Rehabilitating Ulysses S. Grant's Military Reputation

I must confess that I’m a Copperhead! A Vallandingham Copperhead, that is, joined cheek-to-jowl with Taylor, Henry, Randolph, and Jefferson in political inclination, thus an admirer of the “Southern” contributions in the establishment of the American republican experiment. I mention this only as an acknowledgement of a certain prejudice, on my part, since this is a review of a book defending the South’s greatest adversary (excluding, of course, President Lincoln), Ulysses S. Grant.

But, before we address the issues in Mr. Bonekemper’s magnificent book, let’s take a quick look at his enemy.

Prior to the war the South was medieval in disposition and form. She eschewed modernity, best exemplified by New England’s fascination with industrial capitalism, and held fast to an agrarianism that grounded her people in a humanistic worldview that expressed “the classic qualities of magnificence, magnanimity, and liberality.” They believed in metaphysical absolutes, they chose to seek the will of God, and they understood the evil effects of Original sin. They were, “the last non-materialist civilization in the Western World.”

The downside of this unique, American, society was an “??¢â???¬ ¦ extravagant and sentimental romanticism,” a total lack of a “philosophical foundation,” and, in the end, a “loss of initiative.” Of course, the Union armies had a great deal to do with this “loss of initiative.” They did, indeed, “drive old Dixie down,” as the beloved socialist diva, Joan Baez, once sang, and the primary instrument in suppressing the Southern yearning for freedom was a short, cigar smoking, Ohioan by the name of “Sam” Grant.

Ulysses S. Grant, over the years, has often been described as a “butcher.” And, Edward H. Bonekemper III, in his new book, A Victor, Not A Butcher (published by Regnery, a HUMAN EVENTS sister company, seeks to set Grant’s reputation to right. Mr. Bonekemper, retired from government service, is now a visiting lecturer in American Military History at Muhlenberg College.

Bonekemper’s strength is his conviction, his meticulous research and analysis of combat statistics, and his application of those findings to the body of his work. His prose is crisp and to the point, without being pedantic, and his conclusions enjoy a decided perspicuity. There is no John Kerry-like flip-flopping here. He quickly covers Grant’s early years, thankfully avoiding any pseudo-psychological probing of Grant’s mind when discussing his myriad of civilian failures, then begins an exegetical review of his military experiences.

Grant’s victories at Paducah, Kentucky, and Belmont, Missouri, in the fall of 1861 propelled him to army command. His skillfully conceived operations, a few months later, against Ft. Henry, on the Tennessee River, and Ft. Donelson, a few miles away on the Cumberland River, resulted in a startling Union victory that bagged a Confederate 14,000 man army and earned Grant the sobriquet, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant! However, his one failure in the operation, not catching the elusive and deadly Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry command, would be a pox upon the North’s house for several years to come.

Forced to contend with the jealousy of his commander, General Henry “Old Brains” Halleck, who wanted to get rid of him, Grant continued his efforts at splitting the Confederacy with a major push down the Tennessee River toward Corinth, Mississippi, in the spring. On April 5 he bivouacked his army at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, with their backs to the river — a really big tactical no-no. The next morning, under the cover of fog and mist a 40,000 man Confederate army, commanded by the much lamented General Albert S. Johnston, came rushing through the undergrowth giving that feral rebel cry, “yip-yip-yip,” and welcoming Grant’s Midwesterner’s to the South. It was a close affair; Johnston was shot trying to break Grant’s tenacious hold on his left flank, which rested on the river. If Johnston had been able to break that flank and roll up Grant’s command, well, we probably wouldn’t be reading this book because Sam Grant would have been just a minor figure in the “late unpleasantness.” But, Albert Sidney Johnston bled out in the saddle and died honorably on the field, “facing the enemy,” and Grant held with his splendid blue bellies, and his artillery and riverboat guns. The next day he counterattacked, drove the rebels away, and won the battle of Shiloh! As Bonekemper points out Grant did not back down.

Bonekemper’s description of Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign is superb. Though I take issue with his statement that it may have been the greatest campaign in American military history. No, No, No! That would either be Washington’s battle at Trenton, or Lee and Jackson’s efforts at Chancellorsville! The author also provides an excellent overview of the Chattanooga Campaign but here Grant is paired against Braxton Bragg and we’ll just say that General Bragg would have made a much better commander-in-chief than an army commander.

Bonekemper’s descriptions of Grant’s Overland and Appomattox Campaigns are exceptionally reader friendly and easy to follow. As a military writer, the author has that gift of simplifying complex maneuvers and making them understandable. Also, not since Dr. Jeffery Hummel’s seminal study, Freeing the Slaves and Enslaving Freemen, have I read a book so generous with its bibliography, notes, and appendices all of which are required by serious students of the war!

Bonekemper has succeeded in his defense of Sam Grant. Grant was not a butcher, rather, he was the father of “modern” warfare. He was a brilliant general who utilized the men and material available to break the back of the glorious Army of Northern Virginia and the heart of its renowned commander, General of the Army, Robert E. Lee.