Tag Archives: Joseph Hooker

Ulysses Grant’s Attempts to Rewrite History

(April 30, 2018) In contrast to the wave of recent Ulysses Grant hagiographies, a couple of nearly ostracized voices have been disclosing how the general’s false statements and mistaken recollections (if not outright lies) have shaped the currently popular but erroneous perspectives of Grant. Dr. Frank Varney of Dickinson State University has written two books that correct Grant’s military record. The first, General Grant and the Rewriting of Historywas released five years ago. The second, tentatively titled The Men Grant Didn’t Like, will be published later this year.

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In anticipation of his second title, I invited Dr. Varney to provide the post below listing prominent examples of Grant’s false statements and erroneous recollections.

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Philip recently asked me to list a few of Ulysses S. Grant’s most glaring misstatements. It’s actually hard to keep the list short, but I’ll do my best.

One. Grant said that at the Battle of Belmont he launched an attack—which was supposed to be a reconnaissance in force—because Union General W.H. L. Wallace and his men were in danger. Supposedly a surprise Confederate troop movement had left Wallace’s command in a tough spot. Grant’s attacking force, which was initially successful, ultimately itself became in danger of being cut off and only narrowly escaped. But the need for Grant’s attack was moot because Wallace denied that his men were ever in any danger. Moreover, Confederate reports in the Official Records bear Wallace out: there was no Rebel threat to Wallace as Grant described.

Two. Also pertaining to Belmont, Grant told a great story about how, when he realized that one of his units failed to retreat with the rest of his command, he single-handedly went in search of them, led them to the rescuing transports, and was the last man aboard. According to his account he rode his horse up a single, narrow plank to the cheers of his men. Sadly, no other account of the episode exists but his, in spite of the fact that there were, or should have been, thousands of witnesses.

Three. As commanding general at the Battle of Shiloh Grant stoutly denied that he was surprised the Rebel attack that opened the battle, when everyone else in his army except General William T. Sherman agreed that he was taken by surprise. Since Sherman had only the day before the attack told Grant that no action was in the offing, his defense of Grant has an obvious motive. Consider also that when the attack began Grant was at breakfast, eight miles away. Logically, if he had known an attack was coming, he would have been with his army.

Four. Grant said that the Battle of Shiloh was very nearly lost because General Benjamin Prentiss caused a break in the Union defense line and allowed his command to be cut off and captured; and that General Lew Wallace took the wrong road and arrived too late to be of use on the first day of the two-day battle. Neither of those statements is true, when looked at dispassionately rather than taking Grant at his word.

Five. Grant said that General William S. Rosecrans disobeyed orders at the Battle of Iuka and allowed the defending Confederates to escape. In fact, Rosecrans notified Grant of a necessary change in the Rosecrans-column attack plans, and Grant’s first report agreed that Rosecrans had taken the proper steps.

Six. Grant falsely claimed that Rosecrans had failed to pursue the retreating enemy at both the battles of Iuka and Corinth. In fact, Rosecrans did pursue in both cases—until recalled by Grant.

Seven. Grant stated that he had no choice but to relieve Rosecrans after the Battle of Chickamauga because of a telegram he received from military observer Charles Dana indicating that Rosecrans was on the verge of abandoning Chattanooga. There is ample evidence that this charge was untrue. Dana denied ever having sent the telegram, and Grant never produced it in spite of repeated demands that he do so.

Eight. Grant claimed that General Joseph Hooker continually attempted to detach troops from General Sherman’s army in Georgia in order to enable Hooker to conduct independent campaigns. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate this. Even Grant-ally Sherman never claimed it happened. Sherman did, however, claim that Union General John Schofield had complained that Hooker tried to give him orders, but Schofield flatly denied Sherman’s claim.

Nine. Grant insisted that General George H. Thomas was slow. Sadly, too many historians have repeated and ever after accepted the charge as valid. However, a look at the reports of the officers who commanded Thomas—Generals Don Carlos Buell, Rosecrans, even Sherman—never complained that Thomas was slow. In fact, Thomas was an admirable general whose reputation was damaged by Grant’s tendency to damn him with faint praise.

Ten. Grant claimed that he regretted General Phil Sheridan’s removal of General G. K. Warren in the closing days of the war, after a victory. If the regret was genuine, Grant—as general in chief of the army—certainly had ample opportunity to correct the problem. But he failed to do so. Consequently, it took nearly two decades before a court of inquiry was held that exonerated Warren. During the inquiry, and in interviews and articles during the interim, Grant did his best to damage Warren, blaming him for things in retrospect that Grant had not blamed Warren for at the time, most notably the debacle of the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg. In fact, my research leads to the inescapable conclusion that Sheridan relieved Warren at Grant’s behest.

Although Grant was a fine general he had a strong tendency to ignore facts in order to embellish his own reputation. In doing so he did great harm to the careers and reputations of others. My first book, General Grant and the Rewriting of History, addresses issues three through seven in the above list. The final three are addressed in my second book, which is currently being prepared for publication. It is tentatively titled The Men Grant Didn’t Like, but that may change.

Book one sold out in hardcover and is being reprinted in paperback to be shipped next month. The film rights have been optioned, as well. Book two should be available later this year. The issues above are examined at much greater length, and in much greater detail, in those books.

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Other Generals Shared McClellan’s Disease

(July 5, 2017) Modern historians commonly condemn Union Major General George McClellan for almost uniquely overestimating the size of his opposing Confederate armies. According to the Civil War Trust, for example, the general’s “most grievous error [of] hugely overestimating Confederate numbers [was] a delusion [that] dominated his military character.” In truth, however, a number of Federal commanders were prone to overestimate the size of the enemy’s army.

During the Battle of Shiloh, for example, General Ulysses Grant sent a note to the commander of a reinforcing Federal army that Grant was under attack by more than 100,000 Rebels whereas the Confederates only numbered about 45,000. While that overestimation might be excused  because it was made in the heat of battle, Grant continued to overestimate his opponents strength at 70,000 even after the battle.

Similarly, on the eve of the Battle of Antietam where McClellan  would lead the Federal troops, Union General in Chief Henry Halleck in nearby Washington estimated Robert E. Lee’s opposing army at 150,000 men compared to its true strength of only 40,000. Nine days before the battle McClellan’s own commander of cavalry estimated Lee’s strength at 115,000. The prize for exaggeration, however, goes to Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin who wired the War Department five days before the battle that Lee had 190,000 men north of the Potomac River and another 250,000 men in northern Virginia ready to cross the stream. In short, Curtin estimated Lee’s army to be more than ten times bigger than it actually was.

As explained in an earlier post, President Lincoln was afraid that Stonewall Jackson would attack Washington following the latter’s repeated victories in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862. Even though Jackson had only 17,000 soldiers Lincoln estimated it at 30,000. Union commanders in the Valley, James Shields and Charles Fremont, estimated Jackson’s numbers to range from 20,000 to 60,000.

When Major General Jubal Early led a Confederate army in a second Shenandoah Valley campaign two years later and did, if fact, reach the outskirts of Washington, Lincoln’s War Secretary Edwin Stanton claimed Early’s army contained 35,000 men. In reality, Early had only 12,000.

Shortly before launching his offensive against Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville in May 1863 Union commander Joseph Hooker told Lincoln that Lee outnumbered him, whereas Hooker actually outnumbered Lee two-to-one.

The prevailing tendency among historians is to judge McClellan for what he did not do as opposed to what he did. Thus, he is not admired for accomplishing in a matter of three weeks the transformation of a defeated Union army into one that stopped Robert E. Lee’s first invasion at Antietam. He is not applauded for immediately cancelling the orders of Stanton and Halleck to ship the weapons in Washington’s arsenal to New York and keep a steamer ready to evacuate political leaders in the panicked aftermath of Second Bull Run. Nor is he credited with earlier reaching the gates of Richmond before the Battle of Seven Pines by suffering only modest casualties and inflicting more casualties on Lee than Lee did on him during the ensuing fighting on the peninsula. Two years later, Grant would sacrifice over sixty thousand soldiers to put Petersburg under siege and force the surrender of the Confederate capital. Grant’s maneuver was much like the one proposed by McClellan in July 1862 but overruled by then General in Chief Halleck.

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Defining Moments for Grant and Lee

What moments from the biographies of the famous, and infamous, define the person?

While it is unfair to conclude that a single episode reveals a person’s entire character, it is likely that some instances are insightful. Consider, for example, the behavior of Bruce Ismay and Charles Lightoller. Early in the twentieth century Ismay was president of the White Star steamship line. White Star owned the RMS Titanic, which Ismay accompanied on its fateful maiden voyage. Charles Lightoller was the ship’s Second Officer, placing him fourth in command behind the Captain, Chief Officer, and First Officer.

Lightoller was in charge of lowering the lifeboats on Titanic’s port side. Although Ismay had no official duties during the crisis, he was often near the boats on either side encouraging that they be promptly filled and lowered. Except for a small number of crewmembers to navigate the vessels, Lightoller only permitted women and children into his portside boats. Ismay was last seen on the starboard side where he took a seat on the final boat.

Twenty minutes before Titanic sank, Chief Officer Wilde ordered Lightoller into the boat he was then loading. Lightoller refused and was soon struggling in ice-cold water with hundreds of others where he found an overturned lifeboat. Along with twenty others he survived the night standing on the upside-down hull.

The Ismay-Lightoller comparison is revealing because each responded differently to the same incident, while the story’s inherent drama amplifies its tension. Grant and Lee shared no such occurrence. However, both had similar winning reactions to apparent defeats.

Grant&Lee

The better-known story is Grant’s reaction to his failures at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. It was the first time Grant fought Lee’s Virginia army after compiling a victorious record for the Union in the Western Theater. It was fought over much of the same ground where Lee won his greatest victory a year earlier at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Yet from a casualties suffered-to-inflicted viewpoint, Grant did even worse than “Fighting Joe” Hooker who commanded the federal army at Chancellorsville. Grant’s losses at The Wilderness totaled about 18,000 whereas Lee’s were about 11,000. Conversely, at Chancellorsville, Hooker suffered losses of about 17,200 as compared to Lee’s 13,300. Continue reading