Although the standard version of Ulysses S. Grant’s war-time history portrays him to be a military genius and a reliable chronicler of the American Civil War, his biographers have exaggerated, distorted, or omitted certain, salient facts.
One of the most stark examples of this practice is from the Chattanooga campaign, which featured many of the most famous Union generals: Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas, Joseph Hooker, Philip H. Sheridan, and Oliver O. Howard. The battle’s culmination occurred when Grant wanted Thomas’ men to charge one mile and capture a long stretch of Confederate breastworks at the base of three hundred-foot-high Missionary Ridge. Having done what they had been ordered to do, the soldiers found they could not remain in their untenable position under fire from enemy artillery and rifles along the crest of the ridge. The officers and men in the four divisions kept going, ascending the slope and pushing the Confederates off the top to win the battle.
In his Memoirs, Grant claimed that he meant for this to happen. The battle’s foremost historians—Wiley Sword, James McDonough, and Peter Cozzens—disagree with him, as do the writings of Generals Gordon Granger, Thomas Wood, Phil Sheridan and “Baldy” Smith; Lieutenant Colonels James H. Wilson and Joseph Fullerton; and Assistant Secretary of War Dana, among other evidence. The general’s biographers, on the other hand, almost uniformly credit him with planning to seize the crest as a direct result of the initial movement. But confirmatory evidence of his planning a two-stage assault to carry the crest, beyond Grant’s say-so at the time and later, is conspicuously absent. Quartermaster-General Montgomery Meigs copied into his journal, sometime after the ridge had been carried, the General’s assertion about the unanticipated ascent: “Grant said it was contrary to his orders, it was not his plan—he meant to form the lines and then prepare and launch columns of assault” up the ridge.
The controlling phrase, however, is: “Grant said.” Meigs didn’t indicate that he knew for himself whether Grant intended an ascent of the ridge or not. The biographers’ whole argument boils down to what “Grant said.”
Biographer Brooks Simpson did declare that Sylvanus Cadwallader’s post-war manuscript (which turned into the book, Three Years with Grant) “contradicts accounts that at the battle of Chattanooga Grant merely intended the Army of the Cumberland to take the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge.” Simpson argued that “Grant’s intention was to reform the assault columns and then send them onward and upward.” But newspaperman Cadwallader, Grant’s confidant and staunch defender of all things not pertaining to alcohol or John Rawlins, expressed the exact opposite view in a newspaper article composed just hours after watching the assault from Orchard Knob: “Division commanders were especially instructed to make no attempt to ascend the face of the ridge, but to content themselves with gaining the intrenched works below and protecting themselves in that position till the next day.”
And apparently no one else on Orchard Knob that day confirmed Grant’s version either.
What makes this episode so important in Civil War historiography is the absolute dichotomy between the two scenarios. If Grant had actually ordered Thomas to “carry the rifle-pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge, and when carried to reform his lines on the rifle-pits with a view to carrying the top of the ridge” (as he stated in his official report), then he was a military mastermind and truthfully described his actions. Instead, he sent Thomas’ men into a death trap (initially wanting only two divisions to take the rifle-pits at the base of the ridge as a demonstration in Sherman’s favor). Then, he took the credit for the soldiers’ initiative and success, even though he questioned who sent them uphill and threatened whoever it was if the attack failed.
Instead of showing great ability, Grant displayed terrible generalship at Chattanooga, as well as a lack of integrity by fabricating his account. The divergence between the biographers’ standard view and historic reality can hardly be greater. Any stringently critical look at General Grant’s career will uncover many other major flaws that are routinely overlooked by his defenders.