Crucible of Command – Book Review
Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged. William C. Davis. Da Capo Press, 2015. Hardcover. 629 pages. $32.50.
Out of the thousands of books on the American Civil War it is not be surprising that quite a few were written about the two men who arguably had the most impact on the war’s outcome: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Amazon today lists 331 biographies with “Grant” in the title while “Lee” numbers 270 (this was NOT a scientific study; no complaints please). What is surprising is that dual biographies are rare, with only four major works directly comparing the two generals. J.F. C. Fuller’s Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (1957), Gene Smith’s Lee and Grant (1984), Edward Bonekemper’s Grant and Lee: Victorious American and Vanquished Virginian (2007). True, there are other books on the two men; collections of essays, campaign studies, etc. but very few, written by respected historians at least, directly compare the two men. And of the four titles listed above only Smith and Davis follow and compare the two men from birth to death. While this article is a primarily a review of Davis’s book, I also own Smith and Fuller’s books and thought it would be interesting to contrast Crucible with those others.
William C. Davis is the author and editor of over fifty books and owner of one of the most magnificent heads of hair to be found among today’s active historians, as any reader who has seen the television documentary series Civil War Journal can attest. In Crucible of Command, Davis set out not to write a detailed, chronological biography of the two men but a study of the events and people in their lives that shaped their personalities—personalities that made them the type of officers they eventually became. In describing the two men’s relationships with their fathers, mothers, wives, and friends, Davis has not written a military history per se but a personality profile of the factors that shaped a mold filled by the fire of the war.
In this aspect, Crucible has much in common with Fuller’s 1957 profile of Grant and Lee’s generalship. Both authors dispelled many of the “facts” built by Lost Cause mythos (For a fascinating study, see Gary W. Gallagher & Alan T. Nolan’s The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, Indiana University Press, 2000). Fuller was more of a champion of Grant’s abilities, particularly the Union general’s strategic recognition that the two theaters of war were actually one and the same, and that only by applying pressure on all fronts simultaneously could the rebellion be suppressed. Fuller found that both generals had their faults, but that Grant, being younger, learned from his while Lee the elder was more fixed in his. “Grant at Vicksburg,” says Fuller, “is a totally different general from Grant at Belmont; but Lee at Gettysburg is the same man as Lee at Cheat Mountain (Lee’s first campaign in West Virginia—author): there is the same lack of order, of combination, of central control and authority.”
Davis duplicates many of Fuller’s findings. Both Davis and Fuller agree that Grant was the optimist who expected victory, though it sometimes led to overconfidence that got him into trouble, such as at Shiloh. Lee was more pessimistic and trusted in God’s will while Grant, the old quartermaster, planned his campaigns meticulously. Grant gathered talented men for his staff; Lee did most of his own staff work, which led to a failure to ensure his subordinates carried out his wishes, a situation exacerbated by his abhorrence of confrontation. Davis, however, is more balanced in his appraisals than Fuller. Fuller judged his subjects more on their adherence to or deviation from the nine “principles of war” (which he theorized in 1925). Davis, on the other hand, is not a military historian. Indeed, his treatment of Grant and Lee’s military campaigns and battles provide only enough detail to demonstrate both men’s thinking and decisions so his appraisals are limited to how each man’s personality affected his actions. In my opinion, Davis’s appraisals are well-reasoned and supported by the sources.
Fuller and Davis were also very much alike in how they selected sources. Both historians relied almost exclusively on primary sources—what Grant and Lee wrote themselves or words written by those who served under them, were related to them, or were in a position to observe them directly. In this way, many of the post-war myths—Grant’s supposed drinking problem, Lee’s magnanimous opinion of Yankees, Grant’s butchery, Lee’s poverty in early life—are shown to be either outright malignant falsehoods, simple exaggerations, or creations of post-war mythology.
Where Crucible of Command goes beyond Fuller’s book is in its look at each general’s post-war lives and how each man affected the reunited nation; Lee’s acceptance—albeit resentfully—of the war’s result and Grant’s moderating influence over the forces of radical Reconstructionists. Still, for a book subtitled “the peace they forged,” I was disappointed that only thirty-eight of the book’s almost five hundred pages deal with the post-war period.
Compare that to Gene Smith’s Lee and Grant, which gave eighty-six pages to the post-war era. But Smith’s book mostly conforms to the post-war Lost Cause narratives. His reliance on secondary sources and books written many years after (most post-1900) ensured that many of the myths listed earlier were perpetuated.
Of the three books, Fuller’s is of most interest to military types. There are wide-ranging discussions of tactics, strategy, weapons, and military theory. However, Fuller’s background as a British military officer makes his book the most difficult of the three to read, due to its outdated syntax. Crucible of Command is engaging and easy to read and so should appeal the most to modern readers. Civil War buffs may be disappointed by the brief battle narratives, lack of maps, and minor factual errors but if you are looking for more than yet-another book of military analysis; if you are looking for a book that emphasizes character and personality over armies and casualties, then Crucible of Command is highly recommended.
Neal West is a retired USAF E-7 living in North-Central Maryland. He has a MA in Civil War Military History from American Military University. He was also a living history volunteer at Manassas National Battlefield for over a decade.