Some time ago I read an article in a local newspaper that annoyed me. But, as newspaper articles frequently annoy me, I let it pass. As weeks went by, my irritation continued to recur until I felt impelled to exorcise my aggravation via this article.
The troublesome column was an interview with historian Gordon Rhea in which the author discussed his new book, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee. May 26 — June 3, 1864. The book is Rhea’s fourth installment of his analysis of the Overland Campaign; the gory conflicts between Union and Confederate troops throughout Virginia in 1864. The column was captioned: “Author offers new view of Civil War generals” — Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Mr. Rhea’s interview comments did indeed indicate a “new view” of these two men; a view that attempts to enhance the reputation of General Grant and deprecate the esteem for General Lee.
I cannot accept Rhea’s views but, before I explain why, I feel obligated to reveal my “bias.” I admit to having a low opinion of Ulysses S. Grant; one that I think is justified. On the other hand, I have immense admiration for Robert E. Lee. To my mind, he was one of the finest, if not the finest, man our nation has produced.
In his interview Gordon Rhea states: “The turning point in the entire Civil War would be when Grant took command.”
If you consider the basic facts you will reach a different conclusion. Lined up with the North were 23 states and 7 federal territories; a population of 22 million. The South had only 11 states with a population of 5 million. It has been estimated that in terms of soldiers, the North outnumbered the South by a ratio of more than 2 to 1. The North could produce its own weapons and munitions as well as uniforms, medical supplies, etc. The South, which was essentially an agricultural region, had to rely on imports from Europe to maintain its armies. Union Naval blockades effectively shut down those shipments.
Given this lopsided advantage, the North should have easily and swiftly defeated the South; 90 days was the time frame voiced in Washington before the War began. But it took four horrendous years and the North only triumphed because the destitute South ran out of troops, munitions, food, clothing, medical and other supplies. Confederate soldiers suffered from cold, hunger and disease. (Many of the Confederate troops at Gettysburg had no shoes). In March 1864, three years into the War, when General Grant took command, the South’s supplies and forces were no longer adequate to support an effective military operation. Under these conditions, almost any officer in the Union army could have been placed in command, and the outcome would have been the same, plus or minus a few months.
His research of the Overland Campaign leads Mr. Rhea to make the claim that General Grant was a “master of maneuver” and a better military commander than Lee.
A review of the database maintained by the Civil War Sites Advisory Committee, the government’s official repository of Civil War statistics, indicates that, of the 11 battles listed for the Overland Campaign, the Union won three, the Confederates won two and the rest were inconclusive. In most of the battles, the Confederates were outnumbered by a ratio of 2 to 1. For example, the CWSAC reports that, at Cold Harbor, the North had 108,000 soldiers while the South had only 62,000. Yet the South won the battle. The difference was General Robert E. Lee who commanded the Confederates.
The CWSAC reports that at Cold Harbor, the North suffered 13, 000 casualties while the South had only 2,500. Some reports indicate that Grant lost 6,000 men in a one-hour period. Lacking appropriate military skills, Grant callously pushed more and more soldiers into his front lines, ignoring the number of casualties in order to wear down the Confederates. For ruthlessly sacrificing the lives of these young men, Grant was given the designation “Grant the Butcher.”
But Mr. Rhea claims that Grant doesn’t deserve the appellation “butcher” and that the North only lost “at most 3,500 men” at Cold Harbor. But neither his defense of Grant nor his estimate of men lost agrees the CWSAC or most encyclopedias as well as other Civil War historians.
If Robert E. Lee had possessed the supplies and the numerical superiority of troops that General Grant had, the Confederates would have quickly won all of the Overland campaigns. And, based on the data in the CWSAC reports, we can only conclude that Grant, the “master of maneuver," was no master at all.
When Grant took command, he authorized General William Tecumseh Sherman to conduct a unique form of aggression against defenseless civilians. Sherman’s barbaric “march to sea," approved by President Lincoln, was one of the most brutal acts of war that has ever been recorded. Sherman’s troops took whatever they wanted, refusing to pay for it. Private residences were looted and burned, livestock that the Union troops didn’t confiscate was slaughtered and crops were destroyed. There were reports of rape and unnecessary physical violence against helpless civilians. General Sherman later acknowledged that his acts (like those of Union Generals Sheridan and Grant) violated the rules of war and that he could have been hanged for his violations.
In contrast, when Robert E. Lee invaded Pennsylvania, his army honored the rules of war by treating civilians with respect and compensating them for all provisions obtained. Lee’s soldiers did not destroy private property nor did they burn, loot or plunder. General Lee, unlike Sherman and Grant, was a principled man who would not sink to their level rapacious barbarity.
One of Grant’s first acts upon “taking Command” was to end the exchange of prisoners of war. This exchange policy had allowed prisoners on both sides, who were critically ill and seriously injured, to return home for medical care. Grant’s cancellation of this humane program jeopardized the lives of hundreds of POWs.
Grant was also responsible for the issuance of the infamous “General Order No. 11," which expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. Jews were accused of illegally trading in cotton that provided money for the South and Grant claimed that “the Israelites” were “an intolerable nuisance.” Some of the illegal traders were Jewish but most were not. Grant’s anti-Semitism is just another example of his irrational behavior.
Later, during his presidency, one of the most corrupt in our nation’s history, Grant again called on the savage General Sherman. This time he ordered Sherman to wage war against native American Indian tribes so that the Union Pacific Railroad, whose owners had given Grant stock in their company, could be constructed on the Indians’ sacred lands. Sherman eagerly complied, and his soldiers implemented an efficient pogrom, resulting in the removal and slaughter of Indians.
Finally, we should remember that President Abraham Lincoln originally offered the command of the Union forces to Robert E. Lee. Lincoln’s decision was based on the recommendations of his military advisors who knew firsthand Lee’s outstanding military skills. Because Lee would not wage war against his own state, he declined Lincoln’s offer and joined the Confederate cause. We can be sure that the War Between the States would not have dragged on for four long years if Lee had commanded the Union army.
It is fashionable today to demean Robert E. Lee as well as the “Old South.” Terms such as “Southern mythology” or “lost cause” are freely bandied about in these endeavors. This approach is employed by some modern historians in order to pander to current political agendas. They know that the technique will usually produce favorable reviews for their books. However, Robert E. Lee’s stature as a great Southerner as well as a great American continues to thrive despite these politically correct onslaughts. His fame wouldn’t survive if it were based solely on mythology.
On the other hand, I’m afraid Gordon Rhea will have to pull a rabbit out of a hat to fumigate Ulysses S. Grant’s noxious reputation.
Gail Jarvis [send him mail], a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of the voluntary union of states established by the founders.