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Grant vs. Lee


For a start, his name was a nation: US Grant—Ulysses S. Grant. His name was imbued with much significance: it was originally chosen by his father via names pulled out of a hat by the Fates—he was Hiram Ulysses Grant. Yet there were problems with this name: his school fellows called him “useless” Grant; and, worse, his initials spelled “HUG”—not the right name with which to go up to West Point, and so he changed it to Ulysses Hiram Grant. He changed it to Ulysses H. Grant, but his sponsor, a politician, muddled the paperwork and called him Ulysses S. Grant. His reaction to this event, one that might have delayed his cadetship due to bureaucratic wrangles, sums up Grant’s whole career: he pragmatically accepted the change, accepted the reality; he was now Ulysses S. Grant. US Grant—United States Grant, Uncle Sam Grant. His name was a nation.

Grant did not believe in luck, yet his name is filled with lucky chances that carried a prophetic edge: he was the man who would preserve the Union on the field of battle—and his name was imbued with deep significance through chance. Napoleon never asked about a general’s ability, he asked “Are they lucky?” and Grant really had a certain luck.

He was a superior general to Lee. Why? Because he was honest, used common sense, and refused to backtrack on himself. There is a story about Grant as a child, rather similar to Washington and the cherry tree, in which Grant is asked by his father to buy a horse; the young Grant tells the seller, “My father told you to offer $19, and if you wouldn’t take that to offer $22, and if you wouldn’t take that to offer $25 tops.” Honest, you see.

Yet honesty is not the best policy in business or politics—fields where dishonesty is rewarded. Consequently, Grant was not a great politician—never really comfortable as president—and was swindled out of his life’s savings (he had to spend almost every moment up to the day of his death writing up his memoirs to provide for his widow). No, honesty is not very useful in business and politics—yet it is essential in war. It is essential because if you self-delude yourself about your situation in war you will die—reality has priority there.

He really was “HUG”, even if he changed his name—Grant hated the sight of blood and had to have his steak burned to a crisp in order to eat it at all. He was a strategy man—and when he worked as a clerk in a lull after the Mexican War he studied European campaign reports in the newspapers. He was brave, though—when a man in debt locked himself in his house and threatened suicide with a firearm to keep out the bailiffs, it was up to Grant to get him out. Grant was a strange man, strangely out of place in civilian life—alienated, he wandered about as if in a daze (waiting for the call, waiting for his destiny).

Then, like Cincinnatus from the plough, he raised himself up to go to the war. He arrived at his regiment as a colonel, with his clothes almost as ragged as his newly recruited men—they mocked him and shadow-boxed behind his back; they asked their ragged colonel for a speech, “Go to your quarters,” he said. He restored discipline through various methods, men who stayed out late were put to bed without supper—serious malcontents were tied to a post until they mended their ways. When a sentry cheekily bid him a “Good evening, how’s it goin’, colonel?” Grant removed the man’s rifle, performed the ceremonial greeting for an officer, and returned it to the man, “And that,” he said, “is how you bid a senior officer ‘good evening’.” Once again, the practical and pragmatic approach to the immediate situation.

Grant refused to go back on himself. If he took a wrong turn or was lost, he carried on until he found a road that led him back to where he wanted to go. I think this is actually a general male view: refuse to turn back, it’s too dispiriting to turn back, and just plough onwards until you get to a road that leads you back.

In the first industrial war, Grant’s willingness to grind was crucial. The Confederates were great berserkers, great quasi-aristocratic individualists (even the privates)—and they were formidable one-on-one fighters; and yet, in scientific industrial war, there are moments when counterintuitively (scientifically) you must press an attack when all seems hopeless—the organic individualist sees the situation is “hopeless” and turns away, the disciplined “machine man” drills on as ordered (and will prevail). The heroic individual warrior has greater strength as a warrior but, as with confrontations between football hooligans and the police, the disciplined—if dull—machine man will eventually beat down the heroic individual.

Grant was a military genius because he looked at the situation honestly, deployed common sense, and did not let his imagination get the better of him. His subordinates were often frightened by “the myth of Lee”; they saw Lee everywhere. Grant told them, “Never mind what the enemy is doing, think about what you are doing.” A useful guide in general life. It is too easy to scare yourself with phantoms, with imagined troop movements or “impossible” cavalry charges.

Grant’s rule was to deal with the actual, deal with the immediate concrete problem in the simplest way possible (just as he changed his name at West Point)—he was guided by tradition, he had studied at West Point and read about the great campaigns, and yet he was not hamstrung by either an ideology or a tradition. This is not to say he was not an inspirational leader, when his men were dispirited and almost put to flight he appeared on the scene and told them, “We must hold the enemy here or he will escape us.” His appearance and simple command were enough to turn the tide.

We can draw a parallel between Wittgenstein and Grant to illustrate the nature of genius: the genius sees things as they are. Wittgenstein started to philosophise because when he studied aeronautical engineering he encountered problems in advanced mathematics that intrigued him, he then set out to solve them with his own resources—he read few, if any, philosophy books and so was unencumbered by the idea that “Kant said ‘x’” or “I work in tradition ‘y’”; he just tried to solve the problems he had encountered with his own intelligence and common sense.

Later, when he read more in the history of philosophy, he found much of it incredibly foolish and riddled with contradictions—and this was because he had not built up all the status concerns that went along with being “a philosopher” and so had not inherited all the self-deceptions and illusions that went along with that. The same was true for Grant in his military career. He was suited to be a soldier, he was fated to be the soldier who would save the Union.


General Lee, on the other hand, has this great mythic reputation as “a general”—the general. He was a legend in his own lifetime, the most “supreme gentleman” in actuality—the courtly Southern aristocrat who swept off his hat to “m’lady” and who sipped mint julep and was a true Christian and a gentleman and respected by his enemies and even the slaves would cry when “massah” died. Basically, everyone wants to be Lee or to buy into the “Lee legend”—or they did for about a century, anyway. Nobody really wants to be Grant; he seems too pedestrian, too democratic, too much a plodder—not a knight of the roundtable, perhaps just an over-promoted quartermaster.

Lee’s problem was that he was very, very, very Christian—and he really meant it. Wellington once made a remark along the lines that “It is not possible to be a soldier and a Christian”—Nietzsche would enthusiastically agree. Let’s face it: a soldier has to murder, deceive, betray, torture—enact maximum cruelty and viciousness; nothing about soldiering really connects with “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child, pity my simplicity and suffer me to come to thee” (my childhood bedtime prayer). Yet Lee was a very sincere Christian, the supreme gentleman—the ideal of curtesie (Chaucerian).

Worse, his Christianity was of a fatalistic—almost Islamic—variety. Lee was a terrible fatalist: just as the Muslim will drive without a seatbelt at 86 mph down the middle of the road, weaving between oncoming lorries, with one hand on the wheel as he lights a cigarette and all the while saying “what Allah wills, Allah wills”, so too Lee pretty much put everything down to “the Lord’s will”. This included the war itself and the issue at stake, slavery.

I think Lee never really supported the South’s cause, I think he decided to fight—as he always said he did—purely on principle as regards his native state’s defence. I think he was personally against slavery, as a Christian gentleman—yet he understood that the North’s cause was unjust, whipped up by hysterical women (Beecher Stowe) and the mob and an affront to the honour and autonomy of Virginia and her men. However, as such, he was “forced into it”—he was not an enthusiast, and I doubt he really wanted to win (and much of his lack of enthusiasm was covered by fatalistic piety).

So Lee prayed a lot—he was an extensive prayer breakfast man. Even when his men were lost, suffering from lack of adequate maps, the answer was to pray extensively (“We still got lost,” as one officer laconically observed). Of course, if it didn’t help—as Lee once told a clergyman who interrogated him when the war commenced as regards his stance on slavery—it was the Lord’s will that it didn’t help; at the grand scale, slavery would be abolished in this way—so it was willed. When it comes to Lee you have to say, “God helps those who help themselves.” Lee needed less theology and more practical Scottish Calvinist industry-is-proof-of-salvation; in other words, don’t just pray you don’t get lost—prove you are saved by being diligent and hardworking enough to make a map (the map is a true testament to God, proof of your salvation).

At the particular level, Lee instantiated the South’s problem: the South was right—the South’s cause was just, they were entirely principled. The Civil War came about because the American Revolution, as with all revolutions, was built on hypocrisy—revolutions always eat their children, it was just that the American Revolution was not very extreme and so this happened more slowly than with the Bolsheviks and the Jacobins. The American Revolution was fought on the principle that colonies should be allowed to secede from a political union—London disagreed, years later Washington disagreed. The South followed the Revolution’s principles impeccably—rather like Trotsky: the South wanted to secede, as the Constitution allowed and as anti-slavery Northern states had once discussed. Practical men disliked this idea—join or die; the Union made America, therefore, so reasoned Lincoln, the Union was America (so reasoned King George).

Being principled, the South refused to molest private property—to help the cotton business, free trade was built into their constitution; the North favoured protectionism to give their factories a start against Britain—and so when Lee was in the field he camped in a humble tent, even if there was a fine farmhouse he could have requisitioned (private property was sacred, from farmhouses to slaves). Similarly, the South respected each State—refused to order their forces to concentre together and was slow to formed a unified command to coordinate each state’s army (for a time Lee was just the leader of resistance in Virginia).

The North, by contrast, formed a military dictatorship and worked as a unitary state to crush the South. Lincoln was the first American Caesar—and America is now on to “that sex fiend Caesar” (Clinton); “that ‘African’ Caesar” (Obama); “that showman Caesar” (Trump); “that senile piss-pants puppet Caesar” (Biden). Really, we are living with the last of the American Caesars—Lincoln was the first, the two Roosevelts among the most potent (now it is all bread and circuses).

Lee should have become commander-in-chief of the South’s war effort, he should have combined politics and war—formulated grand strategy. Yet Lee, ever yer ‘umble Christian servant, subordinated himself to Davis—again, in a parallel with today’s right, he was too principled to establish “military dictatorship” by combining political and military office. This was the real problem: the South followed the principles upon which the United States was (hypocritically) founded—it genuinely protected liberty, property, and the autonomy of the individual and the states. Result: it was too anarchic, too loosely (con)federated to beat a more centralised and disciplined power. Hence when Lee surrendered, he was short of rations—yet outside Richmond there were tonnes and tonnes of rations piled up. These were not requisitioned because private property was respected in the South—and so price-gougers ran rampant and, on a point of principle, Lee’s army starved.

Unlike Grant, he who did not believe in “luck”, the South gambled: they were like the hedgehog that knows one thing versus the fox that knows many things—the South knew…cotton. It gambled, like a gentleman aristocrat at cards, on European intervention to secure cotton—and perhaps, as Lord Salisbury later suggested, to frustrate the threat from a United States. Yet Europe sourced her cotton elsewhere, and Britain—the most likely interventionist—found public opinion, sentimentally whipped up by the press (with help from articles by Marx, in a minor way), for the North. The South had an advantage in that she was very large and her infrastructure—the Chattanooga choo-choo—was spare; she was hard to occupy, her armies had space to manoeuvre within; and yet she could not break the industrial North—and what was she to do if European intervention never came (it never did)?

Now Lee was a first-rate tactician and Grant’s men were right to have a fear as regards his ghostly cavalry—yet his real weakness was that he had an ideology. His ideology was Southern aristocratic Christianity—and it coloured everything he did. Without it, he may well have sat out the war because he basically did not support slavery as an institution—he acted on an idea, an idea about honourable service to his state, and not on reality. Technically, an aristocrat should not be motivated by ideas; he should be practical—he should be like Pilate, he should say: “What is truth? The fanatical rabble screams about ‘truth’, I wash my hands and deal with practicalities.”

In this sense, Grant was more aristocratic than Lee; he never dealt in airy-fairy ideals about being a “true Christian gentleman protecting the liberties our forefathers fought for”—he just dealt with reality. Even the idea of aristocracy can become an ideology—become unaristocratic in the process. Lee was a genuine American blueblood—his wife was a direct descendant from George Washington; and yet he did not have an aristocratic attitude, in a sense he truly stood for the democratic principles of the American Revolution.

Hence Lee never saw the situation clearly, whereas Grant always saw the situation clearly. Lee cultivated a myth in his own lifetime, and because war is ultimately psychological the myth had great military value—he was adored by his own men, adored by men on the other side. Yet his attitude also blocked practical action: he refused to visit dirty camps, hoping, as ever, to lead by example—if Lee wouldn’t suffer it, neither shall we. Yet a practical general would want to see the dirty camps to judge the extent of the problem and issue corrective orders—not just sniffily refuse to inspect what was ugly because it offended his aristocratic sensibilities (the quartermaster Grant would not be too proud to have a look at a dirty camp).

Given that half the casualties in the Civil War occurred due to illness and infection, camp hygiene was very important to the war’s prosecution—Lee neglected it for ideological reasons. Similarly, although he was prepared to promote men who disliked him because he saw they were otherwise able, he also refused to fire incompetent men—in both cases, you see a Christian desire for self-laceration and forgiveness that worked against Lee as a general.

Lee also found it very difficult, as a real Christian, to “put the boot in”—for a real sabre slash he had to rely on Stonewall Jackson; here was a man who was not afraid to lose men—when a soldier informed him that a desired attack was almost suicidal Jackson replied that he always recovered his dead and buried them in a Christian manner and that his field hospital was excellent. No excuses there, sah! No worries about unChristian sentiments and unfortunate massacres! Get on with it, sah! This is a war, sah!

Lee was not like that—he couldn’t accept that war is ultimately unChristian bloody murder; and he even said at one stage that he lost particular battles because Jackson wasn’t present—the Christian Lee needed his “pagan” sidekick Jackson to really get into the blood and guts of battle. Lee was more like a parody of an effete aristocrat who holds a scented handkerchief to his nose amid the stench…

The great irony about Lee is that he was genuinely a decent human being—he was as Christian as anyone has ever been, he was genuinely aristocratic in his manners (if not in the essence of his aristocracy). He was not a vengeful, petty, selfish brute—not at all. He was not some slavery fanatic who just wanted to persecute negroes—he made every effort after the war to mend fences and draw the united America together. I am sure that if you knew him, you would idolise him. Lee was just a very decent man—and he consistently stood for the values upon which America was founded, even if those were impossible to defend, while Lincoln trampled on them and destroyed the Republic (founded an empire).

However, do you notice whose statues get pulled down and defaced today? Poor Lee, the man who was forced (“On my honour! For Virginia!”) to fight for the South is portrayed as some bloody tyrant eager to flay the backs of the niggers and keep them in slavery in perpetuity. His statues must be torn down by the hate-filled resentful quasi-Marxist mob democracy has spawned. Another old saying Lee should have studied, “No good deed goes unpunished”—and Lee was so very good (“Didn’t even touch mah chickens, by Gawd! Never known it from an army on the march”).

Accordingly, as with “decent suburban dad” conservatives today, Lee is the most hated and reviled man on the block. He lost, but he lost with honour—and so…Yet what do words like “honour” or “it was my duty to fight for Virginia” mean to a semi-educated mob? “Honour? What kind of a corny weirdo are you?”. They only understand ideologies, money, and hatred; ergo, Lee did it because “he hated the blacks” or “to get rich from slavery”—or whatever the excuse to smash his statue is today. All the time’s high-minded ideas about two gentlemen shaking hands and uniting to serve America, God having decided the outcome as far as slavery went, mean nothing to modern ears. Lee, rather like Christ, finds himself spat upon and jeered at by the mob—he would take it, naturally, like a gent. Of course, once they have finished with Confederate statues they will start on the Union—on Grant’s statues; after all, it is all “white supremacy” (whatever that means)…


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