Friday, August 17, 2007

CWL --- Grant Rediscovered, Again.

Still a Mystery? General Grant and the Historians, 1981-2006, Ethan Rafuse, The Journal of Military History, July 2007, 879-874.

In 1879 William T. Sherman, a close friend of Ulysses S. Grant, remarked that "to me [Grant] is a mystery, and I believe he is a mystery to himself." In 1981 William S. McFeely offered a biography of Grant that presented a very different picture of the general and president than the one offered by Bruce Catton, Kenneth P. Williams and T. Harry Williams. These three historians had rescued Grant's reputation from a previous generations', the Lost Cause School, dismissal of Grant.

For Catton, Kenneth Williams and Harry Williams, Grant was not the drunkard, the butcher, the pre-cursor to World War One generals noted for their attrition of their armies by foolhardy frontal charges. Strategy, tactics and grit describe Grant's performance at Forts Donelson and Henry, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga for these historians writing in the 1950s and 1960s.

A backlash to their portrait of Grant began with Grant: A Biography, McFeely's work which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. McFeely presents a complex, darker picture of a soldier with a grand ambition and little ego. Grant was not a simple, hardworking and modest American trying to make his way in the world.

The author described the 1864 Overland Campaign as being 'a nightmare of inhumanity and inept military strategy that ranks as the worst such episodes in the history of warfare . . . ." Grant's work was 'a hideous disaster' in McFeely's eyes. The climate of the time in which McFeely wrote the biography was quite different than the post-World War Two era. The author "approached his study of Grant not as a military historian, but with an interest in race relations." (p. 853-854)

Though widely accepted and positively reviewed by both scholars and the general public, McFeely's book did garner negative criticism from Jay Luuvas, Richard N. Current, James M. McPherson and Brooks Simpson. These four gave poor marks to McFeely for offer an impressionistic treatment of the military campaigns, introducing attitudes of the 1970s into a mid-19th century life, having factual errors, oversimplifying and exaggerating interpretations of controversial events in Grant's life. McPherson was hostile to MeFeely's book, stating that it contained a superficial understanding of generalship and using irresponsibly elements of Grant's behavior. Simpson faulted McFeely for labeling Grant a butcher and a racist and for relying only on casualties a means to judge military success. Simpson cotinued his challenge to McFeely's description by citing the work of J.F.C. Fuller. "Statisical evidence that Grant's losses were not out of line with, and in some cases were actually lower than, those suffered by of Civil War generals." (pp. 856-857)

Since the publication of McFeely's book, Ethan Rafuse offers Geoffrey Perret's
Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier and President and J. Edward Smith's Grant as correctives. Also Brook Simpson's Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865, state Rafuse, presents "fresh and compelling insights" into Grant's early life and military career. Common in these three biographies is the discussion of team work between Grant and Lincoln. Though each of these three biographies are quite positive towards Grant's character, the books also discuss Grant's anti-Semitism and his avoidance of taking responsibility for failed attacks.

"In light of all that has been written on Grant over the last quarter century, has the 'mystery' been solved?" asked Rafuse. He closes his essays with descriptions of elements of Grant's life that have not been well covered or explained. He looks forward to the second volume of Simpson's work on Grant and hopes that in further studies of Grant, the life will be integrated into the times. (pp. 872-874)

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