Daily Archives: 9 February 2005

Generals Grant & Sherman vs. the Press

“Grant was a long way from the flagpole, and he had a pretty long leash. He had taken thirteen thousand casualties at Shiloh, and while he finally had a national reputation, he knew that if he failed here he would be cast aside.”

So far, Grant’s Civil War career had demonstrated how war, like the frontier, provides the opportunity for meritocratic advancement. Grant had exploited one narrow opening after another. Having failed at farming and real estate, Grant, who had finished in the unimpressive lower middle of his class at West Point, showed a knack for leadership once the war began: he volunteered for the army, then recruited, equipped, and drilled troops at Galena, Illinois. In late 1861, he captured Belmont, on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Memphis, but this campaign had not been specifically ordered, and the press criticized Grant for an unnecessary engagement. Then, in February 1862, Grant won the first major Union victory of the war when he captured fifteen thousand Confederate troops at Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. In April at Shiloh Church, near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, Grant repulsed an unexpected Confederate offensive, but with such heavy losses that the press raged at him, though military historians now see Shiloh as a Union triumph. The captains and majors [on an excursion from Fort Leavenworth] argued that had the interfering press then been more influential than it was, Grant and Sherman both might have been removed from command and the war prolonged for lack of aggressive Union generals. (Sherman celebrated with his aides when he learned that four reporters had been killed near Vicksburg.)

As I had learned at Fort Leavenworth, the power of the media foreshadows the end of the heroic period in American military history. Great battles of the type fought by Grant and Eisenhower mean risk and blood and a wide berth for error.

SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 346-347

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When Vicksburg was the Frontier, and Grant a Frontiersman

This post is for Geitner Simmons, of Regions of Mind, who’s writing a book about the South and the West.

“Gettysburg changed the war less than Vicksburg did,” explained Chris Gabel, a military historian [at the School of Advanced Military Studies] at Fort Leavenworth, who led one of the four seminars into which the large group of captains and majors was divided. Gettysburg was an accidental, set-piece battle. After Gettysburg, the Union field commander, [General George G.] Meade, kept doing what he had always been doing. The Confederate commander, [Robert E.] Lee, kept doing what he had always been doing. Little of strategic importance happened. But Vicksburg cut the South in two, and it brought Grant east, to take control of the Union Army.”

Though situated in the Deep South, in 1863 Vicksburg was considered “the West,” just as Leavenworth was during the later Indian Wars, and just as the Rockies and the Cascades are today. Grant, the Union commander at Vicksburg, was in every respect a westerner. He grew up in Ohio and lived in Illinois, both part of the original “Northwest,” the first territorial possession of the young United States and in the early nineteenth century–the time of Grant’s youth and early adulthood–a frontier, with its own Indian wars. Grant had also served in California and Oregon. This experience of the Pacific may have steeled his commitment to a united union, which he shared with Lincoln.

As a general, Grant was blunt and practical, lumbering ever forward, risking what he had achieved in the knowledge that standing still means failure. And because he considered himself no better than his men, he was the ideal democratic leader. For Grant, war was never heroic: like everything else in America, it was business. Grant exemplified the serviceable engineering education at which West Point excelled: so American, so unlike the more theoretical “chessboard” curriculum of European war colleges. Grant’s Personal Memoirs, written at the end of his life, is the archetypal American narrative, perhaps more so than Thoreau’s Walden or Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, to which Edmund Wilson favorably compares it. With rough austerity, it tells of its author’s struggles, setbacks, and ultimate rise, through sheer practical application in the course of extraordinary events. If I could boil America down to a single, exemplary personality, it would be Grant. For me, Grant, in his rough-hewn, unsophisticated ambition, was America. I was taking this bus journey on a hunch that learning more about Grant and what he had accomplished at Vicksburg might allow me a final insight into this country.

At Vicksburg, Grant truly came into his own, pulling the Union and the coming Industrial Age nation along with him. Vicksburg is about process: the little-by-littleness of change. Though Grant’s victory there gave Union forces strategic control of the settled part of the continent, the exact moment of that victory is obscure; for Vicksburg was not so much a battle as a complex campaign of several battles and skirmishes. The turning point in the dense malarial marshes of the lower Mississippi Valley occurred in the midst of bloody weeks of drudgery, between Grant’s seventh, failed attempt in late March 1863 to cross to the east bank of the Mississippi (where the Confederate fortress was) and the Confederates’ final surrender on Independence Day, the same July Fourth when the guns stilled at Gettysburg.

SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 341-343

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