Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—The War They Fought, The Peace They Forged by William C. Davis. Da Capo Press, 2015. Cloth, ISBN: 978-0306822452. $32.50.
The meeting in the parlor of the Wilmer McLean home on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, was arguably a fitting end to the Civil War. There, sitting opposite each other, were the conflict’s greatest generals. One of them, Ulysses S. Grant, fashioned the ultimate victory, while the other, Robert E. Lee, defied the odds for nearly three years. Each belongs among America’s finest military leaders.
This meeting between these two soldiers would have been considered exceedingly unlikely when the war began four years earlier. There were probably fellow officers who believed that Lee would lead a major army, but few—if any—would have predicted such a rank for Grant. The roads that brought them to Appomattox Court House rarely crossed and followed different routes.
Ohioan Grant and Virginian Lee had more in common than is often understood. Each man wrestled with his father’s burden. Grant felt the presence of a father; Lee felt the absence. Jesse Grant was a successful businessman but a demanding, if not overbearing, figure in his community and in the family home. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee achieved acclaim in the Revolutionary War, but then disgraced the family’s name with debts. While Jesse Grant was a constant in his son’s life, Henry Lee rarely lived with his wife and children. Ironically, Lee revered his father; Grant tried to escape his.
Both men attended West Point—Lee willingly, Grant reluctantly. Lee proved to be a model cadet, graduating second in the Class of 1829, with an assignment to the elite Corps of Engineers. Grant struggled somewhat at the academy, ranking 21st of 39 in the Class of 1843. He was assigned to the Fourth United States Infantry at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.
Grant and Lee met in the Mexican War, during Winfield Scott’s campaign from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Earlier in the conflict, Grant served with Zachary Taylor in Texas and in northern Mexico. Lee’s service consisted primarily as an engineer on Scott’s staff. Both of them earned brevet promotions, with Lee emerging from the war with notoriety within the army and in the public.
A peacetime army offered few opportunities for promotion and many opportunities for dull duty at far-flung outposts. In California—away from his wife, Julia, and their sons—Grant resigned his commission in the summer of 1854. For the next seven years, Grant persevered in various occupations, struggling financially. For him, the firing on Fort Sumter brought a reprieve.
Unlike Grant, Lee remained in the army, serving as superintendent of the military academy and as lieutenant colonel of the Second United States Cavalry. When Virginia seceded in the aftermath of Fort Sumter, Lee declined command of a Union army and accepted a major generalcy of Virginia forces. In time, he was appointed a general in the Confederate service.
Their Civil War careers are well known. In turn, their confrontation in Virginia from the spring of 1864 to Appomattox is rightly regarded as the classic duel between generals during the war. In peace, Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, and Grant served two terms as president of the United States.
As author William C. Davis argues, these two icons needed each other during and after the war as Americans came to terms with the war’s terrible slaughter. In a sense, Lee and Grant are needed still today, as the Civil War remains the watershed event in American history. Arguments over who was the greater general have endured for 150 years and will likely continue for years more.
This comparative study of Lee and Grant, written by a master storyteller, is the best of its kind. Often Davis lets them tell their own story, which makes for revealing portraits of each man. Lee emerges more as one given to personal doubts, deepened by a religious fatalism. Conversely, Grant held a more pragmatic and optimistic view of life. He accepted failures, learned from them, and kept going, as witnessed by his military campaigns.
As with all books, there are minor factual errors and controversial judgments given on both Lee and Grant and other Civil War notables. The research is impeccable, and the narrative is flowing. No work will cease the debate over the merits and/or failures of these two remarkable soldiers. In such discussion, this fine book should be at the forefront of any reading list.
Jeffry D. Wert is the author of many books, including A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863 (2011).