Civil War Battles and Strategy

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How were Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee different, and what similarities did they have?

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were different in many ways. They understood their duties and loyalties differently, they came from very different backgrounds, and their approaches to making war were different. The similarities they shared include that they were veteran army officers, West Point graduates, and brilliant leaders.

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Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 in his ancestral home on Stratford Hall Plantation. He was part of the Virginia aristocracy, though his father lost most of the family fortune, and received the usual upbringing and early education of a Southern gentleman. Instead of staying in the South, however, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he excelled and graduated second in his class.

Ulysses S. Grant was fifteen years younger than Lee and from quite a different background. Whereas Lee's father was an aristocrat in decline, Grant's rose from poverty to become a prosperous leather merchant. Grant also went to West Point, where he was an indifferent student and initially considered leaving. He graduated in the middle of his class, still not fully committed to a military career.

Both Lee and Grant fought and distinguished themselves in the Mexican-American War of 1846–48 and had somewhat checkered civilian careers afterwards, though Lee served as Superintendent of West Point. By the time the Civil War broke out, their positions were practically opposite to one another. Grant struggled to be recommissioned and was eventually made colonel of a regiment. Lee foresaw disaster for the Confederacy and was reluctant to assume the position of general. He even refused to wear the insignia of a general in the Confederate army when he finally accepted the post, preferring the three stars of his rank in the US army, that of colonel.

Despite their different backgrounds, by the time Lee and Grant assumed their positions as leaders of the Confederate and Union armies, they had decades of strategic training behind them, at West Point and in the US, army, which ensured that their general approach was fairly similar. Both were highly competent commanders, respected by their men and their opponents. Lee was the more inspired of the two, with a natural tactical flair, but Grant had more than enough strategic ability to exploit the advantages enjoyed by the Union troops.

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Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant emerged as the supreme commanders of the Confederate and Union armies respectively by 1864. Like many generals in both armies, both men were educated at the United States Military Academy at West Point, which Lee attended in the 1820s, about twenty years before Grant. Both men, like many other Civil War officers, gained combat experience in the war with Mexico in the 1840s. Once the Civil War began, both men rose through the ranks through their military successes, with Lee emerging as the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia by 1862 and Grant, who won pivotal battles in the western theater of the war, as the Lieutenant General and commander of all Union armies by 1864.

Despite these similarities, Lee and Grant were different in many important ways. Lee was the son of an old, prominent Virginia family, though it was in decline by the time he was born. Grant was the son of an Ohio tanner. When the Civil War broke out, it emerged that Grant and Lee had very different concepts of duty. Lee, offered the command of the United States army by President Abraham Lincoln, declined the appointment, feeling that he owed his talents to his home state of Virginia. Grant, on the other hand, having left military service, received a commission to serve in the Union army immediately.

Lee was also thoroughly the product of a slave-holding society and owned dozens of enslaved people on his plantation in Arlington, Virginia. Grant was not an abolitionist—he actually held one enslaved man in the years leading up to the war—but the war made him an opponent of slavery.

In terms of military tactics, both men were bold, decisive leaders. Lee is generally more praised for his tactical approach to particular battles, especially Chancellorsville, while Grant tended to be a more methodical leader, relentlessly putting pressure on the Confederate armies in order to exploit the numerical and material advantages that the Union possessed. To what extent these differences in approach were dictated by strategic concerns, as opposed to personality, is an open question.

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First, the similarities:  both men were West Point graduates and both men fought in the Mexican War.  Both men were products of the military training of the time that said that commanders should use lines of battle just like in the Napoleonic Wars.  

Next, the differences.  Grant commanded the Union's Army of the Potomac and would ultimately become the Supreme Commander of all Union Armies in the Field.  Lee was the commander of the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia and would only get to be the supreme commander in 1865 when the Confederacy's other armies were destroyed.  Lee had a perfect disciplinary record at West Point and was considered one of the nation's better military leaders in 1861.  At the surrender ceremony at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, Lee wore one of his best uniforms, while Grant, according to contemporary viewers, was shabbily dressed.  Grant graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point and he was falsely accused of being a drunkard and was out of the army when the war started.  After the war, Lee would go on to be president of Washington and Lee College.  Grant would go on to be the eighteenth president--while popular, his administration was highly corrupt, though due to no fault of his own.  Grant would have to write his military memoirs while dying of cancer just to ensure that his family would be financially sound upon his death.  

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