Review: Crucible of Command

Crucible of CommandCrucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, The Peace They Forgedby William C. Davis. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2015.

Summary: This is a dual biography of Grant and Lee that studies their contrasting origins and yet similar qualities of command through back and forth narratives covering similar periods leading to their climactic confrontation, the peace they established, and its aftermath.

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee have been the subjects of numerous biographies, including Grant’s own memoirs. What distinguishes this book is that it attempts, and I think, succeeds in rendering parallel accounts of these two men’s lives who met first in Mexico and finally at Appomattox Courthouse (and once later when Grant was President).

Davis traces their contrasting childhoods and characters. Lee was the Virginia patrician who loved his home state and rarely traveled from it except on assignments. By contrast, Grant was the merchant’s son who moved around, wanted to see the world and was a failure at everything except leading men in battle. Both were educated at West Point, Lee at the top of his class, Grant in the lower half. They briefly encountered each other in the 1840’s during the U.S. invasion of Mexico. In the years leading up to the Civil War Lee struggled with resolving the Custis estate while Grant struggled through a series of failed business ventures, finally working in his brother’s store in Galena, Illinois.

When war comes, Grant re-joins the army, commanding troops in Kentucky and Tennessee. Lee resigns his commission, and after serving as an assistant to President Davis, eventually gains command of the Army of North Virginia, which he leads for the remainder of the war. We see both learning to command large forces. Grant in his tactical defeat at Belmont, his victories at Forts Henry and Donelson and near disaster at Shiloh. Lee’s first command is in western Virginia where he is defeated at the battle of Cheat Mountain. What is clear about both is that they learn from mistakes, develop command staffs around them they can trust and win a series of striking victories that ultimately bring them opposite one another in the campaigns of 1864-1865 where the Union’s overwhelming superiority eventually outflanks and surrounds Lee. We discover hardening resolves, of Lee against the Union even while he extricates himself from slave-holding, and Grant from an indifference to the issue of slavery to increased support of emancipation and the capabilities of black soldiers.

The author also explores the political realities each faced and their skill in handling this. Lee learned through constant communication to win the trust of Davis who easily could have micromanaged the war. Grant had to deal with political generals and a sometimes hostile press. Part of the success of both men was their skill in navigating the political realities that military leaders cannot be ignorant of.

While reading this book, I forgot the last phrase in the subtitle–“the peace they forged.” This book does not stop with the dignified surrender of Lee nor the magnanimity of Grant in allowing the Confederates to return home with their horses and side arms. It explores the subsequent years and the efforts both made to promote reconstruction, efforts subsequently frustrated. And both men die in their early 60s, after serving as Presidents, Lee of a college, Grant of a country.

William C. Davis interweaves the narratives of the two lives skillfully, and while we see differences between the two men, we see two great military leaders, formed by common training and experience, coping with similar exigencies of war. Davis observes that in some ways, Lee has fared the better of the two, mostly because of the corruption in Grant’s administration. But it seems that, while on opposite sides, they were a pair of shining stars of equal brightness. And for the reader interested in biography who thinks they must choose between these great lights, Davis has provided the alternative of discovering them together.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

One thought on “Review: Crucible of Command

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: May 2015 | Bob on Books

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