Was Grant a butcher or a brilliant strategist? MHM Editor Neil Faulkner weighs up the debate.
It is rare for two of history’s great commanders to confront each other on the field of battle. But the Overland Campaign is an example.
As with Hannibal and Scipio at Zama, and with Napoleon and Wellington at Waterloo, the confrontation between Robert E Lee and Ulysses S Grant in the May-June campaign of 1864 in Virginia pitted against each other two military commanders who were supreme masters of war.
The military historian J F C Fuller was so struck by the significance of it that he wrote an entire book, Grant and Lee: a study in personality and generalship, comparing the two commanders. Countless others, in recounting the campaign, have been forced to evaluate their respective achievements.
Grant’s conduct of the Overland Campaign has sometimes been criticised as bludgeoning – lacking in tactical finesse, restricted to frontal attacks, callous about casualties.
But a detailed analysis of Grant’s whole career shows him to have been an intelligent, innovative strategist. He certainly had the bulldog characteristics of determination and aggression; once the mission was set, his drive to see it through was relentless.
But his campaigns – particularly the Fort Donelson and Fort Henry Campaign and, above all, the Vicksburg Campaign – demonstrate
rare strategic panache.
The Overland Campaign must be read in the light of what we know of Grant’s methods in the West. In truth, he tried repeatedly to get between
Lee and Richmond, and only the eternal vigilance and consummate skill of his opponent prevented him flanking the Army of Northern Virginia.
This being so, given that attritional grinding of the Confederacy’s fighting power was essential to victory, he committed his army to the pitched battles repeatedly forced on him by Lee’s deft sideways moves.
If Grant underestimated the defensive power of entrenched riflemen and artillery, his mistake was pretty universal among Civil War generals.
And he was always willing to learn. He supported experiments in new infantry assault tactics (at Spotsylvania), for example, and in the use of mines against trenches (at Petersburg).
In light of this, we argue that Grant was fully the equal of Lee, and should be ranked among history’s great commanders.
This is an extract from a 17-page special feature on Grant and the Overland campaign in the March issue of Military History Matters.
To read the full analysis, get a copy of the issue from your local Barnes & Noble or W H Smith, or click here to subscribe to the magazine and have it sent straight to your door every month.