[pg. 25] Bruce Catton, GRANT TAKES COMMAND. (Boston and Toronto: Little Brown and Company, 1969. Pp. 556. $10.00)
reviewed by John A. Carpenter
Bruce Catton’s Grant Takes Command achieves high distinction in the field of military biography. The third in the series started so admirably almost two decades ago with Captain Sam Grant by Lloyd Lewis, and continued with Mr. Catton’s supplementary volume, Grant Moves South, this most recent work by the man who has done so much to reinterpret the Civil War to a wide audience equals or surpasses its two predecessors in style, depth of research, and perceptive insights. It covers only a brief period in Grant’s career from the close of the Vicksburg campaign in mid-1863 to the end of the war. But these two years took in the Chattanooga, Virginia, and Appomattox campaigns and saw Grant’s career reach a climax when he became commander of all the Union armies.
What one thinks of first of all in Bruce Catton’s writing is his style, which happily is in the tradition of Lloyd Lewis and which helps to account for his numerous readers. He has a way with words. Finding examples is no problem; open the book at just about any page and you will find this kind of writing: “Final triumph was in sight. It was coming down to the sea with [pg. 26] Sherman, moving under fire and smoke across the rice fields towards Savannah, destined to come on up the coast across the Carolinas until the Army of the Potomac would have to do no more than reach out its hand in order to grasp it firmly, and it seemed that nothing could stop it except some inexplicable disaster far off to the west.”
The quality of writing in Grant Takes Command is superior to anything Catton has turned out thus far. It is more restrained, less prone to be marred by the flowery phrases which characterized some of his earlier work, and the occasional modernisms (“. . . by March 24 he had his spring offensive taped and ready to use.”) do not offend.
What is equally impressive about Catton’s work is its depth of scholarship. Based to a large extent on primary sources, including the Grant letters in the private possession of the recently deceased U. S. Grant 3rd, this, with its two companion volumes, must stand as the definitive biography of Grant (exclusive of the years after 1865). It is in every sense the work of a scholar with the added dimension of readability.
While there are relatively few surprises in Grant Takes Command in the way of novel interpretation, Catton does argue convincingly for Grant the sophisticated military tactician and strategist as opposed to the unimaginative, dull leader who was fortunate enough to have material strength and the advantage of numbers on his side.
He credits Grant with skill as a tactician, both at Chattanooga and in the Virginia campaign of 1864 from the crossing of the Rapidan to the siege of Petersburg. The usual assumption is that Grant always had the advantage of overwhelming numbers and could obtain as many reinforcements [pg. 27] as he needed. Catton reveals that this was not really so, that Grant did not make good his losses in the heavy fighting of May and June and his numerical advantage was never as great as most students of the Civil War have been led to believe. Thus Grant’s campaign was not merely a slugfest, a war of attrition. Rather, he continued to rely on tactical maneuvers to force Lee to fight at a disadvantage. His inability to do that does not detract from the fact that the kind of campaign he fought was a campaign of maneuver and not one of unimaginative fighting with the sole purpose of killing as many Confederates as possible.
Grant made his initial thrust at Lee’s right in the Wilderness, fought an inconclusive but bloody battle there, moved on by his left flank to Spotsylvania Court House, fought another engagement and, unable to dislodge Lee, resumed his leftward sliding maneuver to North Anna, to Cold Harbor, and at length, in accordance with plans made at the start of the campaign, crossed the James.
Cold Harbor, Catton asserts, was not the overwhelming defeat it has invariably been depicted. It did not seriously affect army morale and the losses, while high, were not excessive as compared with those of other engagements that spring. Besides, there was at the time, good reason for making the assault and, had it been made at the time originally ordered, might have succeeded.
The crossing of the James was a masterpiece of the tactician’s art and if Butler and W. F. Smith had performed as they should have, Petersburg could easily have been taken in June instead of the following April. Here Catton is easier on Grant than he might have been, for the [pg. 28] commanding general has to be responsible for the actions of his subordinates, and Grant was not on hand in this instance to see that his orders were carried out.
But Grant did more than simply direct the movements of the Army of the Potomac in 1864. He had the command of all Union armies in several different theatres and here Grant’s comprehension of overall strategy and the nature of the war receives full attention from Catton who, in other works, has emphasized this quality in Grant. What Grant understood (as did Lincoln) was the need for subjecting the Confederacy to systematic and constant application of pressure in as many different places as possible. Specifically, in the spring of 1864, Grant ordered simultaneous advance of the forces in the East commanded by Meade, Butler, and Sigel, and in the West, by Sherman and Banks. Unfortunately for the success of Grant’s plans, only Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Sherman’s forces fulfilled the parts assigned them. Especially disappointing was Butler’s Army of the James operating against Richmond.
Grant’s plan of operations embraced not only application of pressure against enemy armies, but also on enemy supply lines, as for instance the railroads feeding into Richmond and Petersburg, and on sources of food for the Confederate armies, such as the Shenandoah Valley area. This would also apply to Sherman’s march across Georgia and northward through the Carolinas. Grant understood how these campaigns would disrupt the internal communications system of the Confederacy.
Catton, in appreciating Grant’s basic strategy and concept of war, has given us nothing which has not been said before. Where he does come [pg. 29] up with a new interpretation is in his treatment of the battle of Missionary Ridge, one of the component parts of the Chattanooga engagement in November 1863. The older interpretation, and one which Catton himself in earlier works accepted (for good reason), was that Thomas’ men made the attack on the center of the Confederate position entirely without orders from their officers, and certainly not from Thomas or Grant. A closer examination of all the evidence has led the author to conclude that, “In unromantic fact they made the attack for the most ancient and universal of military reasons–because their officers told them to.” He has thus restored to Grant most of the credit for the Chattanooga victory which had, for some, previously gone to the rank and file.
After Chattanooga, and before the 1864 spring campaign, Congress recreated the rank of lieutenant general with the idea that Grant would be appointed to that rank. Lincoln fell in with the idea and in March presented Grant with his new commission which put him in command of all the Union armies and raised him above all other general officers. This put an uncommon burden on one man but Grant seems not to have hesitated at assuming his new responsibility. Indeed Catton stresses Grant’s confidence in his own ability and his resentment of the assumption some people made that he owed his success to his chief of staff, John A. Rawlins.
One thing which would now confront him was the need to find the right men to hold the subordinate positions, especially the commanders of the various armies. Sherman got the western command and he was [pg. 30] Grant’s own choice. There was never any problem with him. But, for political reasons in this election year, 1864, Grant agreed to the retention of Banks in Louisiana, Butler on the James below Richmond, and Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley. Catton goes thoroughly into the Butler episode and rejects the story that Butler had a hold on Grant.
The Army of the Potomac was a special problem all its own which Grant met in a way which proved unsatisfactory but which was probably the best that could be done under the circumstances. He left Meade in command but assumed general supervision over its operations leaving most tactical matters to Meade. It was an awkward arrangement at best, complicated still further by the arrival of Burnside’s IX Corps (Burnside outranked Meade).
Within the Army of the Potomac itself were personnel problems which caused Grant considerable difficulty. One of the more sensitive officers in that army was Gouverneur Kemble Warren, a good but meddlesome corps commander, who just did not come up to Grant’s standards. At the decisive battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, Sheridan, with authority from Grant, relieved Warren of his command for reasons which were not altogether justified. Cotton assumes a neutral position in this controversy.
Sheridan, even more than Sherman, was Grant’s favorite subordinate. Grant had unwavering confidence in Sheridan’s military abilities, gave him independent command in the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1864, and entrusted him with the task of cutting off Lee’s retreat in the Appomattox campaign. The confidence was well placed.
[pg. 31] Catton explains carefully Grant’s appreciation of the political problem, offers this as the explanation for his retention of Butler till after the presidential election of 1864, and for his unwillingness to relieve Banks. Grant also understood clearly his role as a military man, one who was not authorized to intrude into strictly political matters. He also had a proper relationship with his superiors which stemmed to a large degree from his complete dedication to the cause and willingness to do the best job he could with the materials and manpower available to him.
Catton does not neglect the personal side of Grant’s life. He brings out the simplicity of the man, his unsophisticated, down-to-earth manner and somewhat naive inability to see himself as anything above the ordinary. Grant had a deep affection for his wife who spent a fair amount of time with the general at his headquarters, especially during the siege of Petersburg. And even in the midst of a trying military campaign he had time to concern himself with the education of his children. Catton also devotes some time discussing the inevitable question of Grant’s drinking and concludes that most of the stories of too great a fondness for liquor were unfounded and in part the result of John Rawlins’ overzealous concern.
What we get, then, from this fine book is a better understanding of the man who brought victory to the Union cause through his military skill, his dogged determination, and unflagging belief in ultimate victory. Catton has climaxed a distinguished career devoted to the history of the Civil War and we are more in his debt than ever before.
[pg. 32] NEWS NOTES *** The Ulysses S. Grant Association has received a grant of $10,000 from the National Historical Publications Commission for the coming fiscal year. *** The Winter, 1968, issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society included “The Grant Papers: A Review Article” by Haskell Monroe of Texas A & M University. Monroe discussed the nature of the project, reviewed the first volume, and commented on other reviews of this volume. Reprints of the article are available from the Grant Association. *** The second volume of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, covering the period April-September, 1861, will be published this summer by Southern Illinois University Press. *** John A. Carpenter, associate professor of history at Fordham University, who reviews Bruce Catton’s Grant biography in this Newsletter, is himself at work on a Grant biography which will be published by Twayne. *** At a Grant Association board meeting in March, Edith Grant Griffiths of Arlington, Va., was elected a director to replace her father, the late Ulysses S. Grant 3rd. *** Philip R. Moran’s Ulysses S. Grant: Chronology-Documents-Bibliographical Aids was recently published by Oceana Publications, Inc., Dobbs Ferry, N. Y. The bulk of the 114 pages contains Grant presidential messages. The book is apparently designed for reference use in high school libraries, but could be useful to anybody lacking ready access to the Richardson compilation of presidential messages.