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How were Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee similar and different?

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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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How are Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant similar?

In an essay called "Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts" from The American Story, a series of essays by historians, Civil War expert Bruce Catton compared and contrasted Grant and Lee. 

While he argues that the two men were largely dissimilar and represented different "elements" in the American experience, Catton states they shared the following traits:

Both were stubborn and faithful. They dug in and didn't give up easily. Both were tenacious fighters.

Each was a resourceful risk taker. Lee illustrated this in the "dazzling campaigns" of Second Manassas and Chancellorville; Grant at Vicksburg.

Each man rose to greatness in his ability to turn to peace at the war's end. Both Lee and Grant, Catton contends, behaved with enormous graciousness when they met briefly in Appomattox to finalize the South's surrender that led to peace. 

Each man came from a different background. Lee's was backward-looking, aristocratic, and agrarian, while Grant represented the forward-looking perspective of the industrial North, but both were men of courage and conviction. 

 

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How are Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant similar?

General Robert E. Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant had many similarities and differences. The biggest similarity is that they were both great civil war generals. They had a great deal of passion for what they were fighting for. They both wanted to preserve the Union but it was inevitable that the North and South would soon engage in war.

General Lee and General Grant both fought in the Mexican War. They later questioned if it was right to invade and because of the carnage they witnessed they were both opposed to war in 1861. Both also participated in Scott's march from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. 

In addition, they both went to school at West Point.

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How are Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant similar?

Both leaders played vital roles in the Civil War.  They were both associated with their side, as the North became represented by Grant and the South by Lee.  Both were placed in large positions of power and looked at by many with admiration and respect.  Both were skilled tacticians and possessing a high level of military intelligence.  Specific battles marked their level of brilliance on the battlefield, with Lee garnering much praise for his approach in recapturing Richmond and with Vicksburg marking a strategic high moment for Grant.  Both graduated from West Point Military Academy.

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

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

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

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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What are the main similarities between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant?

The similarities were few between the two great commanding generals of the American Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was the son of a poor tanner from Pennsylvania who had moved to Ohio. Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) was a Southern aristocrat and a member of one of Virginia's most famous families. His father, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, was a Revolutionary War hero and Governor of Virginia. Robert E. Lee's wife was the step-daughter of George Washington. Grant was a Methodist who rarely attended church and who "prayed in private." Lee was a pious member of the Episcopal Church who believed that God would favor his Confederate armies.

As for their similarities:

  • Both were experienced veterans of the Mexican War: Lee as a captain (breveted to colonel) of engineers and a close aide to commanding General Winfield Scott. Grant was a lieutenant and a quartermaster.
  • Both attended West Point: Lee graduated 2nd in his class; Grant was 21st out of 39 students.
  • Both Lee and Grant owned slaves. Oddly, however, Lee generally opposed slavery, freeing his slaves at the beginning of the war. Meanwhile, Grant "had no animosity toward slavery."
  • Prior to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln promoted Lee to colonel in the U. S. Army; Lincoln later promoted Grant several times.
  • Both men became president: Grant was elected President of the United States in 1868 and 1872; Lee became President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia.
  • Both men were beloved figures post-war. Lee was revered throughout the South (as he was during the war) and by students at Washington College. Grant was a highly-popular President, elected twice by landslide votes.
  • Both men died when they were 63 years old.

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