Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Grant considered

Atlantic editor and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates just finished reading Grant's Memoir, which he has been "live" blogging about.

It's a remarkable book, widely and justifiably considered about the best of that genre ever written.

I'm reading up a bit on Grant's nemesis, Robert E. Lee, in preparation for the upcoming anniversary of Gettysburg.

I often find myself defending Grant from ignorant criticism, often from Lee fans. For some reason Lee's admirers find it impossible to admit that Grant was a good general or anywhere near the equal of Lee -- Grant only won due to overwhelming force. Now, it is true that Grant had significant material advantages over Lee in 1864, but no more so than many other Union generals that Lee had nevertheless thrashed for the previous two years.

Lee was, undoubtedly, one of the greatest generals of U.S. history. Gen. Winfield Scott, one of America's other great generals said Lee was the finest soldier he ever knew -- and in more than 50 years of service Scott got to know a lot of soldiers.

It takes nothing away from Lee to see that Grant was also an exceptional general. He had to be, to beat Robert E. lee.


  1. I'm not saying Grant was a poor General, and while I admire much about Lee, he's not the infallible demi-god many make him out to be (nobody could be). However, to say Grant enjoyed the same manpower advantage that previous Union Commanders in the east did is untrue.

    While the ratio of reported effectives in the east might be roughly the same in 1861,62,63,and 64 ( I don't think it is, but I'd have to look it up), I think much of the Army of Northern Virginia existed only on paper in 1864. The effect of years of war on the south an worn away at the morale and supply of the southern armies as seen by the massive desertions over the course of 1864-65.

    Furthermore, Grant had an enormous manpower advantage over Lee (and over any other Union General in the East) because he had authority over ALL Union forces everywhere in the entire war. He could tell Sherman what to do out west. Meade, Burnside, McClellan, etc could not.

  2. At Chancellorsville HG Hooker had approximately 134,000 in the field, while Lee had 61,000. A year later on the same ground during the Wilderness Grant had 102,000 and Lee again had around 61,000. By 1864 the Union was also feeling some manpower strains.

    It's true that Grant had some authority that wasn't granted to other Union generals but unless he was skilled enough to use that authority it wouldn't do any good. McClellan had had similar authority until Lincoln circumscribed it to force Little Mac to focus on the issue at hand.

    Any manpower advantages Grant enjoyed were differences in degree over his predecessors and in many cases were because of decisions Grant, himself, made. The fact is that Lee almost never enjoyed any numerical advantage over the federal forces opposing him and that didn't stop him from winning victory after victory -- until Grant (and Meade) came along.

    Meade was able to stymie Lee defensively, but didn't have the ability to act offensively against Lee, which was a requirement to win the war.

  3. A different anon chiming in here...

    There was an excellent discussion about this in North and South magazine a few years ago. One of the points raised in that discussion (it was a roundtable of sorts among Civil War historians) was that Grant was considered good because his opponents prior to Lee were nothing to write home about. The flip side of this, however, is that perhaps the same thing in restrospect happened to Lee. Was he really good, or did Pope, Burnside, Hooker and McCLellan, through their ineptness, make him look good by comparison?

    For what it's worth, I think that both the Vicksburg campaign, and the battle of Chancellorsville were masterpieces of generalship.

  4. Yeah, we just had a similar extensive discusssion over on Boardgame Geek along the same lines.

    For what it's worth, I think both sides of the coin are valid. In order to pull off a brilliant campaign like Lee at Chancellorsville or Grant at Vicksburg you need both the audacious genius AND the hapless dolt. Lee needed Hooker to be Hooker and Grant needed Pemberton and Johnston to act as they did. Indeed, Grant and Lee's plans depended on character of the opposing general.

    Lee was unhappy when Meade replaced Hooker on the eve of Gettysburg because he suspected Meade wouldn't be the blunderer LeE really needed to be commanding on the other side.

    In the case of Grant vs. Lee they were both great and this is why neither one was able to seize a decisive advantage. Under those circumstances it did come down to numbers.