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Sherman Vs Lee

Sherman Vs Lee

US Civil War

Sherman wrote, ” I knew that the people of the South would read this measure (taking Atlanta) two important conclusions: one, that we were in earnest; and the other, if they were sincere in their common and popular clamor ‘to die in the last ditch,’ that the opportunity would soon come.” page 187, “The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians 1861-1865” by Mark Grimsley

“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”- Robert E. Lee

Sherman Vs Lee

The Strategic Mastery of the Civil War : A Comparative Analysis of Generals Sherman with Lee

In a distinctive shift from the usual comparisons between Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, a compelling argument emerges when contrasting William T. Sherman with Lee.

Moreover, both generals stand widely recognized as some of the finest military minds produced by the Civil War.

Highly acclaimed Civil War author & historian David A. Powell opined on the subject; “I would certainly argue that Sherman’s gifts were operational, not tactical – his performance at Chattanooga was far from ‘solid.'”


Robert E. Lee, renowned for his battlefield tactics, demonstrated notable victories in several 1862–63 battles and managed effective defensive strategies against Grant in 1864. However, Lee’s approach to warfare, marked by excessive aggression and often complex or ineffective battle plans, ultimately proved to be his strategic downfall. His inclination to forgo direct battlefield control and the vagueness of his orders often led to missed opportunities and miscommunications.

The primary criticism of Lee’s tactics lies in his overly aggressive strategy.


Lee in 1869 (photo by Levin C. Handy).

Historians like Bevin Alexander highlight this flaw, especially evident in battles such as Beaver Dam Creek and Antietam, where Lee opted for head-on confrontations, resulting in substantial losses. This aggressive approach, coupled with a failure to adapt to advancements in military technology, particularly in firearms like rifled muskets and Minié balls, significantly undermined the Confederate army’s effectiveness. The increased range and accuracy of these weapons strengthened defensive positions, making Lee’s preferred tactics of frontal assaults increasingly untenable.

Lee’s failure to recognize the shifting dynamics of war, especially the enhanced defensive power afforded by new weaponry and trench warfare, led to costly battles that depleted the Confederacy’s limited resources. Despite these drawbacks, Lee’s legacy as a tactician remains, characterized by his bold strategies and the deep bond he forged with his troops. However, when compared to generals like Ulysses S. Grant, Lee’s shortcomings become apparent. Grant’s tactics, characterized by more effective battlefield control, simpler battle plans, and clearer orders, often proved superior in the context of the Civil War’s evolving nature of combat.

William T. Sherman: A Strategic Visionary

Sherman’s military prowess was evident from the early stages of the Civil War. His critical role at the Battle of Bull Run earned him recognition and advancement. Despite a brief setback due to a nervous breakdown, Sherman’s tactical acumen shone brightly at the Battle of Shiloh, where he played a key role in thwarting the Confederate assault. Although his early efforts in the Vicksburg campaign were mixed, he later excelled, and his performance at Chattanooga was solid.

Sherman’s Grand Strategy in Georgia and the Carolinas

A black-and-white photograph of a man seated with his left hand inside of his jacket. His body is facing the right diagonal while his head is looking to the left.

Portrait by Mathew Brady, c. 1864. Brady National Photographic Art Gallery – Library of Congress –

The real test of Sherman’s strategic genius was his campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas. His approach to these campaigns showcased his grand strategic skills, which, in many respects, surpassed Lee’s. Sherman’s maneuvers against Joseph E. Johnston and John Bell Hood were exemplary, culminating in the capture of Atlanta, a significant morale boost for the North.

The Controversial but Effective “March to the Sea”

Sherman’s “March to the Sea” was a pioneering application of total war. His strategy of ravaging the South’s economic infrastructure and morale by demonstrating his army’s mobility and destructive capacity was a masterstroke in modern warfare. His campaign in South Carolina was particularly harsh, as he viewed it as the birthplace of secession.

For further reading see Lloyd Klein’s piece: Sherman’s March To The Sea

Comparing Sherman and Lee


Lee at age 31 in 1838, as a Lieutenant of Engineers in the U.S. Army.

While Lee was undoubtedly a brilliant battlefield tactician, his approach to warfare was somewhat traditional. Sherman, in contrast, displayed modern sensibilities in command and strategy. Sherman’s achievements during his military career, especially his strategic maneuvers in Georgia and the Carolinas, underscored his superior understanding of grand strategy and logistics. Sherman’s capability to conduct large-scale operations efficiently was a key factor in the Union’s victory.

Legacy of Sherman’s Military Strategy

Sherman’s approach to warfare, marked by a blend of strategic foresight and efficient army management, represented a significant shift from traditional military tactics to modern warfare principles. His ability to foresee and execute long-term strategic plans demonstrated a level of military acumen that was arguably ahead of his time.


Lee mounted on Traveller (September 1866).

In conclusion, William T. Sherman’s military career, marked by strategic brilliance and effective army management, stands out in Civil War history. His approach to warfare not only brought significant victories to the Union but also shaped the future course of military strategy.

For further reading see: Robert E Lee : A Harsh Assessment & Critical Defense

Eric Foner Pulitzer Prize Winner Talks With Rebellion Research on The American Civil War

Sherman Vs Lee

Ending the Bloodshed | National Archives