VDH Blows It

Wednesday, October 26, 2005
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.


terrye said...

My exhusband was a real Civil War buff. It fascinated him and often as not a birthday gift was another book on the Civil War.

Some years ago I got my hands on the diary of a Civil War soldier from Indiana, he was killed on September 4, 1864 at Jonesboro GA.

He was afraid of Sherman and what he would make them do, but the General he was most in awe of was Longstreet, for obvious reasons. That was the guy most likely to get him killed.

I am sure I am not the authority on this that you are but I think that Grant's strength lay in his relentless nature. He never let the enemy rest.

ambisinistral said...

Grant was actually an outstanding manuever General as his Vicksburg campaign shows. Even his campaign from the Wilderness to Richmond was one of constant movement that drove Lee relentlessly backwards.

His anticipation of modern warfare by increasing the tempo of operations and fighting virtually every day is what shocked his contemporaries and colored their views of him.

BTW, a whole lot of Generals up through WWI made the same mistake he did at Cold Harbor -- frontal assualt of a fortified position.

Papa Ray said...

I am NOT a Civil War buff, but one day at the library I checked out this book, Grant and Sherman : The Friendship That Won the Civil War (why I am not sure).

I am sure you have read it. It is well written and if presented correctly (I have no idea if it is) proves once again something that I already knew.

To put it simply, "Gung Ho".

Working together, two men, who were not perfect, not really know all, outstanding men, were able together, to be more than what just the sum of two men should have been.

This is not unusual, it happens all the time. In war, business and in just a marriage of two people that compliment each other.

But of course, it happened to these two men at a critical time and place in history.

Both were failures in one way or another before the war, did not perform perfectly in the war, or after.

But for a brief period in the history of the U.S. they were almost perfectly matched for the most terrible war we have ever known.

So, who won the day...I am sure each man would say that the other did.

Friends always say and think like that.

Papa Ray
West Texas

vnjagvet said...


Having studied the Civil War as a student in "military science" (Official high falutin' term for ROTC) and history and later, like Terrye's ex as a buff, I agree with you wholeheartedly.

Grant was the anvil. He kept Lee totally occupied at the very least neutralizing him. Lee was a master of maneuver, but Grant kept him on the defensive in 1864-1865. Sherman conducted a massive raid into the heart of the South, cutting it in two and destroying its will.

VDH is great, but he needs a brush up on the Civil War. Perhaps we can help.

RogerA said...

As I recall it took Lincoln quite a bit of time to find Generals who would fight (why does McClelland remind me so much of Wes Clark?). Once he found them, he left them to their devices.

It was my great honor as a cadet to occupy the same rooms in Central Area at West Point as many of the men who ultimately rose to prominence in the Civil War (on both sides). In one important respect I posit that the common experience at the Military Academy was the basis for the friendships the ultimately brought about the Union victory (as well as engendered respect for their confederate counterparts). They were a band of brothers.

David Thomson said...

My main beef is with the occasional historian who pretends that the South entered the war merely to defend the abstract principles of liberty and self determination. Such an opinion deserves to be ridiculed. The South’s first, last, and foremost goal was to preserve the evil institution of slavery.

The Civil War also should never have been fought. I advise everyone to watch the scene in the fictional Gone With the Wind where the young hotheaded Southerner challenges Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) to a duel because of his publicly uttered pessimism about the South’s prospects in the war. Too many people thought that the violence would be minimal. The possibility that ultimately a half million soldiers might die was not taken seriously. Allow me to be blunt: if both sides had been able to see into a crystal ball---the war would have been avoided! Even the slaves might have been better off.

heather said...

Unfortunately, I do not have Grant's Memoirs to hand (I loaned it to someone..curses!), however, at the end of the book, he says that yes, indeed, the institution of slavery was the true reason for the Civil War. And, he has plenty of real life particulars as to why this was so.

Grant was a great man. I love history, and have noticed that there is not one person (except maybe Christ) who is perfect.. but greatness is unmistakeable.

As to Victor Davis Hanson, I recommend his Hillsdale speech, carried on CSpan, about the Peloponnesian Wars... excellent. Now, I don't have to read the damned book!

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Papa Ray,

Thanks for pointing out that book. No, I haven't read it, in fact hadn't even heard of it! It just goes to show that there's nothing new under the sun. I'll get hold of a copy.


I agree with you that they were a band of brothers and it was their experiences in the Academy that were critical.


Grant had many outstanding qualities. You are right about his ability to maneuver. Vicksburg was unprecedented in the annals of war. His James river crossing comes to mind as another great. Prior to the ascension of Grant to top command, Lee had been able to outmaneuver and outfox every Union commander who was put in front of him. Grant put a stop to that. Despite "losing" several battles to Lee, it seems that Lee was always the one stepping backwards.

Which brings up another point: Grant was a superb strategist. He was the very first of what we now call a theater commander. He saw the whole picture from every angle and he realized that he could allow Lee to win a lot of battles and lose the war in the process. Masterful.

He is such an enigma. An unsoldierly man whom many mistook for a common soldier. He deserves a Shakespeare to write about him.

flenser said...


I don't know if he is a Shakespear or not, but John Keegan is an uncommonly gifted writer. In "The Mask of Command" he describes Grant as the greatest general of the Civil War, on either side.

chuck said...

In this corner, B.H. Liddell Hart, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American. In the other corner, J.F.C Fuller The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant. The argument goes back before those two. And let's not forget Lee. I'm rather partial to Sheridan myself, but he was not commanding the armies.

Wasn't there a recent book promoting Thomas as perhaps the best balanced of the generals?

ambisinistral said...

Thomas was a good General.

On the southern side Longstreet and Jackson were their best. IMHO Lee was overrated because he was a gentlemen and had the good fortune to face Little Mac. Both Meade and Grant illuminated his shortcommings.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


I know that book but have only read the first little bit of it. I'll have to read up about Grant. Thanks.


Thanks for the recommendations. I'll read them. Sheridan was a very good tactical general but I don't think he could ever have managed the theater the way Grant did.


Thomas was a good general, on the defensive. "The Rock of Chickamauga". But when we was required to attack, like many generals, he was very slow to do it. That doesn't work in general, though sometimes you can get lucky. You have to be faster than the enemy, get inside their decision loop. Grant did that to Lee.

mrp said...

No mention of Gideon Welles and the US Navy? Without the gunboat squadrons, the Federal 1862-63 river campaigns, including Grant's, would never have taken place. Brown water or blue, the US Navy played a vital role in the US war effort.

Sherman is alleged to have said about Grant: "Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other. " Especially in the aftermath of near-debacle at Shiloh.

The 1864 strategic plan included five major theater operations, three of them fizzled, leaving only Sherman's Atlanta campaign and Grant's Overland slog as the effective Union offensives. The Shenadoah debacle began (and nearly ended) with the efforts of two politcally-appointed generals, Sigel and Hunter. Lincoln needed Sigel to secure the German-American vote, and Hunter was a darling of the Radical Republicans, who deeply mistrusted Grant's choice - John Sedgwick. After Sigel and Hunter were out-maneuvered by Jubal Early during the late spring and summer of 1864, Sheridan was finally posted to the department.

Politics - presidential and congressional - heavily influenced the appointment of army officers throughout the war.

Old Grouch said...

Re: Literary merit of Grant's memoirs, didn't Samuel Clemens play a major role in getting them assembled and published? (IIRC, Grant was broke and dying of cancer.) Not to take anything away from the general, but certainly anybody's writing would benefit from having Mark Twain as the editor.

vnjagvet said...

Grant, born in 1822, was only in his late 30's and early 40's during the Civil War and died in his early 60's.

But for his memoirs, written while he was dying of throat cancer, he would have died penniless. As is was, his wife inherited over $400,000 from the royalties, an enormous sum in those days.

As noted above, they are considered among the best political memoirs ever.

Mark Twain had nothing to do with Grant's written orders during the Civil War, which were a model of clarity, brevity and precision. It is probable that whatever editing he did had little to do with the substance of Grant's felicirous prose.