Gordon Granger was a hard-bitten professional officer – as described by Robert Conner in this survey of his professional career, he comes across as something between John Wayne’s US Army Colonel John Marlowe (in The Horse Soldiers) and US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (in True Grit as well as in the movie by that name). He didn’t mince words, was often cynical, didn’t suffer fools, could be irrascible, and was not all that impressed by the rank of officers above and below him. On the other hand, he was most competent, aggressive in the field, duty-driven, and got the job done. As described in his obituary in the New York Times in 1876, “He was in every respect a great and distinguished officer. The story of his life is one of constant service and strict attention to duty.”
This is a detailed yet succinct biography of a New York-born career officer of the United States Army. Mr. Conner spends only a few pages on his early life in the beginning chapter, and similarly a few pages in the last chapter concerning the closing days of his life and career. (He was still serving when he died.) In between the reader is treated to a detailed chronology of his service, including his formative experiences at West Point, in the War with Mexico (assigned to General Winfield Scott’s army during the Mexico City campaign), and during subsequent service on the western frontier, along with various relationships he formed along the way with contemporaries he would later encounter on both sides in the American Civil War. Mr. Conner’s style is thorough and concise throughout; not flamboyant – a smooth, easy, and interesting read.
Mr. Connor brings out several aspects of General Granger’s Civil War service that I found striking –
- His style – Displaying a lack of respect and deference towards others, including senior officers, he often was argumentative to the point of being disrespectful. Obviously this did not serve him well, but he overcame it (at least in the first years of the war) by his competence, natural instincts, and success in the field. Conner provides a variety of examples throughout the book that illustrate this trait. In the process, he also compares and critiques past accounts, and puts General Granger’s decision-making under full scrutiny.
- His health – General Granger had several bouts of ill-health throughout his career that took him away from his duties. This probably was not atypical of the times, but it comes out dramatically in the narrative.
- His service – He served in many theaters and venues (political, rear area, and frontline). He fought all through the war and was consistently successful on the battlefield. He got around. The war’s beginning found him in command of the St. Louis Arsenal in Missouri. He participated in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the Battle of New Madrid, and then the Battle of Corinth. He went on to cavalry operations in Kentucky, from which he was elevated to command the Reserve Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. This led him on to his high points in the battles of Chickamauga, Chattanooga and Knoxville, on to Mobile Bay in Alabama, and finally to command of US troops in Texas after war’s end. It was there that he issued a proclamation on June 19, 1865 declaring enslaved blacks free, and asserting that they should have property rights equal to whites. This proclamation became the basis of the holiday “Juneteenth”, which is still celebrated in Texas as a holiday.
- His career apogee – His performance at Chattanooga (in command of the newly-formed IV Corps, a regular infantry corps in the Army of the Cumberland) coming on top of his performance at Chickamauga (where he had been in command of the Reserve Corps) was outstanding in many respects, yet he failed to go on to more critical Union Army command positions. At Chickamauga he had prevented the Confederates from having a truly decisive victory. At Chattanooga he was instrumental in the Union victory. However, General Grant was in overall command of Union forces at Chattanooga. In the thick of the battle General Granger’s proclivity for personally directing cannon fire didn’t favorably impress either Grant or Sherman. General Granger continued to command the IV Corps during the successful Knoxville campaign, but his reputation took a further beating during this campaign, and he was relieved of command of IV Corps. Conner devotes a full chapter to each of these major engagements (Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and East Tennessee). General Granger did not go on to participate in General Sherman’s campaign for Atlanta and the subsequent March to the Sea. Instead, he wound up being shunted to Mobile Bay in southern Alabama to lead land forces (the XIII Corps) under the overall command of Admiral Farragut in the campaign that closed the last Confederate port of any significance. After Knoxville, his were not unimportant commands, but he did not participate in the decisive campaigns of the remainder of the war.
- The role of a Reserve Corps – Mr. Conner’s narrative provides interesting insight into the role and importance of a Reserve Corps, and the scope of responsibilities and requirements upon a Reserve Corps commander. These ranged from protection of rear areas (particularly from enemy cavalry raids), intelligence gathering, protection and efficient operations of lines of communications, and myriad other duties, all of importance to the front line commander.
Mr. Conner developed this book in 2011-12 when he as site interpreter at Grant Cottage in upstate New York. In studying General Grant, he became interested in General Granger and the friction that developed between the two. While he could understand General Grant’s point of view (as well as that of General Sherman), he wasn’t convinced that General Grant’s low opinion of General Granger was fully deserved. In the course of this biography, he lays out the facts while liberally sprinkling the narrative with snippets of opinions of contemporaries of General Granger. He maintains a neutral tone throughout, yet I wound up agreeing that either General Grant had been unreasonably harsh in his opinion of General Granger, or he had reasons that have not yet surfaced. That said, it’s also easy to see how General Granger could be hard to like.
The definitive biography of Gordon Granger has yet to be written. In the meantime, Mr. Conner’s is an excellent survey of him and his career. This book is engaging, informative, and an important resource for students of the American Civil War as well as for anyone interested in command relationships during wartime.
Reviewed by Emil Posey