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Was Ulysses S. Grant as strategically and tactically unremarkable as the unremitting fawning over his subordinates and foes by modern war historians would have you believe? If so, why did Abraham Lincoln ask him to lead the war effort?(r/AskHistorians)
Ulysses Grant was a pretty strange general. Military strategic theory during the Civil War had scarcely advanced past that which was advocated by Napoleon, as interpreted by the Baron de Jomini. American generals sought to grab territorial objectives in an effort to break the enemy’s war effort, and force a decisive battle. The greatest practitioner of this kind of decisive warfare was Robert E Lee, a man who gained great fame for his decisive battles. Robert E Lee was so successful that he has become the paradigm by which Civil War generals are judged, and rightly so. I would argue that Lee better understood Napoleonic Warfare better than any other general of the period, save of course the Corsican himself. And Lee offers a useful paradigm, as many of his colleagues and adversaries sought to practice the exact same kind of warfare as Lee himself.
But Ulysses Grant was different. He has often been accused of tactical and strategic incompetence. He was a fine battlefield commander, cool under fire, and completely able and willing to reconsider his approach given battlefield realities. In a strategic sense he was indebted to Winfield Scott, who was the mastermind behind the entire Union strategic war effort. But Grant did more to fulfill that strategic concept than any other land commander in the war. But still, Grant is weird. He was tenacious, and dogmatic. He was inflexible, unwavering, and undeterred in the face of adversity. Yet, rather than be destroyed because of it, his single mindedness allowed Grant to see the larger picture. Rather than fret over the results of one battle, one engagement, or even one campaign, Grant saw how each battle linked together in a great chain which would lead to victory.
Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign is an excellent example of how Grant never lost sight of his objective in the face of enemy resistance. Without going into every gritty detail, Grant’s campaign was brilliant. In 1863 he launched an attack against the Eastern bank of the Mississippi when he had failed in a similar attempt the previous year. Grant operated far from his supply bases, completely detached from all resupply, and yet attacked his enemies and forced them apart. He divided the Confederate forces from one another, defeated one force, and then pinned another into a hopeless siege. In that siege, he completely destroyed the second army and forced it to dissolve. In that one campaign, Grant completely crushed the Confederate defense of the Mississippi River, and secured it for the Union from Gulf to Great Lakes.
Grant’s success in Vicksburg iconified his idea of strategy. During the Overland Campaign, there is a story of Grant’s command style, it basically goes: During the Battle of the Wilderness the Confederates launched a major attack which threatened to route the whole Union line. This attack, which was very similar to Jackson’s attack during Chancellorsville a year earlier, had forces several commanders to flee their regiments towards the rear. A messenger rode in to Grants HQ bearing these ominous tidings, saying “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” Grant, normally a calm man, rudely replied “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.” This single exchanged completely typified Grant’s strategy, and why Lincoln so like him. Unlike the other officers in the Union Army, who eternally Lee’s maneuver sur la derriere, Grant was indifferent. He was more concerned with how he was going to achieve victory, than how his opponent was going to magically defeat him.
This is shown in Grant’s Overland Campaign. Operationally and strategically, the campaign bears a striking similarity to Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, a year earlier. Grant launched an offensive across the Rapidan River, where many other Union generals had attacked and failed. Grant, through a series of intense battles, pushed Lee down Virginia and into the City of Petersburg, where his army was besieged and practically destroyed. Infact, the city of Petersburg was critical to the Confederate war effort, and its loss ended all hope of coordinated Confederate resistance against the North.
However it is here that Grant receives his greatest criticisms. When compared to Lee’s successes in 1862-63, Grants campaign lacks finesse and seems clumsy. Grant’s massive casualties, further, was far in excess of any other commander’s during a similar (60 day) span of time. They argue that Grant’s strategy was one of attrition, one in which he was continually defeated but lacked the good sense to abandon his efforts and try again by a different way.
To that I would adopt the argument of Russell Weigley’s The American Way of War Weigley argues, and I whole heartedly agree, that Grant’s strategy during the Overland Campaign was sound, and that it embodied the aspects of Grant’s generalship that I have previously stated. Whereas other Union commanders were prone to retreat and abandon the attack to prepare for a later attempt, Grant simply continued to push Lee out of his positions. Lee’s army, which after The Wilderness, was simply too weak to mount effective offensive actions, relied on the much lamented trenchworks which featured prominently in the 1864 and 1865 battles. But this is not Grant’s fault. He repeatedly sought a traditional set piece battle, like outside of Jackson Mississippi, to defeat Lee. Lee simply refused to comply and was too good to let Grant trap him in such a battle. But even this setback didnt deter Grant, and Grant was still able to push Lee into Petersburg, where his army died.
So, as Weigley argues, Grant ushered in a new era of American warfare. Following the Civil War, and especially after World War One, many American planners understood that it was Grant’s conception of warfare that dominated modern battlefields. Gone were the days of Lee’s Napoleonic style victories. Instead, modern battlefields were lethal and fluid. Casualties could be severe, but Grant’s examination of the campaigns against Lee was correct: it was better to take heavy casualties and secure a rapid victory than to take lighter casualties fighting a long term and desultory campaign. Grant imparted his single mindedness and his determination onto the US Army, and it made him one of the most important generals of the Civil War in terms of his post-war legacy.
Mark Grimsley, And Keep Moving On: The Virginia Campaign, May-June 1864 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002) 58.
A Note on Sources
A lot of research has gone into this post. I can recommend several good books on Grant, his campaigns, and the formation of his legacy. However, I have generally referenced the best books on Grant’s campaigns, I feel, in the post itself. To that list, I would only add JFC Fuller’s Grant and Lee which is a classic examination of both men, and their battlefield relationship. If readers would like other book recommendations, please ask and I can provide more directed recommendations below.