GRANT versus LEE

In the story of 1864 the names of Grant and Lee have become almost synonymous. The armies of the two men would be locked in a death struggle for nine months, grappling and clawing at each other from the Rapidan to the trenches of Petersburg until the guns fell silent at Appomattox. In this bloody window of time one tends to rarely mention one without the other. The intention of my talk today is to focus on the character and personalities of Grant and Lee and how they dealt with the tide of war in 1864. And also to examine some of the problems each faced in executing their strategic and tactical plans. I will for the most part confine the discussion to the Overland campaign.


In 1864 the North American continent was an ocean of war. Grant in his role of Commander in Chief assumed the mantle of King Neptune as it was he rather than Lee who commanded the raging seas. Nonetheless Lee was an untamed force within those stormy waters over which Grant presided. 1864 was very much a test of the will of both men thus the sub title of this talk. The contest between Grant and Lee lends itself to many metaphors. I have just referred to it in mythical nautical terms but boxing provides another analogy. Grant as undisputed champion of the West faces off against Lee the undisputed champion of the East, a heavyweight contest the equal of Ali and Frazier’s Fight the Century. The game of chess also offers obvious metaphors but I didn’t think the Battle of the Queens possessed the right measure of gravitas for today’s talk.


All of us no doubt have preconceived notions about the two men. They have been much written about and there are few stones unturned in regard to what we know about their lives. On the surface there seems an obvious difference. The somewhat casual attire of Grant, some might say shabby, stands in marked contrast to Lee’s rather more formal attire. There was too a generation of time which separated the two men, Grant was 42 and Lee 62 in 1864 and this twenty years marked them as men of different eras. Lee belonged to old America and Grant, like his President, to a new America, informal and rustic to a degree but forceful and uncompromising in its vision for the future. According to J F C Fuller they represented two different epochs, Lee belonged to a spiritual agricultural age and Grant to a physical new industrial age. For Fuller these differences are paramount to understanding their personalities and generalship. I’ll come back to some of Fuller’s observations a little later.


Grant and Lee first met in Mexico. Lee was senior to Grant and Woodward relates a story of Lee reigning in his horse after returning from a reconnaissance and chatting to Grant who was working with some supply wagons. Another anecdote provided by Maj-Gen Sir Frederick Maurice has Grant returning from a reconnaissance covered in dirt and looking generally dishevelled with information for General Scott and Lee sending him away, in keeping with Scott’s orders that all officers had to appear in full dress uniform at his headquarters, to smarten up before he allowed an audience with the higher commander.


Both men started their civil war careers somewhat ingloriously, Lee’s West Virginia campaign was a failure and Grant was routed at Belmont. Thereafter both men’s stars rose almost in tandem. Grant victorious at Fort Donelson, Lee victorious in the Seven Days, Grant victorious at Shiloh, Lee victorious at Manassas, Lee bold but foolishly obstinate at Sharpsburg, Lee victorious at Fredericksburg, Lee dazzling at Chancellorsville, Grant equally brilliant in the Vicksburg campaign, Lee defeated at Gettysburg but masterful in retreat and Grant the miracle worker at Chattanooga. You can examine all those battles, and historians have done for 150 years, and you can find flaws in the generalship of both Lee and Grant. You can point to the poor decisions and incompetency of their opponents but you cannot take away the fact that they won most of the battles in which they fought. If it was luck, it was good luck. Napoleon is credited with saying “I have plenty of clever generals but just give me a lucky one.”


On 1 March 1864 Abraham Lincoln nominated Grant for the newly created position of Lieutenant General. The appointment was confirmed by the Senate the next day and Grant commissioned a week later. On 10 March Grant was given official authority to take command of all Armies of the United States. On 26 March Grant established his permanent headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac.


By doing this Grant created a problem by effectively placing the Army of the Potomac under two commanders. Meade had expected to be relieved of command. Instead he was told “wherever Lee goes there you will go also”. It was an invidious position that Meade found himself in. In issuing his orders he tried to anticipate Grant’s thinking. If he guessed wrong the orders were countermanded resulting in confusion and lost time, it was an unwieldy and cumbersome arrangement.


Grant’s decision to place himself with the Army of the Potomac ultimately led to the virtual extinguishment of George Meade from the historical record for the remainder of the war. As commander of the Army of the Potomac, Meade, the victor of Gettysburg and victorious in minor affairs at Bristoe Station and Rappahannock Station is subsumed by Grant.


This was not Grant’s doing. A newspaper report after the Battle of the Wilderness claimed Meade had wanted to retreat but only Grant had kept the army from withdrawing. Incensed by this untruth Meade had the erring correspondent drummed out of camp with a placard bearing the word “LIAR” hung around his neck. The response from other correspondents to this public humiliation was a unanimous resolve to not mention Meade’s name again. And so it came to pass.


Grant’s plan as Commander in Chief was simple. It rested on the delivery of three simultaneous blows. First, the Army of the Potomac would make Lee’s army its objective, second, Butler with the Army of the James would march on Richmond. And third, Sherman would invade Georgia.


It is important to note a dispatch sent by Grant to Halleck on 29 April. In it Grant states his intention to march with fifteen days supplies and to forage off the land. He estimated this would allow the army to subsist for 25 days but if forced to operate between the Rapidan and Chickahominy supplies might be sent via the Rappahannock and York Rivers. Grant also was encumbered with a 5000 wagon supply train which would render his movement south and east slower than he might have wished. Crucially Grant states “When we get once established on the James River, there will be no further necessity of occupying the road south of Bull Run.”


What this tells us is that Grant was, in fact, prepared for a long encounter with Lee’s army in the area in which they did engage and that Grant expected to reach the James River at some point. He may well have wished to avoid such an engagement in the Wilderness but he was nonetheless prepared for it. I make this point because an oft repeated claim about Lee is that he surprised Grant in the Wilderness and deliberately chose the area because it reduced the effectiveness of Grant’s numeric superiority. The latter is true and Lee was undoubtedly hoping to emulate the Chancellorsville victory. But it is not true that Grant was surprised. In fact it was Grant who was the aggressor once contact was made, turning his columns west to where the Confederates were expected to arrive. Ewell had been expressly ordered not to bring on a general engagement until A. P. Hill drew abreast of him and Longstreet was up. As a consequence Confederate successes came through counterattacks on the first day, not from any initial grand assault.


The clash of the armies in the Wilderness began a series of battles that would have seen the end of Grant’s tenure had they have occurred in 1862 or 1863. But in 1864 the mood of the country had changed. When, on 7 May after the cost of the first week of bloody fighting was being digested Grant wired Halleck with the message that included the famous line “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” – Lincoln had found his man and the North had found its champion.


Grant exhibited uncharacteristic behaviour on the eve of 1 May. He clearly viewed it as being a significant moment in his and the nation’s destiny.  He was nervous and Horace Porter says the general smoked twenty cigars before nightfall and whittled sticks all day. He surprised his staff by appearing next day in white cotton gloves, with his coat buttoned and his shoes shined. On the second day he had discarded the gloves and by week’s end W. E. Woodward author of Meet General Grant described him as being back to normal, looking like ‘an Illinois wheat farmer who has come into the village bank to cash his cheque”.


Both Grant and Lee would be dogged by problems throughout the campaign. Of immediate concern for Grant was the loss to the army of 38 regiments of four year volunteers. This amounted to nearly 20,000 men who would need to be replaced. Grant’s response was to strip the Washington defences of many of its large garrison troops and so many heavy artillerists suddenly found themselves serving as infantry. It is inconceivable that such a thing would be allowed in 1862 and 1863 but the mood, as I have already noted, had changed and it was an example of Grant’s forceful will imposing itself. Lincoln would support him with a call for volunteers. Another measure Grant took, after Cold Harbor, was to orchestrate a ban on prisoner exchanges. This was seen as inhumane by many but to Grant it made no sense to prop up the enemies armies by returning men to it.


In late 1863 and early 1864 Lee’s army was plagued by desertion. President Davis, much to Lee’s displeasure, issued an amnesty to try and encourage deserters back to the army. Confederate conscription laws were extended at Lee’s urging so that now old men and boys capable of bearing arms could be dragooned into the army. For Lee the campaign opened with his army not quite united. Longstreet’s Corps was some distance away at Gordonsville replenishing its supplies having only recently returned from the West. Longstreet, like Jackson, would be shot down by his own troops in the Wilderness thus depriving Lee of one of his most experienced commanders. JEB Stuart would be killed a week later adding to Lee’s burden. Another Corps commander, A. P. Hill, was becoming increasingly debilitated by syphilis and responsibility for the conduct of that formation increasingly fell to Lee and at Spotsylvania Jubal Early took temporary command of Hill’s Corps. Ewell too was in poor health suffering from overstrain and would eventually be replaced by Early. In late May Lee himself was incapacitated by an attack of angina. It is often said that this robbed him of a great opportunity on the North Anna to inflict a heavy loss on Grant who found his army split in two. It is an overstatement of fact as Grant quickly realised the precarious situation his army was in and the Federals promptly entrenched which would have made the success of any Confederate attack problematic.


A little needs to be said of the second part of Grant’s overarching strategy, Butler’s attack on Richmond. This was so incompetently handled as to defy belief and resulted in Butler’s army being blocked in the Bermuda Hundred area, where it was safely contained and of no threat to the Confederate capital. The upshot of this was that the expected drain on Lee’s army that the defence of Richmond against Butler was intended to cause did not occur and did in fact mean that Grant would be forced to fight on that line all summer.


The overland campaign, from the 1 May to the battle of Cold Harbour on 3 June, cost the Union 55,000 casualties and the Confederates 33,500. The Union army numbered 118,500 at the outset, the Confederate army 64,000. So in five weeks we see both armies lose approximately 50 per cent of their starting effectives, the North a little under, the South a little over.


Gouverner Warren, commander of the V Corps, commented “For thirty-six days now it has been one funeral procession past me.”


The battles were bloody because bother Grant and Lee were tenacious fighters who both believed in seizing the initiative in order to dictate the terms of the fight. A general of lesser temperament than Grant would have lost the initiative at Fort Donelson after the initial breakout attempt by the Confederates and would have backed off at Shiloh after falling victim to the initial surprise attack. Not Grant, he would stay and fight and chance his arm. Similarly, Lee when engaged fought instinctively, perhaps a victim of what Longstreet called his ‘headlong combativeness’, but nevertheless Lee always looked to press home an advantage or create one.


Grant’s arrival at the Army of the Potomac had heralded a sea change and it was one well understood by his adversaries. Porter Alexander in his excellent memoir Fighting for the Confederacy described Grant as ‘undoubtedly a great commander. He was the first which the Army of the Potomac ever had who had the moral courage to fight his army for what it was worth. He was no intellectual genius but he understood arithmetic…Grant knew if 100,000 men couldn’t, 200,00 might, and that 300,000 would make quite sure to do it.’


A more immediate appraisal was offered by the wonderful diarist Mary Chestnut. Of Grant she wrote “He is their man, a bullheaded Suwarrow. He don’t care a snap if they fall down like the leaves fall. He fights to win, that chap. He is not distracted by a thousand issues. He does not see them. He is narrow and sure, sees only in a straight line…He has the disagreeable habit of not retreating before irresistible veterans.”


JFC Fuller argues that both men were fatalists but that Lee’s fatalism resided in an abiding subservience to God, a force from outside over which he had no control. Grant, Fuller believes, was driven by an internal rational control directed by ethical consideration. Both men derived a great calm from these beliefs which was reflected in their steely and generally unflappable self control on the battlefield. Neither was fazed by impending disaster, they were reactive and moved instantly to plug gaps and drive in on the enemy at every possible opportunity.



The overland battles were not without adverse moral effect. The Northern army was naturally demoralised by the losses and the public, too, left wondering about the cost. Opponents began to speak of Grant as the Butcher.


A popular misconception of Grant is that he did not care about the welfare of his men, that he used them as cannon fodder. In the barest simplification this seems true. Grant’s strategy of targeting Lee’s army meant it had to fight and if it had to fight men had to die. It was a cold hard fact that only the North could win a war of attrition. It is not true that Grant did not care for his men. After the first day’s fighting he bore up manfully to the grim news of reverses and losses among his troops. That night he threw himself face down on his cot and wept. They were undoubtedly tears that released pent up emotions carried into the day but they also were shed in sympathy for the cost he had asked his men to bear and possibly, too, at the realisation of what the future cost might be.


The effect was equally disarming to the Confederates and no more so on General Lee. Pressed back to the James, facing an enemy that seemed impervious to its losses and bolstered by a limitless source of supply, Lee saw the writing on the wall. Woodward claims that an undertone of despondency and increasing reliance on Providence mark Lee’s letters to his family from this time on.


The casualties sustained did ultimately undermine the final stage of Grant’s campaign. When he crossed his army to the south side of the James, deceiving Lee and opening an opportunity to attack Petersburg, he was defeated by the flagging morale of the Northern army. With 48,000 men arrayed against Beauregard’s 12,000 Confederates, Grant’s generals tentatively probed at the undermanned Confederate lines and when Grant arrived personally he could not raise the will of his generals and men to undertake the necessary risk. And so the Siege of Petersburg unfolded as Lee’s army arrived and the 48 hour window of opportunity that Grant had created slammed shut. Porter Alexander considered the manoeuvre to have been the “most brilliant stroke in all the Federal campaigns of the whole war.”


With the exception of this one act of sleight of hand by Grant, Lee had expertly interposed his army between Grant’s and Richmond exhibiting his mastery in engineering skill that was profoundly evident at Spotsylvania, the North Anna and at Cold Harbor. If this meant Lee was tactically superior it was of little account as it was, failing the hoped for destruction of Lee’s army, exactly what Grant had planned. Suffocate Lee while Sherman bored through the heart of the Confederacy.


It is natural to make comparison of both Grant and Lee and JFC Fuller’s study Grant and Lee: A study in Personality and Generalship is useful in posing questions on that matter. After the war Lee made little comment publicly about his role in and his thoughts about the conflict. Historians have pieced together anecdotal evidence of post war comments purportedly made by Lee so we have some limited insights into Lee’s thinking. Grant left us his memoirs and in reading them we do well to consider Sherman’s assessment of his own memoirs “I don’t propose that what I say is true it is just my recollection.” Grant’s memoirs in regard to Lee I think are ungenerous. He believed he was too much a headquarters general, that he had a slow and cautious nature. Such descriptors stand in stark contrast to how popular history has remembered Lee. Grant states that in his opinion Lee was not an ‘imaginative man”. In this latter appraisal JFC Fuller agreed.


According to Fuller, Lee was not imaginative. He was a one trick pony with the limit of his strategic vision being the threatening Washington. He acted on intuition not rational reason and as a result too often held his opponents in contempt. His invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania mirrored this contempt but also were counterproductive to southern peace overtures which showed him to be out of step with the needs of Confederate war aims. He was blinkered in his belief that Virginia was the main theatre of the war and never fully grasped the importance of the West. This was certainly untrue. In late 1863 Lee wrote to Davis in response to Grant’s victory at Chattanooga. He urged a concentration of all available Confederate forces to prevent the logical Yankee thrust into the Deep South. He recommended Beauregard be placed in charge. Davis replied and asked Lee to go west. Lee declined citing his inadequacy for high office. Davis summoned Lee to his office to discuss the matter. After long discussion Johnston was selected to replace Bragg. Clearly Lee understood the importance of the west but Lee’s parochialism for his own army interfered with the opportunity to advise his government of more appropriate strategies. As an old world soldier and as a product of the great new republic that was America, Lee did not believe he had the right or the capacity to challenge his government which was led by a God ordained president.  He believed in respectful acquiescence to his President on the premise that he was but an instrument of the state. For Fuller the Confederacy needed more leadership from Lee. Fuller also believed Lee did not cope well with the detail of campaign planning and would in fact have made a poor choice as Commander in Chief. Perhaps Lee was genuine in claiming himself inadequate for higher office.


Furthermore, according to Fuller, Lee did not learn from his mistakes. And so the mistakes of the Seven Days are repeated at Gettysburg and the mistakes of the Maryland campaign are repeated a year later. Grant, on the other hand, Fuller argues, learned from his mistakes so that he was a markedly different general in 1863 than he was in 1862. Grant he says learned to stamp his mind on operations turning intellectual conceptions into co-ordinated actions whereas Lee merely continued to stamp his spirit on the hearts of men while his battles lacked order, combination and a central control of authority. Of course, even Fuller, is astonished by the force of personality that Lee was able bring to bear to galvanise his army. If the reverence elicited from his troops is a measure of a Generals success then Lee trumped Grant on this score. Grant it seems was never treated to the same overt displays of affection as was Lee, possibly because he passed unnoticed through his seemingly nondescript appearance and also because he did not favour military inspections and parades.


Fuller believed that Grant was an enigma to Lee and that Lee was never able to fathom him. I don’t think this true. I think Lee understood Grant perfectly well as he recognised himself in him. He knew that Grant was succeeding in diminishing his own ability to strike out effectively. Rather than being an example of limited vision, Lee’s sending of Early down the Valley in 1864, for example, was a mark of his increased desperation to try something that might bring about an unlikely respite. And contrary to Fuller’s assertion it was also necessary, given the combining of Hunter, Averell and Crooks Federal forces near Staunton.


In regard to grand strategy Fuller believed Grant had a superior grasp of the whole war and that he exhibited this in all his campaigns, always seeking to affect outcomes in adjacent theatres. Vicksburg was designed to split the Confederacy in two, the Meridian campaign and a planned push toward Mobile to open the side door into Georgia, and Chattanooga to open the front door, and of course setting Sherman loose in Georgia was meant to destabilise South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.


More modern writers such as Thomas L Connelly and Alan T Nolan have run with various strains of Fuller’s observations, chief among them being that Lee the Virginian was blind to the West and his costly combative tactics undermined the Confederate war effort.


In contrast, Sir Frederick Maurice a contemporary of Fuller’s, celebrated the efforts of both Northern and Southern armies as being consistent with the best of Anglo-Saxon spirit. He rated Lee as superior to Wellington and to Washington but believed his greatest defect was his failure to control Longstreet. Longstreet, set himself at odds with most Southerners after the war by declaring Grant to have been superior in the art of war to his old commander.


Maurice fell into the celebratory tradition of lionising Lee but without the obvious hagiographic bias demonstrated by Lee’s main biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman. Yet even Freeman concluded, begrudgingly, that “in some subtle fashion General Grant infused into his well seasoned troops a confidence they had never previously possessed.” and that there was “likewise an ominous decline in the standard of Confederate corps, divisional, and brigade command. Too many of the ablest officers had been killed and were replaced by soldiers less skilful.” Of course Lee was not to blame for this debilitating outcome though Connelly would argue he was.