Grant’s first “victory”?

Almost universally, Ulysses S. Grant, his biographers, and his other supporters make the claim, when they describe the incident, that he took Paducah, Kentucky, despite the absence of orders from his superior officer, General John Frémont. Grant was quite clear about this in his Personal Memoirs: “Not having received an answer to my first dispatch, I again telegraphed to department headquarters that I should start for Paducah that night unless I received further orders. Hearing nothing . . . .” Sometimes, Frémont is even accused of opposing the plan.

This is contradicted by the evidence in the Official Records, which indicated that Grant did receive orders (he acted on each of Frémont’s three instructions). As bad, or even worse, than misreading the official reports, the biographers somehow missed two drafts of an unsubmitted report in the U.S. Grant Papers at the Library of Congress. Apparently, none of them noticed or acted upon the reference in the Finding Aid: “Reports 1846-1847, 1862, 1903 (14 folders).” At some point (probably around 1864), Grant and his aides described his military activities from August 31, 1861 up to the start of the Battle of Shiloh. Both drafts have Grant stating that he received Frémont’s directions.

Furthermore, although Polk is usually censured for the tremendous blunder in being the first commander to breach Kentucky’s neutrality, the biographers ignore the obvious fact that Grant was likewise willing to cross the border before the enemy. One day before he learned that the Confederates had taken Columbus, Grant suggested it to Frémont: “This should be done to-morrow night.”

This whole affair shows, without any reason for doubt, that:

1). Grant did not deserve especial kudos for occupying Paducah,

2). His strategy was as atrocious as Polk’s, in this instance,

3). His vaunted reliability as a chronicler of history, by including this claim in his Memoirs, should be seriously questioned, and

4) Grant’s biographers advanced a flawed narrative, being either unable or unwilling to discover and publicize his undeserved arrogation of glory, lack of strategic ability, and inaccurate writing.

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