Historians have long analyzed the battles and the military strategies that brought the American Civil War to an end. Going beyond tactics and troop maneuvers, this book concentrates on the characters of the two opposing generalsRobert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grantshowing how their different temperaments ultimately determined the course of the war. As author David Alan Johnson explains, Grant's dogged and fearless determination eventually gained the upper hand over Lee's arguably superior military brilliance.
Delving into their separate upbringings, the book depicts Grant as a working-class man from Ohio and Lee as a Virginia aristocrat. Both men were strongly influenced by their fathers. Grant learned a lesson in determination as he watched his father overcome economic hardships to make a successful living as a tanner and leather goods dealer. By contrast, Lee did his best to become the polar opposite of his father, a man whose bankruptcy and imprisonment for unpaid debts brought disgrace upon the family. Lee cultivated a manner of unimpeachable respectability and patrician courtesy, which in the field of battle did not always translate into decisive orders.
Underscoring the tragedy of this fratricidal conflict, the author recounts episodes from the earlier Mexican war (1846-1848), when Grant and Lee and many other officers who would later oppose each other were comrades in arms.
This vivid narrative brings to life a crucial turning point in American history, showing how character and circumstances combined to have a decisive influence on the course of events.
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About the Author
David Alan Johnson is a freelance writer and the author of many popular histories, including Yanks in the RAF: The Story of Maverick Pilots and American Volunteers Who Joined Britain's Fight in World War II; Decided on the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and the Election of 1864; Betrayal: The True Story of J. Edgar Hoover and the Nazi Saboteurs; Righteous Deception: German Officers against Hitler; Union: The Archives Photographs Series; and seven other books.
Read an Excerpt
Battle of Wills
Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and the Last Year of the Civil War
By David Alan Johnson
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2016 David Alan Johnson
All rights reserved.
CURING A HEADACHE
General Grant could not help smiling at Colonel Horace Porter's words of encouragement. The general had been tormented by what he described as a sick headache all day long, the kind of blinding, throbbing pain that made him hold his head and pace back and forth in agony. Grant spent the night soaking his feet in a mixture of mustard and hot water and also applied mustard plasters to his wrists and to the back of his neck, which were the traditional, and colorful, ways of curing a headache. But nothing seemed to help. The headache stubbornly refused to go away.
This was not the first time that Colonel Porter had seen Grant in such pain — he was prone to these migraines. In a feeble but well-meant attempt to cheer up the general and offer some small comfort, Porter tried to convince Grant that the headache was probably a good omen.
"I never knew you to be ill that you did not receive some good news before the day passed," Colonel Porter reminded Grant on the subject of his migraines. "I have become a little superstitious regarding coincidences," Porter continued, "and I should not be surprised if some good fortune were to overtake you before night."
Grant appreciated Colonel Porter's words of encouragement but said that he was not all that interested in good fortune just then, or in Porter's superstitions. All he really wanted was for his headache to go away. A few staff officers dropped by and persuaded Grant to visit General George Gordon Meade's headquarters, where he could get a cup of coffee. A dose of good, strong army coffee should help cure his headache, the general was told. Army coffee had the reputation for either curing the ailment or killing the patient. Coffee from the Army of the Potomac's commanding general should come with some added authority and might persuade the headache to surrender without further resistance.
After he had his coffee, Grant actually did feel a little better. Although the headache was still there, at least it had dissipated slightly. But he also had another kind of headache to deal with. For the past two days, since April 7, 1865, Grant had been corresponding with General Robert E. Lee on the subject of Lee's surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia. Today was Palm Sunday, April 9, and Lee had still not given any indication that he was willing to give up.
In his communications with Lee, Grant bore no resemblance to the "Unconditional Surrender Grant" of the Northern newspapers, or at least the pro-Lincoln and pro-Union Northern newspapers. Far from demanding unconditional surrender, Grant was prepared to offer Lee and his army the most generous terms possible. Grant would accept Lee's surrender on just about any reasonable terms, and he was willing to meet with General Lee anywhere he liked to discuss the details. All he wanted was for the Army of Northern Virginia to surrender.
Grant had hoped that Lee would accept at least some sort of armistice. His army was surrounded. His men were half-starved and were deserting by the hundreds each day. According to one account, the southerners were living on corn that had been meant for the horses. But only the night before, Lee had sent a note to Grant refusing to surrender. Instead, he suggested a meeting to discuss "the Confederate States forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace," which did not really mean anything in particular.
Grant was disappointed and more than just a little annoyed by Lee's response. What made the message all the more exasperating was a mention by Lee that "the restoration of peace" should be the subject of any discussion, which sounded like Lee wanted to talk about general peace terms. Grant did not have the authority to talk about any subject but the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. President Abraham Lincoln had expressly forbidden Grant from discussing any sort of peace terms or any political issues at all. It looked as though Lee intended to drag his heels when it came to surrendering. As Grant put it, "It looks as if Lee meant to fight." This did not help Grant to get rid of his headache.
Headache or not, Grant had to reply to Lee's latest communiqué. He sat down and wrote:
Headquarters Armies of the U.S. April 9, 1865
General R. E. Lee, Commanding C.S.A.
Your note of yesterday is received. As I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace, the meeting proposed for ten a.m. today could lead to no good. I will state, however, General, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life. I subscribe myself, etc.
U. S. Grant, Lieutenant General
Lee and his army had been trying to escape westward for the past week, ever since his men had been driven out of their trenches outside Petersburg, Virginia, at bayonet point. Petersburg had been under siege for nearly ten months, since June 1864, but Grant finally forced Lee to abandon his lines on April 2. Federal troops entered Richmond on the following day, after President Jefferson Davis and the remnants of the Confederate government evacuated the city. But Grant's objective had never been the capture of Richmond. For the past year, he had only one goal in mind — the surrender of Robert E. Lee and his army. Now, the realization of that goal seemed to be at hand. But Lee would not agree to discuss the surrender of his army, at least not yet.
Ever since Lee abandoned Petersburg, he had been trying desperately to get away from Grant and General George Meade. Lee planned to make his way to North Carolina and join forces with what was left of General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee. If everything went according to plan, Lee and Johnston would combine their diminished forces and destroy the army of Grant's old friend General William Tecumseh Sherman, which was moving through North Carolina to link up with Grant in Virginia. This meant that the Confederacy would still have life. If Lee's army was still in the field, the war would go on indefinitely. The famished and exhausted men of the Army of Northern Virginia staggered westward over bad roads, rambling along the north bank of the Appomattox River as quickly as they could drag themselves.
The Army of the Potomac was right behind them, filled with enthusiasm and looking for a fight. "They began to see the end of what they had been fighting four years for," Grant reflected. "Nothing seemed to fatigue them." At least part of their enthusiasm was based on the rumor that they were heading for breakfast. They had not eaten in what seemed like ages, and the word was that a trainload of rations was waiting for them at Appomattox Station, just a short walk away.
After he had written his response to Lee's letter of April 8, Grant and several staff officers, including Colonel Horace Porter, rode off to meet General Philip Sheridan, the commander of the Army of the Shenandoah. Grant mounted his horse, Cincinnati, and galloped along a road leading to a village called Appomattox Court House, a few miles from Appomattox Station. He was the best horseman of the group, with the best horse, and he led the way. Grant guessed that he was only two or three miles from Appomattox, but he swung southward to avoid making contact with Lee's army. He knew that the Confederates were somewhere up ahead, and it would not do for the commander-in-chief of all Union forces to be taken prisoner by Southern pickets. Especially not on what might be the last day of the war.
Grant had not ridden very far, his head still pounding, when he and his party were overtaken by an officer from General Meade's staff. The officer handed Grant a new communication from General Lee. Sensing that this could very well be the letter he was waiting for, Grant immediately dismounted and read it.
April 9, 1865
General: I received your note of this morning on the picket line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now request an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.
R. E. Lee, General
Lee would surrender. The strategy Grant had worked out with President Abraham Lincoln over a year before, to make Lee's army his main objective and to destroy it, had finally been brought to a successful conclusion. Grant had more than justified all the faith and confidence that Lincoln had placed in him. Ever since Lincoln had appointed Grant as his general-in-chief thirteen months before, which seemed like several centuries now, he had defended Grant and stood by him. He told all of the general's critics that Grant was a fighter and that he would keep on pounding Lee until he won. Now Grant had won. But the victory was Lincoln's as much as Grant's.
The terms proposed by Grant were simple and straightforward enough — he had insisted on nothing more than the complete disbanding of Lee's army. Any other conditions could be discussed during the course of the meeting that Lee was now almost miraculously requesting. The main thing was that Robert E. Lee had agreed to give up, finally and at long last, and that the war would soon be over.
Even though this was the moment he had been waiting for since the spring of 1864, when he had been appointed general-in-chief of all Union armies, Grant effectively managed to hide his feelings. He did not even blink. Everyone around him was astonished that Grant showed no emotion at all. But as soon as he read the communiqué, his headache instantly disappeared. "The pain in my head seemed to leave me the moment I read Lee's letter," he told Colonel Porter.
Grant immediately scribbled a reply:
Headquarters Army of the U.S. April 9, 1865
General R. E. Lee, Commanding C.S.A.
Your note of this date is but this moment (11:30 a.m.) received, in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg roads to the Farmville and Lynchburg road. I am writing this about four miles west of Walker's Church, and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you. Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.
U. S. Grant, Lieutenant General
Colonel Porter had been right about the headache, after all. Grant certainly had received good news, the best news he ever could have hoped for, the news he had been hoping and praying for since last spring.
As soon as the general finished writing his response, he gave it to Colonel Orville Babcock with instructions to deliver it to General Lee. Babcock changed horses and, accompanied by another staff officer, went galloping off toward the Confederate lines. Grant followed along behind Colonel Babcock with a few other officers, at a much slower pace.
Now that his headache was gone, Grant could think more clearly about the significance of what was about to take place. Before the morning was over, he would be meeting Robert E. Lee, face-to-face, to accept the surrender of the fabled Army of Northern Virginia. Lee and his army had bedeviled Union generals for the past three years, ever since he had forced General George B. McClellan to withdraw the Army of the Potomac from the approaches to Richmond in 1862. Now, Lee had been brought to bay.
In scores of pitched battles and skirmishes during the past eleven months, and throughout the nine-month siege of Petersburg, Grant had outfought his opponent, and sometimes outguessed him, as well. During this time, he had come to understand Lee a lot better than most people would give him credit for. He was not intimidated by either Lee or his reputation, which had given him an overwhelming advantage over all of his predecessors. His understanding of Lee had also given him the ability to outfight Lee, which he did, relentlessly, for nearly a year. But now the fighting was finally over.
Grant was not the only man who realized that the meeting would effectively mean the end of the war. Every soldier in every regiment under Grant's command, from Maine to Michigan, had been hoping and praying for this day. When a messenger on horseback shouted the news of Lee's surrender to William Tecumseh Sherman's Twentieth Corps in North Carolina, a soldier shouted back, "You're the sonofabitch we've been looking for all these four years."
As he rode off toward Appomattox Court House to meet with General Lee, it is more than likely that Grant recalled his first meeting with the general. That meeting had taken place many years before, in another time and place, when both Grant and Lee were junior officers in another war.
HE WAS MORTAL
Ulysses S. Grant's road to Appomattox began in Mexico, nineteen years earlier. Grant had served with Lee in the "old army," as Grant called it, during the Mexican War from 1846 to 1848. He would always remember that time with fond nostalgia and liked to reminisce with his fellow veterans about the days when he was a very young junior officer and war was an adventure.
He enjoyed talking about the things he had done and the people he had met in Mexico, and he frequently told the same stories over and over again. One favorite story was about the time when General Zachary Taylor, Grant's commanding general, mistakenly put several spoonfuls of mustard in his coffee instead of sugar and became livid with anger and embarrassment. Grant probably had hundreds of anecdotes from the time he spent in Mexico. But the war also gave him his first look at combat, as well as practical lessons in leading men in battle. It also introduced him to some young men who would leave a lasting impression on the impressionable lieutenant from Ohio.
The two most influential factors in Ulysses Grant's military career were the Mexican War and his father, Jesse Root Grant. His experiences in Mexico — especially his acquaintances with other junior officers who would become famous in another war a decade and a half later — would all have a central effect on how General Grant conducted operations during the Civil War. Lessons Grant learned from Winfield Scott, who believed in staying on the offensive until the enemy was worn down and beaten, would be applied against Robert E. Lee in Virginia. Grant would also benefit from the aggressiveness of General Zachery Taylor and would also copy General Taylor's decidedly unmilitary appearance. Generals Scott and Taylor were largely responsible for Grant's tactics of attrition and relentless hammering, which he used so effectively against Lee in 1864 and 1865.
The personality of Grant's father would also have a great bearing on the way General Grant directed his forces against Lee but in a more indirect way. Jesse Root Grant could be a very difficult man, but he was also driven and determined. He became a successful businessman, working his way up from tanner's assistant to prosperous and well-to-do leather goods dealer in spite of economic hardships. Grant inherited his father's determination and refusal to give up and would use these traits the same way he used his infantry and cavalry against the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864 and 1865.
A good many officers who fought in Mexico with Grant, not just Robert E. Lee, would become Grant's enemies in the Civil War. When that war began in 1861, hundreds of officers resigned their commissions in the United States Army and joined the Confederate States Army. Many of them were Mexican War veterans.
Lieutenant James Longstreet fought alongside Grant at the Battle of Chapultepec (near Mexico City) in September 1847. He was also the best man at Grant's wedding to Julia Dent a year later; Julia was Longstreet's cousin. Seventeen years later, Confederate General Longstreet would be the commander of the renowned First Corps in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. He and Grant would face each other in the Battle of the Wilderness, in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, in May 1864, the first battle in the brutal Overland Campaign.
Longstreet, Lee, and Grant were all graduates of the US Military Academy at West Point. Grant's real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, but it was accidentally changed to Ulysses Simpson Grant when he applied for admission to the academy. A fellow cadet, future major general William Tecumseh Sherman, spotted Grant's name on a bulletin board: "U. S. Grant." Sherman and a few other cadets began to make up names to go along with the initials. One came up with "United States Grant." Another managed "Uncle Sam Grant." This seemed a little formal, so a third said, "Sam Grant." The name stuck. U. S. Grant became Sam Grant.
Grant was five feet seven or eight inches tall, depending upon which source is consulted, which was average height for the time. He was always untidy in his appearance, but his future sister-in-law, Emmy Dent, thought that the young lieutenant was very handsome. She even went on to say that he was pretty, and she compared him with one of her dolls. One of the reasons that Grant grew a beard was to make him look more like his idea of what a soldier should look like. He certainly did not like the idea of being "pretty."
Excerpted from Battle of Wills by David Alan Johnson. Copyright © 2016 David Alan Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Roads Beginning 13
Curing a Headache 13
He Was Mortal 19
Captain of Engineers 30
Chapter 2 Preparations 51
Taking All Responsibility 51
…And the War 59
The New Lieutenant General 61
That Man Will Fight Us 65
Chapter 3 No Turning Back 71
Matters of Confidence 71
The Big Skedaddle 80
Trusting on God and General Grant 91
Chapter 4 Advantages and Disadvantages 107
Inspiration by Example 107
Pushing the Enemy 111
Unfortunate Day 135
Chapter 5 Holding on Longer 143
Agonizing Decisions 143
Striking Them a Blow 149
Really Whipped 162
Chapter 6 Striking and Maneuvering 173
Like a Private Soldier 173
At Last Accomplishing Something 174
A Mere Question of Time 189
An Unexpected Ally 200
Chapter 7 Last Campaign 205
A Suitable Meeting Place 205
A General Assault Along the Lines 206
A Meeting with General Grant 238
Chapter 8 A Few Vital Hours on a Sunday Afternoon 259
The Best Possible Effect 259
Changing Attitudes 270
Select Bibliography 305