Book Review: “Grant Under Fire: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War”

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PrintUlysses S. Grant’s service during the Civil War has, for obvious reasons, provided plenty of historiographical fodder to generation after generation of historians. The General-in-Chief’s overall standing certainly passed through its fair share of rungs. Early proponents of the Lost Cause explained that the drunken, bumbling, butcher Grant only won because of overall numbers and without any type of military finesse. An amount of this narrative still remains but other, more-sympathetic historians have written their own biographies and monographs of Grant, showcasing the general as a man who managed to win the war and save the Union, becoming one of the principal architects of Federal victory.  Over time the historiographical pendulum, some claim, seems to have swung in completely the opposite direction from the Lost Cause, making Grant unfailing in his endeavor to the Union. This narrative fails to note Grant’s mistakes or failures during the war, some argue.

The most-recent proponent of this argument is Joseph A. Rose in his book Grant Under Fire: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War. Coming in at 621 pages of main text, there’s a lot to take in here, as Rose seeks to cover Grant’s entire military career and show that Grant was not the perfect general some would like to believe. The tome is supported by an endnotes section that covers about 105 pages and a 35-page bibliography—Rose has certainly done his research.

Rose comes out swinging in the book’s opening pages, setting the pace when he writes that Grant had “Serious failings, on the other hand, highlighted by favoritism, grudge-holding, alcoholism, politicking, impulsiveness, lack of tactical ability, indolence, etc. worked against Union success” (3). This is followed up with such section titles as “Indolence on the Tennessee River” (93), “Stealing McClernand’s Mississippi Expedition” (177), “Drunk up the Yazoo” (238), “Interfering in the Peace Initiative” (526), and “A Failed Presidency” (569).

At multiple points in the book, Rose discredits Grant’s service in the war, often going against the grain of other historians in the process. In this endeavor, Rose seems more at home when analyzing Grant off the battlefield, whether examining Grant’s less than honest decisions that benefited family and friends, both during the war and as president. Rose’s battlefield analysis, however, sometimes fumbles about. He is most visceral to Grant at the Battle of Shiloh, which Rose asserts that Grant’s “Utter negligence at Shiloh should have resulted in his dismissal in disgrace” (612). Recent studies of Shiloh, however, are laudatory of Grant’s actions in the two-day bloodletting. In the 2014 published Shiloh: Conquer or Perish, Timothy B. Smith writes “Grant met crisis and potential disaster with calmness and determination” (145) and that Grant “lifted morale and assured his troops” (173). Hardly the negligent blunderer that Rose depicts. Towards the end of the book, Rose also falls flat in his military analysis when he asserts that “The conflict might well have ended six months earlier with a different general-in-chief in 1864 (and a different federal commander in the West, in place of Sherman)” (618). Leading with such a statement, he then fails to hold up any alternative commanders in Grant’s or Sherman’s stead.

One of the highlights of the book are the repeated instances that Rose documents that Grant was drunk. Grant advocates have a tendency to say that yes, Grant had drinking problems when he was in the antebellum army, posted in far-flung garrisons and away from his family, or in the wake of repeated failed business adventures. Those advocates are quick to note that when the war started, Grant instantly sobered up and took the field without a trace of alcohol in his veins. Even if there are instances that will be debated and counter-argued, including the controversial Yazoo River trip in the summer of 1863, every instance of drunkenness cannot be explained away. Rose’s book shows that, in these instances, Grant was a mortal man who sometimes ran into demons from his past—it proves that he was, in fact, human.

One of the pros of the book already mentioned was Rose’s strong use of endnotes and a healthy bibliography. However, readers are still encouraged to look at those sources and see what Rose is using them to claim. For example, Rose repeatedly cites William Swinton for coverage of the Overland Campaign. As a reporter for the New York Times, Swinton tried every trick to get the inside scoop, going as far as spying on the Federal headquarters. Because of his antics, Swinton was forced away from the army, and became an antagonistic to the Army of the Potomac’s high command. Another example is Theodore Lyman, who Rose cites frequently as an observer of the camps, also within the Overland Campaign. The problem here is Lyman was an aide to Maj. Gen. George Meade, and the respective staffs of Meade and Grant acted almost as a cast of Sharks and Jets, distrusting and bickering to and fro while Grant entered the field during the Overland Campaign.

With a concluding remark, readers are encouraged to read Rose’s book. While Rose will certainly not be the last voice in the historiography of Grant, his work holds an important counter-point to those who would see Grant as the perfect archetype for Federal officers.

 

Grant Under Fire: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War by Joseph A. Rose

Alderhanna Press, 2015.

621 pages main text, 798 pages total.

Endnotes, Bibliography, Index.

 

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6 Responses to Book Review: “Grant Under Fire: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War”

  1. Dave Powell says:

    Elsewhere, I said about this book that ‘Like it or hate it, no one can afford to ignore it,’ because Joseph Rose has done his homework. I do agree that his adversarial approach sometimes leads to overstatements, and he underplays Grant’s positive military qualities. But he also illuminates a great deal about Grant that has been whitewashed.

    Grant was obviously a “spoilsman” in the political sense – To the victor go the political spoils. A more modern word might be crony-ism. Like it or not, this was pretty much old-school politics during the era, even though reformers fought to change things, and to Grant, that was just how things were done. Of course most people, including many authors, subsequently found Spoilsmanship very distasteful and worked to minimize it’s importance in Grant’s life.

    It’s quite the book. No one should not read Grant Under Fire just because they disagree with the premise – Rose’s work is not some poorly researched hatchet job. It is an excellent piece of historical work with some very provocative theses, which future writers will ignore only at their peril.

    • josepharose says:

      Thank you, Dave. The commendation is especially meaningful coming from you. My excuse for underplaying Grant’s positive military qualities stems from the book’s already lengthy text and the fact that it’s an expose. As almost every Grant biographer before has detailed his every positive quality, Grant Under Fire only dwells upon those (many) issues in which their facts, reasoning, or conclusions were deficient.

  2. Bob Ruth says:

    I haven’t read Rose’s book yet, although I will do so soon. Grant’s flaws have been well documented, even by many historians who admired him. Sure, Grant could hold a grudge. His Memoirs are full of jabs at officers he disliked. Many of the criticisms he levels at others in his Memoirs are unjustified. But on the battlefield, Grant was the best, both in tactics and strategy. His greatest asset was his unfailing optimism in his own and his armies’ abilities. He never gave up. His Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and Appomattox campaigns were brilliant, as good, if not better, than any of Lee’s. Those three campaigns changed the dynamics of the war.

  3. josepharose says:

    Thank you for your review encouraging people to read Grant Under Fire. But, even though you commend me for having done my research, I think that examples of where the book overturns the standard version of history would be in order. Grant’s “utter negligence at Shiloh” is a case in point. Before the battle, he didn’t lay out his camp for defense, fortify; send out patrols, station vedettes; emplace artillery; give instructions or appoint a commander in his absence; employ a signals unit; or lay telegraph lines to his camp. He placed the least experienced troops up front; switched artillery and cavalry units; transferred commanders based on favoritism; only engaged in minimal intelligence activities; refused to meet Buell when given the opportunity; and only visited his army most days instead of camping with them, even when Buell was known to be many days away.

    Timothy B. Smith asserts that “Grant met crisis and potential disaster with calmness and determination” and “lifted morale and assured his troops.” But the claim in Grant’s Memoirs that, “during the whole of Sunday I was continuously engaged in passing from one part of the field to another, giving directions to division commanders,” vastly overstated his involvement. With the dead W.H.L. Wallace unable to give evidence, there was only one instance where Grant did this, when he ordered Benjamin Prentiss “to maintain that position at all hazards.” What Smith doesn’t note is that Grant repeated his order to Prentiss as the Hornet’s Nest was being surrounded. The question shouldn’t be whether Smith disagrees with my conclusions, but whose facts are correct. Grant did not tell Buell “to send his arriving troops on up the river as quickly as possible” or tell Wood and Thomas “to hurry forward,” before he left Savannah. He didn’t tell Lew Wallace to be ready to march southward. And on and on.

    As to my failure “to hold up any alternative commanders in Grant’s or Sherman’s stead,” that requires a multi-faceted answer. As General-in-Chief, Grant left affairs in the West in Halleck’s hands; allowed Burnside to act independently of the Army of the Potomac; placed his inexperienced friend Harry Wilson in command of a cavalry division; let Sheridan abscond with Meade’s cavalry after failing in the Wilderness; and gave Sherman the Military Division of the Mississippi. Instead of the overrated Sherman, the detailed analysis in Grant Under Fire of the Snake Creek Gap operation heavily implies that it should have been left in the hands of the far more competent George H. Thomas who had come up with a far better plan in the first place.

    I am surprised that certain academic historians indicate that the “controversial Yazoo River trip in the summer of 1863” has been disproved, when three individuals stated that Grant was intoxicated and no witnesses said otherwise. And this proves more than that Grant was merely human. This binge occurred as Kimball was withdrawing his troops from the Mechanicsburg and Satartia area and the raw Black regiments at Milliken’s Bend were fighting for their lives.

    As to my repeatedly citing William Swinton and Theodore Lyman concerning the Overland Campaign, both men were much more reliable than Horace Porter, the usual mouthpiece for the Grant biographers. Grant Under Fire demonstrates that Porter fabricated stories in order to make Grant look good. And Swinton’s supposed spying on federal headquarters, no matter how unethical, would tend to make his reports more accurate. As to Swinton’s alleged disavowal of being a correspondent after being caught eavesdropping, Grant Under Fire notes: “Evidence of the, at least partial, falsity of these charges consisted of Swinton’s being a ‘registered correspondent,’ who signed his articles in the Times, datelined from the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. No one reading this paper could have failed to discover this reporter’s status.”

    Grant Under Fire is packed with information from primary sources, some apparently never utilized before, such as Sylvanus Cadwallader’s article written the evening of the charge up Missionary Ridge which, along with much other evidence, destroys the claims by Grant and his biographers that he intended the men to continue to the crest after a halt at the base. Controversy by controversy, Grant Under Fire sets the record straight.

  4. John Foskett says:

    This is a solid review. As Mr. Rose has fully disclosed in the book and has reiterated in his post here, the purpose of this book is to serve as a thoroughly researched antidote to the impression which many may have that Grant was an infallible victory engine. Readers ought to keep in mind the author’s careful caveat. Otherwise, they will walk away in absolute astonishment that a corrupt, venal, incompetent drunk and his crew of equally incompetent cronies blindly bumbled their way into winning the war. That, of course, would be inaccurate. Whatever one might say about the Overland Campaign (and i know of no qualified author who has held the Wilderness or Spotsylvania out as tactical masterpieces), it began with an ANV still capable of some offensive skill in central Virginia and ended with Lee exactly where he didn’t want to be – entrenched at Richmond/Petersburg in command of a force which had no longer had the ability to attack on a meaningful scale. Whatever one might say of Sherman’s operations in northern Georgia, they ended with Atlanta in Yankee hands and Georgia headed out of the war. Whatever one might say of Little Phil, he came to the Valley in August and by the end of October had driven his opponent from that important venue for good, destroying him in the process. As for the “who if not Grant” question, I don’t see the author’s thesis as firmly positing a substitute. There is no question that the man who may now be the most “overrated underrated” officer in the war comes off well in this book. One could, of course, get involved in an interesting debate about Thomas’s actions in the 1862 Kentucky Campaign and about how much credit he ought to get for finally vanquishing Hood’s grievously-weakened force at Nashville. But I don’t see that as the thrust of this book. Obviously, when it comes to some of the details, there will be room for differing interpretations. Mr. Rose and I have emailed back and forth about some of the events outside Petersburg in the June 8-12, 1864 time frame, for example. But I think Dave sums things up well – the research and conclusions cannot be ignored. The reader needs simply to keep in mind the purpose.

  5. josepharose says:

    Thank you, John. Grant Under Fire really is an exposé. I had been warned against using that word in my sub-title, as it would turn people off as being sensationalist, but I didn’t want to lead the readers astray. The book is highly critical of Grant and his cronies (as Dr. Marszalek noted, it was the most negative book he ever read). But it took 621 pages of text and 104 pages of endnotes just to detail the many ways in which past historiography has gotten it wrong. My most important mission, by far, was to get the facts right (although I certainly confused Fitzhugh and W.H.F. Lee). I’m quite sure that, over and over, I have corrected the record: on Paducah, on waiting for Buell at Savannah, on Lew Wallace’s destination, on Grant’s orders on April 6, on his opinion of the “siege” of Corinth, on McClernand’s expedition, on Grant’s various strategies before Vicksburg, on his drinking binge up the Yazoo, and especially on the ascent of Missionary Ridge (just to name a few during the first years of the war). Grant Under Fire lays out numerous examples of Grant’s negligence and his favoritism, while his misuse and mistreatment of officers he didn’t like would be worthy of a volume on its own. And I fix other, smaller, but oft-repeated errors. How many historians have Grant arriving at Pittsburg Landing on crutches? How many have Sherman saying “you may as well go up and take the hill” on November 25, 1863? How many have Grant asking Granger, “Did you order them up”? People who read it, even if they think well of Grant, have realized that there is so much more to his story. And I would put my facts and findings on Shiloh, for instance, up against Timothy Smith’s, and I would put my work as a whole up against any of the Grant biographies.

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