Civil War Battles and Strategy

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What are some differences between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant?

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Most of the differences between Lee and Grant can be attributed to their respective backgrounds. Lee hailed from Virginia, from one of the commonwealth's old landed families. Grant, on the other hand, was born in Ohio, the son of a store-owner. To some extent, both men epitomized the old America...

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Most of the differences between Lee and Grant can be attributed to their respective backgrounds. Lee hailed from Virginia, from one of the commonwealth's old landed families. Grant, on the other hand, was born in Ohio, the son of a store-owner. To some extent, both men epitomized the old America and the new: Lee represented America's past whereas Grant represented its future.

For in due course it would be Grant's native Midwest that would drive America's rapid change from an agrarian to a modern industrialized economy. Unwittingly, Grant represented the new America to which the Civil War, the war he had helped to win, had given birth, with its much more fluid social structure than the rigid hierarchy of which Robert E. Lee had been a product.

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In an essay entitled "Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts," Civil War historian Bruce Catton describes some of the differences between the two opposing generals. In sum, Catton argues that Lee represented an old, static, backward looking order, and Grant, a new, growing, vigorous order.

Catton characterizes Lee as a land-based aristocrat who harkened back to a way of life represented by the knight and the medieval squire. Lee believed in a "leisure class" of men who would have (according to this ideal):

a strong sense of obligation to the community; men who lived not to gain advantage for themselves, but to meet the solemn obligations which had been laid on them by the very fact that they were privileged. From them the country would get its leadership; to them it could look for the higher values—of thought, of conduct, of personal deportment—to give it strength and virtue.

Grant, on the other hand, represented being tough and self-reliant, owing nothing to the past, and bringing oneself up by one's bootstraps. He was future oriented and believed a man should only possess what he earned for himself. He was tied to a competitive view of life and was acutely aware of the importance of "dollars and cents."

Lee represented a static, unchanging, aristocratic ideal of what life should be that was rooted in tradition. Grant represented modernity and restless change, the age of "steel and machinery."

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It is true that Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant had several things in common. Both trained at West Point Military Academy and went on to serve as commanding generals in the American Civil War. Both also served in the Mexican War. Of course, they differed in far more respects than they were alike.

Ulysses S. Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, in 1822. His family were not particularly wealthy, and Grant grew up performing work on their farm. Because Grant was good with horses, his father secured a place for him at the West Point Academy. Here, Grant was not an especially good student, but continued developing his talents for handling horses.

Robert E. Lee had been born into an aristocratic family and was the son of a Colonel. Despite having good social standing, his father was terrible with money and Lee's family was very poor after his father's death. At West Point, Lee was regarded as being especially handsome, charismatic, and talented in all that he did. 

Perhaps the most notable difference between Grant and Lee is the fact that they came to represent the values and desires of the North and South, respectively. Grant, and the majority of the North, supported the abolition of slavery and the advancement of the social standing of Black and First Nations Americans. Lee, on the other hand, believed that slavery was a fundamental component of the American economic system and almost died defending this belief. 

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