October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated Much as I dread to say it, I fear that my choice as the Civil War’s most overrated general would have to be Robert E. Lee. His dignity, his determination, his ferocity in battle, the worship of his troops, all these things cannot be denied. What’s more, he was as formidable in defense as he was in attack, a rare combination in any general, and he was capable of alarmingly swift movement. In many respects, he reminds me of Rommel, who was also worshiped by his soldiers and whose glamorous legend, like Lee’s, petrified most Allied commanders and continues to obsess historians and biographers. Like Rommel, who was widely admired by his enemies despite the evil cause he served, Lee was hero-worshiped in the North as well as the South despite the fact that he was fighting in part to preserve slavery. Also like Rommel, who led a charmed life until Montgomery beat him at El Alamein, Lee benefited from meeting a succession of inept generals on ground that he knew well, and he nearly always maneuvered them into attacking him, as Burnside did disastrously at Fredericksburg and Hooker still more disastrously at Chancellorsville. Facing a general who was not terrified by his reputation, as he did at Gettysburg when he met Meade, Lee found his lack of caution, and the considerable slack he allowed his own generals, catching up with him. Deprived of J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry (he had permitted Stuart to wander off with the cavalry in pursuit of personal glory), Lee fought blind, without knowing the size of the Union forces, and allowed Meade to gain the high ground, rather than try, as Longstreet urged upon him, to go around the Federal lines and cut his enemy off from Washington. In short, Lee gave in to his own impatience, he overestimated the fighting ability of his troops, and he spent three days attacking a larger army firmly entrenched on excellent high ground —a bigger version of the mistake the incompetent Burnside had committed at Fredericksburg. Lee’s subsequent brilliant defense of Richmond was a model of a protracted fighting retreat, every bit equal to that of the German generals as they fell back before Eisenhower’s superior strength, but by that time the war was already lost, and Lee was sacrificing lives to no purpose except to delay the inevitable. None of that is to deny that Lee was a great general, but his reputation, personality, and character have altogether overshadowed the reality of what he accomplished on the ground.
Underrated Ulysses S. Grant by a long shot. Grant’s human failings—his problems with alcohol, his initial blunders at Shiloh, his high casualty rates, the length of time it took him to figure out how to get around Vicksburg- have tended to obscure the fact that from the beginning he understood how to win the war. He understood that it could not be done by successfully winning a battle, or even several battles (not that many Union generals were winning any until Vicksburg and Gettysburg), but that it depended strategically upon splitting the South by descending the great rivers deep into Confederate territory and, once that had been achieved, by forcing on the South a war of attrition that the Confederacy could not sustain—and also that, in the final analysis, the North’s superior manpower and industrial might would need to be brought to the battlefield. That the war would therefore be long and bloody, he accepted and persuaded Lincoln to accept, but it could be won that way and no other, and he knew how to do it. Lee is the more glamorous figure, but Grant was the better general, and what is more, he defined American generalship for all time. Eisenhower won the war in Europe by using Grant’s strategy and methods, and whenever America departs from Grant’s strategy, as in Korea, Vietnam, and, perhaps, Iraq, it pays the price. Our model, if we have to fight, should be Grant, not Lee.