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Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged

William C. Davis Da Capo Press

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee have arguably in more great history as a pair spired than either has alone. The latest— and the best—dual biography is from William C. Davis. Crucible of Command reads fresh. Davis seems to have made very little use of secondary sources, approaching his subjects with a bold, sometimes irreverent, outlook. Where earlier historians have focused on differences between the two commanders (i.e., Lee represented old, landed Southern families, while Grant represented the “new” America), Davis emphasizes similarities. Alienated from their fathers, each was “more his mother’s son.” Both studied engineering at West Point, and despite the fact that they commanded opposing armies in a conflict defined largely by ideology, “They both believed in a central government stronger than the old Jeffersonian ideal.”

Both generals had the respect and cooperation of their presidents, though Davis concludes that Grant and Lincoln’s “personal relations never matched those between Davis and Lee.” Davis also asserts that the commanders were consummate men of action, yet “not men of big ideas.”

Davis excels in making clear the difference in the generals’ missions. For example, he writes, “The magnitude of what Lee faced was greater than posterity has acknowledged.” Lee understood from the opening shots that “Time sided with the biggest battalions, and if the South was to overcome its disparity of odds with the North, it must be done by bold resolve, swift action, and sacrifice.”

Grant realized that the war was one of attrition, with unequal resources. Once he and Lee were brought into the same theater, “A weaker Lee could only react to the enemies’ first moves and then seize opportunities for counterstrokes,” as Davis points out. He sums up Grant as “a simple man of complex instincts” who was “unintimidated by obstacles, which he largely ignored.”

“Rarely in history,” Davis writes, “were two combatants more evenly matched.” Partisans of both commanders will find much to admire in Crucible of Command.

Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.