Although it assuredly happens all-too-often in histories and biographies, I have run across many seemingly fabricated stories about an heroic Ulysses S. Grant, which have been repeated without regard to the evidentiary background. One of them, concerning Richard Ewell, figures in my book, Grant Under Fire:
In regard to Albert Richardson’s anecdote of Ewell’s warning other rebel officers early in the war of one as-yet-undiscovered federal leader whom they should fear, “I mean Sam Grant,” historian Donald Pfanz dismissed it as “apocryphal.” The lack of respect Ewell displayed for the Union commander’s military skill in a letter written on the way to North Anna corroborated this conclusion. Acquainted since West Point and on friendly terms, Ewell reported that winning by attrition represented the only, and not very attractive, hope:
“The position of Grant’s army is this: Beaten, terrible losses, worn out. His chances are in his numbers that might stand killing untill we are worn out & he has still some left to use. But the chances are against this.”
There are two more instances that I should have included. The unreliable chronicler, Horace Porter, told one story about James Longstreet’s reaction to Grant’s upcoming command in the Overland Campaign. According to Porter, Longstreet recalled: “I have observed his methods of warfare in the West, and I believe I know him through and through; and I tell you that we cannot afford to underrate him and the army he now commands.” Yet, just a few weeks at most before this, Longstreet had written to Lee about Grant:
If Grant goes to Virginia I hope that you may be able to destroy him. I do not think that he is any better than Pope. They won their successes in the same field. If you will outgeneral him you will surely destroy him. His chief strength is in his prestige.
Lastly, there is an anecdote of Robert E. Lee refuting a disparagement of General Grant: “Now, I have carefully searched the military records of both ancient and modern history, and have never found Grant’s superior as a General. I doubt that his superior can be found in all history.” But this was a fourth-hand account, supposedly heard by one person two to fourteen months earlier (depending on the meaning of “last April”) in conversation with a second person who had talked to a third person two to four years previously who, in turn, had heard it from General Lee some ten or fifteen years before that.
If that were not sufficient to seriously question the presence of this quote in histories and biographies, there is a characterization of General Grant on the record by Robert E. Lee, dated July 24, 1864—after he had been battling Grant for the past two and a half months: “His talent and strategy consists in accumulating overwhelming numbers.”