This year’s summer reading included Charles Bracelen Flood’s excellent Grant & Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War.
The book is a crisp, concise examination of the the successes, failures, and character of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, exploring their remarkable friendship against the larger backdrop of the Civil War. Flood does a wonderful job at describing the military progress and maneuverings of the war along with the tangled political web that made up the Union Army brass. (I’d strongly recommend the book to any Civil War novice seeking to understand the major battles and prominent military figures.) While it’s always a pleasure to read about men like Lincoln, Lee, McClellan and Stanton, the figures of Grant and Sherman are the focus, and Flood expertly brings them to life in all their complexity.
Both men were Westerners, both were West Point graduates who had floundered for years before the war (Grant with his drinking, Sherman with his failed business dealings), both began the war as obscure afterthoughts in the Western theater along the Mississippi. Both men were occasionally hounded in the press (Grant as “a butcher”, Sherman as insane, or a traitor), and neither had many natural allies in the Union army. Yet, by war’s end, they stood alone as the men who had delivered victory for the Union and literally saved the nation, along with President Lincoln.
A few thoughts and reactions, mixed with some pleasant lies (please hum “Ashokan Farewell” in your heads as you read):
-The personalities of Grant and Sherman made for quite a contrast. Grant was a man of plain manners whose stooped, stoic demeanor made him easy to underestimate. He was a clear, excellent writer who usually said exactly what he meant, and from an early point was able to see the war in it’s widest scope, and how the many moving parts would have to coordinate to achieve a final victory. He was intuitively aggressive on the battlefield, a fact that set him clearly apart from most Union commanders. On the other side, Sherman had a keen intellect made evident by the ideas that habitually came racing out of his mouth. He grasped problems in all their complexity, and though he was far more prone to racial prejudice than Grant, he shared with his friend a firm empathy for the men of the Confederate Army and longed for a hasty conclusion to the war. Indeed, while both were often criticized for their perceived brutality, they understood early on that the war would could not be won superficially or through maneuverings alone. As Sherman wrote to Grant, “[The South] cannot be made to love us, but may be made to fear us.”
-Contrary to some accounts, Grant’s drinking problem never fully went away during the war. He still drank whisky to excess, on occasion, although such instances always happened during quiet spells and there was never a report that he was unable to carry out his duties. Also, when drunk, he insisted that he be addressed as “General Spiderman”.
-A major newly transferred to Sherman’s command described him as “the most American looking man I ever saw.” Today, that honor belongs to Toby Keith.
-Snippets that illustrate the character of Ulysses S. Grant:
During the Battle of the Wilderness, at a point when it looked as if Lee’s army might overrun Grant’s headquarters, he was asked by an anxious officer if they shouldn’t be moving headquarters back to a safe distance. According to a witness, “The general replied very quietly, between puffs of his cigar, ‘It strikes me it would be better to order up some artillery and defend the present location.’”
Another account from later that day, after a Union general pleaded with Grant to pull back to avoid Lee being able to cut off their supplies and communications: “Grant rose to his feet, took his cigar out of his mouth, turned to the officer, and replied, with a degree of animation he seldom manifested, ‘Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do. Some of you think he is about to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.’” (243)
After the conclusion of the surrender negotiations at Appomattox Courthouse, Grant stood reflecting on the steps outside a house, when Lee passed him on horseback: “Grant stopped and took off his hat. The yard became silent; every Union soldier there removed his hat and came to attention. Robert E. Lee lifted his hat once and passed through the gate…For the remaining five years of [Lee’s] life, he never allowed a word against Ulysses S. Grant to be spoken in his presence.” (313)
-Grant’s beard was brown, Sherman’s was red, and Lee’s was white. The spectrum of death.
-Perhaps Grant’s greatest achievement in the war was his victory in the Siege at Vicksburg, in which he deftly coordinated his movements with ships in the Mississippi to better his angle of attack, and later intentionally cut off his army from his supply line to allow him the mobility he desired. The dramatic victory came after a long spell of Confederate victories and delivered control of the Mississippi to Federal forces. Afterwards, Grant received an astonishing letter from Lincoln. The president began by laying out all the concerns he had about Grant’s plan and how he had worried about Grant’s leadership. Lincoln then closed with, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.” To me, this is astonishing. Where most presidents in recent memory would gloss over their misjudgments, or say that they agreed with the plan all along, Lincoln once again displayed his remarkable humility and moral character.
-Sherman liked to say, “The worst thing about war is that there’s never anything cold to drink.”
-The two men displayed an intense, tender loyalty to one another throughout the war. Both stoutly defended the other in the press and to the second-guessers in Washington, and both were quick to defer to the other’s judgement. Sherman vouched for Grant in the early days of the war when Grant was trying to overcome a reputation as a drunk and a screwup. Grant, meanwhile, tactfully smoothed over a political storm created when Sherman negotiated overly-lenient surrender terms with the last large Confederate army (this flare-up was exacerbated by Lincoln’s assassination that same week). Working behind the scenes and travelling to North Carolina to amend the terms himself, Grant allowed his friend to save face and preserve his reputation. As Sherman himself said during the war in a letter to Grant, “I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and that if I got in a tight place you would come if alive.”
-Shortly after the Battle of Shiloh, an aide to Sherman walked into the general’s tent to find him in a shirts-up tickle fight with Grant. When the two finally noticed the young man watching them, they hurriedly straightened themselves up and had the aide executed for treason.