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.

Did Ulysses S. Grant's use of such "attrition" tactics help or hinder winning the war?

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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. Commented Nov 20, 2011 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
    Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 13:53
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    I'm voting to close. This is essentually an ethics question. "Is it right to do this course of action?". Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 23:09
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    @Rory: OK, I changed the emphasis for a historical focus on U.S. Grant.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 23:17
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    There are a couple bad premises baked into your question, including the “retort”. I believe he wrote that line to Lincoln who was a huge grant supporter from at least 1863, if not back to Shiloh. Lincoln, more than anyone, understood the “grim arithmetic” at work that required the destruction of Lee’s army, not the taking to Richmond. Grant had the gumption to see it through. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 8:07

6 Answers 6


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. Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 17:20
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    @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.
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 13:41
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    something similar was D-day, the allied forces faced the threat of massive casualties, but, it was something that had to be done to win the war, and to this day was one of biggest and most talked about military maneuver in history.
    – Himarm
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 16:57
  • Your analogy with WW2 is interesting in the sense that there was the same tentative from Japan (at least) to make the US pay "too much" for the reconquest of territories Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 21:56

Grant did not fight a war of attrition against Lee in Virginia. Grant fought a war of maneuver against Lee, attempting again and again to pass Lee's right and get between him and Richmond. Lee repeatedly countered these maneuvers, turning each one into a bloody confrontation and repulse; but that was not Grant's chief aim. Any look at a map of the Overland Campaign will make it immediately obvious what Grant was trying to do.

The Confederate force was not "qualitatively superior". There is no reasonable standard by which it was better led: there is no military standard by which Grant was not one of the very greatest commanding generals in American history, possibly the greatest.

Ulysses S. Grant gets his high reputation as a general for his accomplishments. He formed the Army of the Tennessee, probably the most successful unit of the entire Civil War. He pioneered combined land-sea operations (with Admiral Andrew Foote) on the Tennessee River. He won important battles at Ft Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg. Vicksburg had been considered impregnable; Grant's victory there, which opened the Mississippi River, was probably the single most decisive military result of the Civil War before Appomattox. His Vicksburg campaign is studied as one of the great pieces of maneuver warfare of all time.

Grant was the architect of the grand strategy that finally ended the Confederacy. He had the Army of the Potomac keep contact with Lee in Virginia, and sent Sherman on a wide flanking maneuver, down thru Atlanta to the sea and then up behind Lee. He also worked well with his political leadership, and grasped the realities of commanding a volunteer army in a republic. He understood the impact that the election year of 1864 could have on the Union's winning the war. This grasp of high strategy, both in theater-wide military operations and in political realities, is one of the most striking differences between Grant and other generals of the era – particularly Lee, who seemed interested only in Virginia.

Grant conducted the Overland Campaign, which strategically looks almost identical to the Vicksburg campaign. He displayed the same tenacity and focus as he displayed at Vicksburg. He displayed his great ingenuity and command of his logistics at Cold Harbor, with a daring and stealthy movement across an engaged front and over the James River. That movement effectively pinned Lee down in Petersburg, and ended the Army of Northern Virginia as a mobile fighting force. The subsequent siege dragged on forever, but the military outcome was no longer in doubt. (The political outcome was still up in the air until Lincoln won reelection; but in pure military terms, the outcome of the siege was inevitable.)

During the Civil War Grant captured 3 entire Confederate armies: at Ft Donelson (12,000 men), Vicksburg (29,000), and Appomatox (28,000). He very nearly had a 4th army at Chattanooga. (No other Civil War general captured any armies.) This is a stunning accomplishment, difficult even to compare with other results. Against that, Grant seems to have made only 3 tactical mistakes over the entire war:

  1. Not closing his right flank at Ft Donelson, which permitted Forrest's escape, and could have freed the entire garrison.
  2. Not having his men entrench at Shiloh. Events proved this a mistake; but it should be noted that entrenchment was not yet standard practice. It was still early enough in the war that Union generals thought entrenchment sapped the soldiers' morale.
  3. The last assault at Cold Harbor (June 3). Grant wrote frankly in his memoirs about his regret in ordering that assault.

Just 3 tactical mistakes in 4 years of extremely active campaigning seems a pretty remarkable record. It's difficult to find a standard to compare it with; but I make more frequent mistakes than that at my own work, and I don't have an enemy actively trying to thwart me.

Grant had a lower casualty rate than Lee (casualties per 100 soldiers) during the Overland Campaign and over the course of the whole war , despite operating continuously on the offensive. I think Grant's casualty rate was at the low end of the range of Civil War generals, but I don't have that table in front of me. I do know that Lee had the highest casualty rate among Civil War generals.

Grant's reputation is due to his accomplishments; if anything his reputation is less than his accomplishments merit. It's not clear that any Civil War force was ever "better led" than the ones led by Grant.

Apart from the mistaken assumptions in the question, it's tough to know what the question is supposed to mean. Obviously a military commander can use attrition tactics, if he has the resources to sustain it and his political leadership condones it. His job is to win: his means are "whatever it takes", subject to the laws of warfare. Is the question "Should he?" That's not readily answerable.

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    Welcome to the site. Great answer.
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 12:36
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    Splendid answer - I'd have loved to see more references, but this is the kind of answers that justifies latitude in military history opinion questions.
    – MCW
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 12:48
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    I would add only that: Grant also inspired his men. Only truly successful commanders do that for longer than trivially short periods of time, and for extended campaigns and multiple battles. Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 0:01
  • Outstanding answer Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 8:03
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    Also, he was a good writer. I found his war memoirs to be very readable.
    – DrMcCleod
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 11:17

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".


How many commanding Generals did Lincoln go through in the civil war. You could probable count McClellan twice before Lincoln finally fired him after Antietam.

  1. Winfield Scott
  2. George McClellan: (1861-1862)
  3. John Pope(1862)
  4. Ambrose Burnside (1862-1863)
  5. Joseph Hooker(1863)
  6. George Meade(1863-1864)
  7. Ulysses S. Grant

Your question pre-supposes that it was Grant's great advantage to fight near Richmond. And yet McClellan too was close enough to Richmond in June of 1862 to hear the church bells from the city; but it didn't stop Lee from pushing him all the way back to Washington D.C.

Grant had the superior numbers, but all of Lincoln's generals enjoyed superior numbers. The problem with McClellan wasn't that he didn't have enough men, The problem with McClellan was he always thought Lee had more regardless of how many troops entrusted to McClellan.

You say Grant fought a war of attrition, I rather believe he fought a war of maneuverability. One things true though Grant didn't stop coming after fighting Battles. Grant chased Lee and kept up the pressure. That ultimately left Lee continuously retreating and reacting and unable to create, with nowhere to go.


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.

  • 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
    Commented Dec 11, 2011 at 0:08
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    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.
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 13:37
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    @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. Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 20:28
  • Basically Grant was put in overall charge of both Meade and Sherman. Grant chose to "micromanage" Meade and not Sherman. I wonder why.
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 0:05

Attrition was Grant's strategy, not his tactics, tactically he wanted to maneuver to best use the effects of attrition arising from maneuver, but he more often failed to maneuver to advantage and ended up performing assaults on fortified positions.

Strategy is doing the right job, tactics is doing the job right.

To quote his own words:

I determined, first, to use the greatest number of troops practicable against the armed force of the enemy, preventing him from using the same force at different seasons against first one and then an- other of our armies, and the possibility of repose for refitting and producing necessary supplies for carrying on resistance. Second, to hammer con- tinuously against the armed force of the enemy and his resources, until by mere attrition, if in no other wav, there should be nothing left to him.

How to measure his performance and what does it then support? One way is to use cost benefit, ie if 1 man makes 1 car a day and in another factory it takes 2 men to make the same car, then the first factory is twice effective. Using casualty infliction and casualties sufferers to inflict them, is a way to measure a the cost benefit of attrition strategy.

Grant's overland cost effective at inflicting combat losses and suffering them. If you add up the strength of both sides, and do a cost benefit calculation, Lee with 344,000 manpower, fought Grant's 634,000 manpower, so Grant's manpower advantage was 1.8 to 1. Lee inflicted 97,000 casualties and suffered 62,000 to do so, coming out at +28% and minus 18% to Grants, +10% -15%. Or, in other words, Grant's 1.8 manpower advantage returned a casualty infliction rate almost three times less than Lee, for around the same loss rate in doing so. or if you prefer , Lee inflicted three times the loss rate that Grant achieved, for the same loss rate each suffered. Hence he is called a butcher, he was losing manpower at a rate close to the North's military age manpower advantage, and higher than the manpower advantage the Northern armies contained. Forty-five percent of all Union casualties-including 56.4 percent of all Union troops wounded and 36.4 percent of all Union troops killed in action fell at the hands of Lees army.

So, to remove a casualty required Grant to lose 3 of his own, and vice versa, in that measurement his strategy of attrition skirted with defeat for the North, as it was higher than the North's mobilisation rate.

US to CS PFD manpower advantage.
62 April 1.59 to 1.
62 Dec 2.6 to 1.
63 Dec 1.79 to 1.
64 Dec 2.16 to 1.

He was called a butcher earlier in 62 by a US Senator who wanted Lincoln to sack him, calling him "bloodthirsty, reckless of human life and utterly unfit to lead troops".

"I'll fight it out along these lines if it takes all summer." is a quote that he is not moving back onto supplies and reinforcements, as had been the usual, but that they are coming to where he is going to be. Full quote and its meaning is in S Foote.

Haig is also known as a butcher, he lost 0.3% of his Army a day in 1916. He lost 2.4% of all British casualties of the war on first day of the Somme, something he never repeated. Grant was losing combat casualties at twice the rate of Haig in the campaign, also lost 2.8% of all US casualties at wilderness, and again at Spotsylvania, 2% at Cold Harbour, and another 2% at Shiloh, 1.9% at the 2nd Petersburg assault so repeated the process of mass causalities.

British Army (1.5 million strong) WW1 Somme, 50 of the 58 Division took part during 141 days, so 1,293,100 used, of which 420k became combat casualties, or 32%, or 3k a day casualties or 0.3% of strength a day.

SU Army in WW2 Eastern front, 3rd Quarter of 1941, Army strength average of 3,334,000 per month, so c10,000,000 took part in 90 days, of which 2,744,765 became casualties, or 27.4% or 30,497 a day or 0.9% of strength a day.

Grant's Army in the 40 days Overland, AoP 142,744, reinforcements and replacements, received from Belle plain 33,264. From White house 23,514. Total of c200k not including sick, of which 55,000 became combat casualties or 27.5% or 1375 a day, or 0.7% of the Army lost per day.

646,392/1505 days = 429 or 8.5% of all wartime casualties in 2.7% of the days is Grant's record.

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