operations, turning intellectual conceptions into co-ordinated actions, Lee merely continued to stamp his spirit on the hearts of his men. His outlook is complex, it is divided between his sense of duty and his sense of generalship, Providence and himself, the Government and himself, and himself and his subordinate commanders. Grant’s outlook is simpler and, consequently, more all-embracing. He sees the war as a whole far more completely so than Lee ever saw it. His conceptions are simpler and less rigid; he is preeminently the grand-strategist, whilst Lee is preeminently the field strategian. His orders are simple, direct and unmistakable, Lee’s more often than not are vague and frequently verbal. In the Official Records of the war it is conspicuous that no sooner is battle engaged than Lee’s written orders cease.” [pp. 243-244]

The best part of this chapter involves casualty tables. Fuller writes, “To turn from assaults to losses, there is nothing whatever to justify the common opinion that Grant wantonly sacrificed the lives of his men. It is true that during the last year of the war his losses were heavy, but it must be remembered that his efforts were continuous in order to prevent the Richmond Government from reinforcing Johnston.” [p. 272]

On page 273 he provides tables for losses for both Grant and Lee in the first half of the war.

As Fuller writes, “From these two tables we learn the following: In Grant’s six battles, the average percentage of men hit, that is killed and wounded, was 10.03 per cent., and in Lee’s ten the average was 16.20 per cent.” [p. 273]

He next considers Grant and Lee when they faced each other.

He writes, “As no accurate figures exist for Lee’s losses they cannot be given, which in itself shows the indifferent staff work in his army, but as regards Grant’s, his average loss in these eight battles was 10.42 per cent., which compares closely with his average during 1862-1863, and is considerably lower than Lee’s during the same period. Of forty-six battles, great and small, tabulated by Livermore in Numbers and Losses, in which casualties for both sides are given, the Federal losses work out at 11.07 per cent., and the Confederate at 12.25 per cent.; both of which figures are higher than Grant’s total average of 10.225 per cent., and decidedly below Lee’s average of 16.20 per cent., for the years 1862-63, in spite of the fact that they include his losses. That Grant’s casualties were abnormally high is thus proved a myth, and one of the most persistent in the history of this war. It may, however, be said that as the Federals were generally numerically superior to the Confederates these percentages are misleading. As to this I do not agree, because the Federals were normally the attackers, and it is a well known fact that the attacker loses much more heavily than the defender, and out of all proportion when the defender is entrenched.” [pp. 274-275]

Fuller makes a fairly persuasive case. Though I agree with him that Grant was the better general [slightly, in my opinion], I have to say I don’t think Fuller really understands Lee or gives Lee enough credit. I don’t think he saw much of Lee’s correspondence, especially where Lee was advising Davis on his views regarding what should happen in the rest of the confederacy from a military point of view, or Lee’s views on the political target in the Union states. Still, the book is valuable for the serious student of the war, and I can recommend it.

5 comments

  1. Loved this book. Real eye-opener.

  2. Robert F. Davenport Jr · · Reply

    “… it is a well known fact that the attacker loses much more heavily than the defender, and out of all proportion when the defender is entrenched.” I believe Gen G Patton beat the odds and made the defender pay. That was a different time and Patton’s tactics and resources often created favorable situations.

    1. So did Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they are also just as long after Fuller’s writing and just as much irrelevant because of the technological advances.

      1. Robert F. Davenport Jr · · Reply

        Possibly no one in the 1861-65 time frame had the creativity to change the “well known fact” or possibly no one in leadership neither sought out nor encouraged creativity in tactics.

        1. Perhaps you should do more reading in Civil War tactics. I have a few reviews of books by Professor Earl Hess that would be useful.

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