January 15, 2015


Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged. By William C. Davis. Da Capo. $32.50.

     Exhaustively researched and frequently exhausting to read, this highly scholarly study of two of the Civil War’s most-iconic figures is intended as joint biography and joint reassessment – to the betterment of Ulysses S. Grant and the diminution of Robert E. Lee. William C. Davis, who has written or edited more than 50 books about the Civil War and Southern history, argues here at very considerable length that Grant has been victimized, and Lee exalted, by wartime and post-Civil-War mythmaking that ignores the very real accomplishments and shortcomings of both men.

     Some of this is no doubt true, but non-historians and readers not enamored of the minutiae of the Civil War will find Davis’ handling of the material tough going. For example, the first 13 pages of the book, which detail what is known of Lee’s childhood, already contain 97 footnotes. And while there are occasional passing references to “the more things change, the more they remain the same” – such as Lee’s feeling that in 1840, “congress seemed to do little but pass appropriations for their own salaries” – the book is by and large about a long-ago time whose considerable differences from today are emphasized again and again. This presents attractive reading for the historically inclined, but creates something of a “so what?” atmosphere for readers not already fascinated by Grant, Lee and the Civil War.

     In truth, there is much fascination in the parallels and differences between these two generals, who met only four times but whose momentous decisions led to more deaths than in any other U.S. war – and whose eventual rapprochement helped set the stage for Reconstruction and what would come afterwards. Indeed, their influence extended beyond U.S. borders: Grant, for example, visited Japan in 1879 after returning to private life, acted as negotiator to keep peace between Japan and China, and was permanently honored through erection in 1929 of a monument in Tokyo’s Ueno Park that remained intact even during World War II.

     But the primary importance of Grant and Lee lies in their handling of the Civil War and their conduct in the postwar world. Their personalities, Davis argued, were largely formed or at least annealed by the war, and their later influence – beyond the mythmaking affecting both men – was determined by it. Grant’s misadventures in business before the war are well-known and have been cited as blots on his character, sometimes coupled with comments on his heavy drinking to indicate that he was at best an average leader whose war victories came from overwhelming force rather than tactical ability. Davis debunks this attitude rather effectively and with considerable attention to detail, arguing that Grant’s business problems were more the result of bad luck than lack of talent, that his supposed frequent drunkenness was innuendo started and fueled by rivals, and that his tactical skills were very considerable. Lee is often deemed a master tactician defeated not by those of higher skill but by the power of the industrialization of the North and the sheer number of soldiers thrown at his smaller and often poorly equipped forces. Davis does not accept this, attributing Lee’s losses and eventual defeat to a combination of his personal pessimism, his unwillingness to confront problems head-on, his reluctance to delegate, and his tendency toward over-complex planning.

     In general, Davis’ boosting of Grant comes across more effectively than his comparative denigration of Lee. Grant’s presidency, for example, was demonstrably more successful in hindsight than it appeared to be at the time, and the intractable corruption that dogged his administration was quite clearly vested in his subordinates rather than in Grant himself (although it was, after all, Grant who appointed them: he had a lifelong habit of poor choice of subordinates). And Grant became an excellent ambassador without portfolio for the United States after leaving the presidency, becoming to some degree – like Jimmy Carter in our own time – a better ex-president than president. Lee, for his part, counseled and practiced acceptance of the failure of the Confederacy and the need to get on with life, even reluctantly – a kind of fatalism that Davis seems to consider a character flaw, but one that makes good sense not only in light of the personality of Lee (whose noblesse oblige was a positive quality, although Davis regards it negatively) but also because of the depredations that the Civil War visited upon the South and not on the North.

     What Davis never satisfactorily explains is how and why the various rumors about Grant and Lee were able to take hold, grow and be sustained for generations, even into the modern world. It makes sense that Grant’s rivals would wish to demean him and that Lee’s supporters wanted to exalt him and the cause for which he fought. It is hard to understand, though, why politicized attacks on Grant have stuck so firmly to him for so many years, and why the overstated case for Lee’s nobility of purpose and mind has remained front-and-center for just as long. Is this because of some sort of residual Northern guilt about the Civil War and/or some sort of fondness for lost causes and the rights of the underdog who fights insurmountable odds? Perhaps; or perhaps there is something in the public and private personalities of Grant and Lee that resulted in their remaking by others taking hold in the public mind and overbalancing their actual accomplishments and failures. All this is beyond the scope of Crucible of Command and not apparently of any particular interest or concern to Davis – which is too bad, because a focus on the persistence of innuendo and unearned praise would have established a connection between the book and modern readers who are not steeped in Civil War history or particularly conversant with the biographies of Grant and Lee. What Davis does offer here is 500 pages of text and another 130 of notes, bibliography and index aimed squarely at those for whom the great figures of the Civil War are already unendingly fascinating and bid fair to remain so.

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