A response to John F. Marszalek’s review of Grant Under Fire 2 comments

I would have hoped that, as Executive Director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association and with 29 years as a professor (and as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus and director of a Distinguished Scholars Program), Dr. John F. Marszalek would have provided an objective, comprehensive, and professional book review or else recused himself for partiality, especially as he charges me with a lack of objectivity and impartiality.

He complains that Grant Under Fire: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War “contains the most negative comments of any history book I can recall,” but acknowledges in the next sentence that it is an exposé. Did he expect Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to dwell on Richard Nixon’s foreign relations successes when writing about Watergate? The true test of a book (or a review) is whether or not it’s accurate.

To start, Dr. Marszalek did not correctly identify the author (who is not a judge and does not live in Florida). Among his errors in portraying the book’s contents, it does not refer to Sheridan as a terrible general; politics was only “a good part of the answer”—not “most of all”—as to why Grant ended up in command of the U.S. Army; Grant was an unreliable chronicler of the conflict and not a “congenital liar”; and only a few of Grant’s friends were venal. Most of the review merely repeats the book’s findings of Grant’s “negligence and corruption and indolence and favoritism and incapacity” in a tone of high dudgeon and unnecessary sarcasm.

Marszalek’s only specific accusation regarding Grant Under Fire—of accepting the supposedly demolished “myth” that Grant was “constantly drunk throughout the war”—is doubly wrong. Grant was a binge drinker, but was not charged with being “constantly drunk,” and no one can demolish the evidence for many of the episodes. Of his June 1863 spree on the Yazoo River, three people maintained that Grant was “intoxicated,” “stupid in speech and staggering in gait,” and “as stupidly drunk as the immortal nature of man would allow,” respectively. No witnesses described a sober Grant. Even William Sherman admitted: “We all knew at the time that Genl Grant would occasionally drink too much.” Three months later, in New Orleans, Grant had a horse accident. Two friendly generals asserted that “he is a drunkard” and for two days was “on a continual bender,” respectively. Again, no witnesses described a sober Grant. Pretending that these occurrences have been somehow disproved is just bad history.

Marszalek protests that the book “denigrates” Bruce Catton’s favorable evaluation of Grant. Yet, Grant Under Fire details how that author repeatedly changed his tune for his Grant biographies, and without new evidence. Catton minimized, omitted, or reversed his earlier, critical conclusions, concerning Grant’s being surprised at Shiloh, his intention not to charge up Chattanooga’s Missionary Ridge, his plan to pass through the Wilderness, his delay in requesting a truce at Cold Harbor, his ordering men to charge over the unexploded mine at the Crater, and his hectoring of George H. Thomas at Nashville. Marszalek’s other models include the sycophantic Horace Porter and Albert Richardson, whose 19th Century hagiography depicted a typically flawless Grant. Grant Under Fire does censure “a plethora of historians,” not for writing favorably about Grant, but for getting their facts wrong. A problem with many of these biographies is a lack of emphasis on research into primary sources.

I must confess that the book’s 38-page bibliography does omit two pro-Grant works that Dr. Marszalek thinks are important.

But his hyperbolic allegation, “If there is a Union military leader that historians consider significant, Rose knocks him down,” is patently untrue. William Rosecrans, George Thomas, Winfield Hancock, George Meade, and Gouverneur Warren were certainly significant commanders, yet Grant Under Fire helps redeem their reputations, which suffered at the hands of Grant and his biographers. And I do not insist that Grant “should have listened to generals like McClernand, Butler, Sigel, Fremont, McClellan, Burnside, and Rosecrans” (and Marszalek could have added Henry Halleck, Stephen Hurlbut, and Lew Wallace), but I stand up for them against certain undue criticisms from Grant. And this work tempers the triumphal claims of victory by Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, et al., who built themselves up, often on laurels stolen from other Union officers.

The reviewer appears amazed that Grant Under Fire “even finds fault with the general at Vicksburg.” But the book accurately summarized Grant’s activities: “For the final operations at Vicksburg, he made good decisions in a campaign of maneuver, but only after months of maladroit efforts to get out of the Mississippi’s bottomlands and onto the high ground of the eastern bank.” With three months of blundering in the swamps before marching overland and with two failed “all-along-the-line” assaults on the city, does Dr. Marszalek think the Vicksburg campaign was faultless? The General—who was not a proficient tactician—had scheduled another all-along-the-line assault at the time of the city’s surrender. All too often, Grant impetuously threw his soldiers into frontal assaults of fortified lines.

Ten Civil War authors [Gordon Rhea, Robert I. Girardi, William Glenn Robertson, John Horn, Lawrence Lee Hewitt, David Cleutz, Frank Varney, Bryce A. Suderow, Phil Leigh, and Wiley Sword] have commended Grant Under Fire, particularly for its thorough research. Yet, Marszalek doesn’t breathe a hint about any new information or findings in a book packed with both. These materials, omitted from or distorted in the standard Grant biographies, include unmatched accounts of Grant’s occupation of Paducah, negligence before Shiloh, unwise orders to Lew Wallace, inebriation on the Yazoo, unintended assault of Missionary Ridge, march out of the Wilderness, and abandonment of his wounded soldiers in no-man’s land after the all-along-the-line assault at Cold Harbor. On matters of fact large and small, Grant Under Fire corrects the record time and again. Does Marszalek think that Civil War history should be read for mere confirmation or, instead, for information?

Without offering any evidence whatsoever, Dr. Marszalek implies that my critique of Ulysses S. Grant cannot possibly be true of “the individual whose talents and integrity won the Civil War.” The reviewer’s unwillingness to corroborate a single imperfection in either Grant’s generalship or his character exemplifies why Grant Under Fire is so necessary.

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2 thoughts on “A response to John F. Marszalek’s review of Grant Under Fire

  • Mike Maxwell


    One of my favorite expressions: ‘Any publicity is good publicity.’

    You can’t please everyone (especially when making mention of the ‘fact’ of Grant’s drinking, to those who refuse to be confronted by evidence: it has potential to throw their belief system out of whack.)

    I, for one, am impressed by the research you have done, and the long-neglected information you have revealed, and presented for discussion IRT US Grant; and I intend to read ‘Grant Under Fire,’ soon as I complete my current project.


    Mike Maxwell
    Reynella, South Australia

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      I certainly couldn’t please Dr. Marszalek no matter what I did. Besides his position as director of the U.S. Grant Association, he penned a biography of William Sherman, who also doesn’t fare that well in Grant Under Fire.

      Thank you for the compliment. My book is dense and long, but it does have the virtue of lasting a long time when taken in small doses (which is the recommended rate of ingestion).

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