The conventional wisdom concerning the comparative generalship of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant was established almost immediately after the Civil War. Despite his role as, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “the rebel chieftain,” Lee has been portrayed as surpassing all others on both sides of the conflict not only in soldierly virtue but also in magnanimity and humanity. Indeed, for decades, no Civil War figure, not even Abraham Lincoln, has exceeded the reputation of Robert E. Lee.
Lee has been described as the perfect soldier — a Christian and a gentleman as well as a peerless commander who led his renowned Army of Northern Virginia to a spectacular series of victories against overwhelming odds. For three years, he and his army provided the backbone of the Confederate cause. But though his adversaries were far less skilful than he, they were able to bring to bear superior resources, which ultimately overwhelmed the Confederacy. In the words of Gary Gallagher, the conventional wisdom held that “in defeat, Lee and his soldiers could look back on a record of selfless regard for duty and magnificent accomplishment.”
Grant, on the other hand, has been described as a “butcher.” According to the conventional wisdom, Grant lacked strategic sense and tactical competence and was able to achieve victory only by taking advantage of the manpower and material superiority of the Union to bludgeon his opponent into submission. Critics have described him as an unimaginative plodder.
John Maynard Keynes, discussing the transmission of economic ideas, once observed that “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority who hear voices in the air are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of years back.” This applies to historiography as well.
For instance, the conventional wisdom regarding the abilities of both Lee and Grant was shaped nearly a century and a half ago by the Lost Cause school of Civil War historiography. As Edward A. Pollard wrote in the 1867 book that gave this interpretation its name, “all that is left the South is the war of ideas.” The Lost Cause thesis was neatly summarized in an 1893 speech by a former Confederate officer, Colonel Richard Henry Lee. “As a Confederate soldier and as a Virginian, I deny the charge [that the Confederates were rebels] and denounce it as a calumny. We were not rebels, we did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes.”
As David Blight observes in his book Race and Reunion, the Lost Cause interpretation of the war was the South’s response to the physical destruction and the psychological trauma of defeat. In this view, the Old South was a racial utopia, an organic society composed of loyal slaves and benevolent masters. The war pitted this “slave democracy” against the “free mobocracy” of the North, and the noble side lost. The matchless bravery of the Confederate soldier succumbed to the “juggernaut of superior numbers and merciless power.” As Robert Penn Warren once wrote, “in the moment of its death, the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.”
Almost from the moment the conflict ended, the Lost Cause came to dominate interpretations of the war, in the North as well as in the South. The works of Douglas Southall Freeman, the Virginian and biographer of Robert E. Lee, represent the epitome of the Lost Cause school, but even writers like Bruce Catton, who interpreted the war primarily from a Northern perspective, accepted many of the Lost Cause assumptions.
There are two parts to the Lost Cause interpretation. The first is political and holds that the cause of the war was not slavery but the oppressive power of the central government, which wished to tyrannize over the southern states. The South wished only to exercise its constitutional right to secede, but was thwarted by a power-hungry Lincoln.
The second part is military: The noblest soldier of the war was Robert E. Lee. For three years, he and his army fought in Virginia, the most important theater of the war; he was more skilful than his adversaries, but went down to defeat because of the North’s superior resources.
The first part of the Lost Cause argument is demonstrably false. Slavery was both the proximate and the deep cause of the war. There was no constitutional right to dissolve the Union. Southerners could have invoked the natural right of revolution, but they didn’t because of the implications of such a declaration for a slave-holding society; they were, therefore, hardly the heirs of the Revolutionary generation.
But there is a great deal of truth to the second part. The South did fight at a material disadvantage. In Lenin’s words, “quantity has a quality all its own.” And Lee was a remarkably skilful soldier who overcame immense odds on battlefield after battlefield.
For the last two decades, historians have been freeing themselves from the shackles of the Lost Cause school. This has led to a revision of the reputations of both Lee and Grant.
For example, an increasing number of historians have come to reject the Lost Cause argument that Virginia was the decisive theater of the war. The key to Union victory, they hold, was the West. Here Union armies used the Tennessee River as the main line of operations to penetrate deep into the Confederate heartland early in the war. By the end of 1862, they controlled most of the Mississippi River except the stretch between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. These fell in the summer of 1863. Union armies in the West then penetrated the Appalachian barrier at Chattanooga, opening the way to Atlanta, the fall of which ultimately doomed the Confederacy. They inflicted defeat after defeat on the main Confederate army in the West, the Army of Tennessee (not to be confused with the Union Army of the Tennessee) and captured vast tracts of territory that were essential to the survival of the Confederacy.
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