ECW10 Series: Grant vs. Lee

Since starting work on our ECW10 book Grant vs. Lee, public opinion on both men has undergone a great deal of change. “Lee has had a couple bad years,” as one colleague said at the American Battlefield Trust’s National Teacher Institute over the summer. Grant, meanwhile, has been enjoying a slow rise in popularity for a couple decades now, accelerated by the bicentennial of his birth in 2022.

The clash between Grant and Lee in 1864–5 has often been described as a clash of titans: the most successful generals on each side finally squaring off. When Dan Welch and I compiled Grant vs. Lee for the Emerging Civil War 10th Anniversary Series, we wanted to take advantage of the iconic power of Grant and Lee and use them as stand-ins for their armies. How could we use “Grant vs. Lee” as a lens for looking at the stories of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia?

As we did in the first two books of our ECW10 Series, we avoided a comprehensive retelling of the Overland Campaign, the siege of Petersburg, and the Appomattox Campaign. That’s the territory we covered, for sure, but we didn’t try to offer comprehensive coverage of those events. That would take volumes. (One review did suggest we at least provide a timeline or overview of events, which was a fantastic idea in retrospect. Wish we’d thought of that!)

Dan and I are both battlefield-grounded guys. We love walking the ground. And so to get our arms around all the ground Grant and Lee covered, we looked at key spots on each of the battlefields. If one had to come up with a list of “Greatest Hits of the Overland Campaign,” for instance, one would look at Saunders Field, Widow Tapp Field, and the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection in the Wilderness. One would look at the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania, the “inverted ‘V’” at North Anna, and Grant’s ill-fated June 3 assaults at Cold Harbor. We tried to pick some stories that recounted events at those areas.

But we also tried to shed light on events that often got overlooked—for example, my piece on the “forgotten front” at Spotsy along the Fredericksburg Road. We wanted to bring to the forefront some lesser-known gems that would, we hoped, help people see some of these battles in new ways by taking them to places they might not necessarily know about.

Even better-known events, such as John Brown Gordon’s attack on Fort Stedman at Petersburg, had unique twists. Dan told that story by following in his ancestor’s footsteps, which offered a neat way to personalize a story that might otherwise be familiar to people.

Petersburg, in general, deserves more attention than it gets. I’m as guilty of that as most students of the Civil War. But that’s also why I really wanted us to include Sean Chick’s excellent series on the opening battle for Petersburg. It was a significant battle, but it usually just gets lumped into the nine-month Petersburg siege, which just sort of gets glossed over. I wanted to call attention to it, although Sean’s piece might feel more microtactical than anything else in the book. (I’m pleased to announce that Sean is working on a multi-volume series on Petersburg for the ECW Series. I also highly recommend Will Greene’s Campaign of Giants for a deep dive.)

Part of me still wonders if “Grant vs. Lee” was biting off more than we could chew. There was a tremendous amount of ground to cover. In the end, though, I think Dan and I did a good job of living up to the promise we made in our subtitle: “Favorite Stories and Fresh Insights.” We hope you’ll tread those battlefields with us and our colleagues. There’s lots to see.

4 Responses to ECW10 Series: Grant vs. Lee

  1. To me, Grant’s military reputation has floated up not because he recognized the obvious, which was that superior numbers applied at numerous points against a seriously outnumbered and logistically deficient opponent had positive results. With Grant, Lincoln finally got his Little Engine that Could, a stolid individual not discouraged by periodic failures, as he knew that he effectively held the winning hand. His reputation gets the shine because of whom and what he is beating, the Great Slave Power and it’s generals and acolytes. Among some modern historians the Cult of Grant has ironically replaced its “discredited” twin, the Cult of Lee. It’s Bible is his Memoirs, however self serving and inaccurate they are.

    1. I think Frank Varney does a good job dissecting some of the biases in Grant’s memoirs. I tend to give Grant a little bit of a pass in that regard, only because he clearly tells us it is a memoir, which gives him the subjective license to tell things as he saw them. There are still parts that make me shake my head (not surprised at Shiloh? really?). I like Grant a lot, warts and all–but it is important to recognize and acknowledge those warts. That’s where I think the Cult of Lee often fails: to them, Lee apparently had no warts. (But, of course, he did.)

  2. The main difference, of course, is that in 2023 you would think that hagiography on either side would be frowned upon. At least Lee’s Cult served a limited and at times destructive purpose in enhancing the morale of defeated and often impoverished white Confederate veterans, and led to the New (for some) South movement. It always struck me as odd that the chief acolyte and theologian of the Lee Cult, Jubal Early, had been thrown under the bus by Lee in 1865.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: