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.