Errors in U.S. Grant Biographies (Part One: Missionary Ridge) 2 comments

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.

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2 thoughts on “Errors in U.S. Grant Biographies (Part One: Missionary Ridge)

  • Phil Leigh

    Thanks for sharing. Like you I was struck by the conflicting statements of Thomas and Grant prior to Thomas’s men moving up Missionary Ridge. One of them was lying, but I did not know which one. When researching the matter I also noticed that Professor Simpson sided with Grant.

    Presently, I been researching the Reconstruction Era and learned of at least one more instance in which Grant’s claims are contradicted. Specifically, when President Andrew Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton he and Grant would later disagree about whether they had an understanding of Grant’s obligations to the President. Johnson claimed that upon the Senate rejection of Stanton’s dismissal under the Tenure Act, Grant agreed to either (1) hold the office ad interim as Johnson had appointed him months earlier or (2) agree to tell Johnson in advance if Grant decided to resign so that Johnson could appoint a replacement thereby enabling Johnson to test the constitutionality of the Tenure Act in court.

    If there was such an agreement, Grant failed to live up to it. He later claimed there was no such agreement. Undoubtedly, either Johnson or Grant was lying. Once again, Professor Simpson concludes Johnson was the liar….What are your thoughts?

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      There are so many instances where Grant either lied at the time or lied later on when recounting an incident (even allowing for some misremembering). In the Tenure of Office Act imbroglio, he lied to the President. Of course, Grant’s defenders don’t like to admit it, but the wealth of evidence disproves Grant in this matter (as well as showing his conspiring with the Radical Republicans behind President Johnson’s back). Four or five members of the Cabinet confirmed Grant’s duplicity. Grant compounded this deceit in his later communication with the President.

      Johnson also complained that Grant had deceived him regarding the removal of Georgia Governor Jenkins by General Meade, “having given him to understand that no such removal would be made.”

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