While in the bookstore the other night I picked up a book on military history of some sort by Victor Davis Hanson. He has many; I've never read any of them. I know VDH from his Internet persona as one of the few remaining sane intellectuals of national prominence. A man who doesn't believe, for example, that the need for military preparedness is a figment of our imaginations. As a blogger/columnist, he's one of the greats. How is he as an historian? I had to find out.
The page I happened to open contained a discussion of Union generals in the Civil War. I like VDH, but the scientist in me wants proof of all assumptions. My assumption was that he is historically astute. But I have little knowledge of his specialty, ancient Greece, and cannot judge his historical acuity there. I was therefore all the more eager to read his assessment of the Union war strategy, a subject upon which I have significant knowledge and my own considered opinions. I discovered that what I was reading would be more acurately termed a paean to General Sherman. Now I agree with VDH that General Sherman was a great man. That is in contradiction to the received wisdom that he was an early version of Adolph Hitler. But we live in a fatuous age and mere opposition to that fatuity cannot confer authority. VDH and I agree that General Sherman was absolutely essential to the winning of the war. But VDH and I disagree sharply beyond that, because VDH paints a portrait of Sherman as the great victor of the war, all by himself. That's just wrong.
Grant, Lincoln, Stanton, Halleck, Sheridan, and Sherman were all working together like clockwork at the end of the war. In my view, it was that teamwork itself which won the war. Each of these men had a part to play, each of these parts was an essential part, and the war effort would probably have failed if any one of these men had failed in his tasks, but it was the formidable combination of all of them working together in disparate ways which ultimately spelled the doom of the Confederacy.
The great enigma of the Union effort--of the war itself--is General Ulysses S. Grant. He is a difficult figure to get ahold of historically. Undoubtedly drunk in his early career, a clear failure at business before the war, probably still drinking during his exemplary western campaign (although this point is controversial), the "butcher" of Cold Harbor, and by many accounts a failure as President, it is rather difficult for many to impute any good to him at all. The human mind is ever grasping at simplifications lest it drown in the pool of reality. The human mind balks at complicated characters who are both good and bad, who are heroes in one domain whilst they are zeroes in others. Yet such are many of the real people in history and we do ourselves and our humanity a grave disservice when we avert our eyes from this truth. The easiest way to view Grant is as a failure through and through, a man who simply got lucky here and there and happened to be at the head of a vast legion when that legion won the war (that's a paraphrase of Grant's own assessment of himself in his memoirs, by the way). That's the easy path, but it's fatuous, it's wrong, it's a model that cannot account for all of the facts. Yet it's the exit chosen by VDH when he decides to pin the winner's star on Sherman.
One simple proof that there had to be more to General Grant than luck piled upon failure lies in his memoirs themselves. They are one of the crowning achievements of English literature. Not just American literature, English literature. If you haven't read them you should go out and buy a copy today. Probably no greater military memoir written by the victorious general has ever been written in any language, barring Julius Caesar's History of the Gallic Wars. Say what you will of the shallowness of writers, the truth is that almost all great writers are great thinkers on some level and General Grant was no exception.
VDH's account of Sherman's later campaigns plays a game with which I am familiar from our friends in the MSM. The facts are all there, and they are all correct. But everything has been passed through a proverbial distortion filter. What was unimportant is blown out of all proportion and what is important is trivialized. For example, Sherman's march to the Atlantic coast was Sherman's idea and Grant did initially oppose it. Fact. However, VDH fails to note that similar ideas had been proposed by Grant to the War Department for years, falling inevitably on deaf ears, in the form of a march on Mobile. After a brief discussion, Grant was persuaded of Sherman's point of view. And to my mind this is the significant point here, namely, the remarkable relationship between these two men, a relationship formed by complete and implicit trust and the highest mutual respect. Neither man ever uttered a word that did not contain the highest praise for the other. It was that rock-solid bond of trust and respect which formed the backbone of the final Union effort, which allowed widely disconnected Union armies to cooperate on a continental scale for the first time in history. The Confederacy simply couldn't withstand the hammer blows coming from both sides simultaneously. Their effort was noble, but no country could have managed it. It was the first and best example of the sheer mind-blowing power of the modern American army when it fires on all cylinders in sync.
I would have to write a book to justify my beliefs about General Grant and Sherman. Suffice it to say that VDH, while highly intelligent, factual, and honest, doesn't always get it right. Read him with a grain of salt.
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