Grant Under Fire: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War, offers an entirely new look at an established American icon. By contesting one hundred and fifty years of untruths, exaggerations, and special pleading which his advocates employed in making Ulysses S. Grant the supreme hero of the war, it provides a much-needed reconsideration of the man’s military abilities and activities, as well as of his personal attributes.
As the highest-ranking Union officer, a two-term President, and possibly the best-known man in the world of his day, Grant has enjoyed a remarkably positive public image. Several books about him were printed before the war ended, but their authors “faced the problem that very little was actually known about Grant, and so turned for solution to compiling newspaper pieces, popular anecdotes, and printing at length from military dispatches.” After the conflict was over, Grant authorized a number of his supporters–Henry Coppée, Adam Badeau, Albert D. Richardson, and Charles A. Dana and James Harrison Wilson—to compile biographies in time for his first presidential campaign. The last two books, along with Henry Deming’s Life of Ulysses S. Grant (which was also hurriedly published before the election) were “carefully guarded against any expression which could be used against [Grant] by the politicians.” Such self-censorship was common when writing about Grant. Harry Wilson had asked Badeau: “How could you imagine me capable of writing anything to injure the reputation or inimical to the character of General Grant?” Unsurprisingly, these volumes criticized their subject little, if at all. Badeau’s not only supported each military move the General made, but besmirched “every officer who incurred Grant’s displeasure either during or since the war,” according to Harry Wilson many decades later.
Still, the laudatory biographies kept coming, especially during his reelection in 1872, after his world tour, and upon his death, and further added to his stature. James Grant Wilson, a friend since meeting in Cairo in 1861, compiled yet another campaign biography in 1868, revised and expanded it upon Grant’s death, and then completed an even lengthier biography twelve years later. Another general-turned-biographer, Grenville Dodge, warned Harry Wilson that “I would eliminate from [Wilson’s biography of John Rawlins] everything that in any way reflects on Grant.”
The Personal Memoirs have been, from the moment they were first published, tremendously influential in Civil War historiography, to the point where they can trump contradicting perspectives, even when the latter are far more firmly documented. Although acclaimed as marvelously truthful and accurate, the Memoirs reveal myriad flaws. Grant’s errors of fact, unjust criticisms, partiality, scapegoating, misremembrances, and outright distortions make them, on the whole, unreliable. A case in point was his asking Adam Badeau while preparing a preliminary Century article: “My recollection is that McCooks division was not under fire at Shiloh atall. I am not sure about Crittendens. Did Buell have any of his army with him the second day except Nelsons division”? As these three divisions fought all day April 7th under Buell (and Wood’s division joined them near the end), it was nothing but deceitful for Grant to claim in the Memoirs that he had commanded them all.
Sins of omission accompanied those of commission. Despite the immeasurable and irreplaceable assistance they provided Grant throughout the war, Elihu Washburne, Charles Dana, and John Rawlins were effectively erased from the autobiography. Ulysses’ ardent devotee Sylvanus Cadwallader stated that, until the Memoirs minimized Rawlins, “I had been loyal to Gen. Grant—had rarely spoken of his excesses to any one—had apologized for and defended him at all times and in all places—and mentioned his faults to but a few intimates.” Even though Cad’s manuscript (posthumously published as Three Years with Grant) strongly defended Grant on most issues, his daring admission that Grant drank during the war and, at Satartia, went off on a major binge, was enough to earn him the abuse of many Grant partisans. Grant Under Fire illustrates the vital backing given by Washburne, Dana, and Rawlins, as well as by Grant’s pet newsmen, such as Cadwallader and William C. Carroll. Grant’s intoxication on the Satartia trip is methodically documented, and the denials of it are shown to be baseless.
During the last of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, a succession of more-than-admiring portraits has been provided by the likes of Horace Porter, John Emerson, Hamlin Garland, J.F.C. Fuller, Lloyd Lewis, and Bruce Catton. But Porter’s undependable recollections were replete with impossibly long quotations and an unqualified vindication of the bungled Overland campaign. The inclusion of apparently fabricated correspondence in Emerson’s series of magazine articles makes them equally unreliable. Even Catton, who wrote so prolifically and so well, flip-flopped from several of his earlier, negative positions, so that his and Lloyd Lewis’ three-volume Grant biography contains little that is unsympathetic to its subject. Geoffrey Perret, Brooks Simpson, Jean E. Smith, and H.W. Brands continued this spate of overly flattering works up to the present day. Not coincidentally, the adherents happen to esteem not only Grant, but admire almost all of the “Grant men,” whilst typically disparaging those whom Grant hated.
Grant Under Fire, on the other hand, refutes many of the conclusions reached by the General and his coterie. As a consequence, it not only duly diminishes the reputation of Grant, but tarnishes many of his favorites–William Sherman, most of all—while it concurrently elevates (to a greater or lesser degree) the standings of various officers who directly or indirectly suffered from the General’s activities during the war and his writings afterward. Chief among these are Lew Wallace, John McClernand, Don Carlos Buell, Jacob Lauman, William Rosecrans, George Thomas, Gordon Granger, Joseph Hooker, George Meade, Gouverneur Warren, and Robert E. Lee.
Very few books emerged to counter this century-and-a-half of praise and to point out the errors of fact and illogical arguments. Most of these critical accounts remain out of the mainstream. Google Scholar counted only six works which cited Carswell McClellan’s Personal Memoirs and Military History of U.S. Grant Versus the Record of the Army of the Potomac published in 1887. William McFeely’s Pulitzer-winning biography is one of the few relatively balanced biographical treatments of Grant, but it is over thirty years old. Recently, however, Frank Varney’s General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War and Diane Monroe Smith’s Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign: Ambition and Animosity in the Army of the Potomac have supplied new perspectives on some of Grant’s command failings.
In this vein, Grant Under Fire finely dissects the major and minor episodes of the General’s Civil War career. It delves deeply into the most controversial, such as Lew Wallace’s march to the battlefield of Shiloh and the capture of Missionary Ridge by George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland (which, at that point, included Joseph Hooker’s contingent from the Army of the Potomac). By themelves, these two cases illustrate how Grant made foolish and unmilitary decisions, lied about what actually happened at the time and afterward, and penalized innocent generals, even in victory. The methodology used by Edward Bonekemper and others in statistically proving that the General was not a butcher—and which underlies the unstated contention that the Overland campaign’s proportional losses gave the Union an advantage—is shown to be specious, both mathematically and historically. While making its points, Grant Under Fire details the copious errors in Grant’s writings and definitively overturns Mark Twain’s characterization of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant as the “best military memoirs” since Caesar’s Commentaries. But then again, Twain was Grant’s publisher.
The generally one-sided viewpoint of Grant Under Fire should come as no surprise, given its wholesale revision of previous conclusions which had been grossly distorted in the General’s favor. The facts speak for themselves. In case after case, the standard pro-Grant version of history is exposed and refuted, revealing little more than weak excuses, unfounded accusations, and exaggerated claims.