Friday, June 22, 2012

Simon, LaFantasie (ed.): "THE UNION FOREVER: Lincoln, Grant, and the Civil War"

[ The Union Forever: Lincoln, Grant, and the Civil War by John Y. Simon, ed. by Glenn LaFantasie (University Press of Kentucky, 2012). Hardcover, notes, appendix, index. 323 pp. ISBN:978-0-8131-3444-4 $40 ]

The 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant compiled, edited, and published under John Y. Simon's direction surely comprise the crown jewel of that historian's professional career. However, in addition to a number of other books (mostly in an editorial capacity), Simon published a large number of articles and other publications*. Fifteen of these previously published essays have been selected by historian Glenn LaFantasie for this memorial volume The Union Forever: Lincoln, Grant, and the Civil War.

No one can accuse John Y. Simon of not being a fervent admirer of Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant, but the essays, all of which reference Grant, Lincoln, or both men together, do dutifully condemn attitudes and actions that reflected poorly on the character of both men (more on this below). Lincoln subjects include political and policy issues related to the Sumter crisis, emancipation, and the crisis of the summer of 1864, as well as the president's relationship with his father, Ann Rutledge, and Henry Halleck. The Grant articles are also wide ranging, looking at his marriage, his generalship, the controversy surrounding the infamous General Order #11, and the general's relationship with political sponsor Elihu Washburne. The pair of 'Lincoln and Grant' chapters examine how both handled the delicate situation in Kentucky in 1861 and the 1864-65 war in the East.  With all essays except one published between 1983 and 2001, the reader is not presented with especially dated material or scholarship. Like all compilations of this type, some entries are more impactful than others**, so, instead of going through them all, I'd like to address just a few salient points of personal interest.

The Lincoln and Rutledge chapter provides a fine lesson in being too hasty to dismiss evidence provided by an unreliable source, in this case William Herndon.  Simon's argument that a relationship existed between the two is powerful, with the great unknowables being its exact nature and to what degree it shaped Lincoln's later life. I believe this is now the consensus view.  Simon also takes other historians to task for mythologizing the 1864 Grant-Lincoln relationship as one of almost instant trust and rapport.

An unconventional emphasis of the essay detailing Lincoln's emancipation policy was Simon's recounting of the mad scramble in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation to elect unionist congressional representatives (either local or imported) for occupied districts.  According to Simon, this mid-war reconstruction action comprised official recognition that the district under consideration was loyal, and thus exempt from emancipation. Unsurprisingly, partisan congressional Republicans moved to block the seating of these men whenever possible.

Historians often wonder why Lincoln did not remove Henry Halleck after his many failings became apparent to nearly everyone else. Simon's proposition that Lincoln was well aware of Halleck's deficiencies but found the general to be a useful shield from criticism sounds plausible, as Lincoln was an adept practitioner of cold political calculus.  Generals unhappy with official directives could blame Halleck instead of the president.  Similarly, civilian critics would find a ready scapegoat for military disasters. 

Simon is also critical of historians who treat Grant's order expelling Jews from his department as a one-off event, heavily influenced by anger and embarrassment stemming from his father's involvement in the cotton trade.  Simon points to several other episodes of anti-Semitic sentiment in Grant correspondence, and duly notes that Grant, widely assumed to be properly chastened later in life, was actually quite defensive of his behavior and neglected mention of the order entirely when writing his celebrated memoir [I'll take Simon's word for it that this is true].

I hope these few examples demonstrate some of the range and intellectual value present in these essays. It's obvious that John Y. Simon's early death left a large number of friends and academic colleagues saddened by his passing.  Glenn LaFantasie's introduction is both an act of personal appreciation of Simon as well as a summary of the meaning of Simon's career to Civil War and presidential historiography. This, together with a useful sampling of Simon's scholarly output, makes The Union Forever a fitting tribute to the man and his work.

* - A complete Simon bibliography (books, articles, reviews, presentations, and more) is attached.
** - For example, his view of the Sumter crisis in one essay struck this reader as too one dimensional and I believe Simon's portrait of Governor Beriah Magoffin as an arch secessionist misreads the man in another.

More CWBA reviews of UPK titles:
* One of Morgan's Men: Memoirs of Lieutenant John M. Porter of the Ninth Kentucky Cavalry
* My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans
* Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War
* Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy
* Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History
* Sister States, Enemy States: The Civil War in Kentucky and Tennessee
* Kentuckians in Gray: Confederate Generals and Field Officers of the Bluegrass State
* Virginia at War, 1863
* Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia

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