Monday, May 16, 2011

Grant vs. Hood: Who was the better commander?

John Bell Hood and Ulysses Grant

       The title of this blog may be a bit deceiving. General Grant has long been considered a military genius by some and a butcher by others. General Hood has been declared one of the worst army commanders of the Civil War. I would like to take this opportunity to look at the various strategies employed by each man and let us see if one general is truly a better commander than the other. 
       Why, you might ask would I compare two generals who never faced each other in battle. Historians have compared Grant and Lee to the extent that nothing further needs to be written on the subject. I’m interested in comparing Grant with Hood because both men seem to be vastly misunderstood as military commanders. 
       First, we’ll look at how Grant got the reputation of being a butcher. At Forts Donelson and Shiloh, he allowed his army to be surprised by the Confederate Army because he under-estimated his enemies will to fight. At Vicksburg, he was forced to settle the affair by siege only after having failed with frontal assaults. Then he made a frontal assault at Chattanooga that succeeded, mostly due to the ineptness of Braxton Bragg. 

Grant's Overland Campaign

       He then was promoted to lieutenant general and went to oversee the Army of the Potomac for the rest of the war. There he was attacked by Lee in the Wilderness. He then attempted to turn Lee and having failed, he assaulted Lee’s entrenchments at Spotsylvania. He again attempted to turn Lee and because of over-aggressiveness, he almost placed his men in a trap at the North Anna River. He then tried to turn Lee again and failing again, attacked entrenchments at Cold Harbor. The question remains, why could men like Lee and Jackson turn their enemy’s flank while Grant failed each time. 
       Many historians claim it was because Lee understood his enemy so well. There is some truth in this analysis, but I believe there is a little more to it than just that. More on that later.
       John Bell Hood didn’t begin his career as an army commander until the summer of 1864. He inherited an army that had been mismanaged the entire war. Hood faced an army almost twice as large as his own and attempted to do what Lee had done early in the war and that was to offset the enemy’s numerical advantage by maneuver. 
       The Battle of Atlanta was a near perfect copy of Lee’s flank movement at Chancellorsville, a little over a year earlier. Because of his subordinates failures and some good luck within the Federal army, he didn’t obtain the same results.



       The move he made at Columbia, Tennessee was a near copy of Lee’s move against Pope during the Second Manassas Campaign. He used two divisions to hold Schofield in place and marched around his left flank with the rest of his army. He arrived in Spring Hill, Tennessee in Schofield’s rear to only allow him to escape because of confusion within his ranks. He then made the greatest mistake of his career by attacking an entrenched Federal Army at Franklin. The result was the same as Grant’s assault at Cold Harbor, the only difference was at that point of the war, the South could ill afford to lose men. 

Hood's plan to destroy Schofield at Spring Hill

       In one sense, you can say that Hood’s move at Columbia worked. He arrived in Schfofield’s rear in time to trap his army. Grant was never able to accomplish this. How did Hood’s turning movement at Atlanta and Columbia almost succeed while Grant’s weren’t nearly as close?
       The answer lies in several factors. From the beginning of the war the Confederate’s (especially Lee) utilized their cavalry. The only time Lee was caught off guard was at Gettysburg when he allowed his cavalry to get away from him. At Chancellorsville, it was Lee’s cavalry that discovered Hooker’s right flank in the air. Hooker had sent his cavalry on a raid which accomplished nothing at a time when Hooker needed valuable information. 
       Meade and Sheridan had a serious disagreement about the use of cavalry in Virginia. Meade wanted to use his cavalry as Lee did, gathering information about the enemy. Sheridan wanted to attack Lee’s cavalry by raiding. Meade had been with the Army of the Potomac from the beginning. He had seen how a lack of cavalry impaired an army. Grant naturally sided with his friend Sheridan. While Grant was facing Lee during most of the spring Campaign of 1864, Sheridan was off making raids. 
       At Atlanta, Hood had Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry cover the advance of the flanking movement of Hardee’s Corps and then instructed him to take the Army of the Tennessee’s supply train. Wheeler bungled the latter job, claiming there was an infantry force too large for him to break when in fact he could have easily accomplished the job. (Wheeler was one of the most overrated cavalrymen of the war, but that’s for another blog.)
       There is another factor that most historians overlook when understanding why Grant’s turning movements always failed. While Lee and Hood left a portion of their armies facing the enemy to hold them in place, Grant would take his entire army out of line and march away. It didn’t take a genius to realize he was making some sort of movement when the entrenchments are empty. If Grant would have took a lesson from Lee or Hood and left men in the trenches and took a portion of his army around the flank, he may have ended the war far earlier and with a lot less losses. 
       When Grant removed his entire army from the front of Lee’s Army and moved away without cavalry, he had no idea where his enemy was. Lee with the help of cavalry could pretty much keep up with where Grant was headed. 
       The one time he did make this kind of move was in front of Richmond after Cold Harbor. He left men in the trenches facing Lee and marched a large part of his army across the James River to attack Petersburg. This movement, much like Hood’s would have succeeded if his subordinates hadn’t been so cautious. There was hardly a force available to stop the Federal Army from taking Petersburg, but because of their caution, Lee was able to move reinforcements up in time to save the town.
       If you look at the two commanders by how they used strategy, you would have to say that Hood better understood battlefield strategy than Grant. Hood was very poor at logistics, but as far as strategy, his plans looked just like his hero Robert E. Lee. By 1864, Hood was in the same shape as Lee, he had no Stonewall Jackson to help him carry out his plans. 
       Grant had a staff that was superb at logistics. He also had the will to continue hammering away at his enemy. He proved that at Vicksburg when he hammered away at Pemberton almost a year. Although the man grew frustrated, he never threw in the towel and gave  up. 

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