Bowery on Davis, 'Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee--The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged.'

William C. Davis
Charles R. Bowery

William C. Davis. Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee--The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged. New York: Da Capo Press, 2015. 1 online resource (689 pp.). ISBN 978-0-306-82245-2.

Reviewed by Charles R. Bowery Published on H-CivWar (October, 2015) Commissioned by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz

Lives and Legacies of the Civil War's Greatest Captains

William C. Davis is one of the most prolific Civil War historians and authors working today. His career of more than forty years has seen him publish at a rate of one book per year during that span, on topics ranging from the Texas Revolution, to biographies of key Confederate leaders, to surveys of battles and campaigns and a “culinary history” of the Union and the Confederacy. Davis is now a professor of history at Virginia Tech, and serves as director of programs for the school’s Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, placing him within the historiographical family tree of the legendary James I. Robertson. Davis writes narrative history for a general audience, and does it well. The long and ever-expanding list of Civil War titles, however, will lead the reader to ask whether we really need another narrative biography of the war’s two preeminent commanders, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Davis has certainly timed the release of Crucible of Command to coincide with the Civil War Sesquicentennial, and is no doubt banking on the uptick in popular interest in the showdown between the two generals during the campaigns of 1864-65 and the dénouement of the war in the East at Appomattox.

The protagonists of this lengthy book have been the subject of dozens of other biographies, addressing every aspect of their lives and careers. Some have focused on their generalship; some, their politics, particularly the presidency of U. S. Grant. Others have taken more innovative approaches, such as Michael Fellman’s psychological analysis of Robert E. Lee (2003), or the late Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s close reading of a newly discovered trove of Lee correspondence (2007). There are also several dual biographies of the two. Why, then, is Crucible of Command worthy of our notice?

The book’s value lies in the author’s approach and the comprehensiveness of the result. Davis attempts in this new biography to examine the two intertwined lives through contemporary primary sources, an approach that has inherent value. This would seem to be an easy task, but the massive weight of available sources, combined with a scanty coverage of certain periods of the men’s lives, can be an obstacle. Also, Grant and Lee have been the subjects of such extensive analysis and commentary in the intervening one hundred and fifty years that the available primary sources have been filtered through so many lenses as to be almost unrecognizable. Our understanding of Grant has been shaped over time by his Personal Memoirs (1885), which has affected all subsequent analysis. There is tremendous value, then, in visiting these sources afresh. In this regard, Crucible of Command is a deeply researched and useful book. 

Davis’s portrait of the two men follows the standard biographical path from childhood, education, and early army service through the Civil War to the postwar period. In general, there is nothing new or groundbreaking here, befitting subjects who have been so exhaustively studied. Davis has mined letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and contemporary reminiscences to add depth and nuance to pictures of men who have, over time, become more statue than human; in fact, West Point cadets began referring to Lee as the “Marble Model” during his tenure as superintendent, well before the Civil War. In the course of this narrative, some interesting comparisons emerge, while at the same time Davis succeeds in addressing the enduring controversies and episodes of their lives with a sure hand. Both men grew up in the shadow of successful but challenging fathers, a condition normally attributed in the popular mind only to Robert E. Lee. While Lee entered adulthood with many advantages of birth and upbringing that Grant did not possess, it is Lee who emerges here as a generally unhappy person throughout his life, beginning in childhood, long before the Civil War. The misdeeds of the elder Lee and his mother’s constant demands cast a lifelong pall over the son’s actions, limited his ability to experience childhood as a child, and hardened an already strong conception of duty into what would appear to be at times an unachievable standard of personal conduct. Lee’s devout Christian faith seemed to remind him more of his own shortcomings and the vagaries of human life than to provide him solace. His antebellum life and army service has been covered extensively in other places, but Davis’s focus on Lee’s marriage and fatherhood is very thoughtful and interesting. 

Davis also addresses Lee’s interactions with his family’s slaves. Lee, like many wealthy white Southerners, viewed slavery as part of the natural order of things, but saw it personally as a “plague” more than a luxury, demanding his time, attention, and resources. Over time, he manumitted those slaves he had inherited from the various branches of his family, but in 1859, matters came to a head as two of the Custis family slaves, Wesley and Mary Norris, fled captivity but were captured and returned to Arlington. Lee had Wesley and Mary whipped for attempting to escape, as well as for several other transgressions over the previous eighteen months, including thefts from his wife’s possessions. Anonymous letters to Northern newspapers alleged that Lee personally whipped Mary Norris, among other lurid accusations that followed Lee for the rest of his life. Davis finds no concrete evidence that Lee himself ever whipped slaves, but that “after eighteen months of surliness, resistance, and insubordination, [Lee] was fed up. The plantation, the expense of hiring other workers, apprehending runaways, and paying for jails and rewards devoured his own cash” and prevented him from returning to active army service. Fearing for his family's safety, Davis writes, Lee “concluded that punishment and example were due” (p. 84). In this respect, Robert E. Lee was no better or worse than other men of his class and upbringing.

Lee’s decision to resign from the US Army at the outbreak of the Civil War was certainly the most controversial episode of the Virginian’s life, and it receives a thoughtful analysis in this book. The decision certainly aligned with Lee’s conceptions of personal duty and loyalty to family and state. Davis refrains from branding Lee a traitor for his decision, reminding the reader that “it was neither a bold nor daring act, for two-thirds of the other Virginia-born officers took the same step. He consulted with others, but made his decision himself. He took longer than some to make it, and did so in the absence of acceptable options rather than as a man taking a risk. It was the move of a conservative man joining a revolution” (p. 123). Lee’s daughter remarked to a cousin after the resignation that “it is like a death in the house” (p. 121). This is a fair, dispassionate recounting of the turning point in Lee’s life, and it leaves the reader to form his or her own opinion on the matter.

The antebellum career of Ulysses S. Grant is dominated in the popular imagination by the idea that Grant was an alcoholic who turned to drink as his career prospects dried up at various points during his postings on the Pacific Coast. While it appears true that Grant drank to excess at some points, due to loneliness or stress, Davis debunks this idea as a myth, both through his detailed reconstruction of Grant’s movements after the Mexican-American War and through a detailed examination of the primary source record in the book’s endnotes (pp. 528-529). Davis’s analysis of this aspect of Grant’s personality aligns closely with that of Brooks S. Simpson (Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity 1822-1865 [2000]), who also acknowledges that Grant was fond of alcohol but could not handle large quantities of it. Various observers in and outside the army commented on Grant’s drinking during the Civil War, and those with agendas against the general encouraged the perception that he was an alcoholic. Grant relied on his personal staff officers, led by John Rawlins, who remained essentially stable and loyal throughout the war, to keep him out of trouble, even as he indulged in drink from time to time at particularly challenging moments. The pervasiveness of this legend, even one hundred-plus years after Grant’s life, is difficult to overstate. This book is a needed corrective in that regard.

During the Civil War and afterward, many observers branded Ulysses S. Grant a “butcher” for his supposedly unsophisticated handling of troops in battle, most notably during the 1864 Overland Campaign. Davis offers a much more complete, balanced picture of Grant’s generalship, showing him to be the only Union general who possessed all of the essential qualities of great generalship—productive working relationships with civilian leadership, skill at visualizing and managing large campaigns and units, a deep understanding of logistics and joint army-navy operations, and a steadying influence during times of crisis. What is more, Davis shows that Grant learned and evolved as a leader during the war.

Otherwise, Davis offers fairly conventional descriptions of the Civil War campaigns of Grant and Lee. This is probably the least useful portion of the book for the knowledgeable reader, but the non-Civil War expert will find it a useful summary of the war years through the lens of the thoughts and actions of the preeminent commanders on both sides. There is simply not much more to say about the military careers of these two giants of American military history. This reviewer found the non-Civil War aspects of the Grant and Lee stories to be more illuminating, because of the depth that they add to already well-known stories. 

The conventional wisdom regarding Grant and Lee at the war’s end tells us that the two generals worked closely together, beginning at Appomattox, to bring about sectional reconciliation, fostering good feelings that helped, in time, to bind the nation’s wounds. Recent scholarship, most notably Elizabeth R. Varon’s provocative Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War (2014), has challenged this view. Varon’s Robert E. Lee steadfastly works behind the scenes for “restoration” of a status quo ante bellum instead of a “reconstruction” that formalizes the victory of freedom over slavery, sowing the seeds of massive Southern resistance to reintegration into the Union. Davis agrees with Varon more than he disagrees, but is much more careful in his language. His Robert E. Lee is steadily embittered by Reconstruction, watching “in grief the impositions on the rights of Southerners, trusting that an end to their duress would come one day, ‘for time, at last, sets all things even.” After the war, “Lee never spoke of himself again as an American, but only as a Virginian or a Southerner.... He might acquiesce, but he would never assimilate” (p. 475). It goes without saying here that Lee’s fellow Southerners were the authors of their own “duress,” as much as the Union army or radical Republicans imposed it during the war or in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Both lay readers and scholars will enjoy this excellent book. The extensive endnotes alone make it a valuable addition to the shelf of any military historian. Crucible of Command will take an important place in the corpus of books about the two giants of the Civil War.

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Citation: Charles R. Bowery. Review of Davis, William C., Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee--The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged.. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. October, 2015. URL:

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