America’s Civil War (March 2016): Review of “Grant Under Fire”

Dr. Ethan Rafuse, in his review from the March 2016 edition of America’s Civil War, offers a good description of Grant Under Fire: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War.

It “offers a strident, contrarian take on the union commander, ” he noted, and ”Rose’s book will surely be welcomed by admirers of other Union generals.” In what appears to be a commendation of the research underlying Grant Under Fire, Dr. Rafuse pointed out that “Rose digs deep to support his argument that Grant’s success was a consequence of luck and northern materiel and manpower superiority.”

I would add several other factors, such as Ulysses S. Grant’s persistence and determination and, at times, his aggressiveness (a two-edged sword). Those who knew Grant well collectively concluded that the assistance offered by his staffer, John A. Rawlins, was invaluable. Personal relationships, far more than usual, affected Grant’s military career. He had been pushed by politicians (such as Elihu Washburne) and his favored correspondents (such as William C. Carroll and Sylvanus Cadwallader), while superiors (Halleck, Stanton, and Lincoln) supported him far more than other officers. Grant’s efforts to keep down rival generals (e.g., William S. Rosecrans, John McClernand, George H. Thomas, and Joseph Hooker) helped keep his path to the top clear, with the unfortunate side effect of damaging the country’s war effort. Union naval assets, particularly, provided huge advantages, without which Grant’s victories and escapes from near defeat in the West would not have come so easily, if at all, and his campaign in the East could have been similarly compromised. Victory really does have a hundred fathers, and probably thousands.

Dr. Rafuse continued that, “He also challenges the methodology of those who have pointed to relative casualty rates to debunk the ‘drunken butcher’ image of Grant—which Rose seeks to revive. . . .” Because the methodology regarding relative casualty rates that certain historians employ is absolutely illogical, the word “challenges” could easily be changed to “demolishes,” as a purely mathematical argument. I do debunk the notion of a non-alcoholic Grant, while Grant’s bludgeoning tactics and his leaving wounded soldiers to die between the lines can certainly be construed as callousness toward his men.

As to Rafuse’s wording that, “Not all readers will be swayed by Rose’s arguments, many of which are not new,” I would contend that he is looking at the empty portion of a half-filled glass. There is much that is new or improved in Grant Under Fire, especially compared to the spate of same-old, same-old biographies lauding General Grant to the skies, which have been published since William McFeely’s more critical tome. The book’s relating Grant’s military career in chronological fashion means that half of its contents won’t be new to any but the casual reader. I agree without a quibble that Grant Under Fire will not sway everyone. In fact, the resistance to such a sea-change in Grant historiography looks to be massive.

I especially enjoyed Dr. Rafuse’s summation that, “Still, Rose offers an interesting countertake to those who have pushed Grant scholarship to the point where history becomes hagiography.”

Share this: