Ulysses 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.