U.S. Grant vs. Robert E. Lee

As you are well aware, your ever lovable Grey Beard Biker loves military history – and for that matter – United States history. Be it the War of the Revolution, War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam or the War on Terror, he has read about it extensively. But the Civil War has always been Grey Beard’s passion.

Having been born and raised in Central Illinois, but living the majority of his adult life in Missouri and Tennessee, your old bearded pal has a very unique take on what southerners call the War of Northern Aggression – a term I do not embrace. While sympathetic to the south, as someone who has adopted the southeast United States as home, my views on the Civil War tend to be more pragmatic. The North had the manufacturing and manpower to bring the South to her knees, but the Rebel armies had a certain elan which was admirable. During the last thirteen months of the war, the two most well known commanders, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee would face each other in a fight to the death. These men were vastly different – but also quite alike in many respects. While Grant never was beaten in any campaign he commanded, R.E. Lee was known for his daring on the battlefield. Let’s take a brief look at each general.

Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee was born in 1809 in the tidewater area of Virginia. His father was “Lighthorse” Harry Lee which would be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because Henry Lee was a celebrated hero of the Revolutionary War, but a curse because he left his family terrible amounts of debt. He would graduate from West Point at the top of his class and serve as an engineer and a cavalry officer. He earned a great deal of respect for his courage on the battlefield during the Mexican War. Lee would serve as superintendent at West Point and would finish his service in the U.S. Army as lieutenant colonel of the vaunted 2nd Cavalry.

After Abraham Lincoln‘s inauguration, and the secession of several southern states, Lee wound be offered command of the Union armies arriving in Washington, D.C. to protect the capital. After the firing on Fort Sumter, in Charleston bay, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. This would be the final straw for Lee, who’s home state of Virginia promptly seceded. Lee would resign his U.S. Army commission and take a role as President Jefferson Davis‘ military advisor.

After the wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston, during the Peninsula Campaign, Lee would be placed in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, where he would earn the love and respect of his soldiers and the entire southern citizenry. He would lead this army through some of the most brutal battles of the war: the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Overland Campaign and Petersburg.

Ulysses S. Grant

Lieutenant General, U.S. Grant

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in an Ohio River town in southern Ohio in April 1822. His upbringing would be vastly different than R.E. Lee’s as he did not have the family name or the connections Lee would benefit from. He was an excellent equestrian and enjoyed reading. What he did not like to do was spend time in his father, Jesse Grant’s tannery. He could not stand the sight of blood and was disgusted by the smell. Unlike Lee, Grant was never particularly close with his mother.

Jesse, knowing young Ulys did not desire to follow in his footsteps, secured him an appointment to West Point. Unlike Lee, Grant would not graduate at the top of his West Point class. While he wanted to join the cavalry service, he would instead be assigned to the 4th Infantry Regiment and head to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. While there, he would meet Julia Dent, sister of his fellow classmate, Fred Dent, whom he would later marry.

During the Mexican War, Grant would be assigned quartermaster’s duties for his regiment. Inevitably this would help him later in his career, when he was responsible for large armies. Not wanting to be away from the fighting, while in Mexico, he would volunteer to help along the infantry lines and was cited for gallantry. After the Mexican War he would be sent to upstate New York, where he could enjoy Julia’s company. But that would be short lived, as he was soon transferred to the west coast where it would be too difficult to have his family with him. Missing his family desperately, he would resign his commission and move to St. Louis where he would scratch out a living on the Dent family’s farm.

By the time of Lincoln’s election, Grant had moved his family to Galena, Illinois to work in his father’s store. As secession was taking place, Grant offered his services to the U.S. Army, but received no response. He would end up helping organize volunteer regiments in Springfield and would eventually earn a commission as colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry. Through well placed friends in Washington City, he would quickly be promoted brigadier general, volunteers and would earn a reputation as an aggressive fighter at the Battle of Belmont (Missouri).

As mentioned previously, Grant would never lose a battle or campaign during the Civil War. He became a celebrity after capturing forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee – which would open both the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. These battles would earn a promotion for Grant, to major general, volunteers. He would go on to win battles at Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga before being brought east to command all Union armies. This move brought him promotion to lieutenant general in the regular army – a rank not given since George Washington received it.

Never wanting to be away from the fighting, he would set up his command with Major General George Meade‘s Army of the Potomac. Here he would oversee the gruesome fighting at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, the North Anna, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. After capturing Petersburg, he would command the forces chasing Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Appomattox Campaign – eventually receiving Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. He was the only Union commander to capture a Confederate army, until Major General William Sherman captured the remnants of the Army of Tennessee, in North Carolina to end the war. Grant captured three armies.

Was Grant or Lee the “Butcher?”

It is said, that after the fierce fighting a Cold Harbor, Mary Lincoln called Grant a butcher. Yes, Grant was aggressive. He would send his infantry to attack prepared positions. He would hammer away at entrenched lines, always looking for a weak spot. He did this at Donelson, Vicksburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and to a degree, at Petersburg. But Lee was also very aggressive, often dividing his army in front of vastly larger forces. He would also hammer at entrenched lines in several battles: Malvern Hill, Gettysburg and Petersburg come to mind. Did Grant deserve the moniker, “butcher,” or was Lee’s aggressive fighting more deserving of this title?

Let’s look at some actual numbers from when Lee faced off against Grant, starting in the spring of 1864. These numbers are taken from Edward H. Bonekemper III’s fabulous book, A Victor Not A Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant’s Overlooked Military Genius.”

BattleLeeGrant
Wilderness11,12517,666
Spotsylvania C.H.13,42118,399
North Anna River3,7663,986
Cold Harbor4,59512,737
Petersburg Assaults (prior to siege)4,00011,386
Petersburg Siege28,00042,000
Appomattox Campaign41,66610,780
Totals106,573116,954

There is much which can be learned by these overall numbers. First, they contain all casualties for each belligerent: killed, mortally wounded, wounded, captured and missing. After taking command of all Union forces, Grant made his headquarters with Meade’s Army of the Potomac near Warrenton, Virginia. While later in the fighting in Virginia, he would become involved in tactical decisions, early on he let Meade manage the fighting. And thus, he advised Meade, “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” While strategically quite sound, this mandate would inevitably cause much bloodletting.

By the spring of 1864, Lee’s situation was extremely precarious. He had suffered tremendous losses at Gettysburg, retreating to Northern Virginia to lick his wounds. Over the fall of 1863 and the winter of 1863-1864, his Army of Northern Virginia would also bleed losses from desertion. Simply put, the Rebel soldiers were becoming aware of the inevitability that the Union juggernaut doomed their cause – they did not want to die for a doomed southern independence. So, the diminishing numbers of troops fit-for-battle required that Lee keep his army almost exclusively on the defensive. While he would try to take advantage of offensive opportunities – especially in the Wilderness – for the most part he would keep his army in fixed positions behind entrenchments.

Grant was much wiser than his naysayers gave him credit for. Going into the Overland Campaign, he knew Lee’s army was suffering from severe attrition and that the key to winning the war was constantly hammering the Army of Northern Virginia. And so the blood flowed heavily throughout the Overland Campaign and during the initial attacks against Lee’s lines around Petersburg and Richmond. But what the raw casualty numbers do not reflect, on face value, is that Lee’s overall strength during this time was 1/2 that of Grant’s. With his Army of Northern Virginia behind very heavy earthworks, especially starting at Spotsylvania Court House, Lee would still suffer a higher percentage of losses than Grant with one glaring exception: Cold Harbor. Lee’s desperation led to his high losses. Grant’s realization that the Civil War had become a battle of attrition led to his high losses. The Union’s ability to replenish their forces and Lee’s inability to do so made it thus.

One last analysis of Grant’s overall losses during the entire Civil War bears some examination. Grant would suffer 153,642 total casualties compared to 190,760 Confederate losses. Much of the lopsidedness of these losses were because Grant captured three complete Confederate armies at Donelson, Vicksburg and Appomattox. But based on raw numbers, especially with the never ending manpower reserves of the North, Grant should not be considered the “Butcher.”

In closing, your ever lovable Grey Beard Biker greatly respects the generalship of Robert E. Lee. He proved himself cunning, brave and willing to risk his Army of Northern Virginia when the potential outcome was worth the risk. Grant, undoubtedly is one of the United States’ premier generals. Without his leadership, the Civil War would have at least dragged on much longer. He recognized early on that the war was not a war of capturing territory, but rather a war of annihilating the Confederate war machine. Both of these generals should command respect.

Grey Beard Biker

Note: Besides referencing Bonekemper’s book, this entire post is primarily written from memory. Any mistakes are fully the responsibility of your bearded author.

About the author

Living in Clarksville, Tennessee, Michael Noirot has been riding motorcycles for many years. He and his gal, Tracy, have traveled the United States on motorcycles and are always seeking out new adventures. Living with them are their pets, Willa, Lexi and Motor - the black cat!

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