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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

Why Grant Was Better Than Lee

One would think that Lee won the Civil War and not Grant. Few figures in American history have so long escaped censure like Lee, though why that is still the case today still baffles me. Lee was a gifted commander who won victories against great odds, but he was also fighting for a despicable cause, kind of like Erwin Rommel. That makes his enduring fame all the more confounding given that everything he's famous for happened while a traitor to America. How did we get here? I'm going to argue that, after Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant is the Civil War figure most worthy of our respect and admiration. Grant, and certainly not Lee, should be adorning our parks and courthouses. That's not how it's been, however.


How Lost Cause Losers Won the Post-War Narrative

How did Lee lose a war fighting for an immoral cause but still end up a beloved figure in American mythology while Grant was largely forgotten? Part of the problem was timing. Almost immediately after the war, an interesting narrative from the war's losers began to take hold. It started with Edward Pollard's 1867 book "The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates." This southern interpretation set the tone for what followed.

Former Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, and general Jubal Early, just to name a few, were early and ardent proponents of the "Lost Cause" myth. Out of this poisonous soil grew the "Lost Cause" school of Civil War pseudo-history arguing that the Confederacy was not defending the institution of slavery, but fighting for legitimate states' rights to secede from the Union.

Men like Jefferson Davis (former President of the Confederacy) felt they were the true ideological heirs to the Founding Fathers of 1776. The armed rebellion that began with the attack on Fort Sumter was re-framed as the "War of Northern Aggression," waged by a tyrannical federal government bent on crushing southern freedom. Framed like this, Lee and his fellow southerners were chivalrous patriots in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, bravely defending their beloved country against brutal invaders.

Slavery? What about it? It's not essential in the "Lost Cause" narrative. In any case, they'll tell you that slavery was a benevolent institution run by good Christian masters doing their best to uphold the natural order. Black folk needed a firm and steady hand to keep them from straying from the true Christian path. Southerners like Lee believed that this status quo was worth fighting and dying for.

It's a cliché to say that history is written by the winners, but this really was a case where the opposite happened. After Reconstruction collapsed in the late 1870s, the former Confederate states erected a racially segregated society that disenfranchised and terrorized black communities for the next hundred years. By the early twentieth century, it had become stamped in the culture as the dominant framing of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee, more than any other Confederate figure, benefited from this.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, this myth has stubbornly endured. Symbols and tributes to the old Confederacy remain in place, even after the progress in racial equality achieved since the Civil Rights era. Several dozen elementary schools and two universities still bear Lee's name. Robert E. Lee and nine other Confederate leaders still have army bases named after him. Then there are the eight counties and dozens of roads, not to mention the courthouse monuments honoring Lee peppered throughout the Old South. Mississippi and Alabama still observe Robert E. Lee Day every January.

I'm not only talking about the naming of public spaces, which played an essential role in stamping the "Lost Cause" onto American culture, but also about prominent films that created a pro-Southern white-washed narrative about the Civil War.

The Birth of a Nation, a racist "Lost Cause" film with Klansmen (!!!) as heroes, was the first film ever shown in the White House in 1915. Gone with the Wind later peddled "Lost Cause" myths with all the glory and romance that only golden age Hollywood could deliver. And these myths didn't end with Civil Rights in the 1960s. More recently, in 2003, the movie Gods and Generals (more on that below) reacquainted us, in case we'd forgotten, with the "Lost Cause" ideology.

"I never thought I'd live to see the day that a president of the United States would raise an army to invade his own country." Robert E. Lee in Gods and Generals

Fact check: Actually, Lincoln called up the 75,000 volunteers three days after the Rebels began their assault on Fort Sumpter. "War of Northern Aggression" indeed!

Modern films like Gods and Generals show how enduring the Lost Causers' revisions of Civil War history were. The real heroes of the conflict, men like Lincoln and Grant, were mostly edited out in favor of more romantic southern figures.

Of course, there's some truth buried in all of this garbage. Southerners were, in fact, fighting to defend their economic livelihoods. True enough, but don't forget (like they want you to forget) that any economic and political argument for southern independence always circles back to the issue of slavery. Remember that.

Finally, much has been made of Lee's anguish at resigning from the Army in 1861 to join the Confederacy. It's one of those great what-ifs of history - what if Lee's real military talents had been deployed for the Union instead of the Confederacy? Perhaps he could have used them to snuff out the rebellion at its inception, saving countless lives.

But he didn't. Lee wasn't built that way.

For over four blood-soaked years, Lee was a traitor to the United States. Everything he did before and after will always be eclipsed by that fact. And yet we celebrate him?


When Grant Sold Firewood to Survive

Grant could not have been more different. By way of contrast, Lee belonged to the Virginia slave-owning aristocracy. He had no problem buying, selling, and breaking up slave families if it was to his advantage. They were economic units of labor, nothing more, nothing less.

Grant's family had more commercial anti-slavery roots in the North. Grant's father, Jesse Grant, was a staunch abolitionist who ran a successful leather goods store in Galena, Illinois.

Grant's pre-war military career was distinguished if not all that spectacular. He was a West Point graduate and decorated veteran of the Mexican War. However, after this promising start, his life hit rock bottom in the second half of the 1850s. After leaving the Army under a cloud in 1854, Grant entered the leanest years of his life.

He tried farming in Missouri but failed so miserably that he had to trudge his way into St. Louis every day to sell firewood to make ends meet.

Ron Chernow vividly described this period in Grant's life:

"Though sober, Grant projected a defeated air on the St. Louis streets, a man with the life beaten out of him. His injured pride cast a deep gloom over him. The depression visible in his expressionless face, seamy clothes, and absence of mirth were discernible to those around him. His need to sell firewood, huddled in a faded blue army coat, broadcast his decline to the world." [1]

The humiliation didn't end there. In December of 1857, Grant pawned his gold watch for $22 to raise money for Christmas presents. [2] Grant's father, Jesse Grant, had nothing but contempt for his son during this period. He made a pitch for Grant and his family to relocate to Kentucky to work in one of Jesse's businesses.

Jesse, however, lamented that his son would face a steep learning curve by shifting careers. He supposedly lamented that "he [Jesse] would have to take U.S. and his family home and make him over again, as he had no business qualifications whatever - had failed at everything - all his other boys were good business men." [3]

One forgotten incident stands out during this period which offers a hint at Grant's character and a striking contrast to Lee's views on slavery. Most people don't know this, but Grant briefly owned a slave in the spring of 1859. Whether that slave, a mulatto named William Jones, was given as a gift from his slave-owning father-in-law or not is unclear.

It is clear that Grant very soon after marched down to the circuit court in St. Louis and freed William. The papers he filed stated, "I hereby manumit, emancipate & set free said William from slavery forever." [4]

Why was this a big deal? Remember, Grant was flat broke and trying to support a family of five at this time. He desperately needed the money and could legally have sold William for up to $1,000, quite a tidy sum in 1859.

But he didn't.

He had every economic and legal motivation to either keep William for his personal use or sell him for a nice profit.

But he didn't.

He chose the hard right over the easy wrong, and that quiet act of moral decency done at one of the lowest points in his life showed the kind of man he was. Grant never spoke about his motivations for freeing William, though I'd argue his actions here speak louder than words.

After finally calling it quits at farming in 1858, Grant struggled on in Missouri for two more bleak years, trying and failing in other ventures before finally moving with his family to Galena, Illinois. There he assumed the humble position of a store clerk in his father's business, something that must have been humbling to the West Point graduate and decorated war veteran.

This is where we find Grant at the outbreak of war in 1861, broke, almost broken, and working for his two younger brothers on the pittance of a clerk's salary.

That was 1861.

Rock bottom.

But Grant was a scrapper. The outbreak of war in 1861 offered the chance to break out of his rut. Still, he struggled to find some military role for himself in the early months of the war. His unkempt appearance worked against him in his attempts to gain a commission in the Army.

Augustus Chetlain, a fellow citizen of Galena and newly minted Union officer, noted that Grant's "dress was seedy - he had only one suit and that he had worn all winter - his short pipe, his grizzled beard and old slouch hat did not make him look like a promising candidate for a colonel." [5]

Chernow tells the story of Grant traveling to Major General George McClellan's headquarters in Cincinnati to petition for a commission under his command. For two days in a row, Grant hung out in McClellan's waiting room, hoping for an opportunity to plead his case for a commission, though, in the end, McClellan blew him off entirely.

Finally, Grant's run of bad luck turned when Governor Yates of Illinois appointed him a colonel of the 7th Congressional District Regiment. [6] This was the break Grant needed, and he never looked back, piling up a string of increasingly impressive victories - first at Belmont, then Forts Henry and Donelson, followed by Shiloh, Vicksburg, and finally Chattanooga.

What had appeared as deficiencies in personal demeanor came to be seen as assets, especially when contrasted with the performance of the other Union generals in the east, pompous McClellan included. Grant wasn't one of the polished pretty boys like McClellan who looked the part, talked a good game, and then underwhelmed on the battlefield. Grant was low on style, but high on substance, and determined to get the job done, no matter what it took.

An anecdote later told by General William T. Sherman highlights Grant's dogged determination. After the first day of the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, Grant's army had been taken by surprise deep in enemy territory and badly mauled in a brutal day of fighting. As darkness fell, many assumed the most logical course of action would be for Grant to retreat, regroup, and try again later.

According to Ronald White, "Near midnight, Sherman found him [Grant], still awake, standing, with a lantern in one hand, cigar clasped between his teeth, his slouch hat keeping the rain off his face. Wondering if Grant might be planning a strategic defeat, Sherman commented, 'Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?' Grant, after puffing on his cigar, replied, 'Yes, lick'em tomorrow, though.'" [7]

That laconic response said a lot about Grant. You see, he didn't understand he'd just had his ass kicked. The standard Union reaction to such an ass-kicking was to retreat and regroup. On the contrary, not for Grant, nothing was further from his mind than retreat.

No, he couldn't wait to get back at it the next day, which is precisely what happened. The timely arrival of reinforcements combined with the death of Confederate commander A.S. Johnston gave Grant the chance to recapture the initiative and trounce the rebels the next day.

Shiloh revealed Grant's aggressive style of waging war. Once he started toward an objective, he didn't stop until he'd reached it. This was something that hadn't been happening in the Eastern theater. In the early years of the war, Union generals were often competent organizers, and even sometimes capable battlefield commanders, but they were too hesitant to make sustained contact with Lee's Army.

McClellan at Antietam arguably defeated Lee on the battlefield, but then didn't press the advantage as the wounded Army of Northern Virginia retreated south. Likewise, Meade inflicted a stinging defeat on Lee at Gettysburg, but then let Lee's mangled army retreat back to Virginia.

If the Union commanders were timid in battle, they were even more so in defeat. Time after time, the Army of the Potomac would march south full of high hopes to meet Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. A battle would be fought and lost, prompting the Army of the Potomac to scurry back to the shelter of D.C. to recover.

Out West, on the other hand, Grant was winning, though after the carnage of Shiloh, many were calling for his removal. But Lincoln replied, "I can't spare this man, he fights." [8] Lincoln's wise faith in Grant when he was most politically vulnerable would be repaid with interest in the coming years, starting with Vicksburg.

Grant's 1863 campaign to capture Vicksburg was a masterpiece of strategy and an early example of blitzkrieg warfare. Confronted with the dilemma of overcoming Vicksburg's formidable defenses on the Mississippi River, Grant landed south of the city and then marched inland to first capture Jackson, Mississippi before then wheeling back to the west to lay siege to Vicksburg.

Confederate forces were caught completely unaware by this stratagem, expecting instead that Grant would continue to try and invest the city from closer to the Mississippi River, where he could stay connected to his supply lines. He moved so fast and aggressively during this campaign that his opponents simply couldn't keep up. After a forty-seven-day siege, Vicksburg fell, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two.

Lincoln finally had a winner and he knew it.


Grant vs. Lee in 1864 - The Best Man Won

Now flash forward to the spring of 1864, and Grant had become the Commander-in-Chief of the Union armies, appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to take command of the entire northern war effort. Grant and Lee were finally going to face each other on the battlefield. Lee had ruined the reputation of many a Union commander over the previous three years. How would Grant fare against Lee and his battle-hardened veterans?

As Grant launched his spring campaign in 1864, it at first looked like more of the same. At the Battle of the Wilderness, three days of bloody fighting resulted in 17,500 Union and 11,000 Confederate casualties. However, instead of retreating north to regroup and refit, as done previously, Grant broke contact and headed south toward Richmond.

Grant asked a journalist to reassure a nervous Lincoln, "If you see the President, tell him, from me, that whatever happens, there will be no turning back." [9] Events would confirm this was no idle boast, but a statement of intent coming from a man with the determination and perseverance to make it so. Lee had no choice but to follow. For the rest of the war, Grant had the strategic initiative. Lee would dance to Grant's tune until the end came at Appomattox almost a year later.

Grant and Lee both understood that the North could replenish those losses faster than the South. The South was simply running out of men and resources. What Grant finally did is put together a comprehensive strategy to win the war once and for all. This was not limited to only Grant and the Army of the Potomac in Virginia but included a coordinated strategy of simultaneously attacking the Confederacy on all fronts to destroy its ability to wage war.

The idea was to maximize pressure everywhere so that the South could not shuttle men between fronts. Eventually, the theory went, the South wouldn't be able to hold itself together. While Grant grappled with Lee in Northern Virginia, Ben Butler's Army of the James would attack west along that river in Richmond's direction. Meanwhile, Sherman would engage Joe Johnston's army in Georgia to take Atlanta before heading to Savannah. Finally, Franz Sigel was to take the Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia. [10] As usual in war, all did not go as planned. Yet, the fundamental idea of maximum pressure on all fronts eventually brought about the collapse of the Confederacy in the spring of 1865.

One episode during this last year stands out that again highlights the differences between Lee and Grant. As Grant and Lee waged a bitter war of attrition, Lee proposed an exchange of prisoners. Grant was willing, but only under the condition that black soldiers were exchanged equally as white ones.

Lee responded that “negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange and were not included in my proposition.” Based on that reasoning, Grant rejected Lee's offer, replying that the “...government is bound to secure to all persons received into her armies the rights due to soldiers.”

This exchange says a lot about both men. Since slavery was the cause for which Lee ultimately fought, he could hardly be expected to concede that black people should be treated as soldiers and not things. [11]

When the end came, it came quickly. By April 1865, Lee could no longer hold on around Petersburg. With Sherman approaching from the south, and with his own army melting away, Lee pulled out from the trenches at Petersburg and fled west, abandoning the Confederate capital of Richmond in the process. Grant pursued and forced Lee and the remnants of his army to surrender at Appomattox on 9 April 1865. The war was over. Grant was victorious.


Final Thoughts

Consider this for a moment. Just six years prior, Grant had been a failing farmer selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis. His father was ashamed of him. His father-in-law held him in contempt. McClellan wouldn't give him the time of day. Now, in 1865, he was the conqueror of the Confederacy. Three years after that, he would begin the first of two terms as President.

What an incredible journey!

Forget about Robert E. Lee, this is the American life to celebrate. Grit, intelligence, honesty, hard work, perseverance, and genius combined with basic human decency are the traits we should commemorate. Grant was a flawed man, it is true, but who isn't? Yet he overcame his limitations and achieved the kind of greatness the rest of us can admire. He embodied the American dream. Lee did not. No, Lee clung to a dying way of life that enslaved human beings who should have been treated as fellow Americans. The legacy of what Lee was actually fighting for stains America to this day.

Times are a-changing. If we're not yet waking up to Grant's quiet greatness, we're beginning to see the Confederate leaders for the men they were and the vile cause they defended. As statues of General Robert E. Lee and other southern leaders come tumbling down like the discarded Lenins of another famously lost cause, we're beginning to re-examine the kind of heroes we want to celebrate.

So why not Grant? His life is one of the most inspiring rags to riches stories in American history. He fought for a noble cause and worked to help rebuild the divided nation after the war. That he failed during his presidency to stem the tide of renewed southern racism - Grant's own "Lost Cause" - should in no way diminish the valuable service he provided in winning the Civil War and ending slavery once and for all. Lincoln's vision made this possible, but Grant's talents made it a reality, and his decency helped make it stick. So let's tear down those Lee statues and replace them with ones of Grant. He was the better man fighting for the better cause.

Can we finally admit that a century and a half later?


Supplementary Materials

Here is the entire video


Works Cited

1. Ron Chernow, (2018). Grant. London: Penguin Books., 98.

2. Ronald C. White. (2017). American Ulysses: A life of Ulysses S. Grant. New York, NY: Random House, 128.

3. Chernow, 103.

4. Ibid., 106.

5. Ibid., 130.

6. Ibid., 136.

7. White, 219.

8. Chernow, 211.

9. Ibid., 384.

10. Ibid., 374.

11. Serwer. (2017, June 04). The Myth of the Kindly General Lee. Retrieved July 12, 2020, from



Paris, France

April 2020

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