Tag Archives: Ulysses Grant

Why Can’t Trump be More Like President Grant?

(August 29, 2018) Most recent biographers praise President Grant for supporting civil rights. In a recent interview, for example, biographer Ron Chernow said, “[Grant] was the single most important President in terms of civil rights between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson . . .” In contrast, Trump’s critics often label today’s President a racist. Not only is Trump racist, they suggest, but they worry he will manipulate the justice department in order to avoid criminal convictions against himself and Administration allies. Vanity Fair compared Trump’s recent “flipping” remarks about plea bargaining to the language of mafia gangsters.

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But most modern biographers overestimate Grant’s morality. He limited his racial advocacy to the solitary minority group (blacks) that was reliably Republican-loyal. He did nothing for other racial minorities such as Chinese Americans. In addition to lacking potential as a GOP voting bloc, Asian Americans lived mainly in Republican-controlled states like California where whites refused to give them the vote or even citizenship. They were, in fact, hated. The biggest lynching in American history happened in Los Angeles during Grant’s presidency and all nineteen victims were Chinese Americans.  During his second year in office President Grant signed the 1870 Naturalization Act that permitted black immigrants to become naturalized citizens, but denied it to Chinese Americans and other “non-whites.” He also used the Act, and others, to “police” voting in the big cities of the North where white immigrants, such as the Irish, typically voted Democratic.

Grant also abused presidential powers to frustrate criminal prosecutions when they came too close for comfort. One example was the Whisky Ring Scandal. It involved tax evasion and bribery in the distilled spirits industry, which was then the top source of domestic federal tax revenue.

Ultimately, the treasury’s investigation led to the threshold of the presidency when Grant’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock, was indicted as a leading Ring conspirator. Grant responded by first trying to move the trial to a friendly military court since Babcock was also an army officer. But a justice department prosecutor blocked the move by noting the procedural violations that would result from taking evidence away from the court of jurisdiction. Second, he hired a spy to infiltrate the prosecutor’s office, but the mole eventually sided with the prosecution. Third, he fired an assistant prosecutor whose comments during a jury summation in an earlier related trial criticized the President. Fourth, he forbade prosecutors to plea bargain with low-level conspirators as a means to convict high-level participants. Along with other evidence, Grant’s obstruction were so suspicious that the treasury department’s chief clerk wrote a future Supreme Court justice two days before Babcock’s trial: “What has hurt [Treasury Secretary] Bristow worst of all & most disheartened him is the final conviction that Grant himself is in the Ring and knows all about [it.]”

Grant fans who wish that Trump could be more like their hero might want to reconsider their wish.


A Critical Assessment of Ulysses Grant

(August 24, 2018) Joseph Rose presents the Grant Under Fire video below wherein he reaches three conclusions.

First, Grant’s later remarks about the war, particularly in his end-of-life memoirs, surprisingly often contradict his statements at the time of the applicable events. One example involves his reasons for joining the army when the Civil War started. In 1878 he told the New York Times: “When the rebellion came I returned to service because of a duty. I had no thought of rank.” In contrast, during his trip to enlist he wrote his wife seventeen years earlier, “I will not go [to war] for a position . . .  inferior to that of a colonel.”

Similarly, his memoirs claim that he could have captured the Rebel base at Corinth “in a two days campaign” if he hand not been replaced by Major General Henry Halleck as commander of the Army of Tennessee after the Battle of Shiloh. But his contemporary remarks, such as “we do well to approach [Corinth] a few miles every day,” suggest he was satisfied with Halleck’s inchworm advance.

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Second, the general often tried to shift blame for failure to subordinates and credit himself with the successes of others. At Shiloh, for example, he blamed Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss for surrendering 2,200 soldiers. He claimed that Prentiss should have retreated with the rest of the federal defense line that the Rebels had steadily been pushing back in other sectors on the first day of the two day battle. In reality Grant had ordered Prentiss to hold his position, which left the 2,200 men surrounded by Rebels as the Union defense lines to the left and right of Prentiss withdrew.

On the second day at Shiloh Grant’s mostly battle-weakened six divisions were reinforced by three fresh divisions from Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Although all divisions performed well that day, Buell’s men did most of the fighting (under Buell’s leadership) that drove the Rebels into retreat. Grant, however, claimed credit for the victory and minimized Buell’s contribution.

Third, Grant was not as good a commander as modern biographers and historians typically assert. Most of his big victories in the Western Theater, such as Vicksburg and Fort Donelson, benefitted from assistance by Union Naval flotillas. When he lacked the Naval advantage in the overland campaign against Robert E. Lee in the spring of 1864 he was unable to win a single victory despite a two-to-one numerical majority.

Perhaps the biggest blot on his reputation came in the aftermath of Lee’s victory at Cold Harbor. Grant left his wounded soldiers stranded between the battle lines for four days before he agreed to a truce. By the time litter bearers got into the field few of the injured remained alive.

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.

Iuka: A Shadow of Truth

(April 9, 2018) While Lee was invading Maryland and Bragg was “liberating” Kentucky, the latter asked the Confederate commanders in north Mississippi to distract Union General Ulysses Grant in west Tennessee so that he would not join Union General Don Carlos Buell in the defense of Kentucky. The first Mississippi Rebel leader to act was General Sterling Price when his 15,000 soldiers captured a Union depot in northeast Mississippi at Iuka on September 15, 1862.  Two days later Ulysses Grant approved a plan suggested by subordinate General William Rosecrans to eliminate Price’s army by converging on it with two separate 8,000-man units from the North and South simultaneously. Grant would be in overall command while Rosecrans would lead one column and General Edward Ord the other.

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The standard battle narrative reflects selective use of Grant-favorable versions of his multiple—sometimes contrary—post battle reports and remarks in his Memoirs twenty-three years later when he wrote that under his plan Price’s “annihilation was inevitable.” Rosecrans and Ord had 17,000 men between them. Ord would descend on Iuka from the north, while Rosecrans came up from the south. Once Price had his attention thoroughly fixed on Ord, Rosecrans would fall on his rear so that the Rebels would have to choose between death and capitulation.

Accordingly, on 17 September Ord moved twelve miles down the Memphis & Charleston Railroad to Burnsville, where Grant established headquarters, having instructed Rosecrans to concentrate at Jacinto, eight miles south. From these two points, the two columns were to push to within striking distance of Iuka the following day in order to deliver their attacks soon after dawn of the 19th. But Rosecrans reported that one of his units had been so badly delayed that he could not be in position before midafternoon of the appointed day. As pictured in the map above, Rosecrans was to arrange his attack so as to block Price’s two escape paths: One to the southeast and the other to the southwest.

Grant told Ord to go ahead with the opening phase on 19 September. But he also told him to await the sounds of Rosecrans’s attack in order to be sure that Price’s escape hatches were closed. Ord’s forward movement captured Price’s attention, but the Federal column north of town did nothing more for the entire day suffering casualties of only one man wounded. When Ord received a four o’clock message from the front at six o’clock—inexplicably two hours later—telling him of “dense smoke arising from the direction of Iuka” he merely assumed Price was evacuating.

The smoke had been beyond, not in the town, and it came from Price’s guns, not his stores. When the Confederates learned of Ord’s approach from the south about two o’clock they opened the battle in that sector.  Grant and Ord failed to hear the cannon fire because a strong wind  out of the northwest created an acoustic shadow. In fact, Grant did not even suspect that Rosecrans was in position until the morning of 20 September when he received a note the latter had written the night before. It urged Grant to push into the Rebels from the north. Ord finally made his attack at about nine o’clock in the morning on 20 September while Rosecrans assaulted from the south. But the two columns were converging on an empty town because Price had escaped on the road that led to the southeast. Rosecrans had lost 790 men and Price 535.

Grant’s initial battle reports praised Rosecrans. It was, after all, the latter’s men who did all of the fighting. But Grant’s later reports criticized Rosecrans for failing to block both of Price’s escape roads and also for failing to aggressively pursue Price after he had evacuated Iuka.

Grant criticisms are unfair.

First, Rosecrans was fighting a battle outnumbered two-to-one, while Ord and Grant were nearby doing nothing. Second, he could not block both of Price’s escape routes unless he could get closer to the south end of town where the two roads converged. If he tried to cover both roads at the latitude of his battle line his smaller force  would have to be split in two and separated by a distance that was too far for the segments to support one another. Third, he could not overpower the enemy and get close enough to Iuka to block both roads unless Ord drew off some of the enemy’s strength by attacking from the north. But that never happened. Fourth, Ord’s men were well-rested and should have been used for pursuit instead of the battle weary and footsore men in Rosecrans’s column. Fifth, while Grant criticized Rosecrans’s alleged un-energetic pursuit, the commanding general set a bad example by leaving the area to visit his family in west Tennessee.

According to Dr. Frank Varney, who authored General Grant and the Rewriting of History, objective historians should be asking several questions about the Battle of Iuka that they generally fail to consider. Did Grant provide effective leadership? What went wrong at his headquarters? Had Grant temporarily fallen victim to latent alcoholism? What was happening within the Federal column north of town? Varney adds that after the battle Grant submitted “a report that was quite at odds with his first messages about Iuka, and submitted it immediately after an acrimonious exchange of telegrams with Rosecrans. . . This should warn us that Grant was not above rewriting official documents in anger and . . . would revise his version of events if it suited him.” Varney also reminds readers that Grant may have been motivated to such actions because his reputation at the time of Iuka was still not secure due to his controversial performance at Shiloh less than six months earlier.


Fort Donelson: A Matter or Credit or Blame?

(April 8, 2018) Although the Union capture of Fort Donelson on February 16, 1862 is commonly credited to Brigadier General Ulysses Grant, the cause of the outcome is more a matter of a Union, or Confederate, viewpoint. Confederate leadership arguably lost the battle more than Grant won it.

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As the map below illustrates, by 14 February Grant had the Rebel fortifications completely invested on the landward (SxSW) side with the divisions of three commanders: C. F. Smith, Lew Wallace and John McClernand. Although obvious from the beginning of the siege on 13 February that the Confederates must eventually either surrender or attack, Grant’s soldiers had no defensive earthworks. After a naval bombardment failed on 14 February, Grant went to a shipboard meeting on the morning of the 15th with Admiral Andrew Foote to discuss future combined operations. Although Grant did not tell his division commanders that he would be absent that morning he left them with instructions “to do nothing to bring on an engagement until they received further orders, but to hold their positions.”

As Grant should have expected, the Confederates attacked. They chose to assault the south end of the Union line at five o’clock the very morning of the Grant-Foote meeting. Their purpose was to gain an escape route. The attack progressively forced Union General McClernand’s division toward Wallace’s division. At eight o’clock he asked Wallace for reinforcements. Given Grant’s standing orders to “do nothing” Wallace sent a message to Grant’s HQ asking for permission to help McClernand. When Wallace learned that Grant was not at the army’s HQ, he started sending reinforcements to McClernand on his own.

The combined Wallace and McClernand forces finally stopped the Rebel advance at noon. But the Confederates had already won enough ground to open escape roads to both the south and east. Unfortunately they had a diffident commander. Brigadier General John Floyd had assumed command only five days earlier and still relied upon advice from Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, the previous commander. Despite having opened the escape routes, Pillow ordered all of his soldiers back into the Rebel lines about 1:30 PM. Notwithstanding orders from Floyd to retake the field, Pillow argued for time to replenish supplies, which caused a delay that lasted the rest of the day. It was one of the biggest blunders of the war.  A lull had fallen over the battlefield for several hours after Pillow’s advance had been stopped at noon during which the Southerners could have escaped.

Grant did not arrive until one or two o’clock in the afternoon. First, he sent a message to the Admiral Foote asking that the navy make a morale-building show of force in front of the Rebel’s river-facing cannons because “a terrible conflict [had] ensued in my absence.” Next he ordered Wallace and McClernand to retire and “throw up earthworks.” But when he learned that the Confederates had uncovered escape paths Grant changed his mind and told the two to counterattack in order to close the escape hatches. Grant also told division commander Smith to attack at the north end, correctly reasoning that the Rebels weakened their lines in that sector in order to make the breakout at the south end.

After Smith penetrated the Rebel fortifications at the north end, the Confederates concluded—probably erroneously—that they would need to surrender. Metaphorically, they viewed Smith as the proverbial camel with his nose under the Confederate tent. The next morning he could fire on the flank and rear of nearly all the Rebel troops. Since it was early in the war Floyd and Pillow feared that they might be hanged for treason if captured. Floyd, for example, had been secretary of war under the president preceding Lincoln, James Buchanan. Pillow was a Major General in the “old army” and a leader in the Mexican war fifteen years earlier. Consequently the two used the only available Confederate boats to escape. Floyd took with him all four regiments from his home state of Virginia. Cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest led five hundred of his men on a breakout through saddle-high swamp water. The remaining 11,500 would be surrendered.

The fort’s third-in-command, Brigadier General Simon Buckner, asked Grant for capitulation terms to which the latter famously replied “nothing but unconditional and immediate surrender.” Buckner had hoped for better terms partly because he and Grant were prewar friends. In fact, he had staked the penniless Grant with enough money to get home to St. Louis when the latter arrived in New York City from California after resigning from the army in disgrace eight years earlier. Buckner’s son (Jr.) commanded the Tenth Army at the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. He declined an implied request to discipline a marine for hoisting the Confederate battle flag over the captured Japanese fortress at Shuri Castle. 

Confederate prisoners from Fort Donelson were shipped to a Chicago prisoner of war camp known as Camp Douglas where living conditions were brutal. About 4,200 of the camp’s prisoners died of disease during the war. Their bodies were eventually dumped into a mass grave at Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery. Local activists plan to hold a rally on April 22, 2018 to demand the removal of a statue. Instead they want to erect a statue to Ida B. Wells who was a black journalist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also buried in the cemetery. The commander of the Camp Douglas Sons of Confederate Veterans plans to attend “to have a civil conversation” about adding a monument for Wells but, presumably, keeping the Confederate monument in place. The Confederate plot is managed by the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elmwood, Illinois.

Grant: Not Great at Shiloh

(April 7, 2018) Today’s anniversary is a good time to correct misconceptions about Union Major General Ulysses Grant’s performance at the Battle of Shiloh.

First, contrary to his later claims, Grant was inexcusably unprepared for the Confederate attack on April 6, 1862. Hours before the first shots he wired his St. Louis commander, “I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack (general one) being made upon us but will be prepared should such a thing take place.” Nonetheless, he never ordered his troops to prepare defensive earthworks. He spent the night before the battle in the warm bed of a plantation mansion at Savannah, Tennessee about ten miles away from his army’s encampments on the opposite side of the Tennessee River. The general did not join his troops until about nine o’clock in the morning, four hours after the initial Rebel attack.

Second, on the first day of the two-day battle he did little to direct troop movements on the battlefront after ten o’clock in the morning. Thereafter, he selected the Pittsburg (riverboat) Landing on the Tennessee River as his headquarters. Despite claims in his Memoirs twenty-three years later, Grant did not ride mounted on among the fighting men providing encouragement and directing movements during the rest of the day. He spent most of  the time vainly trying to rally thousands of panicked stragglers at the Landing or aboard a gunboat floating safely in the river. A soldier in Hurlburt’s division wrote, “I saw Grant but once and that was at ten o’clock in the morning. . . I do not say that was the only time he was along the line, though I have never seen a soldier yet who was engaged in that struggle who says he saw him twice or at two different times.”

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Third, Grant falsely blamed the capture of 2,200 Union soldiers in the Hornet’s Nest on General Prentiss, the leader of the surrendered units. He said Prentiss failed to move rearward to a new defense line when the units on his left and right did. But Grant never gave Prentiss such orders. Moreover, the units on Prentiss’s right and left were not ordered to “move backward”; they were forced into hasty retreat by attacking Confederates.

Fourth, once the battle began Grant erroneously claimed his army was outnumbered by a Rebel force of over 100,000. The Confederate army was actually smaller than his own 45,000-man command, which would be reenforced toward the end of the first day by Union General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.

Fifth, Grant wrongly faulted division commander Lew Wallace for Wallace’s failure to get his division—holding a valuable riverboat landing eight miles north of the rest of the army—in action hours earlier. The fault was really Grant’s because he told Wallace to take his division to the right side of the Union battle line, which Wallace assumed was at the army’s original encampment. Such a march would have isolated Wallace in enemy territory because the Federal battle line rapidly shriveled as the Rebel attacks forced it toward the Tennessee River. Consequently, Wallace was forced to backtrack once he realized that his intended destination would dangerously isolate his division.

Sixth, Grant stubbornly gave Buell’s army no credit for rescuing him. He wrongly said that he could have beaten the Rebel army on April 7th (the second day) without reinforcements. In truth, the fighting on April 6th reduced his army from 45,000 to less than 20,000 effectives as evidenced by the skulkers huddled under the bluff at Pittsburg Landing. (To them should be added deserters that left the field completely including those who drowned trying the swim across the Tennessee River.) Author Joseph Rose writes:

Buell’s army covered more of the front and performed the lion’s share of the fighting on the 7th. This distinction vanishes in Grant’s Memoirs, [where he wrote] as “victory was assured when Wallace arrived, even if there had been no other support.” Hurlburt, among numerous others, contradicted this supposition:

General William T. Sherman—another overrated Union leader during the battle—was so discouraged at the end of the first day that he admitted wanting only “to put the river between us and the enemy.”

Seventh, beyond the initial order to advance, Grant provided his troops little direction  on the second day of the battle. They won the fight without him.

Eighth, despite his false suggestions that Buell sought avenues of retreat when he first met Grant on the battlefield, it was Grant who lacked the will to pursue the defeated enemy on April 8th. The leaders of the most successful commands on April 7th, Buell and Lew Wallace, wanted to attack the retreating Rebels but Grant did not consult them and unilaterally ordered both armies to halt.

Among most modern historians the recent surge of Grant hagiographies have wrongly transformed him into “The Teflon Man,” against whom no legitimate criticisms can stick.