This book’s generally positive treatment of Robert E. Lee feels dated, but the dual biography format makes for a memorable comparison and contrast with Ulysses S. Grant that helps illuminate both men and the war that both commanders brought to a conclusion.
Since Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee — The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged came out in 2014, so much has happened to the reputation of Lee and America’s tolerance for those who view Confederate generals as heroes.
It started with the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and ended with the removal of the Lee statue there in 2020, a year which also saw the taking down of the Lee statue in Richmond, along with the other Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. Lee’s stock has not dropped so far since 1865 as it has in the last few years. And recent histories, especially Ty Seidule’s 2021 Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, reflect the change in contemporary opinion.
A historian like Davis might not have worried much about contemporary views of a Civil War subject, choosing to focus mostly on what Lee did to try to win the war 150 years ago rather than what Americans think about it today. But Seidule and other more recent writers on Lee contend that you can’t separate the war from its cause — slavery — and that that you can’t separate Lee’s record in the war from his dedication to fighting at the head of a treasonous rebellion against the United States to expand slavery.
With such an approach, you can imagine that Seidule wasn’t expecting his book to sell many copies to members of Civil War Roundtables in Mississippi or Texas or to win the Jefferson Davis Award, as Crucible of Command did in 2014. The short biography on the book’s back cover explains that Davis, the author of more than 50 books on the Civil War and Southern History, is the only four-time winner of the award, which was given out by the American Civil War Museum (formerly the Museum of the Confederacy) in Richmond until the awkwardly-named honor was quietly allowed to die in 2018. I wonder how much longer publishers will continue to tout the Jefferson Davis Award on the covers of their Civil War titles, as a distinction named for Lee’s boss has certainly already become a liability for many readers.
If you can overlook all that, Davis’s book does offer a useful comparison and contrast of the two leading commanders of the war. Despite so many differences in background and position in society, Grant and Lee shared much in common. “Rarely in history were two combatants more event matched,” Davis writes.
Both looked to preparation, careful planning, and especially supply to frame victories, yet remained ready on the instant to capitalize on unanticipated exigency. Both preferred the indirect approach and surprise to frontal combat. Both sought to follow up victory by pressing the foe for further gain, and more important, each reacted to unexpected setbacks with quick thinking and opportunism to regain initiative. Their views were hardly identical, and their personalities scarcely intersected, yet if ever they had fought side by side there would have been instant harmony.
Though he seems to admire Lee as much as he does Grant, Davis is not afraid to criticize each figure both as a general and as a man.
Davis dings Grant for letting himself be caught by surprise at both Fort Donelson and Shiloh and for drinking, though less than in many Grant biographies. Lee catches blame for failing to supervise subordinates like Richard Ewell, who failed to follow up on success and take Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg. But when it comes to slavery, Davis lets Lee off very easy, finding that charges were overblown against Lee for harsh treatment of slaves at Arlington or for seeking to defer the manumission granted to enslaved people there in the will of George Washington Parke Custis.
Lee didn’t have much connection to slavery and didn’t care about it much one way or the other, Davis claims. He agrees with the Lost Cause mythology that Lee raised his sword against the Stars and Stripes not at all for slavery but only out of loyalty to his beloved Virginia.
After more recent accounts by Seidule and others, such conclusions are hard to accept. Davis claims that his conclusions are based almost entirely on primary sources rather than other biographies of Lee and Grant.
I’m not an expert on Lee, so I didn’t check into Davis’s use of sources about Lee. What I do know is that the trend in history writing is moving away from the kind of “balanced” view of Lee and Grant as morally equivalent battlefield foes seen in Crucible of Command and towards placing Lee’s accomplishments as a general and his character as a “Christian gentleman” into the context of his actions leading an rebellion against the United States to extend the territory of slavery.
Perhaps more negative accounts of Lee published these days suffer from excessive presentism, and Davis’s approach is indeed more fair and accurate than the kind of activist history represented by Seidule. For now, I’m reserving judgment on Davis’s treatment of Lee.
But Davis’s presentation of Grant is consistent with other recent biographies and makes the book worth reading for his clear retelling of Grant’s story alone, especially how he evolved from the commander surprised at Shiloh in 1862 to the general determined to head off major surprises as he dogged Lee in 1864 across Virginia from the Wilderness to Petersburg and then, in 1865, kept Lee from slipping through his fingers on the road to Appomattox.