Comparing Grant and Lee

I have just finished J.F.C. Fuller’s concise and readable volume Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship. While it offers a “revisionist” comparison of the great Union and Confederate commanders, Fuller is better than many historical redactors. He has no axe to grind, and expresses his admiration for both Grant and Lee and their “indomitable resolution, high moral and physical courage and remarkable self-control.”

Since this book appeared over seventy years ago, it is surprising how the legend still persists of Grant as an unimaginative commander who bludgeoned his way to victory through sheer weight of numbers. In Fuller’s anecdotal, and often amusing, account, Grant appears as the martial equivalent of Lt. Colombo. When planning the siege of Vicksburg in the noisy saloon of a steamboat, General McPherson offered him a drink. Grant turned it down but asked for a dozen cigars to help him think through his problem. His rumpled, unaffected modesty, and ineptitude in ordinary tasks, belied a genius for military organization and strategy. He also displayed a coolness under fire that turned any number of potential routs into victory, as at Donelson, Chattanooga and the Battle of the Wilderness. The unsuccessful Ohio tradesman and ex-bill collector was typically “at his best when things were at their worst.”

Grant understood the whole scope of the war. By contrast, Fuller complains that Lee could only see the conflict in terms of his native Virginia. Southern commanders like Beauregard or Longstreet are credited with superior strategic vision, especially with regard to the crucial western theater. Lee was also too detached to concern himself with the necessary minutiae of command, discipline and logistics. The fact that his soldiers fought so magnificently despite being consistently ill-clad, straggling and half-starved is wonderful testimony to Lee’s spiritual force. Yet with sufficient stockpiles in Richmond and elsewhere, this continual drain on the strength of the Army of Northern Virginia was wholly avoidable.

Whereas Grant was able to subtly impose his direction on Lincoln’s war effort, Lee was so averse to personal conflict that he could not make necessary demands on the Confederate government or even his own generals. Lee’s maneuvers indeed stand out as occasionally brilliant, but also impulsive and hastily-planned. That is why at Fredericksburg he failed to win a decisive victory despite Union bungling. One is further surprised to learn that throughout the war Southern losses were proportionately higher (even in victories like Chancellorsville) than those of the North.

Fuller concentrates mainly on the wartime exploits of Grant and Lee. Yet it is clear that peacetime revealed very different aspects of these two men. The Union general’s postwar career, especially as America’s 18th president, was disastrous. By comparison, Lee in his quiet retirement as president of Washington College, was more arguably more successful in trying “to establish in his own humble way, now that the sword was sheathed, a more perfect union based on brotherly love.”

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