- Battle of Wills: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and the Last Year of the Civil War by David Alan Johnson
David Alan Johnson, the author of several popular works on the Civil War and World War II, has written a highly readable account of the contest between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in Virginia in 1864 and 1865. Each chapter begins with an ongoing vignette about events surrounding the surrender at Appomattox before shifting back to the main narrative. Chapter 1 presents the formative factors in Grant's and Lee's prewar lives. Both did well in the U.S.-Mexican War, but Lee's achievements as a member of General Winfield Scott's personal staff were more prominent. Though Lee never lost his devotion to Virginia, which he learned from his father, Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, he was anxious to avoid imitating his father's undisciplined life and was eager to emulate the brilliance and bearing of General Scott. Grant inherited his [End Page 177] determination from his father and patterned his military persona after the methods and manners of Scott and Zachary Taylor, his commanders in the U.S.-Mexican War. During the war, both Grant and Lee learned that wars were won with offensive campaigns.
Grant's arrival in the East, though heralded in Washington, D.C., did not impress the cynical veterans of the Army of the Potomac, but Abraham Lincoln trusted Grant. Lee, however, never fully understood Grant. In chapter 3, Johnson plunges into a straightforward account of the battle of the Wilderness from Lee's perspective. At the end of the battle, Lee reacted to reports that Grant was moving toward Spotsylvania Court House by moving his own army toward Spotsylvania. Only then did Lee begin to realize that Grant was unlike previous Union generals in the East. Johnson then tells the story of the battle of the Wilderness from Grant's perspective and concludes the chapter with the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac realizing that a very different type of general was in control of their movements. Lincoln was happily reassured that he had indeed found a general who would fight and not turn back.
Through each successive phase of the struggle between Grant and Lee—at Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Appomattox—Johnson uses the same device, first telling the story from one general's perspective and then from his opponent's. It works surprisingly well. The author also emphasizes the important influence of Lee's and Grant's fathers. Grant kept up his dogged advance in large part because of the determination that Jesse Root Grant taught him. In two famous incidents when Lee was ordered to "'go to the rear,'" the Confederate commander showed the "boldness and brashness" of Light-Horse Harry Lee (p. 136).
By remaining on the defensive behind breastworks at Petersburg, Lee made Grant pay a high price for the ground gained, but it cost Lee both the offensive and the advantages of maneuvers that he and Grant had learned under Winfield Scott. By Cold Harbor, Grant firmly held the offensive position, and "Lee had to base his plans on what Grant was going to do" (p. 197). Johnson covers the Petersburg siege in less detail than the Overland campaign. The book concludes with an assessment of popular attitudes toward Grant and Lee since the end of the war.
Johnson relies heavily on a half dozen or so well-known published primary sources along with secondary works such as Geoffrey Perret's biography of Grant and Douglas Southall Freeman's works on Lee. Battle of Wills: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and the Last Year of the Civil War is a highly readable, popular account of two great generals during the last years of the Civil War.