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.
Jackson confer at Chancellorsville
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
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 of 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
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.
dead at Cold Harbor
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.
|Robert E. Lee