There has been an ongoing debate, was Robert E. Lee or Ulysses Grant the better general? Grant was. This was in large part because he was the better logistician.
The North Did Not Have the Numbers at the Key Battles
The argument against Grant is that he should have been expected to win, he had the numbers on his side. Grant disputed this. In his autobiography he tackled this argument head on. “With their twelve million of people against our twenty, and of the twelve, four being colored slaves, non-combatants” it is not surprising the North won, the wonder was that it took four years.
“The whole South was a military camp. The occupation of the colored people was to furnish supplies for the army.” Virtually every fit man between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, “excluding only those physically unfit to serve in the field.”
Further, “the four million of colored non-combatants were equal to more than three times their number in the North, age for age and sex for sex, in supplying food from the soil to support armies. Women did not work in the fields in the North, and children attended school.”
In the North, there was conscription, but for the most part “the arts of peace carried on.” Men continued to work in large numbers in the fields, and businesses, and factories. “In the South no opposition was allowed to the government… No rear had to be protected. All the troops in service could be brought to the front to contest every inch of ground threatened with invasion.”
There were complications faced by the North, not faced by the South. In 1862 and 1863, the rebel raider John Morgan “operated in the rear of the Army of the Ohio in Kentucky and Tennessee. He had no base of supplies to protect, but was at home wherever he went. The army operating against the South, on the contrary, had to protects its lines of communication from the North, from which all supplies had to come to the front. Every foot of road had to be guarded by troops stationed at convenient distances apart.” In the West, Bedford Forrest also led a marauding band that tied up Union forces. “It is safe to say, that more than half the National (Union) army was engaged in guarding lines of supply.”
In estimating the numbers engaged in a battle, the North counted every enlisted man and every officer, “no matter how employed.” In bands, sick in field hospitals, hospital attendants, company cooks and all. In the Confederate army, “only bayonets” – the actual fighters – “are taken into account.”
In the last campaigns of the war, Grant assets if the numbers engaged in battles were counted in the same manner as in the North, “Lee had not less than 80,000 men at the start. His reinforcements were about equal to ours… He was on the defensive, and in a country in which every stream, every road, every obstacle to the movement of troops and every natural defense was familiar to him. The citizens were all friendly to him” and furnished accurate reports of the Northern army’s movements.
“Under such circumstances it is hard to conceive how the North showed such a superiority of force in every battle fought. I know they did not… I deem it safe to say that there were no large engagements where the National numbers compensated for the advantage of position and intrenchment occupied by the enemy.”
Grant’s Strategic Mastery of Logistics
The author Dan Zeiser, wrote that “Lee was not a good quartermaster.” While there were great difficulties in trying to supply his army, Lee “never seemed overly concerned about the supply situation, leaving it to the government in Richmond.” Grant “was a good quartermaster who made certain his men were well-supplied.” There were multiple passages in his autobiography where he discussed the logistics associated with his campaigns.
But it is not as a logistics tactician that Grant excelled, it was as a strategist. The Anaconda plan was a logistics strategy that called for a naval blockade of Confederate ports, a thrust down the Mississippi to separate the Confederate West from the East, and the strangulation of the South by Union land and naval forces. This plan was not proposed by Grant, but by Union General Winfield Scott early in the war.
Grant fully supported this plan. He even took it one step further, Sherman’s march through Georgia to Atlanta, and then from Atlanta to the sea, further cut the South in pieces and rendered inoperable some of the South’s major rail lines.
Finally, while the Anaconda plan was agreed to, until Grant assumed control of all military operations, the ability to destroy the South’s railroads was limited by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. On different occasions, when the North was advancing, Lee would send a small raiding band up the Shenandoah Valley toward Washington DC, and Stanton would worriedly order larges numbers of troops North. Grant put a stop to this.
Grant freed up troops by stopping the practice of protecting captured railroad lines in Dixie. He held forces back sufficient to protect Kentucky, Tennessee, and Washington DC, but not having to garrison large swaths of the South still led to more troops that could be used on the front.
He was aided in this by his most trusted general, William Sherman. Sherman assured Grant that he could cut loose and live off the land. The phrase “living off the land” is a bit disingenuous. Grant’s autobiography talks about the significant logistics associated with getting sufficient supplies to Sherman to begin the campaign.
Further, Grant saw that the North had to keep pressure on all the South’s armies simultaneously to keep the Confederacy from using its interior lines of communication to shift forces quickly. Without this insight, the Anaconda plan would not have worked quickly enough to keep Lincoln from losing the election. The South winning their succession depended upon George McClellan becoming president. In the autobiography, some of Grant’s harshest criticisms of generals under his command were for commanders who were not doing their job in keeping the pressure on the South by fighting battles on their fronts.
The field of logistics was born out of the necessity of moving troops, equipment and supplies to the battlefield. Logistics emerged as a specific term around the time of the American Civil War. It was Grant’s strategic approach to logistics that made him a better general than Lee.