General Grant and the Rewriting of History

General Grant and the Rewriting of History

The Rewriting of History

There is a meme in Civil War writing that I think of as the “How the Grant stole Christmas” genre. The flagship volume of that dubious club is Benson Bobrick’s Master of War, about George Thomas – Bobrick spends equal parts of his verbiage reviling U. S. Grant and apple-polishing for Thomas.

Hence, I tend to approach volumes dealing with Grant, other generals, and historiography very cautiously. When I first heard of Dr. Frank Varney’s new book, General Grant and the Rewriting of History, naturally, I was a bit suspicious.  Given that it deals with William Starke Rosecrans, I knew I would have to read it, from a professional interest if nothing else. After all, my own rather massive work on Chickamauga – Rosecrans’ defining moment in Civil War History – is now going into final editing. It would be stupid to bypass Varney’s work.

Well, now I have read Rewriting.  I am very glad I did. Professor Varney delivers. His work is scholarly, solidly researched, well argued, and in the main, convincing.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to hear that U. S. Grant was human, and capable of the foibles that effect us all. His memoirs, as great as they are to read, should be – like all such works – be taken with a healthy dose of historical skepticism. Varney lays out his case in careful and considered arguments. The best part of the book, IMO, is in untangling the very convoluted events surrounding the battle of Iuka, long regarded as the beginning of the Grant-Rosecrans rivalry.

I do have my own quibbles with some aspects of Dr. Varney’s train of thought. I think he too readily accepts Rosecrans’s own self-serving arguments about why the Army of the Cumberland failed to advance in the spring of 1863, waiting until June 24th – months after the Armies of the Potomac and the Tennessee had taken the field to fight major battles – to begin their own operations. Between December 1862 and June, Bragg’s army gave up two infantry divisions and two cavalry divisions, a total of at least 15,000 men, on various missions. If we count Carter Stevenson’s transfer from just before Murfreesboro, Bragg’s army was reduced by almost 20,000 infantry alone during those 6 months.

I also think that he too readily dismisses criticism of Rosecrans at Chickamauga as driven purely by partisanship. Grant had very little power to influence events at Chickamauga. Rosecrans DID become overwrought, and sowed the seeds of his own downfall. Varney’s insistence that Rosecrans did not panic on September 20th is a characterization that I could agree with, but only in the narrowest sense. Rosecrans did indeed almost certainly lapse into a kind of stupor for a time, a mix of exhaustion and shock, and enough different witnesses observed that state to make for a believable narrative. It wasn’t panic, but neither was it an example of an army commander with mastery over himself and his command.

But those are indeed merely quibbles.  General Grant and the Rewriting of History is an important read for any student of the war. It warns all of us of the dangers of over-reliance on single source history and a too-quick acceptance of one man’s version of events.

 

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16 Responses to “General Grant and the Rewriting of History”

  1. James F. Epperson Says:

    My quibble with the book—which I do not plan to read—is based on what I consider to be a way over-the-top Amazon blurb, which makes accusations concerning perjury and drinking which it seems would have little to do with Rosecrans. And, like you, I am not interested in history-as-conspiracy arguments. At the time Grant wrote his memoirs, his most recent involvement with Rosecrans would have been Congressman Rosecrans’s efforts (largely successful) to block a bill placing Grant’s name on the retired list, thus enabling his wife (soon to be widow) to get a pension. I think any animus towards Rosey in the Memoirs is well-earned, and I have seen little evidence of other historians “following Grant’s version” of events, which seems to be the main thesis of the book.

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Really? all based on a blurb on Amazon? You should really read the book, I think. It’s not a hatchet job. Dave

      • James F. Epperson Says:

        No, there was an extensive discussion—around 200 comments, including many by Varney—in the FB Online Civil War Round Table. I think your review highlights the problems with the book. It probably does clarify a lot about Iuka, which surely needs clarification, but is too accepting of Rosey’s own POV on Chickamauga. So why not write a book just about Iuka?

  2. John Foskett Says:

    Dave: Thanks for this balanced review. Ironically, I had just ordered the book a couple of hours ago on a “flyer” and fortunately your review justifies the order. Your point about Iuka is right on target. I’ve read nothing, including Cozzens, which effectively pierces the murk surrounding that fight and the odd command setup/relationships on the Union side. I understand Jim’s point about the publisher’s humping of the book but I prefer to see what the author actually says and how/whether he supports it. The fact is that Grant’s Memoirs have been treated almost as a Bible over the years with the caveats limited to his discussion of Shiloh (offset by his “generous” concession about Cold Harbor). I look forward to seeing what the man says.

    • James F. Epperson Says:

      Every Civil War author I have read has readily conceded that Grant’s Memoirs has errors/mistakes/distortions/whatever. That includes Catton and Simpson. Hell, he was dying of cancer and probably doped seven ways from Sunday most of the time. The second volume (which is where Chickamauga is, I think) was barely checked over by his son for errors before going to the printer. In the FB discussion I mentioned above I virtually begged for an example of “Grant’s version” being accepted by a writer which turned out to be at odds with what we now know to be the case. No one gave me an example, although I found a minor one for myself, later.

      • John Foskett Says:

        For the record, I did not say that insightful authors such as Simpson have failed to note errors in the Memoirs. They clearly have. But among the general Civil War-reading population the Memoirs are frequently accepted as, and often promoted as, unusually candid, forthright, and self-effacing. This book focuses on a specific topic – Rosecrans. As I said, I intend to find out what Varney says and whether/how he supports it. He didn’t limit the book to Iuka so I intend to find out what if any light he sheds on that rather than refusing to buy it because he also covers other issues. For $22 on Amazon it’s worth the investment to me.

  3. Christopher Coleman Says:

    Your review of the book has whetted my appetite to buy it. While I am not a Grant basher, per se, in my researches for my book on Ambrose Bierce’s war career, I encountered the same unquestioned acceptance of Grant & Co’s version of events in the literature. Most of his prior biographers assumed Bierce was unremittingly against Grant, based on what his comments about Shiloh, where the level of prevarication was indeed high, but in fact his overall view of the general was more nuanced.
    Bierce himself has been subject to some criticism by historians regarding his memoir of Chickamauga, which is one thing I had to deal with in writing that section of my manuscript and in both Grant and Bierce I regard you comment about ” the dangers of over-reliance on single source history and a too-quick acceptance of one man’s version of events” true for both men–as well as any other historical event–as spot on.

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Chris,

      Bierce fascinates me, given his experiences at Chickamauga, and his ability to describe them. As for his memoir, I find it on the whole, pretty accurate. It certainly fits with plenty of other details from other sources. I do wonder whether or not Bierce was the one sent to verify Granger’s arrival on Sept 20 – several others have also claimed that honor – but that would be about the only point I would question.

      His phrase “Glory or the Grave” with regard to Negley is one that resonates.

      • Chris Evans Says:

        Interesting about Bierce (one of my favorites).

        There was a Civil War Times article on Bierce at Chickamauga that I wish I could track down again. It critiqued his writing about Chickamauga and tried to separate fact and fiction.

        I know Bjorn Skaptason broke down wonderfully Bierce’s experiences at Shiloh: http://www.ambrosebierce.org/journal3skaptason.html

        Chris

    • Chris Evans Says:

      Brooks Simpson wrote a excellent article in 2007 on some of the Bierce vs Grant issues:
      http://www.ambrosebierce.org/journal3simpson.html

      Chris

  4. James F. Epperson Says:

    Mr. Foskett, if I overstepped in some way, I do apologize. I just get tired of this tendency to write history as “My guy vs. your guy,” and I kinda put this book in that category, based on the Amazon blurb, the FB discussion, and the assessment of a close friend in the history community.

  5. Chris Evans Says:

    Interesting review of the book.

    Most of the criticism of Grant vs Rosecrans I have read before in Lamers biography of Rosecrans. I still think that is a quite good book that leans on Rosecrans side of the ledger.

    I agree with some other commentators that I wish we could maybe get beyond Grant vs Rosecrans, Thomas vs Grant and Sherman. Johnston vs Hood, McClellan vs the World in our Civil War writings.

    I would like to mention one of the books I think is one of the most overlooked books about Civil War Generalship in the last year of the war ‘Lee, Grant and Sherman: A Study in Leadership in the 1864-65 Campaign’ by Alfred Burne that came out in 1938 and was reissued by Kansas in 2000 with notes by Albert Castel.

    Burne really overturns many of the usual views of the various Generals and their actions. I think it is as iconoclastic as the new books coming out. You might not always agree but it makes you think.

    I highly recommend it.

    Chris

  6. Theodore. P. Savas Says:

    Thanks to all of your for your interest in this and any other books we publish (and “hump”) along the way. The second volume of Varney’s 2-volume set deals with Grant in the East in general, and his relationship with Warren and others in particular. I think it is there you will see the perjury issues cropping up. Dr. Varney can better speak to that. (And by the way, I am a fan of Grant. I think he was an amazing general and character study.)

    @Chris–based on an earlier recommendation by you I bought Burne’s study and am about half way through. It is very interesting, especially given his ow unique Great War perspective. It is dated in places and wrong in others (I wish Al Castel had gone more out of his way to add to the corrective notes–he seems to have phoned that in on a whim), but it is very good and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    -Ted Savas

    • Chris Evans Says:

      Ted,
      Glad you have enjoyed it. I found it a fascinating book. I’ve been recommending it since it seems sort of unknown now.
      Thanks for the kind comments,
      Chris

  7. Ken Ramsey Says:

    Interesting that this topic can spark dialogue at such a distance in time. That in of itself speaks to what we know, or do not know, about the personal episodes that helped bring into being how the principals saw each other. It is certain that a person’s direct experience with another is a factor not to be underestimated. Pleased to have this review as it confirms that this book is worth looking into regarding two of the most fascinating characters in American History

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