May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Sometimes when I read military history, I get the feeling I’m reading about an Olympic competition in which points are awarded for style as much as for results. In the general-judging business, matters of style and performance are too often entangled. George McClellan was very stylish. He built such a beautiful army he didn’t want to use it. He believed he could choose the kind of war he wanted to fight—an antiseptic war of grand strategies—and ignore the ugly parts. He wandered about his battlefields afterward, and the sight sickened him. The Northern public lionized him, and his soldiers loved him because being beautiful was much more satisfying than being shot down in windrows. The Civil War killed his style.
Robert E. Lee was the most stylish of all our generals and certainly the most overrated. McClellan paid early for his stylishness, but I don’t think Lee ever has really been called to account. Lee is truly a tragic figure, a man who by everyone’s agreement epitomized high character and soldierly honor but who also was a traitor to his country, a man of formidable military skill whose strategic and operational sense nevertheless was deeply flawed and who led his side from calamity to calamity. But he is the original Teflon general. In many quarters today, no hint of blame attaches to him.
For these same reasons I think we tend to be a little snobbish about U. S. Grant, this scruffy little man from Illinois who was a failure at just about everything but generaling. His debut was far from promising, and even when he got better, no one could believe he was learning what he had to do. But he did learn. He saw the Civil War for what it was, not what he wanted it to be, not as an exercise in nostalgia or romanticism. Often reviled for his blood-ax methods in the Wilderness, in his classic Vicksburg campaign Grant showed he could also practice war artfully when art was needed. Often said to be devoid of character, he was, on the contrary, the completest character of all our generals, so complete, as T. Harry Williams once wrote, that his countrymen could never quite believe he was real, and we’ve never given him his due.
For we still want our style, a bit of dash and flash to blind us to what war really is, and while Lee rests in pastoral splendor down in Virginia, up in New York it is always advisable to visit Grant’s tomb in daylight.