Petersburg Crater and Grant vs. Lee

crater battle postcard

Funny thing about the lovely trails through Virginia’s Civil War battlefields: the trees grow now in a photo negative of the way it was during the war. Now, there are many, many more trees. What was farmland then is now woods. But the one fort in the Petersburg, Va., siege line that offered shade in 1865 (Fort Stedman), site of the Confederacy’s last hurrah, languishes now without a single tree.

…I hardly like to think about the battle at the “Crater,” where Pennsylvania miners dug under the picket lines and blew a little Confederate fort sky high, only to see thousands of Union soldiers routed in the ensuing attempt to push through the Rebel line.

…You will have to forgive me for failing to blog the sesquicentennial like I should. I missed the 150th of Gettysburg last summer. Now the anniversary of the Overland Campaign will soon arrive.

150 years ago next month, Pres. Lincoln promoted General U.S. Grant and brought him to the eastern theater of the war. In and of itself, this marked the beginning of the end.

Because Grant, as we have celebrated before, understood how the war would be won.

Now, who am I to offer glittering generalities? But: As I strolled along the eroding siegeworks that have been lovingly preserved east of Petersburg, I thought, “There really is something to the idea that the Northern and Southern minds crystallized in these two men, Lee and Grant”–who faced each other across the creeks flowing into the Appomatox from June, 1864, to the end of March, 1865.

Grant at City Point
Grant at City Point
Lee: Dashing, infinitely more charming and romantic; too courtly to give direct orders to his old friends (of whom he had dozens); too realistic to risk anything less than everything, whenever he could–the man George Washington would have understood, and loved, and wished he could have been more like…

Grant: breathtakingly humble in his realistic understanding of what needed to be done; bone-crushingly organized; genuinely opportunistic–not only more decisive than any other Union general, but, IMHO, more genuinely resourceful and deft even than the fox Lee. Grant, the master of a colossal, utterly efficient industrial machine, conceived by his mind (the model of the ensuing Gilded-Age barons in this respect). Grant, humane in the unprepossessing, scientific manner of an MIT professor.

Grant knew he couldn’t lose any other way than by beating himself. He patiently and stoically refused to do that. (Many wars and battles of many kinds, I would say, get won this way.)

Grant of course wanted the war over sooner rather than later. Fate had conspired against him: The war could have ended in June, 1864, when Grant surprised Lee by moving his army south of Richmond en masse. But timorousness got the better of his vanguard.

So the general did his U.S. Grant thing. Assessed it all cooly and prudently. And won nine months later.

Many of us like to idealize the Civil War as a series of decisive, Napoleon-like battles, with heroic officers leading charges, a la Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg. But when Grant took the Union helm, 150 years ago, that came to an end. And WWI-style fighting began. The most–really the only–beautiful thing about the Civil War in 1864 is Grant’s prudent and laborious mind.