Was Ulysses Grant a Butcher?

Quote of the Day

I know people who regret buying parachutes. Strangely, I’ve never met anyone who regrets not buying a parachute.

Seth Masket. Nice illustration of survivor bias.


Introduction

Figure 1: General Ulysses S. Grant, a leader who is becoming more appreciated with time. (Wikipedia)

Figure 1: General Ulysses S. Grant, a leader who is becoming more appreciated with time. (Wikipedia)

When I was studying history in high school and at university, Robert E. Lee was described as a military genius and U.S. Grant was an unremarkable general that only won by butchering his own troops in bloody frontal assaults.  I recently read an article called The Butchers Bill by the Civil War researcher Edward Bonekemper that argues that it was Lee and not Grant that lost the most troops. For each general, Bonkemper presented casualty tables by battle to make his point. Unfortunately, the two tables are behind a paywall. However, you can find a blog post that shows them, along with an important typo correction (magazine reversed column titles).

I decided to try to duplicate Bonekemper’s tables by doing a bit of web scraping. This post uses a combination of data from a Github repo by Jeffery Arnold that contains a fantastic amount of Civil War battle data that I augmented with some Wikipedia scraping to assign generals to battle. I should note that my casualty results are significantly different than Bonekemper’s – I assume because there are large differences between sources of Civil War casualty data. The Arnold repo has data from a number of sources and I chose his Wikipedia casualty file because it is easy to check.

For those who like to follow along, you can find my work in my Github repo.

Background

Definitions

Casualty
For this analysis, a casualty is defined as a soldier killed, wounded, or captured. Casualty data sources vary greatly for a number of reasons. For example, many sources just include those killed during the battle, but ignore those who died of their wounds later.
Battle
This analysis sums casualties from Civil War battles and sieges. Many sources work with campaigns (for example Overland Campaign), which are not addressed in the sources I used. One confusing aspect of working with battles is that they frequently are known by different names.
Campaign
A series of related battles. My analysis here does not work at the campaign level because my data sources did not work at that level.

Methodology

My approach was simple:

  • Read the Wikipedia casualty data from the Arnold rep
  • Use the Wikipedia URLs in the Wikipedia casualty data to scrape the list of generals for each battle
  • Join the casualty data and the general data
  • Filter for Lee and Grant
  • Sum their casualties and present a summary table

Methodology Issues

Bonekemper’s Issues

While Bonekemper makes an interesting comparison, I am not sure this type of comparison makes sense. Grant and Lee fought two different wars:

  • Lee fought in the East, Grant spent most of the war in the West.
    Different generals, different terrain, different situations. Casualty rates were higher in the East where Lee spent the entire war.
  • Lee did not assume command of the Army of Northern Virginia until 1-June-1862.
    He took over command from Joe Johnston, who was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines.
  • Grant’s combat service started as a Colonel in the Illinois militia and he had to work his way up the command chain.
  • When Grant and Lee faced off in 1864, Grant was mainly on offense and Lee was mainly on defense.
    Troops on the offense are more likely to take casualties.

Issues with My Analysis

  • There are many different casualty figures for each battle.
  • Civil War casualties are difficult to tally because:
  • I decided to use Wikipedia as my source as it is easy to scrape.
    Some folks grumble about using Wikipedia as a source. My main goal is to provide the students I tutor with R-based web scraping examples and this does the job nicely.

Lost Cause Lecture by Edward Bonekemper

Here is the lecture by Ed Bonekemper that motivated me to look further into the casualty comparison.

Figure M: Bonekember Lost Cause Lecture.”

Analysis

For details on the analysis, please see my Github repo. I will only cover results in the post.

Grant Casualty Table

Table 1 shows my summary of the Confederate and US casualties that Wikipedia lists for US Grant.

Table 1: Ulysses S. Grant Casualty Summary
Battle Confederate US
Battle of Appomattox Court House 28,305 164
Battle of Belmont 641 607
Battle of Champion Hill 3,840 2,441
Battle of Cold Harbor 5,287 12,737
Battle of Fort Donelson 13,846 2,691
Battle of Fort Henry 79 40
Battle of Jackson, Mississippi 850 286
Battle of North Anna 1,552 2,623
Battle of Port Gibson 787 861
Battle of Shiloh 10,699 13,047
Battle of Spotsylvania Court House 12,687 18,399
Battle of the Wilderness 11,033 17,666
Battle of Totopotomoy Creek 1,593 731
Chattanooga Campaign 7,000 11,648
Second Battle of Corinth 8,466 5,040
Second Battle of Petersburg 4,000 11,386
Siege of Vicksburg 65,394 9,670
Third Battle of Petersburg 4,250 3,500
Siege of Corinth 1,000 1,000
Total 181,309 114,537

Lee Casualty Table

Table 2 shows my summary of the Confederate and US casualties that Wikipedia lists for Robert E. Lee.

Table 2: Robert E. Lee Casualty Summary
Battle Confederate US
Battle of Antietam 20,632 24,802
Battle of Appomattox Court House 28,305 164
Battle of Beaver Dam Creek 1,484 361
Battle of Chaffin’s Farm 2,000 3,357
Battle of Chancellorsville 12,764 17,197
Battle of Cheat Mountain 90 88
Battle of Cold Harbor 5,287 12,737
Battle of Cumberland Church 255 655
Battle of Darbytown and New Market 700 458
Battle of Fort Pulaski 385 1
Battle of Fredericksburg 4,151 12,653
Battle of Gaines’s Mill 7,993 6,837
Battle of Gettysburg 23,231 23,055
Battle of Glendale 3,673 3,797
Battle of Malvern Hill 5,650 2,100
Battle of Mine Run 680 1,272
Battle of North Anna 1,552 2,623
Battle of Oak Grove 441 626
Battle of Salem Church 4,935 4,611
Battle of South Mountain 2,685 2,325
Battle of the Crater 1,491 3,798
Battle of the Wilderness 11,033 17,666
Battle of Totopotomoy Creek 1,593 731
Battle of White Oak Road 800 1,870
Second Battle of Bull Run 8,300 10,000
Second Battle of Deep Bottom 1,500 2,899
Second Battle of Petersburg 4,000 11,386
Second Battle of Rappahannock Station 1,670 419
Third Battle of Petersburg 4,250 3,500
Total 161,530 171,988

Grant and Lee Casualty Summary Table

Table 3 summarizes my web scraping of the casualties.

Table 3: My Casualty Summary for Lee and Grant
General Confederate US
Grant 181,309 114,537
Lee 161,530 171,988

Bonekemper’s Results

Table 4 summarizes Bonekemper’s casualty tally.

Table 4: Bonekemper’s Casualty Summary for Lee and Grant
General Confederate US
Grant 190,760 153,642
Lee 208,090 240,322

Conclusion

I was able to generate casualty tables by general based on the Wikipedia information. My results do show that troops under Grant suffered fewer casualties than those under Lee, which agrees with Bonekemper’s results. However, my casualty totals for each general in each category (Confederate, Union) are lower. I am sure this is because of different sources being used for casualty totals.

I am not convinced that either Grant or Lee could be characterized as butchers. They were doing the best they could under difficult circumstances. Both made mistakes that cost soldiers their lives. If you need examples, just look at Pickett’s Charge (Lee) and Cold Harbor (Grant).

What I have learned from this exercise? I am now convinced that my academic exposure to Civil War was strongly influenced by the Lost Cause Movement, which resulted in a pro-Confederacy slant to my early education. My recent reading has called into question most of what I was taught about the Civil War while in school.

 
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7 Responses to Was Ulysses Grant a Butcher?

  1. Greg R says:

    I enjoyed your analysis. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve lived my whole life in the South. The Lost Cause narrative seemed to be accepted as fact by nearly everyone of my grandparent’s generation, and it’s dismaying when I encounter people of my own generation spreading the same narrative without question.

    Your columns of numbers reminded me of one of the first games I played on a computer, called Civil War. This was back in 1978 on the university mainframe. If I remember it correctly, you assumed the rule of Lee and input before each battle how much to spend on food, ammunition, and salary. At the end of each turn, it told you how many soldiers you had lost. If you played it carefully, the South could win the war.

     
    • mathscinotes says:

      I played that game too! I have been binging Civil War history lately – full-court press of lectures, books, and conversations with military history types. The South definitely could have won. The old saying is that the North had to win, while the South just had to hold out until the North tired. Kind of a “Rope a Dope” strategy. Both Lee and Jackson understood the strategy, but they also saw that they were running out of men and material. It was a race between Northern support and Southern resources.

      Thanks for the comment.

       
  2. Mark Tucker says:

    Thanks for the article.

    My civil war education in 1960s-1970s southern Georgia mirrored Greg R’s. It leaned towards the “lost cause” and “states rights” and was surprisingly removed from the root of the problem – the original sin of slavery.

    For the long-time but (hopefully) enlightened southerner, this still makes for difficult conversations and memories. My family has an prominent ancestor that fought (and later died of his wounds) at the battle of Chancellorsville. The local civil war museum still has his regiment’s battle flag. So my family has this very real association with our civil war past. The whole thing sometimes sounds quite chivalrous. But then I remind myself that in the end they were battling for an evil and futile cause.

     
    • mathscinotes says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      You cannot get much more northern than me (Canadian border is not too far away), but the Lost Cause message pervaded my education. I am amazed at how successful that rewrite of history was. Especially when you consider how the victors normally write the history (WW2 for example).

       
  3. Malcolm Frame says:

    Thank you for posting this excellent and informative lecture. Edward Bonekemper’s “The Myth of the Lost Cause” is now in my collection of US history books and I look forward to reading it. Certainly, America is fortunate to have such dedicated and astute scholars of the Civil War and its aftermath such as C. Van Woodward, James McPherson, Victoria Bynum, Graham Wood, James Oakes, Eric Foner and Ron Chernow, to name just a few.
    Is it fanciful to consider the disagreement between those who express nostalgia for the “gallant” aristocratic antebellum South and those who recognise Lincoln’s victory as the second American Revolution a reflection of current political divisions? A genuine social revolution is marked by a transfer of wealth from those who possessed it to the victors, and as Bonekemper notes, freedom for the slaves costs their owners $4-6 billion. To retain such enormous wealth was worth fighting a war for. Surely today’s financial aristocracy, with their mansions, chauffeurs, maid-servants and almost unimaginable wealth would consider their antecedents to be the aristocrats of the old South rather than the plebian Lincoln and Grant, derided as drunkards and railsplitters. I hope Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant and that of Lincoln by Richard Carwardine puts the record straight.
    Oliver Cromwell, England’s 17th century Grant was (and still is) derided as a butcher. He created an army comprised of soldiers who “…know what he fights for and loves what he knows than what you call a gentleman and is nothing else” and after replacing the Earl of Manchester (the English McClellan) went on to defeat the mercenary army of Prince Rupert (the equivalent of General Lee) and change England forever.
    Not far from where I live in London there is a church in which Cromwell and Ireton debated with radical members of the New Model army. A quote from one of those radicals is inscribed on the wall of the church thus: “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he”, a sentiment that was only realised some 120 years later by Jefferson and Washington…

     
    • mathscinotes says:

      Thanks for your response. I am going to spend some time reading about Cromwell.

      My readings about the Civil War have exposed me to some statements that I am trying to work through:

      Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight

      I am always amazed at how the wealthy oligarchs are able to find some way to convince the poor people to fight. The poor Southern farmer saw no benefits to him from wealthy people owning slaves. In fact, the low-cost production costs made possible by slaves just made it harder for that poor farmer without slaves to make a living. To get the poor people to fight, the oligarchs tell them that they are fighting to save the Southern way of life. In reality, they are fighting to maintain the social order. A long time ago, I was told that politicians always have a stated reason and a real reason for a war. The two reasons are usually not the same.

      A politician can only fight a war as long as he has public support.

      Historically, I buy this. Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ were always battling to maintain public support for the wars they faced. There were drafts during these wars that made sure the public faced the real cost of these wars. The fact that the US no longer has a draft has now allowed us to have wars of inattention (phrase of historian Thomas Ricks) – when only 1% have to serve, people can get away with ignoring the fight. In this blog, I have occasionally mentioned the wisdom of my first engineering manager, Marl Godfrey. He was a Vietnam veteran who was strongly opposed to the US getting rid of the draft. He told me in 1979, “Once we have a professional military we will end up in constant wars. If it had not been for the draft, we never would have left Vietnam.” A professional military takes the public off the hook. I cannot tell you how often I have heard, “They volunteered for this.” The soldiers didn’t volunteer for endless wars. Marl said that there are pro-war interests in the US that have no problem letting poor people die for their causes. His words were prophetic. Look at the percentage of years we have been involved in a war (hot or simmering) since we put in a professional military. Smedley Butler made a similar argument in his book War is a Racket.

      It bothers me that the vast majority of our politicians were able to avoid military service (Clinton, Obama, Trump, Biden, George W. Bush served in a Texas National Guard show unit).

      The oligarchs are willing to fight to the last poor person.

      The class aspect of the Civil War is not discussed nearly enough. The slaves were held by about 1/3 of the families in the South. Basically, the South fought until they had no men or material left. 25% of the military-aged Southern white men were killed (not wounded — killed) during the Civil War. For example, at Appomattox Court House, Lee had only 10K men left to face a massive Union army. The oligarchs rarely suffer during these conflicts. Sherman felt that the plantation class had not paid nearly enough for their role in the war. He used 1860 census data to identify the wealthy and targeted their assets during his march to Savannah. To this day, Sherman is hated down South. I remember when General Schwarzkopf made an admiring reference to Sherman during the Gulf War and he was attacked by Southerners who hated Sherman. However, there are historians (Thomas Ricks) who say that his campaign was more targeted than our recent conflicts (link). Is Sherman hated because he forced the wealthy to pay a price? I wonder how we could test that?

       
  4. Malcolm Frame says:

    “God’s Englishman” by Christopher Hill is a very fair and balanced biography of Cromwell. Cromwell’s statue outside Parliament, showing him holding a sword and Bible, was only installed at the end of the 19th century amid great controversy and there are regular calls even now for it to be removed. Unlike Lincoln’s statue in Boston, it’s still there.
    In general, armies will hold together and fight well if and when the soldiers recognize justice in the cause. James McPherson’s “For Cause and Comrades” is based on thousands of letters from both Confederate and Unionist soldiers and demonstrates clearly why their commitments were strong enough to sustain their loyalty despite the most appalling suffering.
    In “Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South”, author Keri Leigh Merritt shows how the material lives of a white underclass differed little from that of the slaves and how an autocratic regime was imposed to maintain order whilst projecting the fiction of a society united in defence of slavery.
    Cromwell’s army mutinied only after the egalitarian ideas advanced by the troops went far beyond what he could tolerate and in 1649 he executed 3 of the ring leaders and effectively destroyed the democratic traditions in the army. From then on his soldiers followed orders because to disobey meant certain death whilst survival was always possible in battle – a tradition that persisted until WW1 and possibly beyond.

     

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