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It’s one of the old standbys of Civil War mythology: General Ulysses S. Grant was a leader with no regard whatsoever for human life who managed to defeat Robert E. Lee only by means of brute force, incurring extremely high Union casualties. Grant’s relentless attacks eventually wore down the tactically superior but outnumbered Confederate commander.

A corollary of the Lost Cause legend is that Lee fought efficiently, incurring reasonable or perhaps minimal casualties, while Grant’s armies were slaughtered wholesale due to his aggressiveness. That view has persisted into the 21st century and is still accepted by some leading scholars. Although noted British military historian John Keegan concedes that Grant was the war’s greatest general, for example, he comments in his 2010 book The American Civil War: A Military History that “Most of Grant’s battles were costly in casualties.” Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at the numbers and see whether the commonly accepted wisdom about Lee and Grant is actually fact-based—or just made of whole cloth.

Accusations that Grant was butchering his own soldiers began during the war, particularly during his aggressive 1864 Overland Campaign against Lee, in which he sought a final victory for the Union. On June 4, 1864, a day after Grant lost 7,000 men in about an hour at Cold Harbor, Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote in his diary: “Still there is heavy loss, but we are becoming accustomed to the sacrifice. Grant has not great regard for human life.” One Southerner said at the time, “We have met a man this time, who either does not know when he is whipped, or who cares not if he loses his whole army.”

Similar comments surfaced during the early postwar period. In 1866 Southern writer Edward Pollard referred to the “match of brute force” to explain Grant’s victory over Lee. Northern historians criticized Grant as well. In 1866 The New York Times war correspondent William Swinton claimed in Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac that Grant relied “exclusively on the application of brute masses, in rapid and remorseless blows.” John C. Ropes told the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts that Grant suffered from a “burning, persistent desire to fight, to attack, in season and out of season, against intrenchments, natural obstacles, what not.”

Beginning in the 1870s, former Confederate officers played a prominent role in criticizing Grant—especially in comparison to Lee. Jubal A. Early, in an 1872 speech on Lee’s birthday, said: “Shall I compare General Lee to his successful antagonist? As well compare the great pyramid which rears its majestic proportions in the Valley of the Nile, to a pygmy perched on Mount Atlas.” In the 1880s Evander M. Law wrote, “What a part at least of his own men thought about General Grant’s methods was shown by the fact that many of the prisoners taken during the [Overland] campaign complained bitterly of the ‘useless butchery’ to which they were subjected….”

Lee’s former adjutant, Walter H. Taylor, elevated Lee at Grant’s expense in General Lee: His Campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences, published in 1906. Of the Overland Campaign, Taylor opined, “It is well to bear in mind the great inequality between the two contending armies, in order that one may have a proper appreciation of the difficulties which beset General Lee in the task of thwarting the designs of so formidable an adversary, and realize the extent to which his brilliant genius made amends for the paucity of numbers, and proved more than a match for brute force, as illustrated in the hammering policy of General Grant.” Taylor claimed that “[Grant]…put a lower estimate upon the value of human life than any of his predecessors.”

More recently, historian Gregory Mertz summarized the Overland Campaign’s impact on Grant’s reputation this way: “Grant enjoyed little of the ‘glory’ for his contributions to the [Army of the Potomac’s] ultimate success, and was the recipient of much of the blame for the ‘disasters.’ Despite moving continually forward from the Wilderness to Petersburg and Richmond, ultimately to Appomattox, and executing the campaign that ended the war in the East, Grant has received little credit, and is most remembered for the heavy losses of Cold Harbor, which tagged him with the reputation of a ‘butcher.’”

E.B. Long concluded that “Grant the butcher is a hard myth to extinguish.” Don Lowry explained, “Grant has often been depicted as a butcher whose only strategy was to overcome the smaller enemy force by attrition, knowing that he could replace his losses more easily than Lee.” As Gordon C. Rhea sums it up, “The ghost of ‘Grant the Butcher’ still haunts Civil War lore.”

Grant’s numerous successes of 1862 and 1863 in the West (Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi) are overlooked by many detractors. Acting on his own, he bloodlessly occupied Paducah and Smithfield, Ky., critical river junctures on the Ohio, as soon as Confederate Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk invaded neutral Kentucky in September 1861. Grant then moved on to quickly capture Forts Henry and Donelson, and gain control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, thereby putting a dagger in the left flank of the Confederacy. The capture of Forts Henry and Donelson was the Union’s first major victory of the war. It established Grant as a national hero for the first time, and it was accomplished with a loss of less than 3,000 Union casualties— while the Rebels suffered 16,000. Shortly thereafter, Grant recovered from a surprise Confederate attack (for which he was inexcusably unprepared), saved his army in a vicious two-day battle and won a major victory at Shiloh, Tenn. Ironically, his 13,000 casualties there (compared to the enemy’s nearly 11,000) were incurred in a defensive battle. It would be his highest casualty count in any non-Eastern battle or campaign.

The next year Grant moved his army from the west bank across the Mississippi River to get below Vicksburg, then took a daring gamble to feed his army off the countryside. He won a series of five battles in 18 days against Confederate forces that outnumbered him in the theater, ultimately resulting in the surrender of Vicksburg, and a nearly 30,000-man army, on July 4, 1863. This brilliant campaign split the Confederacy, opening the Mississippi to Union commerce and impeding the flow of supplies and foodstuffs from Mexico and the Trans-Mississippi to Confederate armies east of the river.

Once again Grant was hailed as a national hero. He succeeded while his army incurred about 9,000 casualties— costing the enemy about 41,000. So the Vicksburg Campaign was yet another significant victory accomplished with a reasonably small number of casualties.

In the fall of 1863, when the Union Army of the Cumberland was trapped in Chattanooga, Tenn., after the Battle of Chickamauga, Grant was called to the rescue. He established a “Cracker” supply line within five days of his arrival, organized reinforcements and broke out of Chattanooga within a month. He then sent Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee scurrying back to Georgia, at a cost of almost 6,000 Union casualties—compared to the Rebels’ nearly 7,000.

That marked the third time that Grant achieved national prominence. Although he’d been compelled to attack a fortified enemy that held the high ground, he gained another major offensive victory with minimal casualties. Grant’s magnificent successes in the West cost his armies a mere 37,000 casualties, while the Rebels lost 84,000.

Grant’s armies lost the most men in 1864. His Overland Campaign against Lee’s army reflected the philosophy Grant had held throughout the war: “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.” That campaign also represented a deliberate effort by Grant and President Abraham Lincoln to take advantage of the fact that, during the prior two years, Lee had chewed up his Army of Northern Virginia, rendering his fighting force, and the Confederacy, vulnerable to a nationwide offensive that would halt the hostilities. Though the Overland Campaign was part of Grant’s national effort to demonstrate Union strength and ensure the reelection of Lincoln, it resulted in Grant’s being accused of butchery.

Although Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, under Grant’s personal direction, suffered high casualties (53,000, or 41 percent) during its drive to the James River, it imposed an even higher percentage of losses on Lee’s army (33,000, or 46 percent). What’s more, the Federal army compelled Lee to retreat to a position at Richmond and Petersburg that Lee had previously said would be the death knell of his own army. As Gordon Rhea concluded, “A review of Grant’s Overland Campaign reveals not the butcher of lore, but a thoughtful warrior every bit as talented as his Confederate opponent.” At the same time he advanced on Lee’s army and Richmond, Grant was overseeing and facilitating a coordinated attack against Confederate forces nationwide, particularly Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s campaign from the Tennessee border to Atlanta.

As he had hoped, Grant kept Lee from sending reinforcements to Georgia, Sherman’s capture of Atlanta virtually ensured the crucial reelection of Lincoln, and Sherman ultimately broke loose on a barely contested sweep through Georgia and the Carolinas that doomed the Confederacy. Grant’s 1864-65 coordinated offensive not only won the war but also demonstrated he was a national general with a broad vision—while Lee was a one-theater general suffering from Virginia myopia.

After assuming command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, Lee would fight that army aggressively—too aggressively—until its surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Within a month, Lee achieved a great strategic victory during the Seven Days’ Campaign when he drove the weak and indecisive George B. McClellan and his Army of the Potomac away from Richmond. Although Lee had achieved his strategic goal after a day or two, he kept frontally assaulting the enemy for several more days. As a result, his own army incurred 20,000 casualties, compared to 16,000 for McClellan.

Lee next moved into central and northern Virginia to challenge John Pope’s new Army of Virginia. With help from McClellan, who kept 25,000 Union troops away from the battlefield, Lee won perhaps his greatest victory at Second Manassas. With Jackson on the defensive and Longstreet overwhelming Pope’s left flank, Lee suffered 9,500 casualties compared to the Union army’s 14,400.

After a minor victory at Chantilly, Lee took unilateral action, approved neither by Jefferson Davis nor the Confederate Congress or Cabinet, that proved devastating to Rebel hopes. He crossed the Potomac and invaded the North in hopes of reaching Pennsylvania. By means of the Maryland, or Antietam, Campaign, he hoped to feed his army, gather thousands of recruits and win a great victory that would convince England or France to recognize the Confederacy. For the roughly three weeks his army lived on non-Virginia soil, he failed to gain any recruits, since he was in the non-slavery part of Maryland. In the process he squandered the opportunity to gain European recognition.

England and France were poised to recognize the Confederacy until Lee’s defeat at Antietam opened the door for Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Lee’s army suffered 11,500 casualties during the campaign to the Union’s 12,400. He could have declared the campaign a success after capturing Harpers Ferry and its garrison, but he let his forces get trapped at Sharpsburg, where it suffered irreplaceable losses in quantity and quality and would have been destroyed by almost any general other than McClellan. Lee and Jackson’s counterattacks at the Cornfield early in the fighting at Antietam were tactical suicide, not genius. Although Little Mac allowed Lee’s army to escape, Lee suffered a crushing strategic defeat.

After retreating to Virginia, Lee was the beneficiary of foolhardy Union assaults ordered by Ambrose Burnside at Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. Lee’s army, fighting from entrenched positions most of the day, imposed nearly 13,000 casualties on the Union attackers while incurring little more than 4,000 themselves. Although Lee was not satisfied with the defensive nature of the victory, it was sufficient to bolster Southern morale for many months. But Fredericksburg provided a lesson Lee didn’t learn: It was unwise to frontally assault the enemy unless it was absolutely necessary.

Months later, at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, Lee would again ignore the lesson of Fredericksburg. After Jackson’s famous flanking maneuver at Chancellorsville, Lee spent the next couple of days frontally assaulting Joseph Hooker’s Union lines. As a result, his army suffered nearly 13,000 casualties while inflicting more than 17,000 on the weakly led enemy. Gettysburg proved even more disastrous because of Lee’s frontal assaults on Days 2 and 3—assaults opposed by Longstreet, his senior general. That campaign cost Lee an intolerable 28,000 casualties, while the Union lost 23,000. As a result, Lee no longer had the strength to initiate strategic offensives (which was a bad idea anyway). More important, he lacked the manpower to effectively counterpunch when attacked.

Forced onto the defensive, and with an army that was a mere shadow of the one he had inherited, Lee finally fought a truly defensive war in opposing Grant’s Overland Campaign. Before Grant had reached the James, Lee lost only 33,000 men while inflicting 53,000 casualties on the Army of the Potomac. But it was too little too late. Lee had so weakened his army with his offensive strategy and tactics in 1862 and 1863 that he couldn’t prevent Grant from forcing him into a siege situation in which his army was doomed.

The result of Lee’s strategic and tactical aggression was that, within a single theater and in command of a single losing army, Lee saw his troops suffer 209,000 casualties (see Lee Table, P. 42)—losses the South could not afford. Lee’s single army suffered 55,000 more casualties than the four armies commanded by Grant in three theaters—all theaters where his armies were victorious. If a single statistic was indicative of the war’s outcome, it was Robert E. Lee’s army incurring those 209,000 casualties. On the positive side, Lee did impose 240,000 casualties on his foes, for a plus-31,000 margin.

Grant, on the other hand, was able to capture Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Vicksburg (with their defending armies); save a trapped Union army at, and drive a Confederate army into Georgia away from, Chattanooga; and come east to defeat Lee and finish the war in less than a year—all while incurring a reasonable 154,000 casualties (see Grant Table). By imposing 191,000 casualties on his opponents, Grant achieved a plus-37,000 margin. Considering the breadth and depth of Grant’s successes in a necessarily offensive mode, even a negative-37,000 margin would have been expected and militarily acceptable. What he achieved with his tolerable losses was amazing.

Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, who shed light on Grant and Lee’s casualties in their book Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage, point out that an average of “only” 15 percent of Grant’s Federal troops were killed or wounded in his major campaigns over the course of the war, a total of slightly more than 94,000 men. In contrast, Lee had greater casualties both in percentages and real numbers: An average of 20 percent of his troops were killed or wounded in his major campaigns, a total of more than 121,000 (far more than any other Civil War general). Lee had 80,000 of his men killed or wounded in his first 14 months in command (about the same number he started with). By focusing only on killed and wounded, Attack and Die understates Grant and Lee’s total casualties, which also include missing and captured troops. It also does not purport to reflect all their battles.

Both Grant and Lee were proactive, aggressive generals, but only Grant’s aggressiveness was consistent with the strategic aims of his government. The Confederacy needed only to avoid conquest, but Lee acted as though the Confederacy had to conquer the North. The Union had the burden of conquering the South, and Grant appropriately went on the offensive throughout the war. He won in the Western Theater, saved an army in the Middle Theater, won in the Eastern Theater in less than a year, and thereby won the war. In summary, Lee needed a tie but went for the win, while Grant needed a win, went for it and achieved it. However, in Gordon Rhea’s words, “[t]he very nature of Grant’s [offensive] assignment guaranteed severe casualties.”

Nevertheless, all too often Grant has been regarded as a “hammerer and a butcher who was often drunk, an unimaginative and ungifted clod who eventually triumphed because he had such overwhelming superiority in numbers that he could hardly avoid winning.” One of the significant ramifications of Grant’s being labeled a butcher by many historians is that Grant’s successes have been seriously slighted. He accepted the surrender of three entire Confederate armies—at Fort Donelson in 1862, Vicksburg in 1863 and Appomattox Court House in 1865. No other general on either side accepted the surrender of even one army until Sherman, with Grant’s blessing, accepted the North Carolina capitulation of the remnants of the Confederate Army of Tennessee in late April 1865.

Lee ignored the realities: that the Confederacy only needed a stalemate, and it was outnumbered by nearly 4- to-1 in white men of fighting age. He unnecessarily initiated strategic and tactical offensives in the face of the defensive dominance of new weaponry. He suffered an amazing 209,000 casualties in a losing cause in a single theater, and thereby fatally weakened his own and other Rebel armies, thereby losing the war.

Meanwhile, Grant had been equally aggressive but had done so in a manner consistent with the Union’s strategic and tactical need to take the war to the Rebels, destroy their armies and meet the Union’s burden of affirmatively winning the war. With 55,000 casualties fewer than Lee, Grant won two theaters of the war, saved a Union army in a third, and proved to be the conflict’s most successful general.

Of course, we cannot judge either Lee or Grant on numbers alone. However, the 1864 performance of Lee’s army during the strategically and tactically defensive (for Lee) Overland Campaign (including its imposition of massive casualties on the enemy) was achieved by an army that was a mere shadow of the one Lee took command of on June 1, 1862. That 1864 success was due primarily to the fact that Lee had finally been forced to fight on the defensive, and it provides some insight into how successful he might have been in 1862 and 1863 if he had avoided the frontal assaults at Seven Days’ (especially Malvern Hill), the latter days at Chancellorsville and the final two days of the battle at Gettysburg.

Lee’s strategic offensive into Maryland in 1862 resulted in a strategic defeat, irreplaceable losses in manpower and leadership, Lincoln’s issuing his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and the end of hopes for European intervention on behalf of the South. Likewise, his 1863 strategic offensive into Pennsylvania resulted in 28,000 casualties, a major demoralizing defeat and the virtual end of economic support from abroad. In summary, Lee’s overly aggressive strategy and tactics in 1862 and 1863 seriously weakened his army and, together with his undermining of Confederate efforts in other theaters, doomed the Confederacy.

Given the scope of his achievements in three theaters, Grant’s overall casualty numbers are amazingly low. Given the finality of his defeat in his single theater, Lee’s casualty figures are surprisingly high, and they show how he drained the entire Confederacy of its limited manpower. If Grant had fought less aggressively, the Union would not have won. If Lee had fought less aggressively, the Confederacy’s prospects for success would have been enhanced.

Edward H. Bonekemper III, the author of Ulysses S. Grant: A Victor, Not a Butcher: The Military Genius of the Man Who Won the Civil War, teaches at Muhlenberg College.

Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.