The unreliability of Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant 4 comments

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.

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4 thoughts on “The unreliability of Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant

  • james johnson

    Only written material from the field and time have a chance of being correct after that who knows, the time issue, windup time pieces could be wrong in so many ways, here are a few was the original time of the timepiece set to the right time to start with? perhaps the 3 am was based on a time piece that had wound down at 3 and it was really 4:30 how will we ever know? And by what lighting were the time pieces being viewed? I’ve Civil War reenacted for almost 30 years and I can say a tent does not have very good lighting if any. The thousands of veterans that marched by Grants home just before he died gives us a message as to what those that fought with him thought. Grant was a great general and he won. Some time for amusement I try to recall a event when I sailed from St Petersburg Florida on my trip to Wisconsin and then I look in my log book from that I have come to the conclusion that books written from memory are really suspect just because of the nature of our memory. So history is a overview we will always get the reality wrong as a example how often do you see drawings of x slaves marching along with the solders carrying their packs? But I recall a member of the second Wisconsin writing home with the problem that he had the x slave that he had befriended who wanted to carry the Wisconsin soldier back pack on his head, but the Wisconsin soldier wanted him to carry it on his back like all the rest of the blacks marching along with the regiment because he did not think it looked military for the x slave to carry the back pack on his head and yet he did not want to hurt the x slaves feelings and he wanted his parents to tell him what to do. And that is in the Iron Brigade of the West not a western regiment away from civilization. History is full of supprises.

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      Mr. Johnson,

      Thanks for the comment. Of course, no one can ever say with perfect certainty what happened so long ago, but we have to take the evidence and weigh it as carefully as possible to determine whether it is reliable. In the incident that you mentioned, Horace Porter’s version had headquarters arise “about daylight,” which occurred at 4:33 a.m. on May 5th, which precludes any problems about the accuracy of a watch. I can’t vouch for Washburne’s timepiece, but he was quite detailed in his journal about the time of day during the battle.

      Until now, Horace Porter’s accounts have gone largely unquestioned. Gordon Rhea did challenge Porter’s anecdote regarding the soldiers pinning their names to their uniforms before Cold Harbor, and he even commented on “the likelihood that this is no more than another of the sensational inventions that frequent his memoir.”

      That’s a very interesting and telling incident about the former slave carrying a soldier’s knapsack. Sometimes, it is the little things that can inform us as to whether a supposed primary source is reliable or not.


  • Phil Leigh

    I am suspicious that Porter may have profited from bribery during Grant’s presidency. Jim Fisk, for example, stated that Porter participated in the October 1869 attempt to corner the gold market, although Jay Gould said Porter was not involved.

    Matthew Josephson’s *The Robber Barrons* suggests that Porter profited from Jay Cooke bribes that helped Cooke’s Northern Pacific Railroad gain extensions on the dates beyond which the railroad’s eligibility for federal subsidies were set to expire. Cooke bought the NP at a bargain price because the seller assumed the dates could not be extended.

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      Horace Porter does seem to have had an unsavory side. In Grant Under Fire, I comment on one of the Grant administration’s many scandals, the “Safe Burglary” incident, in which Porter lied to allow guilty men to escape (and to cover up the administration’s misconduct):

      The new Secretary of the Treasury, Bristow, dispatched the new Solicitor, Bluford Wilson, to probe further. Unfortunately, “through false accounts and entries, and by earnest, personal representations” of Babcock and “an ex-secretary of the President” (almost undeniably Horace Porter) about a conspirator’s honesty, Wilson temporarily absolved Harrington and the Secret Service.

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