Assessing the Civil War's Most Notable Military Commanders

By Kingseed, Cole C. | Army, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Assessing the Civil War's Most Notable Military Commanders


Kingseed, Cole C., Army


Assessing the Civil War's Most Notable Military Commanders Grant and Lee: Victorious American and Vanquished Virginian. Edward H. Bonekemper III. Praeger Publishers. 437 pages; maps; charts; index; $49.95.

By Col. Cole C. Kingseed

U.S. Army retired

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee emerged from the American Civil War as the North's and South's premier military commanders. While each general-in-chief has attracted his share of admirers and detractors, few biographers have made a comprehensive comparison of the two leaders over the span of their seemingly separate 1861-63 campaigns, as well as their more familiar head-to-head contests in Virginia during 1864-65.

Subtitled Victorious American and Vanquished Virginian, Grant and Lee reinforces Edward H. Bonekemper III's previous works: How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War and A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant's Overlooked Military Genius. In each book, Bonekemper makes a compelling case for Grant's tactical and strategic superiority to Lee. The Grant who emerges from these pages is an astute military commander who, through "dexterity and cunning," achieves complete success less than a year after launching his Overland Campaign against Lee in the spring of 1864.

Bonekemper does not disguise his obvious admiration for Grant. As the subtitle indicates, Grant pursued a national strategy that was consistent with the North's superior resources and the country's offensive-minded President. From 1861-65, Grant's "aggressiveness in three theaters was consistent with the Union need for [total] victory," while Lee's "aggressiveness in a single theater was inconsistent with strategic and tactical defensiveness the Confederates needed to preserve their limited manpower and force the stalemate that was sufficient for Southern victory."

Grant and Lee contains a provocative, albeit highly biased, analysis of the casualty rates that each commander suffered throughout his battles and campaigns. Again Bonekemper is anything but impartial, as Grant's excessive casualties on the battlefield, which Bonekemper claims were always "militarily tolerable," are offset by contrasting them with the numbers of Confederate prisoners captured at Fort Donelson, Tenn.; Vicksburg, Miss.; and Appomattox Court House, Va. In his direct confrontations with Lee in the war's final year, for example, Grant actually incurred a far higher casualty rate than Lee, but when the South's prisoners are included following Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the casualty ratio appears relatively even.

Bonekemper actually bases his controversial assessment of Lee's tactical and strategic inferiority on the highly debatable premise that the Union, not the Confederacy, had the burden of winning the war. Bonekemper contends that all the South had to do to win independence was to pursue a defensive strategy until the Confederacy achieved international recognition or the North tired of the war. Such an assertion fails to take into account President Abraham Lincoln's implacable desire to conduct offensive operations to force the Southern states to renounce their self-proclaimed independence.

The only way for the South to have won the war, posits Bonekemper, was for Lee to pursue a strategic and a tactical defensive. …

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