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.