Monday, February 18, 2013

Laver: "A GENERAL WHO WILL FIGHT: The Leadership of Ulysses S. Grant"

[A General Who Will Fight: The Leadership of Ulysses S. Grant by Harry S. Laver (University Press of Kentucky, 2013). Hardcover, maps, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:164/198. ISBN:978-0-8131-3677-6 $32.50]

No informed person still subscribes to the old view of General Ulysses S. Grant as a ruthless "butcher" who relied only on superior numbers to gain victory. At this point in history, his star is as high as his admirers could hope. Grant's positive traits are well known and well explored in the literature. He was clearly one of the best (if not the best) Civil War practitioners of the operational level offensive. Among other things, he wrote clear orders, worked well with others (from the civilian leadership to army subordinates and naval partners), and rates high on military judgement, self confidence, and initiative. The word 'determination' is also often trotted forth as a key element in the general's command success, but author Harry Laver in his book A General Who Will Fight: The Leadership of Ulysses S. Grant prefers the term analytical determination, a more rigorously thoughtful quality different from and above mere stubbornness. How this concept (by the author's interpretation, a Clausewitzian "force of will"-type equivalent) is expressed in Grant's military leadership is the focus of Laver's work.

From Belmont, Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga in the West through the Overland, Petersburg, and Appomattox campaigns in the East, the author sticks to his self imposed mandate of viewing the general's military career through his best trait, analytic determination (although it is difficult to regard analytical determination as a single entity given that it involves something of all the elements mentioned above). A few factual errors pop up here and there, but the book's command level overview of Grant's campaigns and battles is sound. In each, Grant is a careful planner, forcefully marshaling the human and material resources under his command (all the while, accepting the limitations of both), relentlessly driving the whole toward the achievement of his goal, while at the same time always calculating and remaining flexible on the details.

That said, the study is a balanced examination with appropriate criticism also directed toward the general. For example, most readers are familiar with the story of Grant chastising his Army of the Potomac subordinates for always fearing what Lee would do them rather than what they would do to Lee, but Laver properly criticizes the early war Grant of Belmont and Shiloh for not worrying enough about what the enemy might do. He also upbraids the novice general for losing control of his command at Belmont. Laver also recognizes the self serving nature of many claims made by Grant in his Memoirs (e.g. spinning Belmont as a victory, Shiloh not being a surprise, characterizing failed and potentially disastrous operations north of Vicksburg as being "experiments" with no serious expectations). The book might also have better explored the danger to his own army of Grant's sustained aggressiveness. Laver joins the rest of modern Civil War writers in properly denouncing the old "Grant the Butcher" arguments, but it remains that, during the constant marching and fighting of the Overland and early stages of the Petersburg campaigns, parts of the army were ordered to continue offensive operations long after being rendered combat ineffective. Some, like elements of II Corps on the left flank at Petersburg, essentially collapsed under the strain. If previous commanders deserve censure for underestimating the fighting capacity of the Army of the Potomac, Grant must also bear the responsibility of sometimes pushing it past the limits of endurance.

Laver, and many others before him, have noted that Grant benefited greatly from a gradual ascent to the highest levels of military command -- a brigade sized force at Belmont, corps equivalent at Donelson,  and medium sized armies at Shiloh and Vicksburg before hitting the big time at Chattanooga and the eastern campaigns -- but there is a bit of an underappreciated corollary to this. At each stage of his development, Grant was semi-independent (rather than leading brigade, division, and corps commands under the immediate thumb of a superior) so he had an even better and more thorough school of command, in terms of true responsibility, than other army leaders that rose through the general officer ranks.

Grant's relationship with the navy is an underutilized aspect of Laver's argument. It should never be forgotten that Grant could not directly command the U.S. Navy to do anything. Forts Henry & Donelson and Vicksburg are always characterized as Grant campaigns, but, by all rights, they should really be referred to as Grant-Foote and Grant-Porter campaigns, as each branch was independent of the other and the naval element was absolutely essential to both. One can use this to diminish Grant's achievements, but, alternatively, one might marvel at Grant's ability to inspire loyalty and cordial cooperation between the branches. A cursory look at other examples of Civil War joint operations, where mistrust, hostility, and friction were often the norm, demonstrates just how rare this gift was for an army commander to have.

The bibliography is made up entirely of published sources, which is okay for this type of book, but it's a bit light. When authors make sweeping judgements within works of synthesis, one expects a wider reading of the secondary literature and knowledge of the more detailed material than found here. For example, there is no Bearss or Grabau for Vicksburg, only the general works of Ballard and slim introductory volumes from McWhiney and Osprey series. The situation for Shiloh is better, but none of the major Chattanooga, Overland, or Petersburg campaign studies are listed. Reading Gordon Rhea's Overland Campaign series would have saved the author from perpetuating some outdated assertions (Laver even reduces Union army Cold Harbor losses from 7,000 men in 20 minutes to 10!).

Overall, while one can quibble with some of the facts and interpretations presented, A General Who Will Fight does clearly and effectively address the key reasons why U.S. Grant was such an enormously effective Civil War commander, the author combining the best of these into a single trait he calls analytical determination. Readers and scholars that have closely studied Grant's military career will not find any real surprises or particularly original advances, but the book really does encapsulate well what made the general truly great.

More CWBA reviews of UPK titles:
* The Union Forever: Lincoln, Grant, and the Civil War
* 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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