Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Greatest General in the Civil War

Gen. U. S. Grant
Students of the Civil War argue about which general was the "best" or "greatest." Some people select U. S. Grant because he commanded the winning army. If you are south of the Mason-Dixon line, you probably choose Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson. After those three, the candidates include William T. Sherman, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, James Longstreet, George Gordon Meade, or George Henry Thomas.

I thought about the sports quote, which says that the coach is so good that he can take his opponent's team and beat his old team. So I thought about applying this to generals. Could U. S. Grant have won with Lee's troops and vice versa?

Gen. R. E. Lee
If the north won with Grant, the north would have been victorious with Lee. Lee was smarter than Grant and perhaps more daring. Lee would have pursued a bold strategy to end the war as he tried to do with the Confederate forces. Remember that Lee was the US military's first choice to lead the Union Army.

If Grant switched places with Lee, he would have also suffered the same fate. Which leads us to consider whether any general could have won the war for the south (see Lost Cause)? It seems doubtful that any general could have won a prolonged war for the south. If the Confederate forces would have attacked and captured Washington in April 1861, the south could have won the war. The longer the conflict lasted, the stronger the north became and the weaker the south grew. A prolonged guerrilla war might have turned the tide for the Confederacy, but few commanders had a taste for that strategy. Such a campaign would need some hope of success and a well-organized resistance. The one man who could have conducted such a campaign, Nathan Bedford Forrest, declined the opportunity. He realized that his men were exhausted from four years of war and needed to return to their homes and families.

Gen. W. T. Sherman
Could any general have won the war for the north with its manpower and economic superiority? We have ample evidence that other generals could not win the war. Lincoln's selection of generals proved this true. Lincoln found a general who was willing to fight and suffer setbacks. Grant realized that the only way to defeat the south was to annihilate its armies. He did this with great effect. Sherman could have done the same thing as he demonstrated with his total war tactics. The partnership of Grant and Sherman won the war. Could Lee and Jackson have achieved the same results? It seems a good possibility.

Gen. T. J. Jackson 
What about a trio of leaders? The south had their big three in Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet. The north never had a big three --- perhaps Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan or Grant, Sherman, and C. F. Smith.

My choices are:

  • For best general - Robert E. Lee over U. S. Grant 
  • For best leadership pair - Lee and Jackson in a close contest over Grant and Sherman 
  • For best trio - Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet over Grant, Sherman and Sheridan, but a tie with Grant, Sherman, and C. F. Smith 

What are your thoughts?

1 comment:

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.