Book Review: The Impulse of Victory

The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga
By David A. Powell
Southern Illinois University Press, 2020, $19.95 hardback

Reviewed by Sean Michael Chick

Every Civil War battle has its share of controversies, from the smaller ones like Belmont and Mill Springs, to Shiloh and Gettysburg. Chattanooga is no different, save that for a variety of officers with large egos and reputations, it was a turning point. These men wrote memoirs, fought a war of words, and damned each other by either faint praise or outright venom. For those who love petty politics and gossip, it is a real joy to read and decipher. Yet, it has a trap for the historian of the Civil War. Few topics generate as much favoritism and special pleading for its cast of characters, and in the case of Chattanooga you have Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Joseph Hooker, George Thomas, and Gordon Granger–and that is just the headliners.

David Powell’s The Impulse of Victory is a book about command in relation to strategy, operations, logistics, personnel management, and grand tactics. It is at heart about the decisions Grant made and why he made them. As such, the tactical details are not too extreme and the Confederates are only side-characters. If you are looking for colorful or horrific soldier anecdotes, it is best to go elsewhere. Given that, the bibliography is not an extensive dump of archival sources, but rather those documents that relate to the commanders and their decisions. At this scale, The Impulse of Victory is among the best of its breed.

Powell is a great researcher who has written great books, but I felt here, as well as in his latest work on Tullahoma, he has in some ways outdone himself as an analyst of war. He balances everything; my only complaint being a lack of attention to the politics of war. Not that he ignores it, but so much of the way the officers interacted with each other and their masters in Washington had a lot to do with political party affiliations and cliques. Powell comes close to observing that, but not far enough. For instance, Grant’s distaste for Hooker was likely more because he knew Halleck and Sherman detested him. Grant, though, had to put up with him in no small part because Hooker had Lincoln in his corner.

To this day much Civil War scholarship is divided along the lines of the old cliques. For many, to admire Thomas is to hate Grant. These two have had their share of hatchet-jobs and hagiography, the latter being popular today for both men. Powell does neither. He rather coolly mentions the strengths and weaknesses of each man and the other cast of characters. In that regard, I am the tailor-made audience for this book, as I have no dog in the fight, and detest, perhaps as strongly as Grant detested Granger, attempts to ignore or explain away deficiencies. In this case, Grant comes across as often petty, mendacious, and not a great tactician, yet also as an operational and strategic commander with few equals. Powell also notes Grant’s grasp of the politics of command, one of his underrated qualities. In that regard Grant supported friends, even as they failed in Sherman’s case (Chattanooga was his career low) and made sure his superiors in Washington were happy.

One way Powell maneuvers through the controversies is by discussing who said and wrote what, how they differ from each other, emphasizing when they wrote of events and what they had to gain from it. In this way old stories, such as Thomas’ cool reception of Grant, seem less convincing now. Powell also gets into how the men interacted. One of the best passages is about Hooker and Grant insulting each other on the way to Chattanooga. Powell’s discussion reveals how both men made social faux pas, but with Grant it was a matter of rank. I have often said the greatest myth about Grant was that he was humble, when instead I find him more or less good at playing the part while being watchful of his rank and rights, and woe be to those who did not show him enough deference.

The Impulse of Victory is a rebuke of sorts to the arguments made by Joseph A. Rose and Peter Cozzens. In their work on Chattanooga, Grant is more an observer who did little to win the battle, and also made some very poor decisions, such as having Granger break off his pursuit. Powell certainly does not ignore Grant’s missteps, but notes that he showed flexibility, determination, and most importantly never lost sight of his strategic objective, namely to throw Bragg back into Georgia in order to secure Knoxville. In being fair, Powell makes a smarter case for Grant’s contributions than most of the Grant biographers of the last ten years. Powell thinks Braxton Bragg lacked these strengths, offering a contrast between the two foes.

Napoleon once said if he had to invade Hell he would give the vanguard to Dominique Vandamme. Andrew Jackson said something similar about the pirate Dominique Youx, who fought at his side at New Orleans. In entering the hornet’s nest of Chattanooga I would give the vanguard to David Powell, for most other works that treat the subject are too likely to play favorites. Powell does not, and so his work is all the better for it. When he praises a man or is critical of him, you are sure it was done with fairness.

16 Responses to Book Review: The Impulse of Victory

  1. I am in agreement with this review. I recommend it as volume 2, with Tullahoma as volume 1, as a bio of the campaign that secured Middle & East Tennessee for the Union. The originals of Dana’s reports available online from Huntington Library is volume 3. Powell, Wittenberg & Dana harnessed up together is a very powerful team.

  2. Thank you for a very insightful review. I’ve been on the fence about purchasing this book, but I ordered it this morning and look forward to reading it!

  3. Based on the review, it appears that this might be one of the few books on Chattanooga that focuses on the Union leadership and does not dwell on the awful generalship of Bragg and the splendid performance of Cleburne in opposition to Sherman.

  4. It’s telling how some writers can’t bring up Grant without bringing up Joseph Rose.

    It’s a credibility-killer in my opinion.

      1. I have the Rose book and it’s ridiculously biased and flawed. So when his work is brought up as if it is an established reference, it reflects on the person bringing it up. And Mr Chick brings up Rose repeatedly.

      2. I have my own numerous issues with the Rose book but he also makes some valid points in 600+ pages. And Sean isn’t trumpeting Rose here – he’s praising Dave Powell’s book as a rebuke of Rose on this issue. So I don’t follow your point about the post.

      3. My point is that Rose is not an acknowledged authority on Chattanooga, and bringing him up in this context seems more about giving Rose a sheen of legitimacy. Also, Mr Chick’s claims of not having a dog in the fight and his complaints of biased cliques, hagiographies, and hatchet jobs, ring hollow in light of criticisms of his own work. From a Civil War Monitor review of Mr Chicks Petersburg book:

        ‘No figure emerges more tarnished in Chick’s narrative than Grant… Perhaps, as Chick asserts, these days applied “a nasty blotch on Grant’s record” (2), but to accuse Grant of being “a glory hound,” (25) and possessing “a subtle kind of arrogance” and “an insipid favoritism” (20) requires a bit more substantiation than is provided.’

        Powell has done some solid work, to be sure. I think he genuinely tries to remain objective. His Chickamauga writing includes a measure of blame on Thomas for the events leading to the rout debacle. So there is no comparison between Powell and Rose, in my opinion.

      4. How is mentioning him solely to say that his views are “rebuked” by Dave Powell turning Rose into an “acknowledged authority” on Chattanooga? Grant ‘s Civil War career was hardly “perfect” and not everything he did was “right” – that’s true of everybody involved in the War. The fact is that Rose’s book is out there and – like it or not – it’s in the discussion. That’s all this post recognizes. (And, as should be obvious, I have the Rose book, as well)

      5. I’m not going to belabor the point.

        I agree that Grant was not close to perfect. But when discussing Grant, or Chattanooga, there are much better works to reference other than the Rose book. I think that some people want to push the book into the discussion simply because of its anti-Grant bias.

        As you can guess, I have a very negative opinion of the book. I have little respect for partisans that try to skew the history, to tear down historical figures in order to elevate their own favorites. I’d rather to be unable to detect personal biases when reading history. But the Army of the Cumberland fans, like Rose, Varney, and Moore, put more effort into demonizing Grant than in getting the history right.

  5. Hey Dan… just fyi, trying to make an argument by pointing to someone’s “acknowledged authority” is a logical fallacy.

    The Civil War Monitor writer is also just a person with an opinion, just as Sean Chick is just a person with an opinion. Not every historian or writer of history looks at the historical record the same.

    Rose’s book is well researched, I’ll give him that. I would pay to see Rose and Brooks Simpson discuss U.S. Grant on the Tatooed Historian or some other Civil War podcast. Heck, Joe Rogan could interview them both at the same time. Would be great, but having pitched this to Simpson on Twitter, I don’t think he would do it. He’s got too much contempt for Rose, I think.

    1. By “acknowledged authority,” I mean someone who is widely recognized as an expert on the battle of Chattanooga. I can see bringing up Cozzens. Maybe Wiley Sword or Steven Woodworth would work as well.

      But virtually nobody considers Rose as a noted Chattanooga author.

      Regarding your Brooks Simpson idea, I think the only noted Grant scholar who has read the Rose book and reviewed it was John Marszelak. And he seemed completely flabbergasted by the unhinged bias of the book.

      1. Unfortunately, he mis-identified the author and the review was very skeletal/conclusory. I am far – very far – from a porponent of all of Rose’s conclusions, but there is a lot of research and there are some factual points made in the book that are at least supportable.

      2. I don’t know of a singular point in the Rose book that alters what readers of history already know and understand about Grant. Other writers have covered Grants history, and his strengths and weaknesses, far more credibly and objectively.

  6. I am a friend of the author’s and did some minor review work on the final text, so I cannot be considered entirely objective. The broad thrust of this review, IMO, is very accurate, in that the book seeks to get to what actually happened, and makes the best guess as to why it happened, given the evidence at hand. No individual agendas were served, just the truth, as best it could be discerned.

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