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.