Grant and Lee: Victorious American and Vanquished Virginian
by Edward Bonekemper III, Praeger, 2007, $49.95
Edward Bonekemper’s and Lee: Victorious American Grant and Vanquished Virginian presents Civil War history as a clash of titanic figures, one with national vision, the other with myopia; one with strategic brilliance, the other with temporary tactical luck. The premise of Grant and Lee is that these two generals deserve a side-by-side and systematic comparison of their tactical and strategic failures and successes.
The book might be understood as a giant ledger sheet with each man’s record reduced to several key performance indicators. The final chapter reads in the pinched prose of a job performance assessment, complete with subtitles on “military management skills,” “personal attributes” and “vision.” The reader sits in judgment as if in a corporate boardroom assessing Grant’s and Lee’s executive command. The author has produced several volumes of history along these lines, his most recent a blunt critique of George B. McClellan in McClellan and Failure: A Study of Civil War Fear, Incompetence, and Worse (2007). Bonekemper keeps things simple with his titles and in his assessments of generalship.
In Grant and Lee, the casualties for each general’s engagements provide the driving evidence for the argument and the backbone of the analysis. The book features a detailed appendix on the casualty rates for each commander as well as the “author’s best estimate” for the total casualties in every campaign. Just how he arrived at these figures remains somewhat murky. The numbers are not based on new statistical investigations of compiled military service records or recent regimental history series (such as the H. E. Howard Virginia volumes). Instead, secondary works were mined and compared and an “estimate” arrived at.
These estimates are pulled together in service of the book’s principal argument: that Robert E. Lee went a long way toward single-handedly losing the Civil War for the Confederacy. Bonekemper attempts to revise our understanding of Grant as a “butcher,” arguing that he kept his losses to a minimum while Lee on the contrary wasted men in a consistent, thoughtless, fruitless and strategically misguided manner. In Bonekemper’s hands Lee showed wanton disregard for anything but his selfish advancement and that of his proud and lonely state—Virginia.
Lee’s failures did not stop there, however, according to Bonekemper: Lee’s orders were a mess, confusing and poorly framed; his personal presence on the battlefield rare and distant; his directives to his generals full of indirection and Virginia courtliness that got in the way of results. Many paragraphs begin with something along the lines of “Lee failed” or “Lee gravely erred.” In the end Lee bears the sole responsibility for persisting in the war long after it should have been concluded, his “chivalry” clouding any sense of moral judgment, according to Bonekemper.
Much of the narrative in Grant and Lee proceeds as a recitation of the principal military engagements of two generals, both separately and when opposed to one another. These accounts, many of them readable and supported with detailed maps, draw not on original letters and diaries, but instead on the memoirs of many of the key subordinates, relying heavily on Edward Porter Alexander, for example, throughout to help make the case against Robert E. Lee.
Lee’s reputation is the real target of the book, and Lee admirers should be prepared for a steady stream of Lee criticism. Historians have revised and revised again their assessment of Lee, but Bonekemper has perhaps gone the furthest here in attempting to demolish Lee’s reputation. Whether his case is more persuasive than passionate will be up to the reader. Still, Bonekemper has pulled together an impressive narrative. He writes easily and readers will no doubt enjoy his barbed analysis throughout.
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.