Best Generals of the Civil War

Introduction

The American Civil War lasted for four years but left on its trail devastating destruction of property and life that will later take decades to rebuild. While there are other reasons for the start of the war, the main reason that led the southern states to call for secession from the union was the expansion of slavery. Abraham Lincoln and congressional Republicans opposed expansion of slavery to the entire union, irking the southerners who crucially depended on slave labor for their agricultural activities.

The differences between the southern states and the Lincoln administration together with republicans in general sparked the start of a four-year armed campaign that claimed over 600,000 soldiers and thousands of civilians1. The war had many actors with the most significant being President Lincoln. Union troops squared off with confederacy troops with the guidance of generals whose contribution to the end of the conflict is well documented. Tens of commissioned generals were involved in guiding their respective armies in the battle field.

While both the Union and Confederate armies achieved mixed success before the win by the Union army, the most compelling and divisive issue among historians and civil war enthusiasts is on who was the best general of the Civil War. There is no doubt both sides had outstanding generals who were experienced and displayed articulate planning and execution of the war strategy. Despite the Union army’s win at the end of the war, there is consensus that when it comes to deciding the best general of the civil war, names from both the Union and the Confederacy armies must be included2.

When deciding on the most outstanding general of the Civil War, it is important to take into consideration a few crucial factors that every top soldier must display. As such, a number of historians agree that Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were the best generals of the Civil War because of their leadership, strategies, experience and intelligence. The two generals’ exploits eventually led to the end of the civil war and the readmission of the southern states into the union.

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

As mentioned earlier, analysis on what makes the above two to stand out depends on aspects such as leadership, strategies, experience and intelligence. One important and obvious observation made on the two is the fact that they belonged to two opposing sides. In effect therefore, it is prudent for one to make the assumption that both generals represented the best of all generals in their respective sides3.

Early Careers

Closer analysis of both men’s early careers will identify similarities that are of historical significance. Both Grant and Lee initially served in the US army with long spells in the Mexican-American war.

After graduation from West Point in 1843, General Grant served as regimental quartermaster in the Mexican War where he was mainly involved with delivering supplies to the front line. General Lee on the other hand graduated much earlier in 1829 from West Point and joined the Engineering Corps of the U.S Army. Lee, while serving under Major-General Winfield Scott participated in the invasion and capture of Veracruz and the eventual capture of Mexico City. His experience as an engineer was particularly useful in the war as he creatively sought ways of capturing Mexican strong points. Though Grant resigned from the army after the Mexican war, he would later return to the army to face Lee in the civil war4.

Judging by their early careers, it is correct to assert that both men’s exploits prepared then for the eventual showdown during the civil war. Though Grant would emerge victorious, Lee’s military brilliance is unmistakable especially in leading an army on the backdrop of limited resources.

Early Live

Ulysses S. Grant was born April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio to Jesse Root Grant and Hannah Grant. His father was a business person involved in the leather production business. The Grant family was Methodist but Ulysses rarely followed the core demands of the Methodist faith5. He had an outstanding ability in working and controlling horses, skills which later proved important when he was providing transport as a vocation and also in the battle field. There is little literature on Grants early education. However, he was enrolled to West Point Academy at age 17 where he graduated from in 18436. Grant graduated as an expert horseman who was naturally suited for cavalry though his assigned duties immediately after graduation were those of quartermaster, a position he held all through including the spell during the Mexican War7.

General Lee was born Robert Edward Lee, the fifth child of once Virginia Governor Henry Lee.8 General Lee’s father was absent throughout his life having left when general Lee was only six years old. He was raised by his single mother Ann Carter Lee who instilled a strong sense of duty and responsibility till he enrolled at West Point in 18259. He graduated from West Point and entered the army’s Engineering Corps where served in different posts including Georgia and New York10.

Though both men had different upbringing, there is no doubt it prepared them for their future roles as battle generals. One of the most striking similarities of their upbringing is the influence of their families in their youth that had a ripple effect on their later life11. Grant was more independent minded and had both his parents throughout his youth while Lee was raised by a single mother. Both however displayed strong character, a value that was evident in their war time decisions.

Role of Grant and Lee in the Civil War

As mentioned early, both men represent success of the two sides that were in conflict during the civil war. Grant led the Union forces that defeated the Confederacy troops forcing them to surrender while under Lee. Lee on the other hand inflicted a number of defeats on Union troops and though he surrendered to Grant, the Union leadership acknowledged his effectiveness and skill in organizing and leading a large army.

It is important to note that there were many generals involved in the Civil War and they commandeered thousands of troops at different times to different battles. However, some of the defining moments of the war involved these two generals hence the view that they were the best generals of the war12. Both men’s actions ended the civil war and none came down easily. However, before the end of the war, both Lee and Grant were involved in major field battles that would determine the course of the war. To better understand their importance in the Civil War, the following section will highlight their most crucial battles and how they contributed to the advancement and end of the war.

Grant and Lee Civil War Battles

Lee joined the Confederacy after turning down an offer from his former commander Winfield Scott to lead a regiment of army volunteers13. Though he did not support secession, Lee did not envision fighting against his native state of Virginia hence the decision to join the rebels in the south. In a short while, the confederacy congress appointed him the commander of confederacy troops in the entire state of Virginia14. Lee was initially involved in devising war plans and supervising the construction of defenses owing to his engineering background. However, after the death of Gen. Joseph Johnston in the Battle of Seven Pines, Lee assumed control of the confederate army, effectively putting him on a collision course with Grant. His very first acts was the initiation of an offensive commonly referred to as the Seven Days Battle where he helped to successfully repulse the federal army and unsuccessfully attempted to take the Malvern Hill15.

After successfully defending Richmond, Lee had demonstrated to both enemy and friend of his capabilities in military maneuvers and willingness to attack the enemy where necessary. Lee then moved North with the help of two lieutenants Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, and Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson to begin a series of victories against the Union Army16. Lee defeated Maj. Gen. John Pope in the Battle of Second Bull Run and crossed the Potomac where he engaged in a bloody Battle of Antietam with Union Commander George McClellan. Lee defeated Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside when he and the Union army attempted to cross the Rappahannock River before achieving what is arguably his most famous win of the war; his victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville17.

Grant on the other hand went back to the army after President Lincoln called for troops to help suppress the rebellion from the southern confederate States. In February 1862, Grant captured Fort Henry and forced the surrender of Confederate brigadier-general Simon Bolivar while commanding the joint army-navy operations18. On April 6, 1862, Grants army came under a surprise attack from the confederate in Tennessee but he managed to retaliate and push back the confederate attackers, an event that showed his military resolve not to surrender even in the grimmest of all situations. It is important to note that at this point Grant was one of the few Union generals registering victory against the confederate army led by Lee. George B. McClellan, Nathaniel P. Banks, John Pope had all been defeated by Lee with McClellan and Pope retreating in the West19.

Grant was also involved in battle of Vicksburg where initially he encountered fierce resistance from confederate troops. As in Shiloh, Grant finally recorded victories in Raymond, Jackson, Champion’s Hill and Big Black River Bridge20. Grant proceeded to lay siege of the Vicksburg for many weeks eventually forcing surrender of the confederate Lt. Gen. John Pemberton21. One of the defining moments in Grant’s military career is the battle of Chattanooga where he was able to break a siege mounted by confederate troops22. This action led to his promotion by congress to the rank of Lieutenant general of the Union Army. Finally, it is in the Overland Campaign where Grant and Lee’s armies squared directly leading to the defeat and surrender of Lee and the confederate army.

Following Grant and Lee’s exploits at the battlefield, it is not difficult to see why historians refer both generals as the best generals of the Civil War. Though vastly different from their backgrounds and in their leadership styles, they were the ultimate leaders of their armies and the only generals with capacity to organize significant troop moments and achieve remarkable victories over their enemies.

Compared to Grant, Lee had far less resources than the Union army but he clearly displayed an innate ability to get the most out his troops. In fact he was able to defend Richmond with less than 40,000 men on the face on onslaught from hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers. He is also credited with issuing orders to his men that in a way gave them leeway in deciding what was best for them. Grant led Union forces into victory against the southern confederate troops largely through persistence and skill.

Some scholars argue and rightly so that success of in any field is defined by different factors. In this case, both generals displayed leadership, shrewd execution of strategies, experience and intelligence in the course of their duties. No other general during the civil war showed the level of leadership that the two displayed in their quest to organize their respective groups and score important victories.

Aftermath of the Civil War

Naturally, the victor in any conflict situation goes ahead to succeed barring any unseen obstacles. Many scholars are of the opinion that that is what exactly happened to generals Lee and Grant. After his surrender to Union forces led by general grant, Lee was pardoned by President Lincoln but faced difficulty in adjusting to normal life after the war. His property had been confiscated and he still seemed bitter at the defeat he suffered in the Civil War. Lee later on became a professor in Washington College where he taught up to his death in 1870.23

Grant on the other hand built on his success in the battlefield to become president of the United States. Grant was promoted to the US’s first four-star general and subsequently ventured into politics. He was appointed to President Andrew Johnson’s cabinet as Secretary of War replacing the president’s critic Edwin Stanton24.

Grant won the presidency on a Republican ticket and assumed duties during the reconstruction era. Grant is especially noted with steering the country forward through fostering unity between the North and the South, and helping championing constitutional amendments that enabled African-Americans to vote25. He also actively protected the rights of freed men by suppressing white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan whose violence against black people is well documented. Grant was reelected but did not seek a third term instead choosing to travel around the world with his family. He was later diagnosed with throat cancer and died on July 23, 188526.

Conclusion

Concisely, it is correct to assert that both men sharpened their skills at the West Point Academy and their subsequent service in the United States army. It is also important to acknowledge that they succeeded because they had loyal followers who believed in their respective visions and beliefs. Ultimately however, it is their ability to lead and excel that distinguishes them from the rest of the generals that participated in the Civil War.

Bibliography

Axelrod, Alan. Generals South, Generals North: The Commanders of the Civil War. New York: Sage Publications, 2011.

Brands, W. The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Davis, Burke. Gray Fox Robert Lee and the Civil War. London: Sage Publications, 2011.

Katcher, Phillip. American Civil War Commanders: Union Leaders in the West. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Longacre, Edward. General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Ollhoff, Jim. Civil War: Leaders and Generals. Berlin: Springer, 2012.

Footnotes

  1. Alan Axelrod, Generals South, Generals North: The Commanders of the Civil War (New York: Sage Publications, 2011) 245.
  2. Alan Axelrod, Generals South, Generals North: The Commanders of the Civil War (New York: Sage Publications, 2011) 245.
  3. Phillip Katcher, American Civil War Commanders: Union Leaders in the West (New York: Routledge, 2003) 97.
  4. Jim Ollhoff, Civil War: Leaders and Generals (Berlin: Springer, 2012) 92.
  5. Edward Longacre, General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 64.
  6. Edward Longacre, General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 64.
  7. Edward Longacre, General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 66.
  8. Burke Davis, Gray Fox Robert Lee and the Civil War (London: Sage Publications, 2011) 72.
  9. Burke Davis, Gray Fox Robert Lee and the Civil War (London: Sage Publications, 2011) 72.
  10. Burke Davis, Gray Fox Robert Lee and the Civil War (London: Sage Publications, 2011) 73.
  11. Jim Ollhoff, Civil War: Leaders and Generals (Berlin: Springer, 2012) 94.
  12. Wallace, Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (New York: Routledge, 2012) 45.
  13. Phillip Katcher, American Civil War Commanders: Union Leaders in the West (New York: Routledge, 2003) 98.
  14. Phillip Katcher, American Civil War Commanders: Union Leaders in the West (New York: Routledge, 2003) 100.
  15. Phillip Katcher, American Civil War Commanders: Union Leaders in the West (New York: Routledge, 2003) 102.
  16. Burke Davis, Gray Fox Robert Lee and the Civil War (London: Sage Publications, 2011) 75.
  17. Burke Davis, Gray Fox Robert Lee and the Civil War (London: Sage Publications, 2011) 78.
  18. Wallace, Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (New York: Routledge, 2012) 47.
  19. Edward Longacre, General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 67.
  20. Phillip Katcher, American Civil War Commanders: Union Leaders in the West (New York: Routledge, 2003) 97.
  21. Wallace, Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (New York: Routledge, 2012) 44.
  22. Phillip Katcher, American Civil War Commanders: Union Leaders in the West (New York: Routledge, 2003) 90.
  23. Wallace, Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (New York: Routledge, 2012) 40.
  24. Edward Longacre, General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 64.
  25. Edward Longacre, General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 70.
  26. Wallace, Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (New York: Routledge, 2012) 55.