Friday, March 1, 2013 by Ethan Rafuse
If the reviews here are any indication, my talk to the Puget Sound Civil War Round Table a few weeks ago seems to have gone over well with the audience. (I certainly had a good time with its members.) Evidently, though, my unwillingness to play the game of ranking the Army of Northeastern Virginia–Army of the Potomac-Army of Virginia commanders did not go gone over well with one member.
I, of course, understand this. Both because I want to make my audience happy by answering their questions and because such exercises can be a lot of fun. Still, this is the sort of question that I am reticent to answer due to a reluctance to engage in exercises that can lead (especially given the time constraints one faces during the Q & A session that follows a lecture) to oversimplified analysis when the true reason we should study history is to understand historic actors and appreciate the complexity of events. Indeed, if there is one thing I have strove to push back against in my scholarship and teaching it is against oversimplified judgments about individuals and events–in other words, what Mark has labeled the “what fools they were” school of military history. (And, yes, I am aware of the irony of this coming from a guy who recently published an article on “Civil War Generals We Love to Hate”. I have pointed out that the purpose of my piece was to explain why the particular generals in question are hated, not say it was justified, though I can see how I might not have been as clear on that as I could and should have been.)
To illustrate the complexity of “grading” generals, take for instance what appears on the surface to be a simple question: Was Grant a better general than McClellan? The first response, naturally, is to say . . . absolutely! Look who Lee surrendered to! But, of course, there is the immensely inconvenient fact that, to get to the same place McClellan had in 1862, east of Richmond on the James River, fighting an Army of Northern Virginia that did not have James Longstreet or JEB Stuart for most of the campaign (and no Stonewall Jackson at all), which was symptomatic of the fact that two years of hard fighting had significantly dulled the strength and vigor of Lee’s army by May 1864, Grant pretty much wrecked the Army of the Potomac. And, of course, one searches in vain for a Cold Harbor or Crater on McClellan’s military resume.
So move Grant down in the rankings and McClellan up, right? Well . . . wait a minute, there are certainly extenuating circumstances in Grant’s case (which Grant fanboys, of course, label “excuses” when presented on behalf of anyone else)–not the least being that one can easily imagine ways that having Longstreet, Stuart, and/or Jackson on hand in 1864 might have actually worked to Grant’s benefit! After all, anyone familiar with Longstreet’s performance at Seven Pines and Jackson’s conduct during the Seven Days Battles, can certainly make a case that their presence was to McClellan’s benefit in those instances. They certainly did not prevent Lee from getting his army blasted to pieces at Malvern Hill.
Then, there is the question of how much weight should be given to the degree to which a general contributed to the cancerous command climate in the Eastern armies (caveating, of course, that the real villains in the story resided in Washington). How much does malignant conduct in this regard, in the case of Hooker, balance against the very real ability he demonstrated as an operational commander? And what makes for a good tactical commander in the Civil War besides the good fortune to fight on the defensive? (Of course, good fortune being something any successful general has–not exactly something that goes down well in a society that possesses an active management guru industry. Indeed, Napoleon is supposed to have asked only one thing of a general–that he be lucky.) Should we view Pope as a victim of the Eastern command climate, or a villain in the story of its poisoning? Burnside, of course, very clearly was a victim of the poisonous command climate. In this light, and given the extremely problematic operational problem he faced in December 1862, can we really consider his time in command a fair test of his–or anybody’s–ability? And was Fredericksburg really a defeat for the Union? By what measure? If a Union defeat, why did Lee declare himself “depressed” afterward?
In the end, though, I am willing to play the game on one point. There really is no question who the best commander of the Union armies in the East, and indeed the entire Civil War, was (although a continuous stream of books and his fans insist on insisting there is) . . . Grant. (What, you thought I was going to say Ben Butler?) Lee was a great commander, but what sets Grant apart is the fact that he demonstrated the ability to successfully negotiate the Washington game and conduct joint operations–two things Lee never had to do.