Defining Moments for Grant and Lee

What moments from the biographies of the famous, and infamous, define the person?

While it is unfair to conclude that a single episode reveals a person’s entire character, it is likely that some instances are insightful. Consider, for example, the behavior of Bruce Ismay and Charles Lightoller. Early in the twentieth century Ismay was president of the White Star steamship line. White Star owned the RMS Titanic, which Ismay accompanied on its fateful maiden voyage. Charles Lightoller was the ship’s Second Officer, placing him fourth in command behind the Captain, Chief Officer, and First Officer.

Lightoller was in charge of lowering the lifeboats on Titanic’s port side. Although Ismay had no official duties during the crisis, he was often near the boats on either side encouraging that they be promptly filled and lowered. Except for a small number of crewmembers to navigate the vessels, Lightoller only permitted women and children into his portside boats. Ismay was last seen on the starboard side where he took a seat on the final boat.

Twenty minutes before Titanic sank, Chief Officer Wilde ordered Lightoller into the boat he was then loading. Lightoller refused and was soon struggling in ice-cold water with hundreds of others where he found an overturned lifeboat. Along with twenty others he survived the night standing on the upside-down hull.

The Ismay-Lightoller comparison is revealing because each responded differently to the same incident, while the story’s inherent drama amplifies its tension. Grant and Lee shared no such occurrence. However, both had similar winning reactions to apparent defeats.


The better-known story is Grant’s reaction to his failures at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. It was the first time Grant fought Lee’s Virginia army after compiling a victorious record for the Union in the Western Theater. It was fought over much of the same ground where Lee won his greatest victory a year earlier at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Yet from a casualties suffered-to-inflicted viewpoint, Grant did even worse than “Fighting Joe” Hooker who commanded the federal army at Chancellorsville. Grant’s losses at The Wilderness totaled about 18,000 whereas Lee’s were about 11,000. Conversely, at Chancellorsville, Hooker suffered losses of about 17,200 as compared to Lee’s 13,300.

The key difference was that Hooker withdrew to the safety of the north bank of the Rappahannock River after Chancellorsville whereas Grant refused to retreat. Instead he tried to get at the enemy’s rear by marching around Lee’s right flank. Although Lee blocked the movement at Spotsylvania Court House, Grant’s determination to remain on the offensive was one of the war’s turning points. Grant stayed on the offensive until he was able to besiege most of Lee’s army at Petersburg, which was a crucial railroad junction required for supplying the Confederate capital at Richmond as well as Lee’s army. When Grant’s soldiers realized that their march out of The Wilderness battlefield area was not a retreat, they began to sing and cheer.

Lee faced a similar moment of truth less than a month after taking command of the South’s biggest army. But unlike Grant, he had no prior success record to inspire confidence among his soldiers. Stonewall Jackson failed to vigorously push a crucial turning movement on the right flank of 30,000 federals entrenched behind Beaver Dam Creek on June 26, 1862. Consequently, the rest of Lee’s soldiers were forced into costly frontal assaults. Lee sustained 1,500 casualties as compared to less than 400 Yankees.

However, he never considered yielding the initiative. While the failures at Beaver Dam Creek were obvious, Lee kept in mind that he had also established a near two-to-one local numerical superiority despite the fact that his overall army was smaller than that of his opponent, Major General George McClellan. Sustaining local superiority required that he hold the initiative.

When the federal commander learned after sundown that Jackson was on his right, he withdrew under cover of darkness to an even stronger position near Gaines’s Mill. Before his soldiers even had time to think about singing or cheering, Lee threw them into vigorous pursuit and ordered a second turning movement by Jackson. Although the turning movement was again mismanaged or ill-planned, around seven o’clock that evening Lee organized 55,000 soldiers for a general assault along the entire two-mile long battle line. The Union defenses collapsed.

While historians widely applaud Grant’s decision to hold the initiative after The Wilderness, Lee’s similar action against McClellan is less appreciated. In fact, Lee is often criticized for being too aggressive during his first campaign as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Critics note that he suffered a total of 21,000 casualties as compared to 16,000 for McClellan during the Seven Days Campaign that included the battles noted above. However, his detractors often fail to fault Grant for absorbing 55,000 casualties while inflicting only 34,000 during his first (Overland) campaign against Lee.


If you enjoyed the analysis above, you may want to read one of my books below:

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Annotated and Illustrated

Click here if you would like to read Chapter Three of Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies at no charge.

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