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In 1864, General Ulysees S. Grant began the "final campaign" against Richmond using a war of attrition. That's because of the Union's 2-to-1 numerical advantage against a qualitatively superior Confederate force (better led and fighting on home ground). In a series of battles (Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor), Grant advanced about 60 miles in one month, at the cost of about 60,000 men, roughly a 2-to-1 loss ratio (compared to about 30,000 for the Confederates.)

When these tactics earned him the sobriquet of "Butcher Grant," his retort was, "I'll fight it out along these lines if it takes all summer."

Once his proximity to Richmond reduced the Confederates' capacity for maneuver, the Union loss ratio went down to 3- to -2, and ultimately, 1-to -l, spelling doom for the outnumbered Confederates.

Does Ulysses S. Grant deserve a high reputation as a general for using such "attrition" tactics?

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One thing that fighting did do was prevent Confederate forces from leaving Virginia to face Sherman's campaigns. Attrition warfare can allow maneuver warfare. –  David Thornley Nov 20 '11 at 18:36
@DavidThornley: Counteracting a possible junction of the two Confederate armies was a huge advantage. Basically, the only way the Confederates could have won was to unite, defeat Sherman, then turn around and defeat Grant (et. al.) –  Tom Au Nov 21 '11 at 13:53
I'm voting to close. This is essentually an ethics question. "Is it right to do this course of action?". –  Rory Dec 9 '11 at 23:09
@Rory: OK, I changed the emphasis for a historical focus on U.S. Grant. –  Tom Au Dec 9 '11 at 23:17
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3 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The ends justify the means. I'm sure we've all heard that statement before, but it's never more true than in a war of attrition. As long as your goals are met, then the tactics are justified. If Grant had failed to break the Confedrates, then he would have been just one more Union general who proved to be inept, and his tactics would have been questioned throughout history.

As a leader, you have to look at the big picture and try to balance your resources against your objectives. Grant could have just stood his ground and tried to set up boundaries between his troops and those of the Confederates, but that would have been a victory for the South. The longer the war dragged on, the more disenchanted people became with it. He knew that he needed to wrap things up, because otherwise it would become a long, drawn out affair that ultimately could have given the South what they wanted, a clear separation from the Union.

In any war, the leaders have to make the hard choices in deciding what is most likely to allow them to win. Sometimes you have an overwhelming superiority, such as the US in Iraq, and other times, the weaponry is too equalized, such as in WWII. If your only clear advanatage is superiority in numbers, then you use that to your advantage. Are these types of tactics justified? If they help you win, then ultimately, history would say yes.

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On a side-note, Grant was successful because he was more interested in fighting the Confederates, rather than Union politics (c.f. McClellan, in particular), he also seemed to have more 'courage'- in the sense of deciding a strategy/tatic and ensuring his own ideas were followed-through. –  nicodemus13 Jun 18 '12 at 17:20
@nicodemus13 - Right. IOW, he was the first commander of the AoP who had the fortitude to do the (unpleasant) things that had to be done. –  T.E.D. Jul 6 '12 at 13:41
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It's unclear what you mean by "good enough reason to use them"?

  • If you mean "won't lead to strategically affecting resource losses", then it depends entirely on resources your country/army has.

  • If you mean "won't lead to strategically affecting morale", then I'd say this depends in large part on the circumstances surrounding the war. Morale is affected by other things than attrition ratios. As two constrasting examples:

    • Soviets under Zhukov (or heck, through the entire Great Patriotic War) suffered horrendous casualties (especially when attacking) but were not likely to break morale due a variety of factors, one of which was of course Stalin's government's enforcement of "not a step back" doctrines. Neither did the country's morale break - the people overwhelmingly backed Stalin and idolized Zhukov. For that matter a large portion of that generation still does, among those alive. One of the factors was of course that they were fighting Nazis.

    • On the other hand, American morale (not the military, but society) was completely broken by losses despite relatively low loss ratio in both Vietnam and Iraq. I'd also put USSR in Afghanistan into the same category (for an even better contrast with the first example) but am not sure about loss ratios.

  • If you mean "Is it justified Ethically", then it's not really a history related angle, so I'll just repeat "it depends on circumstances".

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+1 For best answer to an ill question. –  astabada Jan 10 '13 at 13:02
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Grant did not command the Army of the Potomac; that would be Meade, the victor of Gettysburg. Grant was the overall commander, but he accompanied the Army of the Potomac (no, I don't know what Meade thought of that).

Therefore, it's necessary to look at the overall US strategy at the time, which was to pin the Army of Virginia in place while Sherman attacked the Confederate heartland. That was Grant's purview, and he should be judged on that basis.

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Grant set the policy for the Army of the Potamac that Meade followed. It is noteworthy that Lee surrendered at Appomatox to GRANT and not to Meade. So while you are technically correct that it was Meade's ARMY, it was Grant's STRATEGY. He even said, "I [not Meade] will fight it along this line if it takes all summer." –  Tom Au Dec 11 '11 at 0:08
IMHO This might technically be true, but was just a bit of nuance meant to save face with Meade and the rest of the army brass. Nobody at the time had any doubt who was really in control, nor should we now. –  T.E.D. Jul 6 '12 at 13:37
@T.E.D.: You're missing the point. Grant was responsible for the actions of the Army of the Potomac, but that wasn't the limit of his responsibility. If you're going to judge Grant's generalship, you need to consider the attacks on the Army of Virginia and Sherman's sweep through the south. –  David Thornley Jul 9 '12 at 20:28
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