Comparing Grant and Lee

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series The Organization of the Armies

Grant and LeeIt is great temptation to compare General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee. After all one is seen as having led the Union to ultimate while the other holds the honor of the Southern Confederacy in his capable hands, even to this day. While the popularity of Ulysses Grant has waxed and waned over the past 150 years, General Lee is still looked upon as the personification of Southern cause.

But did they hold comparable positions during the American Civil War? The easy and short answer is yes and no. At the start of the war they actually both commanded field armies with Grant commanding the Army of the Tennessee and Lee the Army of Northern Virginia. Each army was a force that we honor to this day.

In order to understand each man’s place in their sides’ constellation of army commanders, one needs to understand their ultimate leaders, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Each man saw their roles differently and that different viewpoint was to affect their roles as commanders-in-chief. Despite the fact that both men were native Kentuckians, they had totally different life experiences.

Abraham Lincoln was the self-taught son of a prairie farmer who moved north with his family from Kentucky to Indiana and ultimately into Illinois. With his moves Thomas Lincoln moved his family from a slave state into free states, an important factor in his son’s development. Abraham eventually became a one-term Congressman and eventually a well-known lawyer in Illinois.

Lincoln’s only experience with the army was his service as a militia captain during the Black Hawk War. The three-month war gave LIncoln very little experience at soldiering. In an 1848 Congressional speech Lincoln characterized his service tongue-in-cheek: By the way Mr. Speaker, did you know that I am a military hero? Yes sir, in the days of the Black Hawk War I fought, bled and came away . . . I was not at Stillman’s defeat, but I was about as near it as Cass was Hull‘s surrender, and, like him, I saw the place very soon afterwards . . . If he saw any live, fighting Indians, it was more than I did; but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes, and although I never fainted from the loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.

Jefferson Davis took a different route to the Presidency of the Confederate States. Less than a year older than Lincoln, Davis’ family moved south, Lincoln and Davisto Louisiana and then Mississippi where his family owned a small cotton plantation. Davis was a trained soldier, graduating from West Point in 1828 and being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry.

Davis served during the Black Hawk War. In 1835, he left the army and joined his older brother as a cotton planter. After the death of his first wife, Sarah, the daughter of Zachary Taylor, his former commanding officer, Davis threw himself into plantation life. He began to acquire slaves and by 1845 he owned 74 slaves.

At the start of the Mexican-American War, Davis raised a volunteer regiment, the Mississippi Rifles, becoming its colonel, resigning his House seat. He saw action in the successful siege of Monterrey and the Battle of Buena Vista where he was shot in the foot. Davis served as Secretary of War from 1853 until 1857.

So we have two presidents, one with virtually no military and the other with too much. Lincoln initially relied on his general-in-chief Winfield Scott to manage the mechanics of war. Scott had served in the United States Army from 1808 when he was commissioned a captain of light artillery. At 27 he was promoted to brigadier general and commanded troops at the bloody Battle of Lundy’s Lane. For his valor at Lundy’s Lane, Scott received a brevet (i.e. an honorary promotion) to major general to date from July 25, 1814.

Scott immediately suggested a naval blockade and the division of the south east from west down the length of the Mississippi River. His original suggestion although derided at the time became the basis of the Union victory. After several disagreements with the President, Scott resigned and was replaced as general-in-chief by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan.

Lincoln, on a number of occasions, found McClellan as too cautious a commander. “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.” McClellan was replaced by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck who served first as general-in-chief and after Grant’s promotion as de facto chief of staff, a position that suited him perfectly.

Ulysses S. Grant was an 1843 graduate of West Point. He served in the Mexican War where he was brevetted twice for bravery. Grant was an excellent horseman and was considered the finest rider at the military academy. After becoming despondent with being separated from his family, Grant took to drink and resigned his commission under duress on July 31, 1854.

Drifting into civilian life, Grant was like a fish out of water. The coming of the Civil War gave him the opportunity to prove his worth as a soldier. He progressed from a company captaincy to a colonelcy of a regiment in short order. After all, there weren’t that many trained soldiers in the country. Within several months Grant was promoted to district command in Cairo, Illinois with the rank of brigadier general.

From his base in Cairo, Grant planned and executed the successful battles at Belmont, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. He now had the attention of Union officials in Washington. At Fort Donelson, he had demanded the unconditional surrender of the Confederate garrison from an old West Point acquaintance, Simon Bolivar Buckner. Grant became a celebrity in the North, now called “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. With these victories, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to major general of volunteers.

After his close-fought victory at Shiloh, Grant was shunted aside by General Halleck who effectively demoted Grant to the hollow position of second-in-command of all the armies of the west. Grant almost resigned but his friend William T. Sherman convinced him to remain. After his cautious assault on Corinth, Mississippi, Halleck was promoted to general-in-chief and Grant was reinstated as commander of the Army of the Tennessee.

Eventually Grant assumed the position as Western Theater commander, a position that would be similar to an Army Group commander. After the successful siege of Vicksburg, Grant’s armies fought a number of hard fought battles throughout the South. He was promoted to general-in-chief and was given the first lieutenant generalcy since George Washington. Grant was now in complete charge of all of the armies of the Union. When someone criticized Grant to Lincoln, the president replied, “I can’t spare the man, he fights.”

Meanwhile, General Robert E. Lee, the officer who had turned down command of the primary Union field army, served under a president who saw himself as the de facto general-in-chief. After all, Davis surmised, he was a West Point graduate, a veteran of war and a former secretary of war. What general could surpass his experience at waging war.

Throughout the majority of the war, he chose not to appoint a general-in-chief, instead acting as the overall military commander. As such, the Confederate strategy of the war was never quite synchronized. Different regional commanders proceeded at their own pace. While the Army of Northern Virginia had only two commanders, Joseph E. Johnston and Robert E. Lee, the army command in the Western Theater was a revolving door of generals.

Threr is simply no comparison between Grant and Lee. While Grant commanded every Union army and coordinated their offensives, General Lee only needed to concern himself with one army who fought or the most part in Virginia with several campaigns in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In the end the Union model was victorious.


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