Forces or People (or both)

“There used to be a school of historical thought which held that the course of human history was determined largely by political and economic factors rather than by the characters and actions of individuals” (foreward to The Last Days of Hitler)

One of the great questions for historians, referenced above, may be stated as follows: are we active agents or unwitting pawns?  This question is interesting not only in a larger historical sense but also in the realm of mundane personal events.

There is a feeling we all have that we are in control of ourselves.  To be sure, sometimes after an event in which we lose control, we say things like “I don’t know what happened,” or “I don’t know what came over me.”  But in general, we feel as if we are in the driver’s seat of our actions.  Yet for anyone who has cared to even briefly examine himself, we must admit there are depths within us that we can hardly know or understand.  J.F.C. Fuller, in his book Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, sums up this point quite nicely:

“In all of us, however common-place we may be, there lurks an enigma, something which neither we nor others understand.  Most of us live and die in a dungeon, and the enigma dies with us.”

Yet even though the full extent of our personalities may be shrouded in mystery, Fuller, whose book was published in 1957, assumes that men do indeed impact history.  In particular, a few great men have the ability to escape this dungeon and in doing so have an even larger and more calibrated effect on history.

Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant are two men widely accepted to have been extremely influential in the conduct and outcome of the American Civil War.  To many, if not all, Robert E. Lee encapsulates the Confederacy more than any other man.  This came to be the case during the war itself, and remains so today in the popular imagination.  The same cannot necessarily be said of Ulysses S. Grant and the North.  It is much more likely that Lincoln would be considered the human symbol of the Union.  Lincoln, of course, attained this status after his assassination; Lee rose to god-like stature during his lifetime and during the war.

As a general, Lee was widely heralded for quite a time as a brilliant military leader, as a man who miraculously fought off an overwhelmingly superior force for much longer than could reasonably be expected.  This was the consensus of historians both northern and southern, American and foreign, for quite some time.  This began to change though, around the time of Fuller’s book.  (For a fascinating analysis of Lee’s abilities as a commander, read Gary Gallagher’s essay). Fuller lays out what he considers to be Lee’s personality and starts to make some serious accusations that Lee may have cost the Confederacy its chances of winning, but not because he was inherently a poor military thinker.  Rather, Fuller often comments on Lee’s manners, his sense of being a gentleman, and his strong desire not to hurt the feelings of his subordinate commanders.  Fuller believes that Lee was so caught up in his Southern sense of honor and spiritual duty that he simply did not demand what he needed to and did not plan details as he should have. Fuller writes:

“This lack of thunder; this lack of appreciation that administration is the foundation of strategy; this lack of interest in routine, and his abhorrence to exert his authority, maintained his army in a state of semi-starvation and were the cause  of much of its straggling and ill-discipline.”

Based on the little I know of Lee, he seems much less interesting than many other Civil War commanders.  As Fuller says himself, “as an individual apart from the war there is nothing remarkable in Lee’s character and personality, except that he was pre-eminently a good man.”  Yes, of course Lee is interesting because he was the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, but there does not seem to be much else about him that is interesting.

Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, seems quite fascinating to me.  When Fuller wrote his book, Grant had not been much admired:

“The popular idea of Grant has always been a depressing one, a leaden man of no great spirit, of no imagination and of little thought. A force which rolled forward, which crushed by weight of numbers; true, a man brave and determined, but utterly lacking in those qualities which give brilliance to human affairs.”


Based partly on Fuller’s re-assessment, though, Grant has since become counted at the very least as a truly great general, if not a truly great and perhaps brilliant man.  Grant, to me, is instantly more likable and interesting than Lee. A no-nonsense, extremely practical man who, unlike Lee, hadn’t amounted to anything before the war, but through  the crucible of battle rose to great heights.  When I think of Grant I imagine him standing outside in the rain during the Wilderness Campaign, wearing his plain soldier’s uniform with nothing to demonstrate his rank other than his stars sewn on his private’s jacket, smoking a cigar and perhaps eating a cucumber soaked in vinegar, which was his breakfast of choice.  I think of someone quiet who thought about the problem at hand and then made decisions and quickly and clearly and concisely gave orders without much fanfare.

Fullers writes that Grant, “throughout his life never failed to look at every problem from the simplest point of view, to answer it in the simplest possible manner.”  As an example from before the war, Ulysses S. Grant was actually born Hiram Ulysses Grant.  He ended up not liking the name, though, because the initials spelled “HUG,” and he was concerned he would be teased at West Point.  He therefore exchanged the places of Hiram and Ulysses in his name to avoid that problem, coming up with Ulysses H. Grant.  Upon arriving at West Point to begin his military education, the paperwork had become fouled up and West Point only had a record for a new student named Ulysses Simpson Grant.  Rather than have his paperwork sent back to Washington to be sorted out, thus delaying his matriculation, Grant simply decided to take on the name Ulysses Simpson and went by it for the remainder of his life.

I do not mean to make Grant out to be simple-minded because he was simple.  In fact, it takes a certain type of genius and restraint to see things at their most basic.  Much has been made of Grant’s lack of achievement before the war.  This could indeed be interpreted as a flaw, and perhaps it was.  Yet there is something interesting to me in that Grant’s true greatness was not exposed until a great event unfolded in which he could take part.  It has been suggested that Grant was bored with “ordinary” life and didn’t see much of a reason to do much when things were going smoothly.

Two men. Lee, the spiritual father of the Lost Cause, the commander of an army of rugged soldiers on a holy quest to create a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.  Grant, the determined and administratively capable leader of a modern civilian army raised with the purpose of sustaining a Republic which stressed the moral and social benefits of personal liberty, free markets, and industrialization.  It is quite easy to make symbols of these human beings.  But then at that point, we are on the road to limiting the role of personality.  Personality simply becomes symbolic and does not include a view of free will in which we consciously make choices to manipulate the world around us.  Rather, it is the world itself that manipulates us into carrying out events.

I am personally open to the idea that everything we think and feel is but a mist that arises out of the condensation of historical or physical forces.  Much like steam is released from a steam-engine and is simply a by-product and has no effect on the function of the engine, perhaps our personalities and “choices” are the same, from the individual level of personal, domestic relationships, up to the level of generals commanding armies.  It is rather difficult to imagine us getting much pleasure from analyzing the Civil War from the sub-atomic perspective, although perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

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