For years, Lee got more respect than Grant both as a military leader and as a personality. In recent decades, historians have demoted Lee and promoted Grant on both counts. For Grant’s reputation, it’s a welcome corrective. Grant himself dismissed Lee as a vain and standoffish leader and only a “fair commander.” But Lee still deserves credit as a formidable battlefield opponent, if not as a great man.
Though I am a big fan of Grant, my reading of history inclines me to recognize the massive success of both commanders in military science. Both men were also skilled in political science, crucial to success in a war that pitted two economies and social systems against each other as much as that war hurled armies against each other in battle. Given that the Civil War was won not just on the battlefield but also at the ballot box, both Grant and Lee showed canny leadership to win battles both military and political.
It’s a different story when it comes to character. Overlooking the question of whether Lee turned traitor to his country or not (was his country the US or Virginia?), he had many admirable qualities, balancing the poise of a Virginia aristocrat with a noblesse oblige shown in genuine care for his men.
But Lee failed in the one key area so important to Americans then and now: slavery. On this one issue, Grant could not have been more different than Lee.
Two Brilliant Generals but Only One Good Cause
Proponents of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, a myth invented to justify southern secession and war, have long claimed that Grant beat Lee not because of superior skill but because of superior numbers of men and materiel.
As former Confederate General Jubal Early put it after the war when he became a leading proponent of the Lost Cause, “Shall I compare General Lee to his successful antagonist [ie, Grant]? As well compare the great pyramid which rears its majestic proportions in the Valley of the Nile, to a pygmy perched on Mount Atlas.”
Early and other Lost Causers praised Lee as a military genius and dismissed Grant as a brute who got lucky to be on the side with more men and guns, but whose battlefield command was no better than a “butcher” with little regard for needless loss of life.
Yet, historians have determined that Grant won because he deserved to win. Previous Union commanders had the same superior resources to work with as Grant did, and yet they still couldn’t beat Lee.
Not Overawed by the Legend of Lee
Intimidated by the image of the unbeatable General Lee, Union commanders from McClellan to Pope, Burnside and Hooker failed to fully harness the North’s advantage in men and guns.
Grant viewed Lee not as some kind of military god but just a mere mortal with his own weaknesses. “I never ranked Lee as high as some others of the army, that is to say, I never had as much anxiety when he was in my front as when Joe Johnston was in front,” Grant told journalist John Russell Young, perhaps underestimating Lee. (Watch my short video sharing Grant’s low opinion of Lee).
In response to an officer urging retreat at the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant lost his patience, unintentionally giving birth to one of the great quotes of the Civil War:
Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.
The Underdog’s Home Field Advantage
Further, any Union superiority in stuff and men may be partly or completely cancelled out when considering that Lee was fighting on his own turf, surrounded by friendly civilians who supported him with food for soldiers, fodder for animals and other supplies available locally.
By contrast, even when they could forage off the land, Union forces had to rely on long supply lines for ammunition and other war materiel maintained over hundreds of miles of hostile country. An invading army that has to supply itself over long distances must have 3-4 times more men and equipment than a defending army on its own turf for an equal fight.
The benefits enjoyed by a defending army over an invading one means that Lee wasn’t fighting against “overwhelming odds” in every respect, as he claimed after surrendering to Grant at Appomattox.
Though he suffered from fewer men and less equipment, Lee benefited from the home field advantage, just as George Washington did in the American Revolution. In wars throughout history, leveraging that advantage has allowed many a weaker insurgent to defeat a much stronger power, from the American Revolution to modern wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Grant made up for long distances with skill and experience in logistics. Drawing on his service in the Quartermaster Corps during the Mexican-American War, Grant used wagons, railroads and ships to keep the Union armies well supplied with what they needed to win.
Broad View of the War or Focus on Virginia
According to British military historian John Keegan, Grant wasn’t just the best general on either side of the American Civil War. For Keegan, Grant ranks among the top commanders in world history along with Alexander the Great and the Duke of Wellington.
By contrast, Keegan dismisses Lee as a tactical commander who was able to understand and fight a single battle, often successfully, but whose focus was too narrow to encompass the whole war. And Lee’s judgment was clouded by affection for his native Virginia, according to Keegan.
Civil War historian Gary Gallagher disagrees. He makes a convincing argument that Lee was in fact able to see the whole war, but that he chose to focus on the eastern theater over the West because of political reasons. And those political reasons were sound ones.
The publics of both sides, along with their leaders, were joined by foreign powers in focusing on the East and not caring much about what happened in the West.
As Gallagher puts it, because politics often trumped battlefield results, Lee knew the war could be won or lost in the either the East or the West, but that the war could only be won in the East.
Just take the example of two of the most famous battles of the war, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, one associated with Lee and the other with Grant. These iconic battles took place hundreds of miles from each other but culminated at the same time, in early July, 1863.
Grant’s victory at Vicksburg was a more important battle from a military standpoint than Gettysburg. But in its impact on the politics of the Civil War both at home and abroad, the three-day battle in Pennsylvania made a deeper and more lasting impact than the months-long siege in Mississippi.
To build civilian morale at home or to destroy morale in the enemy’s cities and towns, and thus to influence the governments in Washington and Richmond and to sway decision-makers in London and Paris as they considered intervening on the side of the Confederacy, eastern battles like Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness carried much more weight. Lincoln and Davis both knew this, and so did Grant and Lee.
According to Gallagher, it wasn’t Virginia pride that caused Lee to refuse several requests to send troops away from his own army of Northern Virginia to other commanders in the West, including General John Pemberton besieged by Grant in Vicksburg in the spring and summer of 1863.
It was because Lee knew that those troops would be wasted under inferior commanders, just as troops sent by Lee had been previously been wasted under the inept generalship of Braxton Bragg in Tennessee. Lee was not arrogant, but merely correct, in judging himself the best general that the Confederacy had by far.
Under this argument, Lee fought effectively given the Confederacy’s situation with a weaker position in men and guns but a stronger position in fighting a defensive war on his home turf. Gallagher thinks that Lee’s aggressive battlefield tactics didn’t lose the war for the Confederacy, as critics have claimed, but instead may have extended the war for another year or two.
Likewise, Grant’s style of always moving forward, even after defeat, was effective for the Union war effort and ultimately led to victory. Grant was the first northern commander to overcome the challenges of waging a war of invasion by bringing to bear massive amounts of men and munitions — and having a stomach strong enough to accept the massive casualties that it would take to defeat such a determined foe as Lee.
If the tables had been turned, who’s to say that Lee wouldn’t have fought more like Grant, and Grant, more like Lee? Along with Sherman, Gallagher finds that Lee and Grant were the best generals on both sides of the Civil War. I agree.
We Can’t Separate How they Fought from Why they Fought
In judging Lee and Grant on the battlefield, it’s not enough to consider both commanders’ courage and skill. It’s also necessary to judge the cause for which each man fought.
When asked if Lee was a good soldier and general, historian Ty Seidule, author of Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, replies that you can’t separate the battle from the reason for the battle. “For years, I let the smell of gunpowder seduce me into answering that question. No more!”
Lee chose treason to preserve slavery. His army kidnapped Black people during the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns and brought them back for sale in Virginia. Lee’s army depended on enslaved people for much of their logistics – cooks, teamsters, nurses, engineers, farriers, and servants. The Army of Northern Virginia was an enslaving army. And Lee desperately wanted more enslaved labor throughout the war. Think of that for a minute. What other army depended so thoroughly on enslaved labor for its logistics? Also, Lee’s army routinely executed Black prisoners of war. Too often, we look at the tactics of war and forget the purpose.
In his own writing and teaching about Lee, Seidule puts political context first and generalship second: “I cover Lee as a strategist and tactician only after I clearly talk about treason and slavery.”
Grant’s reasons to fight directly conflicted with Lee’s.
From the outbreak of hostilities, Grant fought to save the United States from rebels like Lee, which soon involved Grant in fighting to end slavery. By the end of the war, Grant knew that Union and Emancipation were inseparable. “The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States must be attributed to slavery,” Grant wrote at the conclusion of his Personal Memoirs.
By contrast, whatever things Lee said about refusing to raise his sword against his native Virginia, what Lee actually did in raising his sword against the Stars and Stripes was to lead an insurrection to establish an independent white man’s republic whose constitution guaranteed slavery in perpetuity.
It may seem like a contradiction to praise Lee on one side for his generalship and damn him on the other side for his politics.
Grant himself could certainly grasp this contradiction. Lee and his troops, Grant wrote in his memoirs, “had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
Character: Myth and Reality
That brings us to the quality of each man’s personal character. Ron Chernow and other biographers of Ulysses S. Grant have removed all the main planks of the Lost Cause attack on Grant as a battlefield butcher, a drunk and a corrupt president.
More recently, in the debate over Confederate statues, Americans have started to learn that the image of the kindly Christian gentleman Robert E. Lee, who was troubled by slavery and reluctantly fought for the Confederacy only out of loyalty to his home state of Virginia, may have been more PR than history.
A Slavery Man and Grudging Peacemaker
To take some of the sting out of Lee’s loss, his admirers have celebrated the nobility of “Marse Robert,” an old-school aristocrat whose heart was pure and whose boots were polished to a high gloss. Myths around Lee even claimed that he didn’t like slavery, that he treated his own slaves kindly, that he freed his slaves when he could and that he forced the Confederacy to enlist Black soldiers because he recognized the humanity of Black people.
It’s true that at the eleventh hour of the Civil War, on March 13, 1865, when it was clear to the world outside of Richmond that the Southern cause was lost, partially at Lee’s urging, the Confederate Congress passed a law to allow the enlistment of enslaved troops voluntarily provided by their masters.
“Active fighting ended less than three weeks after the law was passed, and there is no evidence that any black units were accepted into the Confederate Army as a result of the law,” says the American Battlefield Trust, which ably debunks the myth of “Black Confederates.”
After the war, people enslaved by Lee’s family at their Arlington estate remembered “Gen. Lee as a cold-blooded, exacting military master.” One of those people, Wesley Norris, recalled a brutal whipping that Lee ordered in 1859: Lee had urged the constable to “lay it on well.”
As to freeing slaves, Lee had control of 189 enslaved people in the estate of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. On his death in 1857, Custis’s will required that the slaves be freed within five years. But Lee was not eager to comply.
He found the labor of the enslaved people so profitable and helpful in paying off the debts on the Custis plantations that he petitioned state courts to extend the date of manumission so that Lee could work his father-in-law’s enslaved people for additional time. When Lee did finally sign the documents to free the Custis slaves, he was merely performing his duty as estate executor as required by law. It was not a humanitarian gesture at all and if Lee had his way, he would have kept the slaves longer, if not indefinitely.
Ty Seidule, author of Robert E. Lee and Me, notes that Lee was alone among eight West Point colonels from Virginia to join the rebellion. All seven other Virginia colonels remained loyal to the United States, though they also hailed from Lee’s Old Dominion. Seidule concludes that what made Lee different was not his loyalty to Virginia over the U.S. but his attachment to slavery as an institution.
“He fought for slavery because he believed in slavery,” says Seidule in an interview.
In his 2021 book Robert E. Lee: A Life Allen Guelzo is a bit kinder to Lee, and finds that he stuck with Virginia in order to prevent the state from confiscating the many plantations of his extended family, plantations all powered by slave labor.
Either way, Lee supported slavery.
To cap off Lee, let’s remember that during the Gettysburg campaign, as Seidule points out, his armies kidnapped free Black civilians in Pennsylvania, put them in chains, and sold them down South into slavery.
Grant Started by Fighting for Union and Ended Up Fighting for Emancipation
Grant couldn’t have been more different on the issue of slavery and race. It’s true he owned a single slave, William Jones, for a short period. But in March 1859 Grant freed Jones, foregoing up to $1,500 (about $43,000 today) that Grant could have gotten for selling Jones. Grant sacrificed this money even though he was so broke at the time that he had to sell firewood on the streets of St. Louis to pay his bills.
Otherwise, Grant started out before the war not as an abolitionist but as mildly anti-slavery, and ended the war as a full supporter of emancipation, enlisting Black troops and providing freed people who had taken refuge behind Union lines during the Vicksburg campaign with education and the means to make an independent living. Later, by the time he entered the White House, Grant evolved even further, becoming what historian Guelzo has called “America’s first civil rights president.”
After the war, Grant showed his magnanimity to defeated rebels by offering Lee generous terms of surrender and opposing President Andrew Johnson’s move to put Lee on trial for treason. As he stood for a merciful peace for ex-Confederates, Grant insisted on fair treatment for Black Southerners.
By contrast, Lee spent the remaining five years of his life after Appomattox publicly calling for reconciliation between North and South but privately grumbling about Reconstruction.
Lee also lent his name to budding advocates of the Lost Cause like virulent white supremacist Jubal Early, who would go on to distort the history of the Civil War and justify the oppression of Black citizens throughout the South for another century. Lee even threatened the North with a renewal of hostilities if Republicans pushed to protect the safety and civil rights of Black Southerners. Just after Appomattox, in April 1865, Lee told the New York Herald that if the North enacted “arbitrary or vindictive or revengeful policies,” then Southerners would renew the fight, and “give their lives as dearly as possible.”
For his part, Grant took note of Lee’s bad faith. Grant told a Northern reporter in May 1866 that he was deeply disappointed in Lee’s demeanor since the surrender — Lee was “setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to be hardly realized.”