Is Grant or Lee Greatest General? Crucial Decisions by Two Commanders Change the Direction of History

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Was Ulysses S. Grant a butcher? Was Robert E. Lee the Civil War's best general? The answer to both questions is a resounding no.

The respective casualty figures of these two generals contradict the myth about who, if either, was a butcher. For the entire war, Grant incurred about 154,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing, captured) while imposing about 191,000 casualties on his foes. Lee suffered about 209,000 casualties while imposing about 240,000 casualties on his opponents.

Lee, who should have been fighting defensively and preserving his precious manpower, instead exceeded Grant's understandable aggressiveness and incurred 55,000 more casualties than Grant.

Because Southerners were more greatly affected by the war and had a need to rationalize its origins and results, Southern-oriented historians dominated Civil War historiography for the first century after the war.

They created the myth of the Lost Cause and designated Lee as the god of this minireligion. Their creation was so effective that many Americans have perceived Lee as the greatest general of the war (and perhaps in American history), while Grant often was denigrated and rebuked as a butcher, a drunk and a victor by brute force alone.

I disagree. Grant, a national general, was the most successful Union or Confederate general of the war. He drove the Confederates from the Mississippi Valley, the primary western theater of the war, through a series of brilliant battles and campaigns - from the early capture of Forts Henry and Donelson through the unparalleled Vicksburg campaign.

Then it took him a mere month to save a Union army trapped in Chattanooga and drive the Rebels there back into Georgia - with a giant assist from Lee (more on that later).

Finally, Grant was brought to the East to face Lee's army, which he defeated within a year to effectively bring the war to a close.

Although Lee has been praised for his offensives against the Union Army of the Potomac, he was carrying out an aggressive strategy with aggressive tactics that were inconsistent with what should have been a Confederate grand defensive strategy.

The Union, not the Confederacy, had the burden of winning the war, and the South, outnumbered about 4-to-1 in white men of fighting age, had a severe manpower shortage.

Nevertheless, Lee acted as though he were a Union general and attacked again and again as though his side had the burden of winning and also had an unlimited supply of soldiers.

Showing initiative

Although Grant initially had difficulty obtaining a Civil War command, he soon achieved success. When Grant suggested to Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck that a joint Navy-Army force capture Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, Halleck told him such a campaign was none of his business.

However, after Lincoln tired of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's "slows" in the East and ordered all Union forces forward, Halleck authorized the attack on Fort Henry. Within days, Grant and Navy Flag Officer Andrew Foote launched an upriver assault and quickly captured the fort.

Grant, on his own initiative, then moved on to Fort Donelson. Within two weeks, he captured that better-defended fort and a 14,000-man army in a manner that earned him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. The February 1862 capture of Forts Henry and Donelson was a major blow to the left flank of the Confederacy and ranks among the most significant actions of the Civil War.

After advancing his Army of the Tennessee deep into the Confederacy - to Pittsburg Landing, or Shiloh, in far southwestern Tennessee - Grant was so focused on moving on to capture Corinth, Miss., that he became careless. His army was surprised at Shiloh in April 1862 by a massive attack by Rebel forces that had been gathered from around the Confederacy. …