Grant vs. Lee

The age-old question on whether Union General Ulysses S. Grant or Confederate General Robert E. Lee is the better general still exists and thrives today. Yes, we all know Grant won in the Civil War and Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, but we all must remember how the Union had a huge advantage over the Confederacy during the war. However, that is not what this essay is about, no; instead this essay will compare the two individuals, their careers, character, and impact on history and America today.

Ulysses S. Grant was born on April 27, 1822 at Point Pleasant, Ohio, to a successful businessman and tanner1 named Jesse Root Grant and his wife, Hannah Simpson Grant. Grant’s father was a supporter of the Whig Party and had some abolitionist sentiments as well. When Grant grew up, he decided not to work in his father’s shop, in fact he hated the idea, and instead had been enrolled at the military academy at West Point, New York, at age 17. A clerical error in his name occurred, however, and the academy thought that Grant’s name was Ulysses S. Grant, not his birth name, Hiram Ulysses Grant. Grant changed his name promptly and stuck with Ulysses S. Grant for the rest of his life. Grant was often tardy, had a collection of demerits, and had mediocre grades. When he finally graduated, he was glad to, and planned to serve only his first four years, which were mandatory. Grant’s best subjects were math, geology, and astronomy. Grant was stationed in St. Louis, Missouri, and became engaged to Julia Dent, but before they could marry, Grant had been called for the war in Mexico, which he thought was wrong and only for the purpose of spreading slavery. During the war Grant was a quartermaster2 under Zachary Taylor, and also served under Winfield Scott. In 1848 after the war’s end Grant married Julia and the couple had four children together, all of whom would live past the turn of the century and three of whom would witness World War I. Unfortunately for Grant himself, he would be shipped across the Pacific Coast, and several attempts to move his family there were unsuccessful. Grant, probably from stress, began to drink, which suffered his reputation as an officer for the rest of his life. In 1854, Grant resigned from the army and went through a rough time, job to job, and at one point, he was selling firewood to support his family. He later humbled himself to work in his father’s shop.

When the Civil War broke out, Grant, refueled with Union patriotism, tried to re-enlist in the army, but was turned down until an Illinois congressman persuaded the military to let Grant in. Grant was given the task of leading an unruly regiment, which he whipped into shape, and led them to capture the town of Paducah, Kentucky, at the mouth of the Tennessee River. Grant scored victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, but after the bloody Battle of Shiloh, Grant was demoted, accused of using unwise tactics, but a federal investigation determined otherwise, and Grant was reinstated. Grant’s crowning achievement came when he had captured the fort of Vicksburg on Independence Day of 1863, after a month-and-a-half long siege. With Vicksburg captured, Grant had control over the entire Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy in two. Grant’s success helped him gain recognition and praise, but also spread rumors about heavy drinking, which didn’t make him happy with everyone. Grant won the battle of Chattanooga, allowing Roger Sherman to begin his “March to the Sea”, and in 1864 was promoted and became the top general in the Union army. For the remainder of the war Grant was tracking down Robert E. Lee, under what he thought was the war’s top priority. All the other generals and major commanders thought conquering territory was most important to defeating the Confederacy. On May 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, and the war ended a few days later.

After a seemingly endless political battle with Andrew Johnson, Grant became the 18th president of the United States. During his presidency Grant supported reconstruction of the South, but unfortunately many of the men he appointed were part of the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist group in the South of the U.S. Grant served two terms as president. In 1884 Grant became bankrupt, and on top of that found out he had an advanced stage of throat cancer. Grant then started selling magazine strips about his life, and eventually, had his memoirs published by Mark Twain. Grant died on July 23, 1885 at age 63. He was buried in New York City and when his wife died in 1902 she was buried next to him.

Robert E. Lee was born in 1807, the son of a Revolutionary War cavalry officer, Henry Lee III, also known as “Light Horse Harry”, into a wealthy and famous Virginia family. Lee’s lineage included a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a Virginia Governor. Lee, however, was cut off from the family aristocracy, and when Lee was two his father was put in debtor’s prison, and when he was 13 his father was killed trying to protect a friend from an angry mob. At 18 Lee enrolled at the military academy at West Point, New York, and graduated with no demerits and perfect scores in artillery, infantry, and cavalry. After graduation, Lee married Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of George and Martha Washington. The two had four sons and three daughters but Lee valued his military service and made a career out of the military while his wife took care of the kids on land that his father-in-law gave him. Lee served in the Mexican-American War under Winfield Scott, who praised him as a brilliant tactician and noted that of the U.S. ever went to war again that the government should take out a life insurance policy on the commander. He returned to his plantation only to find it in ruins. For the next two years Lee took care of the plantation, trying to make it profitable again. In 1859 Lee had been sent to Harpers Ferry to put down John Brown’s revolt, and he did so within an hour. In 1861 America went to war again, but this time with itself. Lee did not favor slavery or succession, but when Virginia seceded he didn’t want to dishonor his home state, and served in the Confederate Army. Lee helped win the Second Bull Run/Manassas, but his career had some harshness too, barley escaping Antietam and losing at Gettysburg. At Chancellorsville, his “perfect battle”, Lee lost his friend and right hand man, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and after Gettysburg Lee was on the defensive, eventually being forced with surrender to Grant in Appomattox. Lee escaped treason’s punishment, hanging, due to a generous and forgiving Grant, along with Andrew Johnson pardoning him. Lee then had a stroke on September 28, 1870, and died two weeks later around 9 AM on October 12, 1870. Lee was buried in a coffin too short for him, and, as a result, was buried without his shoes. Lee is today buried under Lee Chapel in Lexington, Virginia.

Now on to comparing careers. Early in their careers, at West Point, Lee was top-of-the-class, an A+ student, while Grant was a graduate with mediocre grades, a C student. The Civil War swapped each one’s careers, catapulting Grant to victory and pushing Lee down to surrender. Grant then went on to become president of the United States, establishing the role of talking with other world leaders. Lee, however, went on to lead Washington and Lee University until his death in 1870, when one of his sons took over. Grant’s career could be summed up in nine words, promotion to high status that results in bad reputation. During the Civil War, Grant kept getting promoted in the Union Army, but at the same time rumors kept spreading about his drinking issue, which was true, Grant did drink, but often times these rumors exaggerated how much alcohol Grant took in. Also, when Grant was president, he received a bad reputation, mainly because of him picking corrupt advisors and such. Lee’s career, however, did not suffer from rumors or scandal. Lee was the best general the Confederacy ever had, and the U.S. Military today studies his tactics, putting him among the names of great military strategists such as Caesar, who’s tactics are studied by not just our military (U.S.), but militaries around the world.

In terms of character, both could be considered men of good character. In terms of religion, we have two ends of a rod. Actually it’s more like one end of a rod and one point close to the other end. Robert E. Lee was deeply religious and applied it on the battlefield (and no, he didn’t support slavery). Grant on the other hand, was not religious, and when he attended church, which he rarely did, he only did it to impress his wife, nothing more. Both men had similar anti-slavery opinions and both did not favor secession either. However, there is one big difference between the two; Grant was a family man, Lee was not. Grant was very much like Abraham Lincoln in terms of raising his children1, especially his two youngest children, Nellie and Jesse, which he let them mess up his papers and turn everything in his tent into a toy. An officer said that Grant and his relationship with his children was as if they were playmates together. Grant let his children do anything they wished as long as they, a: listened to their mother, and b: follow the law. When his children didn’t obey his mother, Grant always told them to always listen to their mother, because she knew what was best for them. Lee, on the other hand, was more distant from his children, despite having seven of them. Lee saw his duty in the military and didn’t want to dishonor his role he chose. It isn’t that he didn’t care about his children, but he was by no means a family man like Grant. Both were polite and respectful men as well.

These two men left a legacy in American history and on America today. Grant’s legacy as a general made him a national hero, until his presidency, which was marked with scandal, and Grant’s reputation suffered for a century until the 1990s, when his reputation began to get better. Lee’s reputation, on the other hand, never suffered one bit. Despite being framed for treason he escaped being hanged thanks to Grant’s generosity and was eventually pardoned by Andrew Johnson and having his citizenship restored. Lee’s reputation as a general is excellent, and as said earlier, his tactics are studied by the U.S. military today. An interesting note to mention is that any direct descendant of Robert E. Lee is also a direct descendant of George and Martha Washington, since Lee’s wife, Mary Custis, was Washington’s granddaughter. Many members of the Lee family, both before and after Robert E. Lee, were members of the U.S. Government or U.S. Military. Lee’s father, Henry Lee III, or “Light Horse Harry”, was a Cavalry officer in the American Revolution, and his grandfather, Richard Henry Lee, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. And after Lee (not all directly descended from Lee), in the Lee family, includes a Maryland Governor, a U.S. Senator, and Willis Augustus Lee, who commanded ships against Japan during the second night of the Battle of Guadalcanal during WWII against the Japanese. In terms of legacy, Lee’s is more profound and better off than Grant’s legacy.

In conclusion, the two prominent Civil War Generals have similarities and differences. Both men did not favor slavery or secession and both were polite and respectful. However, the two were almost at opposite ends of a stick in terms of faith, where Lee was deeply religious and Grant only went to church occasionally to impress his wife. Grant did not do well at West Point where Lee excelled there, Grant was a family man where Lee was not, and most importantly, Grant’s reputation suffered, while Lee’s was positive and still is positive today. These two men were very different characters, and each can be summed up like this, a family man who won a war only to have his presidency marked by scandal and an excellent tactician losing a war in exchange for his reputation surviving and surpassing Grant’s.