Sunday, January 27, 2008

"In my opinion General Robert E. Lee was average" by U.S. Grant

For many Civil War officers the war did not end with the close of hostilities. The battles moved from a war of guns to a war of words. Every veteran, whether he was a private of the President of the Confederacy penned memoirs and histories. These books usually revolved around their own personal experiences and they usually puffed up the writer at the expense of rivals.

One of these famous memoirs was written by Ulysses S. Grant. In the book, Grant provides American with its greatest military memoir. Grant offers opinions about the his chief adversary and you might be aware of him. His name is Robert E. Lee.

Grant's ideas go against the commonly held "mold" of the "Marble Man" and his supporters. These Lost Cause enthusiasts glorified the life and accomplishments of R.E. Lee and painted Grant as a butcher and one of the wars weakest generals. The former President lived during the early years of the Lost Cause and became the first "celebrity" author to challenge the greatness of General Lee. Perhaps part of Grant's opinion was molded by the attacks made by the Lost Cause supporters, Grant saw how these men were painting the history of the war and he wanted to make sure that these exaggerations would not hold up against the judgement of history.

The old Yankee general challenged the glorification of R.E. Lee and scoffed at the notion that Lee possessed superhuman abilities. Grant blamed both the northern and the southern public for giving Lee these qualities when the terrain and a bit of luck provided Lee with the opportunity for success. He used the examples of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania to support his viewpoint. The Confederate army (paraphrasing Grant) was so disrupted prior to the Wilderness that only the choking woods saved Lees army from destruction. Moreover, during the Spotsylvania Campaign Lee had several chances to exploit the vulnerability of the Union army but failed to do so. Lee remained behind his entrenchments as the Union army was separated and vulnerable to attack. Lee seemed immobilized in fog and in his memoirs Grant wrote "he seemed really to be misled as to my designs."

In fact, Grant's opinion of Lee was cited prior to the publication of his memoirs in 1885. After leaving an embattled presidency, Grant took a world tour and traveled to several countries like Egypt and France. A journalist named John Russell Young accompanied Grant and interviewed him several times during the trip. Russell wrote and article about these conversations and published them in 1878. The resulting article indicated that the general could not understand the fuss over Robert E. Lee. Grant believed that his opponent was overrated and Joseph E. Johnston was a greater threat. Lee had the backing of the Copperheads, the southern people and sympathy from the outside world. Together these things painted a rebel general who had no equal in American military history. "Everything he did was right Grant said "He was treated like a demi-god. Our generals had a hostile press, lukewarm friends and a public opinion outside."

Grant pushed further during his interview with Russell stating 'The cry was in the air that the North only won by brute force; that the generalship and valor were in the South. This has gone into history, with as many other illusions that are historical." Grant's next statement must have irked Lost Cause supporters as he stated "Lee was of a slow, conservative, cautious nature, without imagination or humor, always the same, with grave dignity. I never could see in his achievements what justifies his reputation.

Years later as he penned his memoirs, Grant went further into his opinion of Lee and supported his belief that Lee was overrated. In volume one Grant writes "The natural disposition of most people, is to clothe a commander of a large army whom they do not know with almost superhuman abilities. A large part of the National army, for instance, and most of the press of the country, clothed General Lee with just such qualities; but I had known him personally and knew that he was mortal; and it was just as well that I felt this." Wow thats great stuff and it is obvious that Grant might have liked Lee personally but as a fellow professional he felt that Lee military prowess was a fabrication. Grant added further that Lee sat behind strong defensive works and never came out to give him battle in the open field. "In fact, nowhere after the battle of Wilderness did Lee show any disposition to leave his defenses far behind him."

Grants quotes bring up some intriguing questions. Did Grant feel that Lee was a wimp? Grant never questions Lee's manhood but he obviously points out that Lee as a general was not a concern for him during the Overland Campaign. Historian William Blair accuratly states that Grant's Personal Memoirs serves as Grant's own shield from the grave. I think Blair is correct in his assumption.


Anonymous said...

It is amazing that to me that a person could form and/or develop an opinion of a historical figure such as Robert E. Lee by using only material and opinions created by the nemesis of the historical figure. By that rationale, I should read General Cornwallace's writings and then form an opinion of George Washington.

It is a fact that Grant was an alcoholic, whom scored very low marks at West Pointe and was not considered to be a good leader as a General or a president. Grant was not admired by his Generals and a great many wrote about their dislike of Grant in their own memoirs.

General Lee certainly made mistakes as everyone does, but as a leader and statemen he is one of the Greatest Americans to ever live. He is deserving of the honors and respect he has been given. For every person of historical significance to this country or others, there will always be individuals from that historical time period whom disagreed and/or disliked that individual. Of course Grant didn't really like General Lee, he didn't like General Lee because Lee was able to make him look completely inept for years (well at least the 10 months he was in charge). Of course Grant is going to glorify his own decisions and discredit General Lee who was dead long before Grant made any of these outlandish comments.

Simply amazing that I came across this blog...histoical acuracy should be important, but apparently only looking at one source and/or mulitiple sources from exact same perspective is acurate enough for the author

Mike said...

Its amazing to me that someone would post a comment and not have the courage to post their true name or a return email address.

The blog is all about one persons opinion of RE Lee and not the opinion of the author himself (Me). I am a huge RE Lee fan and if you have read my previous blogs you would have seen this to be true. I do agree with you that Grant himself was overratted and I find it interesting that modern day historians are constantly uncovering facts that point out that both Lee and Grant weren't as invincible as history sometimes paints them.

I do appreciate your comments on my blog and I do look at other authors opinions to create a image of a historical figure. However for this particular blog my goal was to point out Grant's opinion of Lee for my readers. It was not meant as a personal attack on RE Lee.

Yossarion said...

Anonymous's claim is typical of uninformed southern apologists and members of the Lee fan club.

There is substantial evidence from more than one hundred years on both sides of who was the "better general". I would ask anyone questioning Grant's ability of being a ruthless "pitbull" with no skills other than throwing his men into battle to read "Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship" by British military strategist JFC Fuller who showed that Grant was a very efficient and successful commander and even lost less men per thousand than Lee.

That Grant received low marks at school is a red herring considering two facts. West point at the time was teaching outdated strategies that were actually rehashes from the Crimean wars and had little to correlate with real battlefield situational tactics in the US. (i.e. Grant's decision to not use a support base on his marches East of and to Vicksburg went against all conventional wisdom taught at West Point. Even Grant's best friend Sherman advised against what would be the most brilliant strategy of the war. It was to even be studied in European military schools for decades after.) A second refute on the point concerning West point is that Grant was never an academic man. He failed at all business attempts and was a very intelligent and laconic hands-on type of General. Besides, does the fact that Van Gogh never went to art school make him a shitty painter? Of course not. The product of these men's genius speaks for itself.

The subject of Grant's alcoholism is another ignorant red herring. Many of Grant's enemies perpetuated the rumor even in the midst of all of his victories. The rumors of his alcoholism as General were in fact disputed by the men and Generals that new him and were not politically motivated to move against him. But, the alcoholism is another fact that doesn't matter. Grant's battlefield success and merits speak for themselves no matter his drinking habits. Churchill was quite the drunk, yet we rarely hear that fact repeated in order to take away from his accomplishments. Only the Lee worshipers bring up the drinking red herring.

Grant was admired by many of his Generals. It was primarily his superior, Halleck, who would move against Grant time and time again and actually relieve him of his command on several occasions right after victories. If Lee had had the superior Generals that Grant had to contend with, he would have never had the level of success that he did. Grant had to compete with incompetent superior Generals as well as the idiotic idea of splitting the armies in rigid and inflexible commands. Lee's army was one that answered to him and him alone.

As for Lee making Grant look inept, well I don't know what to say. That is one of the most ignorant comments I have ever heard. Given that Grant's battles were always on the offensive, perhaps you need to rethink this assessment.

There are many sources that portray the "greatness" of both Generals. I for one, admire both of their abilities but I believe that it is ridiculous to compare apples and oranges, they were both successful Generals.

One last point-if anonymous and Lee worshipers are so eager to point out the moral and intellectual deficiencies of Grant, perhaps they should look at the one largest of Lee. That a man who himself was so disgusted by slavery and its inhumanity should fight and kill hundreds of thousands in its name- is the quintessential hypocritical moral deficiency.