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Comparing Lee & Grant                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Sep/17/2010 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Historical Insights,

Some time ago I read another article in which an author was comparing Generals Grant and Lee during the American Civil war. Of specific interest this author focused on the Overland Campaign of 1864. It seems that everyone who writes about U.S. history eventually takes their shot at this comparison. I am not a professor of history, so my insights may be considered sophomoric, but I repeatedly see the same key facts missing.

The question of leadership and its impact on the results of the military campaigns will be debated endlessly. Considering the resources available, it should have been a lopsided war right from the outset. Lined up with the North were 23 states and 7 federal territories; a population of 22 million. The South had only 11 states with a population of 5 million. It has been estimated that in terms of soldiers, the North outnumbered the South by a ratio of more than 2½ to 1. The North could produce its own weapons and munitions as well as uniforms, medical supplies, etc. The South, which was essentially an agricultural region, had to rely on imports from Europe to maintain its armies. Union Naval blockades effectively shut down those shipments.

With all the aforementioned resources it is obvious to presume that military leadership, or a lack must have been a factor since the Civil War did drag on for more than 4 years.

Please remember that President Lincoln originally offered the command of the Union forces to Robert E. Lee. Lincoln’s decision was based on the recommendations of his military advisors who knew firsthand Lee’s outstanding military skills, along with the respect he held within the Army’s officer corps. Because Lee would not wage war against his own state of Virginia, he declined Lincoln’s offer and joined the Confederate cause. For this same reason many argue that if Lee had accepted President Lincoln’s commission the War Between the States would not have dragged on for four long years. Like most historical commentary, the argument is easy to make, but is really only good speculation as we will never really know.

Three years into the war the exhausted Confederates States were running out of troops, munitions, food, clothing, medical and other supplies. Confederate soldiers suffered from cold, hunger and disease. (Many of the Confederate troops at Gettysburg had no shoes). In March 1864, three years into the War, when General Grant took command, the South’s supplies and forces were no longer adequate to support an effective military operation. Some would argue that under these conditions, almost any officer in the Union army could have been placed in command, and the outcome would have been the same, plus or minus a few months. This is where I argue to the contrary.

One of the characteristics that differentiated Grant from his predecessors was his willingness to accept losses and continue to press a battle forward. Generals such as McClellan, Burnside and Meade proved tentative at pressing the fight once the first significant casualty reports started coming in. If nothing else, this would imply a lack of confidence in their strategies or the advice of their support staff. Military strategist much more skilled than I have argued that many of Grants tactics wasted troops unnecessarily. I am not qualified to argue whether Grants tactics were wasteful or not, but there is little doubt that pressing a battle to a conclusion now means you don’t need to fight it again tomorrow.

There are some important factors that I believe are missing from any true analysis of the campaigns between these two generals. All of these factors relate to where many of these battles were fought. Please remember that the majority of the battles of the Civil War were fought in the valleys, forest, towns and villages of the Confederate States. It is important to consider where the battles were fought because resent military actions across the globe have shown repeatedly the challenges of engaging an armed enemy on their own territory.

First we should discard the concern about difference in the numbers of troops. While this is not true that the armies of the CSA were purely defensive in nature, throughout history we have seen that a well organized and entrenched defense can normally hold against odds up to, and sometimes even exceeding five to one. Even the US Army doctrine of the Vietnam era taught defensive strategies that were designed to sustain against similar armed troops up to a ration of five to one. I know, the south was running out of munitions, but a well entrenched defense does not easily fall.

While mentioning supplies we need to not forget that the logistics of supplying the Federal troops and the distance their wagons needed to travel was much greater than the supplies of the CSA.

Second, we need to look at motivation. Many of the Confederate soldiers were, if not literally, they were figuratively fighting on and for their own lands. History has shown how costly it can be to push any armed force off their farms and out of their own towns. This fosters a level of purpose and zeal not seen by the encroaching and attacking forces of the Union.

The third factor is a friendly local population. Friendly populations help a military with food, comfort and medical assistance. Despite how beleaguered the south was, there is always a little more stashed in the root cellar that could be shared. The opening of homes for shelter and the sharing of clothes was an invaluable assistance to the forces of the CSA. In contrast, the Federal forces got no local help. In some cases the local population was even to a limited extend acting as an insurgency hinder Federal troops and forcing them to use troops to guard against them.

Lastly is the value of good intelligence. Military campaigns are dominated by reports of good intelligence, and good intelligence being used effectively. The majority of Robert E. Lee’s campaign with the Army of Northern Virginia was in sympathetic Confederate states. This sympathetic support included a network of organized and not so organized spies and supporters reporting on virtually every force level and troop movement of the Federal’s within the Confederate territories. In sharp contrast the Battle of Gettysburg was fought in Pennsylvania which was not a southern state, Lee had virtually no available intelligence on General Meade’s troop strength or movements. With virtually identically forces the two armies suffered similar casualty levels. The troop loses at Gettysburg were simply at a level that the CSA could ill afford in their depleted state and represented the beginning of the end for the Army of Northern Virginia.

There is a lot of analysis that is continually exchanged about the US Civil War, its tactics and its generals. I don’t think there is any doubt that Robert E. Lee was one of the greatest generals of his time. He took on a fight he did not want with substantially less supplies and troops than the Federal forces he opposed. Under his leadership the troops of the Confederacy lasted much longer than anyone of that day felt possible. Before during and after the war officers on both sides continued to honor and revere General Lee which is an excellent measure by his peers. It is also clear that US Grant, despite any real skills at tactics was able to use effectively the greatest resource the North had, its troop strength and supplies to ultimately overwhelm the forces of the Confederacy. The coefficient that is simply not discussed often enough is the factor of fighting mostly within the sympathetic southern state. General Lee’s greatest strength may have been how effectively he tactically used the support of the local population and the excellent intelligence he was provided.

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