Interview: Joseph A. Rose, “Grant Under Fire”

11 10 2015

Author photo - Don Rose cropped B&WJoseph A. Rose is the author of Grant Under Fire: An Expose of Generalship and Character in the American Civil War. I previewed the book here. Mr. Rose took some time to answer some questions about the book below.

BR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

JAR: Growing up, I read anything non-fiction, up to and including the 1960 World Book Encyclopedia. Our house contained a goodly number of books, and my father’s collection was rich in military history. These works, especially the West Point Atlas of American Wars, simultaneously begat a love of maps (I preferred that atlas to the pictorial maps in American Heritage’s fat The Civil War, showing little soldiers running around). One of the first books I read on warfare was The Great Siege by Ernle Bradford, with its map of Malta’s convoluted Grand Harbor. At the State University of New York at Albany, I earned sufficient credits for a minor in history, as part of a bachelor’s degree in geography, but cobbled together an urban studies minor, instead. A joint Cornell University/Baruch College program awarded me a Master of Science in Industrial and Labor Relations.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War? Who/what were your early influences?

JAR: My interests in military history—and history, in general—have always been wide-ranging, but no early influences really stand out. I had no favorite generals or battles and read for information and not just a well-told narrative. But after returning from a year-long, cross-country trip—with requisite stops at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Chattanooga—I joined a Yahoo discussion group on the western theatre of the American Civil War.

BR: Why the interest in Grant, in particular?

JAR: I had no interest in him at first. While debating the Civil War online, however, two topics engendered particularly fierce debates: General Grant’s surprise and activities at the Battle of Shiloh and his intentions of ascending Missionary Ridge, along with other events in the Battle of Chattanooga. No matter the number and reliability of the primary sources I advanced, which substantiated a rather negative view of Grant, his defenders denied almost anything and everything. Most refused to entertain the possibility that Grant made mistakes beyond the most inarguable, accused me of being a “Lost Causer,” and even asked, “Why do you hate Grant?”

These arguments caused me to delve more deeply into the library stacks, the Official Records, the internet’s myriad resources, and various manuscript collections. It became apparent early on that Ulysses S. Grant’s own writings—biased, inaccurate, and sometimes untruthful—have been overly influential. Civil War history should no longer be founded upon his Personal Memoirs. After a while, with a ton of research already compiled, writing a book became the obvious next step.

BR: What makes your study stand out? There have been over the years and recently works critical of Grant – what does your book contribute to the literature on Grant that has not already been contributed?

JAR: Grant Under Fire overturns 150 years of what is, frankly, bad history, which has basically followed Grant’s Memoirs and the biographies of his friends, staff, and supporters. Writers such as Adam Badeau, Albert D. Richardson, and John Emerson praised Grant without end. Until lately, Civil War historiography rarely strayed from this path. Recent books by Frank Varney, David Moore, and Diane Monroe Smith, however, have made a good start, along with William McFeely’s Grant and a few much older works, in rectifying some of the mythology surrounding the General.

But there’s so much that has never before been investigated or analyzed, and never anything published that is nearly as comprehensive as Grant Under Fire. In controversy after controversy after controversy, this book offers a fresh take, more information, and—quite often—a vastly different conclusion than that reached by the General’s prior biographers. Negative but highly germane evidence, if uncovered by these writers, was somehow omitted, while Grant’s manifold blunders were ignored, minimized, or excused. Along with reevaluating Grant’s generalship, I lay bare innumerable flaws in the historiography, such as Bruce Catton’s about-face on several issues after taking over Lloyd Lewis’ biography.

BR: Grant Under Fire is a doorstop at 621 pages of narrative alone. Can you summarize your thesis, and maybe give a few supporting examples?

JAR: The examples could go on nearly without end. My book has a number of major themes: Grant’s tactical inability, favoritism and hatreds, indolence and negligence, exploitation of military politics, mistreatment of Black soldiers and civilians, and marked unreliability as a chronicler of the conflict (his Memoirs do not deserve their vaunted reputation), as well as numerous minor ones: his alcoholism, luck, corruption, injustice to fellow officers, and failure to credit essential supporters (e.g., Elihu Washburne, John Rawlins, and Charles Dana). A chapter on the post-war period demonstrates that he didn’t change his stripes. His defects were just easier to see.

Grant’s biographers often credit him with victory at Fort Henry—where Foote won the battle—and refuse to recognize that Buell deserves much if not most of the acclaim for Shiloh (Grant falsely asserted that he took overall command). And Grant appropriated the tribute for opening the Cracker Line at Chattanooga. Only the bravery and intelligence of the men and subordinate officers turned his foolish orders (to charge to the base of Missionary Ridge and stop) into an unexpected and glorious triumph, after which he stole their laurels. The Overland and Petersburg campaigns revealed a commander who could not stop attacking, no matter how strong the enemy’s defenses or how worn-out his own men were. Much of Grant’s advance on Vicksburg was highly commendable, but his previous bungling for months in the Delta’s swamps and his assaults on the city detracted from even that campaign.

People who might complain that the book is one-sided should keep in mind the subtitle: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War. It would be like saying that Woodward and Bernstein weren’t open-minded about Nixon. My investigative efforts are an antidote to the poison of Grant hagiography. The existing biographies are almost always both one-sided and inaccurate, although they may look unbiased.

Grant Under Fire should also help redeem the reputations of many unfairly criticized victims of Grant, whose biographers seemingly love to berate officers such as John McClernand and William Rosecrans, whom the General detested. They unreasonably slag George Thomas and even censure Robert E. Lee, in comparison with their hero. Grant’s failure to quickly forward a flag of truce after Cold Harbor became an opportunity for some biographers to blame Lee for letting the federal wounded suffer and die between the lines. My analysis reveals who was responsible … Ulysses S. Grant.

BR: What were the major stumbling blocks along the way to completing the book?

JAR: The inability to see more manuscripts scattered at repositories around the country. I still need to visit the Wyoming Archives to see letters of Grant’s staffer, John Rawlins, in the Bender Collection. I had to use secondhand accounts of the Hamlin Garland papers at U.S.C., although I don’t completely trust writers to correctly characterize what they cite.

BR: What surprised you in the process of writing it?

JAR: Several items: A certain level of inaccuracy in contemporary accounts and in the participants’ autobiographies, for example, was anticipated. But the extent of fallacious logic and argument and fact, not only in the Grant biographies but in standard histories, was astounding. Several authors used “proportional losses” as an indicator of generalship, when all that does is automatically reward the leader of the larger force. It’s mathematically wrong, yet no one seems to object.

Then there were omissions of readily available material (e.g., in the Official Records.) Apparently frustrated by a delay, Grant ordered the attack at the Crater when the mine hadn’t exploded (OR 40:1:47). To quote from Grant Under Fire, “But sending men atop four tons of gunpowder liable to ignite at any moment bespoke Grant’s reckless disregard of human life, and they came close to being hoist on his extremely large petard.” Shouldn’t such a startling fact be in every general biography of Grant and in every detailed account of the Crater? Furthermore, the General then unrealistically wanted Burnside to “forward intrenching tools and hold all his men had gained.”

Certain authors even practiced a literary jujitsu, turning negative characteristics into positives. Grant’s lack of detailed directions in orders to assault became an unwillingness to micromanage his subordinates. Giving friends undeserved acclaim was magnanimity. Unmilitary, unofficial dealings with Representative Washburne were celebrated as an ability to use politics. His authorizing a huge expenditure without bothering to look into it displayed his decisiveness.

BR: Can you briefly discuss your research and writing process?

JAR: Unfortunately, I multi-tasked and went off on tangents. Instead of sticking with a single line of pursuit, I constantly jumped from one issue to the next as the threads of research kept leading to new material. Had this been attempted before computers became available, confusion would have reigned. But I duly entered the information into one of many multi-tabbed spreadsheets, and this allowed me to compile numerous accounts on each aspect of an issue. So, when the time came to write it up, I could compare and analyze multiple perspectives to obtain a more accurate picture, as opposed to those writers who depended upon a single source (all too often Grant’s Memoirs, something similar, or a secondary account). A fine example might be the Union soldiers’ feelings on leaving the Wilderness. Typically, the view comes from Horace Porter’s idolizing Campaigning with Grant or Frank Wilkeson’s Recollections of a Private Soldier. William Marvel, however, determined that Wilkeson’s battery wasn’t even in the battle. By way of contrast, I examined well over one hundred sources, and Porter’s “triumphal procession” was actually a tedious, vexatious, exhausting, and silent march, according to most participants, particularly those who recorded it at the time.

With determined digging, I’ve found so many brand new or relatively unknown accounts and, in the process, overthrown other widely accepted stories. I’m amazed that more authors haven’t found or used Grant’s unsubmitted report in the Library of Congress, which confirmed that he occupied Paducah under orders. The same goes for General Stephen Hurlbut’s published letter to his wife after Shiloh, helping to confirm the Memoirs’ exaggeration (“I was continuously engaged in passing from one part of the field to another, giving directions to division commanders” at Shiloh). Grant intended to have George Thomas’ men ascend Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga on November 25, 1863, according to Sylvanus Cadwallader’s posthumous book, Three Years with Grant. Yet, this reporter’s evidently unknown Chicago Times article, written that very evening, maintained the exact opposite.

My book could not have been written without the internet. So many resources are now available online, particularly newspapers of the period, scholarly and magazine articles, government records, maps, dissertations, and even manuscripts (I am particularly happy when transcripts are provided). I’ve downloaded thousands of books in the public domain, including hundreds of the “regimentals.” For more current works, Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature and Google books permitted limited searching.

BR: What archival sources did you use, both brick and mortar and digital?

JAR: I used everything that I could. New York City has a wealth of resources, and having friends and family in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington helped immensely. The $1 fares offered by Megabus kept my costs down. A two-month trip across country featured stops at the Lincoln and Grant libraries, other repositories, and many battlefields. Those interested can see the bibliography on the book’s website (along with the introductory chapter and index) at: http://www.GrantUnderFire.com.

BR: How long did it take? How did you know you were done?

JAR: Altogether, it took roughly twelve years, and for almost half of that period, it was a full-time pursuit.

And I’m still not done. Although the book has been printed, the research continues. Friends told me that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” meaning that I had done enough and it was time to publish. I finally did so, but good is sometimes not good enough. There are so many resources still untapped, that I get a kick out of those who say—even about Grant Under Fire—that a book is “exhaustively researched.”

BR: How has the book been received so far?

JAR: It’s gotten great commendations from everyone (except a certain “CANNIBAL” on Amazon: “This book is probably the worst book on Grant ever written. The author seizes every opportunity to twist the facts to suit his purposes.” When this was written, the book was almost unavailable; I’m pretty sure that the reviewer hadn’t read it. Cannibal’s three other Civil War reviews—including Tim Smith’s Shiloh—were also one-star, but were typed in all caps, and I wish the same had been done for my book to reveal the nuttiness). Before Grant Under Fire was published, eight noted Civil War authors had read parts or the whole of the book, and their blurbs praised it, especially for the research. Midwest Book Review stated: “Impressively researched, Grant Under Fire is an iconoclastic but exceptionally well documented contribution to our clearer and more in-depth understanding of the role Grant played in the American Civil War.” A very large number of other review requests are still outstanding, as those in journals, especially, take a long time to appear.

I did introduce the book on one Civil War website where Grant’s supporters seemed rather resistant to new information and perspectives. In that respect, it will be a tough sell; almost everybody, it seems, loves a hero. But I’m not at all astonished that people admire the General, as hundreds of biographies have lauded him with little reservation since before the war even ended. Surprisingly, the sales in Europe have been higher than I would have imagined. Maybe they are not as emotionally involved as some readers on this side of the Atlantic.

BR: What’s next for you?

JAR: As part of the marketing campaign, I am scheduling speaking engagements on a 2016-17 cross-country tour. My research projects are all related to the Civil War and/or Ulysses S. Grant. I’ve learned so much throughout this whole process and hope to put it to use. I am currently editing two Civil War manuscripts and expect to be helping other authors publish their work, be it history, inspirational, or fiction.

You can find out more at Mr. Rose’s website here.


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6 responses

11 10 2015
Dave Powell

Love it or hate it, Joe has written a book that no ACW scholar can ignore.

Liked by 1 person

11 10 2015
Theodore P. Savas

Great interview, Harry and Joe. Many thanks.

Powell’s observation, “Love it or hate it, Joe has written a book that no ACW scholar can ignore,” is correct. Much like our two recent Hood books, no one can write on the Western Theater in 1864 without taking them into account. The same is now true for Grant.

Joe, your nod toward modern technology, ironically, dovetails nicely with an article I just wrote for Civil War News for the next edition about the state of Civil War publishing.

I am not endorsing all of your conclusions, etc., as I have not read your entire book, but expecting incoming flak and shrugging it off is a good idea. Never kick back. The authors who get their hackles up and are all pissed off about some negative review never come out looking good. If you stick your neck out, expect someone to slap your face. As the Japanese say, any nail that stands out from the rest will be hammered into place.

Your work will stand–or fall–on its own.

Ted

Liked by 1 person

11 10 2015
Joseph A. Rose

Thanks all:

I look forward to Ted’s article on modern Civil War publishing. It’s a brave new world out there. It would be great if institutions digitized and made available even more of their research materials. There are still so many manuscripts and newspapers that are relatively unavailable, when they should be accessible with just a few clicks. As to the actual publishing, boy, have I learned a few things.

Ted, the Australians have a saying about “cutting the heads off tall poppies.” I guess that goes for roses, as well. And it’s only fair, in a way, as I have gone after many of the tall poppies in the Grant field with a scythe. I just hope that the forthcoming criticisms are based on historical fact and are not merely the result of some agenda.

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12 10 2015
redmanrt

I began to publicly deconstruct the myth of the great general Grant in 2000. See my article “Politics in the Union Army at the Battles of Chattanooga (www.aotc.net/article1.htm) or my article “The Grant Gang” (www.aotc.net/Grant.htm).

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13 10 2015
Interview: Joseph A. Rose, “Grant Under Fire” | Grant Under Fire

[…] Smeltzer has just published a lengthy interview with me on his Bull Runnings website. It provides a good perspective on the genesis of Grant Under Fire. Although it will be difficult […]

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20 12 2015
David Connon

Thanks for a very interesting interview, Harry and Joe. I echo your comments, Joe, regarding the value of using the Internet for research. This has been true in my study of Confederates from Iowa.

Liked by 2 people

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