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War and Peace: Grant & Lee

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William C. Davis at the Lincoln Symposium in Miami William C. Davis at the Lincoln Symposium in Miami

The great Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were the focus of the annual Lincoln Symposium in Miami, held on Jan. 25, 2015.

Famed Civil War author William C. Davis spoke about his new book on these military leaders of the Union and Confederate armies, at a time when we are about to mark the 150th anniversary of the formal surrender of the Confederate army at Appomattox in 1865.

Davis made it clear that neither man really wanted the Union to break apart. “Both were old-line Whigs- they would probably be Democrats today. They did not like Lincoln winning the presidency, and both agreed the crisis was being brought on by extremists. Lee even had hopes of a reunion after he became a Confederate general.”

Grant, however never wavered. “Grant was unequivocally in favour of the Union. Throughout the war his eye was on one single prize- reunion,” said Davis.

In his address to the audience in Miami, Davis said the character trait most people attribute to Grant is drunkenness. “Grant was not an alcoholic, but he was a cheap drunk,” explaining that Grant did not hold his liquor well, so just a couple of drinks would make him inebriated, but during the entire Civil War he was only drunk three or four times.

In the book, Davis writes that “Two things characterized Grant from his youth: his industry and enterprise. He liked to work hard, his mind constantly focused on improving his situation. The setbacks he suffered never dulled his optimism. He simply looked for the next opportunity.” Lee was another matter. By the age of 50, writes Davis, “the optimism of youth was gone. His faith promised only trial and pain until death’s release. Disappointed professionally, disillusioned personally, uncertain of the present and anxious for the future, he felt sad, occasionally depressed, racked by feelings of failure. He looked ahead with dread of infirmity.”

Davis makes a direct comparison between the two men: “Grant and Lee were not men of big ideas. They reflected little if at all on man and his place in the universe, the nature of democracy, or freedom, or liberty.”

In his Miami presentation sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, Davis made the point that “Grant was a savvy general who avoided anything political. Lee would come home after visiting Congress and complain they were only interested in eating peanuts and smoking tobacco.” In the book, Davis quotes Lee’s views of politicians. He minced no words: “Politicians are more or less so warped by party feeling, by selfishness, or prejudices, that their minds are not altogether truly balanced. They are the most difficult to cure of all insane people.” If Lee were transported to the year 2015 to witness the current Congress, I suspect his views would merely be confirmed.

Even though they both tried to keep politics at arms-length, Lee was so “symbolically important” as the Civil War went on that there was a move afoot to impeach Confederate President Jefferson Davis “and install Lee as military dictator.”

In the theatre of war, their methods were quite different. In the book, Davis looks at the state of war in 1863 to put into stark contrast their different styles of generalship: “Where by now Grant’s general staff was evolving into an operations committee, Lee did virtually all planning himself” and "rarely consulted his general staff on strategy."

When it came to army discipline, “Grant was not more humane than Lee, though he seemed more reluctant to impose summary justice. A stickler for military law, Grant preferred that the guilty go unpunished rather than be denied rigid adherence to code.” The relationship with their respective presidents is also explored in the book. “Lee said virtually nothing in testimonial about Jefferson Davis, while Grant’s admiration for his president (Lincoln) grew for the rest of his life.”

The two men never really got to know one another. Davis outlined Grant’s view of Lee: “cautious, unimaginative and humourless.” Lee was none of those things, said Davis.

They both died at age 63. Davis concludes his book saying “The simple fact neither ever admitted is that, in each other, they faced their preeminent adversaries.”

Combining all the elements one could wish in what is essentially a dual biography and a military history of the Civil War as it impacted the careers of its two leading generals, this work of extraordinary scholarship deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in American history in particular and the art of war in general.

I noticed a typo on pg. 124: rebelloion should be rebellion.

Photo of Mr. Davis copyright Cliff Cunningham

Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee – The War They Fought, The Peace They Forged (629 pages, including 112 pages of notes and bibliography) is $32.50 by Da Capo Press.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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