When is a quote on Ulysses S. Grant insufficient for historical purposes? 2 comments

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.”

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2 thoughts on “When is a quote on Ulysses S. Grant insufficient for historical purposes?

  • Mike Maxwell

    ‘He robbed from the rich, and gave to the poor.’ That’s about all anyone knows about Robin Hood (yet the real story, beyond the myth, is so much more interesting.) But, no one has time or inclination to do the research.

    U.S. Grant: everyone knows his real name was ‘Hiram.’ Yet, there are any number of stories how Hiram became U.S. Grant (many of which were initiated/perpetuated by Grant, himself.) Just a few:
    – his name was incorrectly transcribed by the congressman who appointed Grant to West Point;
    – Grant did not fancy the initials ‘H – U – G’ in an environment populated by alpha males seeking ‘weakness,’ so took the opportunity to change his own name. (In the end, he had to agree to the change, however it came about.)
    – When asked, he would tell inquisitive folks, ‘S’ stood for nothing; or ‘S’ stood for ‘Sam’
    – the newspapers were quick to latch onto ‘U.S.’ as representing ‘Unconditional Surrender’ Grant, after Fort Donelson.

    My point? Even on a topic as mundane as U.S. Grant’s name, any number of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ interpretations of how the change came about are out there: impossible to weed out all the ‘wrong’ stories; they help form part of the ‘Legend of U.S. Grant,’ just like Little John, Sherwood Forest and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham contribute to the Legend of that other character…

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      Thanks. Your point is well taken.

      The Author’s Note for Grant Under Fire starts: “I apologize in advance for all errors. In preparing a Civil War history of this scope, an enormous amount of the available material was used, ranging from the relatively accurate to the completely unreliable. But there are so many sources still unconsulted and so many of the extant sources contradict each other, information is sure to come to light modifying or overturning many of the facts and conclusions stated here.” There are bound to be mistakes in any book on the Civil War.

      In my introductory chapter, I give an example of how one error, once started, got handed down again and again:

      Inaccuracies of all kinds saturated Civil War writings. Errors passed from one generation of books to the next. As one example, astoundingly erroneous accounts—even by participants—credited Sherman for a hard-fought struggle to seize Tunnel Hill at Chattanooga on November 24, 1863. Albert Richardson (1868): After “having surprised and driven back the enemy,” there was “some sharp fighting as he pushed forward his left toward the summit of Missionary Ridge.” Ephraim Wilson (1893): “The order came, and on we went like the wind,” and the “enemy offering stubborn resistance, was forced back.” James Grant Wilson (1897): “With a hundred guns playing on them, and with as many more answering … climbed it through storms of shot and shell, beat back the bayonets that wreathed its top, clambered over the hot muzzles of the guns upon its summit, and at half-past three planted their banners there.” Samuel H.M. Byers (1911): “All that day we maneuvered under heavy cannonading and drove the enemy from hill to hill at our front. Some of the troops did heavy fighting … .” Lloyd Lewis (1932): Sherman “found that he must climb a series of fortified hills and batter his way up valleys choked with canister.” Bruce Catton (1956): Sherman’s men climbed hill after hill, “with cold-eyed Rebel marksmen shooting at them every step of the way—and occasionally rolling huge rocks down on them. By the end of the day the Army of the Tennessee had had some very hard fighting.” And Jean Edward Smith (2001): “Sherman encountered heavy opposition.” In actuality, the rebels had offered negligible resistance to Sherman’s tardy, unhurried, and prematurely halted advance against an initially unoccupied Tunnel Hill.

      Other examples of commonly repeated mistakes include Sherman’s suggesting to his foster-brother Hugh, on the same day as the above (and not the day after), “you may go up the hill … if you like, and can,” and Thomas’ (not Grant’s) questioning Granger as to who ordered the Army of the Cumberland up the ridge, on the day after.

      I think that one cause of such bad historiography is the authors’ disinclination to investigate the primary sources, even when it’s readily accessible.

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