Tag Archives: Ulysses Grant

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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Southern Reconstruction, Part Two: Republican Hegemony

(November 7, 2016) Provided below is Part Two of my Southern Reconstruction speech to a November 5th seminar in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Labeled “Republican Party Hegemony” today’s installment follows the “Protracted Poverty” of Part One. 


Post-war politics and federal economic policies contributed to the South’s long delayed economic recovery. Among such factors were property confiscations, Republican Party self-interest, discriminatory federal budgets, protective tariffs, Union veteran pensions, banking regulations, discriminatory freight rates, lax monopoly regulation, absentee ownership and the requirement that America’s most impoverished region pay for the public education of the children of ex-slaves even though emancipation was a national—not regional—policy.

When Lee surrendered to Grant, more than two million fungible cotton bales were scattered across the South. Given an average price of 43 cents per pound, each bale was worth about $172, putting the value of the entire inventory at nearly $350 million as compared to $15 million of US currency then circulating in the region. The cotton inventory might have primed the pump of Southern recovery, but instead it was plundered.

Union soldiers, US treasury officials, and Northern businessmen stole most of it under the pretext of legitimate confiscation, or no pretext at all. A dismayed US Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch remarked, “I am sure that I sent some honest cotton agents South, but it sometimes seems very doubtful that any of them remained honest very long.”

Southern lands were also confiscated for non-payment of state taxes imposed by Carpetbag regimes, which were some of the highest in relation to wealth in US history. At one point 15% of Mississippi’s taxable land was up for sale due to tax defaults and an Arkansas newspaper required sixteen pages to list delinquencies.

When the Civil War ended the Republican Party was barely ten years old. Its leaders worried that it might be strangled in the cradle if re-admittance of Southern states into the Union failed to be managed in a way that would prevent Southerners from allying with Northern Democrats to regain control of the federal government. If all former Confederate states were admitted to Congress in December 1865 and each added member was a Democrat, the Republican Senate majority would have dropped from 40-to-8 and become 40-to-30. Similarly, the Party’s majority in the House would have dropped from 111-to-40 and become 111-to-79. In short, the Republicans would have no longer held a veto-proof two-thirds majority in Congress.

Thus, the infant GOP needed to insure that most of the new Southern senators and congressmen were admitted as Republicans. That required that vassal governments be established in the Southern states. Since there were few white Republicans in the region the Party needed to create a new constituency. Consequently, Republicans settled on two objectives.

First was mandatory African-American suffrage in all former Confederate states. Republicans expected that the mostly illiterate and inexperienced black electorate could be manipulated to consistently support Party interests out of gratitude for emancipation and voter suffrage. Second was denial of the vote to the Southern white classes most likely to oppose Republican policies.

Although it is often assumed that Republican Party sponsorship of Southern black suffrage was motivated by a moral impulse to promote racial equality, the bulk of the evidence suggests the Party was more interested in retaining political power.

First, the 1866 Civil Rights Act passed over President Johnson’s veto declared nearly all blacks to be citizens but expressly denied citizenship to Indians unless they were paying taxes. Indians would not gain full citizenship until the 1920s.

Second, Republicans recognized that many Northerners did not favor black suffrage in their own states. When the Civil War began, blacks were not permitted to vote in sixteen of the twenty-two Union-loyal states. In most of the remaining six they could only vote by meeting property and education tests that were more stringent than those applied to whites. Upon the war’s conclusion, only five New England states with tiny black populations permitted them to vote. Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin each rejected black suffrage in 1865. Kansas did so in 1867 as did Michigan and Missouri in 1868 and even New York in 1869. As shall be explained, the Republicans would adopt a strategy that would permit Northern states to reject black suffrage with only negligible consequences but that would significantly penalize Southern states for doing so.

Third, a month after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Union Major General William T. Sherman wrote a colleague, “I have never heard a negro ask for…[voting rights]…and I think it would be his ruin…I believe the whole idea of giving votes to the negroes is to create just that many votes to be used by others for political uses…”

Major General William T. Sherman

Major General William T. Sherman

Fourth, the two Republican leaders most commonly believed to be sincerely interested in black racial equality also admitted that they also wanted Southern black suffrage in order to help keep their Party in power.

Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens who would ultimately be buried in a black cemetery said, “If [black] suffrage is excluded in the rebel States then every one of them is sure to send a solid rebel representative delegation to Congress…They, with their kindred [Northern] Copperheads, would always elect the President and control Congress.” He also stated that the Southern states, “ought never…be…counted as valid states until the Constitution shall have been amended…to secure perpetual ascendancy to the party of the Union [meaning the Republican Party].” Continue reading

Grant’s Presidential Corruption-One

As noted several weeks ago, I’m presently researching the Reconstruction Era and was stunned to learn the depth of corruption in President Ulysses Grant’s two administrations. Grant set such a bad example that it is no surprise how badly the carpetbag puppet-regimes of the Southern states were overrun with depravity. The amount of corruption during Grant’s eight years as President is so broad that it cannot be conveniently covered in a single post.

It will take several weeks just to cover a few. Despite an overwhelming bias at Wikipedia toward Grant, the encyclopedia’s article on his presidential scandals alone lists a total of eleven. That does not include his pervasive nepotism, presumably because it was not technically illegal. Nonetheless, about 40 Grant family members benefitted financially, either directly or indirectly, during Grant’s eight years in the White House.


Today’s post merely considers revelations about his White House staff and his closest wartime advisor whom he appointed as secretary of war. Grant had his own version of Nixon’s trio of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean. The only difference was that Nixon’s staff had a-falling-out-among-crooks when Dean tattled. That didn’t happened with Grant’s gang of John Rawlins, Horace Porter and Orville Babcock.

Since Rawlins died in September 1869 he only lasted about six months as war secretary. During that period he was a strong intervention advocate in favor of Cuban revolutionaries. But after he died it was discovered that he had $28,000 in worthless Cuban bonds that would have brought full face value if the United States had help overthrow Spanish rule in Cuba as he urged.


My Civil War Books

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

To be released later this month and available for pre-order: The Confederacy at Flood Tide


Horace Porter and Orville Babcock were Grant’s private secretaries, much like John Hay and John Nicolay were for Lincoln. The prime difference was that Porter and Babcock were implicated in numerous scandals. Porter may have profited from an attempt by Jim Fisk and Jay Gould to corner the gold market, was accused of profiting from irregularities involving New York tariff collections, assisting liquor distillers to evade excise taxes, and using his influence—in exchange for a bribe—to win the President’s approval for lucrative subsidies for the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Babcock was also accused of participating in the gold market speculations and the illegal New York custom’s house ring. Although never convicted, it is likely that he was a central figure in the widespread tax evasion by distilled spirits producers. He also purchased property in Santo Domingo which he and Grant tried to get the United States to annex. Finally, he was accused—but not convicted—of conspiring to produce false evidence in a case about corrupt building contractors in Washington, D. C. As punishment, Grant assigned Babcock to a lonely sinecure as a lighthouse inspector. He ultimately drowned while inspecting a Florida lighthouse.

Babcock’s boat sank during a storm, but his malfeasance along with that of Rawlins’s conflict of interest with the Cuban bonds and  the multiple separate accusations against Porter are only the tip of the corrupt iceberg that sank Grant’s presidency. They should also be enough to sink his presently over-glorified historical reputation, yet each new Grant biography seems to compete with the earlier ones on a hagiography scale.

Congress Attacks the Supreme Court

Most Civil War era students know that a Radical Republican Congress took control of Southern Reconstruction by obtaining a near veto-proof majority against President Andrew Johnson. Since Johnson considered the congressional plan to be unconstitutional, the infant GOP wanted him removed from office so that he could not interfere.

As explained in an earlier post, the Republicans settled on impeachment as their methodology. They accused Johnson of violating a law intended to prevent him from replacing one of his own cabinet members without approval of the Republican-controlled Senate. The Senate trial fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required to remove (convict) the President. Johnson’s successor, Ulysses Grant, complained about the law and it was repealed about twenty years after adoption.


Fewer Civil War era students, however, realize that the Republican Congress also took shots at the Supreme Court. Congress was prepared to run roughshod over both of the other two federal government branches in order to impose its will. They wanted Reconstruction arranged in a manner that insured a sizable new voting bloc for their Party even if their plan was unconstitutional. In an act that makes present-day Republicans look generous, they passed the 1866 Judicial Circuits Act in order to deny President Johnson the opportunity to replace Supreme Court justices.

This was accomplished by temporarily permitting the court’s size to number as few as seven justices. Johnson would not be allowed to nominate a replacement unless the number of justices fell to six. Shortly after Republican Ulysses Grant succeeded President Johnson, Congress passed an act that set the Supreme Court at nine justices.

In 1868 Congress passed a law that did not permit appeals to the Supreme Court from lower federal courts where habeas corpus was at issue. The court had already ruled that individuals could not be tried in military courts if civilian courts were operating in the region. But Congress wanted to be able to prosecute Southerners in the military districts of the South without permitting them to transfer the case to a civilian court. The 1868 law prevented the accused from appealing to the Supreme Court under a writ of habeas corpus to have the case shifted to a civilian court.  Based on prior rulings, the Supreme Court would almost certainly granted such an appeal.

No single federal government branch ever again dominated the other two as did the Radical Republican Congresses of the Johnson era and first Grant administration. Fearing further congressional restraints, the court failed to review cases that might anger Republicans. It was mostly irrelevant on such matters until the Democratic Party gained strength in the 1874 elections.

My Civil War Books

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

To be released in May and available for pre-order: The Confederacy at Flood Tide

Ulysses Grant

It is no surprise to Civil War students that Ulysses Grant’s reputation has soared over the last fifty years. During the past twenty years nearly all of his biographies have been decidedly favorable. They typically ignore, minimize, excuse, or deny his failings. Examples include those of Jean Smith, H. W. Brands, and Joan Waugh. Two more will apparently join the group later this year. One from Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography upon which the hit Broadway show Hamilton is based and the second will be Ronald White’s American Ulysses.

Nonetheless, several lesser-known authors have recently provided analyses that question Grant’s lofty reputation. They might persuade a venerable reader that Grant’s reputation, once too low, is presently too high. But a reader who first studied Grant in the past twenty-five years will be shocked and might conclude that the general’s reputation should be dropped to a new low.

Joseph Rose published an 800-page expose titled Grant Under Fire. Professor Frank Varney wrote General Grant and the Rewriting of History after studying the errors and self-serving statements in the general’s memoirs. David Moore wrote a biography on General William Rosecrans who he felt Grant had wronged. Readers seeking an earlier bio that is not overly critical, or overly favorable, may enjoy the Pulitzer Prize winning one from William McFeely.


Onset of the Sesquicentennial of Reconstruction led me to study Grant’s presidency. Despite numerous scandals his reputation has recovered so much that recent biographers give him an unmerited “pass” as president. They typically emphasize that he (reluctantly) used federal power to suppress the Ku Klux Klan and tried to sustain black voting power in the South. However, they miss or minimize two essential points.

Continue reading

Untold Story of Reconstruction

Provided below is my review of Gene Dattel’s article “The Untold Story of Reconstruction” in the September 2015 edition of The New Criterion.

Widely praised for his 2009 Cotton and Race in the Making of America, author Gene Dattel’s recent article titled “The Untold Story of Reconstruction,” takes a different tack.

Although predicting that the present Reconstruction Sesquicentennial shall result in “reams of material blaming the South for our racial conundrum” Dattel concludes that all the “issues of Reconstruction circle back” to the toxic “attitudes of the white North toward blacks.” After commenting upon how the present demonization of Confederate symbols contrasts with the respectful reconciliation of opposing leaders such a Grant and Lee, he cogently observes that while white Northerners may have opposed race-based slavery they were contemptuous of free blacks and wanted them excluded from society.

Even though blacks represented less than 2% of the Northern states population, as compared to 40% in the Confederate states, most white Northerners wanted blacks concentrated in the South. As Connecticut was freeing its slaves fifty years before the Civil War, Yale President Timothy Dwight wrote “[free blacks]…are generally neither able, nor inclined, to make their freedom a blessing. When they first become free, they are turned out into the world…fitted to make them only nuisances to society…[where] they waste much of what they earn…[and] are left as miserable victims to sloth…poverty, ignorance and vice.” Nearly sixty years later Connecticut voted against the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted male blacks the right to vote in all states.

Although Yale students forcefully proclaim a “need” to change the name of the John Calhoun residential college on their campus because of his racism, they seem to be silent about changing the name of the Timothy Dwight residential college despite Dwight’s racism.


Another anti-slavery advocate holding low opinions of blacks was Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward. When speaking in Detroit in 1860 he said, “The great fact is now fully realized that the African race here is…incapable of assimilation.” He only supported black suffrage in New York “because their numbers were negligible,” but he opposed it in Washington City where the blacks were numerous. Dattel sagaciously observes that the number of blacks in a locale became “the critical fact throughout the African-American experience.” Continue reading