For our discussions this week, we looked at three different generals. . .
First we looked at Lee. Though not a supporter of slavery or secession, he believed himself bound to defend his friends and his home of Virginia. One might say that he did not fight for a ’cause,’ but for his friends. Clearly he was a man of integrity and faith, an inspirational leader. He also was able to size up opponents psychologically to a remarkable degree. One sees in his eyes intelligence, melancholy, and a deep fire.
For the first 100 years or so after the war, scholarship on Lee remained entirely favorable to him. For most, the South was doomed to defeat from the beginning. Only Lee’s brilliant generalship staved off disaster, and in fact, even got them close to pulling off a “miracle” victory.
But recently many historians have taken a much different view of the South’s chances, and see the Civil War as one that they had every chance of winning. This shift has led to a reevaluation of Lee himself. If one believes that the South could have won by using a “bend, don’t break” approach, then we need to ask why Lee employed the strategy he did, and what its impact was.
‘If you find that Hooker is moving northward, and that two brigades can guard the Blue Ridge and take care of your rear, you can move with the other three into MD and take position on Gen. Ewell’s right, place yourself in communication with him, guard his flank, keep him informed of enemy movements, and collect all supplies you can for the use of the army.’
‘Lee speaks of your leaving Hopewell Gap and passing by the rear of the enemy. If you can get through by that route, I think you will be less likely to indicate your plans than if you pass to our rear. You had better not leave us therefore, unless you can take the proposed route in rear of the enemy.’
‘You will be able to judge if you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can. In either case, after crossing the river [Lee presented two options to him of where to cross] you must move on and feel the right of Ewell’s corp’s collecting information and provisions.
You are to take the heights, if practicable, but avoid any general engagement until the arrival of the others divisions of the army.
U.S. Grant had none of the dash or style of most important commanders, not even an impressive mustache like the Union’s Joshua Chamberlain. He seemed every inch the average man from Ohio. Rumors said he drank too much. Strategically, he displayed little creativity. Yet he had a tenacity and single-mindedness that most other Union generals lacked. As Lincoln said of him, ‘I can’t spare this man. He fights.’
Grant stands in stark contrast to the elegance and pedigree of Lee, and in that way mirrors Lincoln. Nothing about his bearing or manner spoke of anything to do with flash. His tactics reflected his straightforward, methodical nature. But to my mind there must have been something maddening about fighting Grant. Never brilliant, he had tremendous consistency. He kept moving, which demanded that you (his opponent) never slack. He had an large reservoir of patience, and tended to see not what he lost in battles, but in what he gained. His men believed in him. Lee, for all his gifts, could not beat him.
While Grant is best known for wearing Lee down at the end of the war, many consider his most impressive campaign to be his taking of Vicksburg in July 1863. As the map indicates, he had to travel far and wide, but in the end, simply would not let go of his objective. The capture of Vicksburg ensured Union control of the Mississippi and allowed them to choke the life out of the Confederacy.
3. At one point during the war William T. Sherman was out of the army, depressed, and even contemplated suicide. Volatile and somewhat unpredictable, he got another command and began to earn the trust of Grant. After taking Atlanta in September of 1864, he had the idea of taking his army and marching it to Savannah, away from supplies and communication, targeting wealthy southern properties for destruction. Many thought the idea foolhardy, but Sherman thought otherwise:
- His army was composed mostly of men from the midwest, which was at that time the ‘west.’ These were independent minded and self-sufficient troops.
- He believed that just these independent minded men might be especially motivated to ransack the property of wealthy southerners.
- He also believed that this would help drastically shorten the war. For Sherman, it was not so much the supplies that the South would not have, but the psychological impact of the property destruction. The South, he believed, went to war to defend their property. If he proved they could not defend what was most dear to them, the Confederate cause would lose legitimacy and promote desertions in Confederate armies. Slaves, too, would leave their masters and again, this would hasten the collapse of the Southern cause.
Many controversies surround Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea.’ Those in favor of him would probably argue the following:
- Sherman’s actions did shorten the war and saved lives in the process. His campaign was much less costly than any of Lee and Grant’s battles. It is much better that property be burned than men killed.
- Sherman’s army liberated directly or otherwise, thousands of slaves
- Sherman was simply more far-sighted and innovative than other generals. Don’t blame him for doing things no one else thought of. If you are against his targeting farms, than you have to be against our destruction of civilian areas in World War II, which culminated in our atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
- Sherman started the idea of ‘total war,’ which would lead to so many horrors of 20th century warfare.
- Sherman’s targeting of civilian property was simply wrong and violated the ‘rules of war.’
- Many starved in the south in the aftermath of his attacks
- If the ultimate goal of the North was reconciliation with the South, Sherman worked against this. His humiliation of the South lingered in their minds for generations and produced a bitterness that in some areas has still not gone away.
If Lee’s picture shows his aristocratic roots, and if Grant’s belies a plain pugnacity, Sherman’s face shows us all of his brilliance, all of his craziness, and the fact that he just doesn’t care. I wouldn’t want to face him.