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opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Time to dispel longstanding myths of the Civil War

An artist’s rendering of the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox.
An artist’s rendering of the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox.Library of Congress via AP

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, General Ulysses Grant and General Robert E. Lee met at a small courthouse in the Virginia town of Appomattox to end the bloodiest conflict in American history.

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was bloodied and battered under the near-constant torrent of attacks from the Army of the Potomac, under Grant’s command. Lee’s surrender represented the ignominious end of the Confederate rebellion and a “cause” that Grant would later call “one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”

Yet in the decades that followed, the reputations of both men, as well as the “lost cause” of the Confederacy traveled in very different directions. First, came the myth that the war about state’s rights – a myth so pervasive that in 2011, a Pew Research poll found that 48 percent of Americans believe it was the chief reason for the war. The reality, of course, is that the war was about the Southern desire to keep black people in bondage. Period.

Other myths would follow, and few more wrong-headed than the ones surrounding Lee and Grant.

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Lee came to be seen as brilliant tactician and gentleman soldier who had fought for the South out of loyalty to his beloved home state of Virginia. Grant was the gruff, heavy drinking “butcher” who had thrown away countless Union lives in bloody frontal assaults against Confederate muskets. It fed the notion that the North’s victory was the result of overwhelming resources rather than strategic acumen.

The reality is, however, quite different. Not only was Grant a brilliant military strategist, but Lee, while a superb battlefield tactician, was a general whose flaws were as great as his talents and whose decisions helped ensure a Confederate defeat.

For most Americans, the Civil War’s most famous battle came at Gettysburg. But the capture of Vicksburg by Grant, which happened at virtually the same moment, was in some ways more important. Vicksburg was the last Southern holdout overlooking the Mississippi River. When its force surrendered on July 4, 1863, it split the Confederacy in half and gave the Union control of the nation’s most vital waterway. Its capture was due largely to the brilliance of Grant who surreptitiously ferried his forces across the river — and a series of feints — was able to attack the Southern redoubt from the rear.

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Vicksburg demonstrated Grant’s guile, his use of movement and speed and his willingness to confront the enemy (an attribute lacking in many Union generals).

At the same moment Grant was demonstrating his strategic mastery, Lee’s own flawed decision-making was evident at Gettysburg. In the years before that battle, Lee had regularly defeated the Army of the Potomac. He relied on a coterie of smart generals under his command, a feckless set of Union commanders who opposed him and a bold and decisive offensive approach that won him battle after battle. Only weeks before Gettysburg, at Chancellorsville he was vastly outnumbered, but used a series of daring and risky movements to confuse and eventually bloody his enemy. As was so often the case in the first two years of the war his gambler’s willingness to take risks carried the day.

The problem of course is that, like in poker, a risky all-in strategy can work pretty well — until it doesn’t. After Chancellorsville, Lee convinced the Confederate’s civilian leaders to support his ambitious plan for an invasion of the North in order to deliver a crushing military defeat and potentially end the war. The decision to go on the offensive, particularly at the same moment that Vicksburg was under siege and the tide of the war was shifting against the South was a dangerous and unnecessary gamble. In general, Lee’s offensive mindset actually went against the South’s strategic hindrances. Under naval blockade, diplomatically isolated and with fewer available troops than the Union, the Confederacy would have been much better off husbanding its resources, keeping casualties to a minimum and trying to outlast and eventually exhaust the North into suing for peace.

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While Gettysburg is often remembered for the disastrous Pickett’s Charge that saw more than 12,000 Confederate soldiers march directly into Union lines, Lee’s real mistake came two days earlier. On July 1, smaller elements of both forces skirmished in Gettysburg. Almost overrun by superior rebel forces, Union general John Buford organized a retreat to the decisive high ground overlooking the town. It would have been a herculean achievement to dislodge the forces and deliver the decisive victory that Lee wanted.

To stand today atop Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top on the Gettysburg battlefield and look down at the savage ground below is to bear witness to the almost impossible task Lee asked of his men. At Little Round Top, Confederate soldiers, drenched from near 90-degree heat and having marched under fire and through unforgiving terrain were able to begin ascending the hill. They were repulsed by a legendary bayonet charge from Union soldiers who had been plunged into the fight after a Northern general, Daniel Sickles, had inexplicably moved his troops from the high ground to a peach orchard below. But even without that charge it’s debatable that the exhausted rebel troops could have held the high ground.

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The fact is, a wise military strategist would have disengaged from the field on July 1 to fight another day in more advantageous circumstances. But emboldened by his success at Chancellorsville Lee became convinced that his Army could do anything he asked of it. “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there,” Lee told his second in command, James Longstreet,who openly questioned Lee’s decision and would later become the target of Lee supporters and neo-Confederates who blamed him for the mess at Gettysburg.

The rest as they say is history. It was precisely Lee’s hubris that led him to wage a battle that ended any hope of a Confederate victory.

More than a year later, Grant was put in command of the Army of the Northern Potomac and recognizing that his enemy was on its last legs. He waged a bloody war of attrition that decimated Lee’s forces and led to surrender.

In the years since, the “butchery” of these final months of fighting came to define Grant’s reputation. So too did reports of his fondness for drink. Elected president five years later, Grant’s administration was riven by corruption and the extraordinary challenges of Reconstruction, further sullying his good name.

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But from the benefit of history, Grant was a brilliant military leader and as president a true racial progressive. A century and half after Appomattox, his rightful place in the pantheon of American heroes should be unquestioned. Lee, on the other hand, should be remembered for what he really was: a traitor, a supporter of white supremacy and an overrated general.

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.

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