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The Greatest General in American History, Part II

December 22, 2011, 1:15 pm

Part I here.

Now, onto more specific evaluations. (Deep breath) I’m going to eliminate Washington. He is the greatest American statesman, for what he did as a general and leader in the Revolution and what he did as a Founding Father and first President.* As to being the greatest general, he made a number of spectacularly correct decisions during the Revolution, but he was nearly zero for his career in terms of battlefield victories. That’s just too much to overcome.

800px Winfield Scott in National Portrait Gallery IMG 4528
Scott

Next, Winfield Scott. Scott has a remarkably strong case for being the greatest American general. In fact, I’m not sure he wasn’t. In double fact, I think I would say he was the greatest American general in career terms. He started spectacularly well in the War of 1812 (“Those are regulars, by God!“), continued impressively in the Mexican-American War (his capture of Mexico City made both the Mexicans and Zachary Taylor look like blithering amateurs) and finished strong in the early stages of the Civil when, obese and suffering from gout, “Old Fuss and Feathers” nonetheless proposed the strategic plan that, with some modifications, strangled the Confederacy. That’s three wars (in three different eras) in which Scott faced an enemy comparable to the United States, was the most important general in two out of three, and critically important in the third. That’s a career.

And yet.

Ulysses s grant
Grant

If there is career value, and if Scott is the victor there, there is also peak value, of how absolutely valuable one general was at any moment.** On this stage arrives Ulysses S. Grant, whose achievements really center on the three and a half years from August 1861 to April 1865. He had some minor accomplishments in the Mexican-American War, but he was otherwise a pre-Civil War nonentity. His presidency after the war did not go well, though the domestic nobility of his fight to finish his memoirs and bring financial security to his family before cancer took him does him much credit. No, it was the years of the Civil War that made him, and what years they were. Meade won Gettysburg, but at the same moment, Grant was capturing Vicksburg (after a deft maneuver campaign), a strategic victory that was perhaps the most important of the war. His Overland Campaign against the Army of Northern Virginia was a crushing victory against someone who is in the discussion for greatest tactical general of the 19th century (post-Napoleon division), and Grant broke him and broke the Confederacy in 1864-65. When Grant turned the Army of the Potomac south after the Wilderness (drawing here, go to picture 30), he redefined the war in the east from a tactical one (where Lee had the advantage) to a strategic one (where Grant, Lincoln, and the Union had the advantage). In the most important campaign of the most important war in American history, Grant triumphed.

Who to pick between Scott and Grant? I could wimp out and simply anoint them both, one for career value and one for peak value. But, heck, this is an artificial and unfair exercise anyway, so there’s no point in stopping short. I choose Grant. Scott was an amazing general, but his opposition was not. Neither of the British officers Scott fought in the War of 1812 ever really held command again, something of a comment on their abilities. Santa Anna in the Mexican-American War was not a particularly astute commander. In addition, Scott’s performance in the Civil War, post-Anaconda Plan, did not go well.

Grant, by contrast, fought Robert E. Lee, and there are no doubts that Lee, while flawed in many ways, nonetheless ranks as one of the greatest generals of the 19th century. Grant fought for Abraham Lincoln, the greatest war leader in American history, and not a President to suffer foolish generals gladly. Grant commanded in the essential war of American history. On the brightest stage, with the best opponents, with the harshest audience and director, Grant shined.

He had his problems and his mistakes, but there in his “rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private,” Sam Grant saved the United States.

*I wouldn’t argue for him as the greatest President ever, however, as so much of his awesome George Washington-ness comes from prior to his two terms. I think that competition for greatest President ever is down to Lincoln and FDR, and I’ll let my co-bloggers fight that one out.

**The concepts of career and peak value are stolen from sabrmetrics.

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