In Grant Under Fire, I demonstrated how Horace Porter—Ulysses S. Grant’s staffer, friend, and biographer—could not be trusted for a true history of the General in the Overland campaign. Porter’s reverential Campaigning with Grant contained innumerable, implausible justifications and apologies for his chief. It parrots many of the inaccuracies from Grant’s Personal Memoirs.
Porter offered a verbatim, 199-word speech by Grant on how he decided to cross the Rapidan downstream from Lee once he “considered especially the sufferings of the wounded in being transported long distances overland, instead of being carried by short routes to water, where they could be comfortably moved by boats.” Instead, the General’s expectation to utilize the overland route for the wounded—until events dictated a switch to Fredericksburg—illustrated the extent of Porter’s impossible fabrication. He also maintained that “Butler was directed to move up the James River, and endeavor to secure Petersburg,” in the original plan, which is clearly incorrect, as shown by the contemporaneous communications.
Concerning Early’s outflanking of Sedgwick’s right late on May 6th in the Wilderness, Porter blithely (and wrongly) referred to it as “the attack against which the general-in-chief during the day had ordered every precaution to be taken had now been made.” Porter likewise argued that Grant’s journey out of the Wilderness turned into a triumphal procession, contradicting reality. Marsena Patrick described it as “one of the most fatiguing & disgraceful rides I ever took.”
Coming to Grant’s aid, in writing about the rest of the war, Porter commits one error after another. Despite the blatancy of Porter’s incorrect versions, Grant’s later biographers depended upon this book for support of their pro-Grant positions, as well as for evocative anecdotes about the Overland, Petersburg, and Appomattox campaigns. Professor Brooks Simpson’s Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 cites Porter’s book on page after page after page for the Overland operations.
I have just come across a journal kept by Grant’s mentor, congressman Elihu Washburne. In it, he contemporaneously portrays Grant’s doings. During the beginning of the Battle of the Wilderness, the journal reveals how Horace Porter provided numerous flawed accounts of affairs. He wrote that “a little while before midnight General Grant entered his tent and turned in for the night,” whereas Washburne had Grant lodged in the garret with himself and Rawlins. The next morning, Washburne indicates that they arose at 3 A.M., while Porter asserts that it was 4:30. Porter got the details of where Grant learned of the Confederate advance wrong, as well. Further reading of the journal will undoubtedly identify other discrepancies.
It seems time that the unquestioned acceptance of Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant and other such obviously biased and inaccurate writings had ended.