General Grant and the Rewriting of History, Frank P. Varney, Savas Beatie, El Dorado Hills, California, 2018, $19.95. Review by Edward Kennedy
While revisionist history generally has pejorative connotations, General Grant and the Rewriting of History by Dr. Varney is an excellent case for “revisionism”. Varney does an excellent job of re-assessing what has been written by over a century’s worth of historians and analyzing the subject matter using common sense and most importantly, critical thinking. His work has produced a very detailed and analytical assessment of General U.S. Grant using primary source documents. What Varney shows is that what we know of Grant’s wartime performance is biased and, in many cases, traced back to what Grant says it should be, not what it actually was in a number of cases. This is a problem as errors in fact have been propagated, many times by very reputable historians as is proven by the author.
I believe, based on years of study and reading as well as personal experience as a professional infantry officer, that Grant was a good soldier prone to human emotions like any other. Although Grant has many fine attributes to commend him as a leader, he also is shown by Varney to have a darker side, especially with those he took a disliking to. Generals Rosecrans and Gouverneur K. Warren were but two of whom unfairly suffered from Grant’s displeasure.
The old adage that the “victors write the history” is certainly applicable to Grant’s memoirs. Published twenty years after the war and based on Grant’s personal memories and subject to his prejudices and biases, The Memoirs of Ulysses Simpson Grant has been used for decades as a primary source without serious critical assessment. There is good reason for this. Grant won. No one can deny that his accomplishments were substantial. This lends credence to what Grant writes as “the” official records. However, Varney finds well-founded faults with not only the memoirs, but with those who used them as the definitive source for their interpretations. Many substantive and highly-placed historians have fallen victim to taking Grant’s word unquestioningly. It is a human failing to not seriously question the word of leaders of Grant’s stature but it should be done. This is accomplished through extensive cross-referencing with primary sources and good detective work by Varney who, combining logic and common sense, discovers a number of problems with Grant’s version of history. I believe that Varney actually approached this topic with an open mind giving Grant the benefit of the doubt but the facts enumerated by Varney are convincingly undeniable in most cases.
General Grant and the Rewriting of History focuses on Generals Grant’s and Rosecran’s wartime experiences and relationship. How Grant came to be at such variance with Rosecrans is puzzling. Rosecrans was a year ahead of Grant at West Point and both left the Army after stints on active service. There is no indication that they were at odds prior to 1862, and, in fact, might have been friends due to their common and somewhat similar military backgrounds.
Rosecrans was a capable and talented officer and leader. He had his faults —-including pride and perhaps excessive ambition. However, he was roundly admired by many of his subordinate leaders and soldiers. Grant’s treatment of Rosecrans appears solely to have been based on a personal vendetta sparked by an unsubstantiated letter from another Union officer to Grant alleging Rosecrans’ disloyalty. Grant seems to have placed much credence in this correspondence, affecting his relationship with Rosecrans.
Varney skillfully weaves a “pattern of deceit” by Grant beginning with Shiloh and how his performance is recorded for posterity. Grant definitively shows a pattern of mis-remembered events and outright misrepresentations in his memoir of these events. Memories tend to fade but the recorded official records, written contemporaneously or shortly after the events in question, are at odds with Grant’s memoir’s accounts. Varney demonstrates the substantive “disconnects” in a number of cases using not just the Official Records, but the recollections of a number of other participants.
As the war progressed, Grant appears to not only have mis-remembered events, he actively sought to change their official recording for reasons we can only now speculate. The re-writing of battle reports by Grant’s staff and changing of initial assessments of subordinates like Rosecrans demonstrate Grant was subject to unseemly, emotions, that average people experience. Revenge, jealousy, and pettiness are not normally attributed to senior military leaders. They are human however and subject to the same failings. It is not unreasonable to understand that Grant suffers from these shortcomings.
The root of the Grant-Rosecrans divide is traced to Iuka in 1862 where, after a reasonably generous post-battle report, Grant turns on Rosecrans to blame him for the Confederate’s escape. The battle at Corinth and the Tullahoma campaign lay the foundation for Rosecrans’ denouement at Chickamauga. Grant became even more critical —- mostly without serious cause. At this point however, I part ways with Varney’s analyses.
Having led both staff rides and tours of military leaders and US Army Command and General Staff College students to Chickamauga for almost twenty-five years, I cannot countenance Varney’s explanation of the battle failure being pinned on BG Thomas J. Wood. Varney, I believe falls into the same trap he exposes in other historians by stating the Wood’s performance was intentionally based on a personal grudge. The substantiation is conjecture and opinion, not fact. This is the only place I find Varney to show a bias in an otherwise very balanced study. The fact is that a number of circumstances, including Rosecrans’ bad decision-making and unclear orders due to physical and mental exhaustion combined to cause the Union battle disaster. Despite rumor and conjecture, a general officer (Wood) intending to punish his commander in the heat of battle goes against logic when the consequences for Wood’s own command could have been catastrophic.
That Rosecrans and others like G.K. Warren suffered unfairly is a fact. Leadership is a human endeavor and leaders and subordinates are both subject to human emotions. They are not perfect. However, Varney shows convincingly that Grant went beyond the bounds of professionalism to punish Rosecrans for imagined offenses. It even extended to the post-war period when both had left the Army which smacks of personal revenge. He backed his decisions by changing the official records and then insuring they survived in perpetuity by recording his feelings in memoirs. Both Rosecrans and Warren are better than to be remembered for their reliefs by Grant.
Dr. Varney has done a tremendous service for the historical record by critically analyzing Grant’s memoirs. His book is logical and clearly written with an excellent bibliography which demonstrates academic rigor on this topic. General Grant and the Rewriting of History adds much to our knowledge of the war. I highly recommend it to those with an interest in setting the records straight.