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|Posted: Sun Sep 11th, 2005 03:40 am||
|U.S. Grant: The Making of a General, 1861-1863 by Michael B. Ballard
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town & Country, Date published: 9/10/2005 CIVIL WAR
Every so often, someone authors a biography that not only changes my entire perception of an individual I thought I "knew," but also reminds me that all men are created equal. By "equal" I mean human, and humans are far from perfect. Unfortunately, historians have had a tendency to forget that fact.
Even today, many biographers shy away from "the ugly truth" and prefer to take the easy way out by putting their subject on a pedestal while simultaneously leaving his or her faults on the editing-room floor.
I, for one, find it very refreshing when an author has the conviction to depict a subject's story with honesty and balance. Also, I find that I am able to appreciate someone's success more pleasurably after being exposed to some of his failures.
Such is the case with Michael Ballard's wonderfully unbiased study of America's top Union officer, who later became the eighteenth president of the United States. In "U.S. Grant: The Making of a General, 1861-1863," the author details the life and times of Ulysses Simpson Grant during three years of military service that ultimately formed the character of the man we remember today.
As a historian, I have often pondered the difference between the disheveled general captured in Matthew Brady's photographs and the elegant statesman whose portrait graces the 50-dollar bill. After reading Mr. Ballard's book, I finally feel that I understand the one they called "Uncle Sam."
Focusing specifically on Grant's life from 1861 to 1863, Ballard introduces us to a budding officer who was still struggling to find his place in American history. By refusing to compromise on either the positive or negative aspects of Grant's service, he skillfully paints a candid portrait of a "soldier's soldier" who was afraid of failure and full of contradiction. Ballard recalls Grant's education at West Point and how it affected the graduate's campaigns to maintain control in the Midwestern territories. From Belmont to Shiloh to Vicksburg and more, the author recounts Grant's ascension through the ranks, his extensive use of early amphibious operations and his radical diplomatic policies that ultimately changed the course of the Civil War.
Throughout the book, we are exposed to a complex figure who vehemently believed in the delegation of duty, yet struggled to follow the orders of his superiors. We learn of an officer who prided himself on being a soldier's confidant, yet sometimes practiced deception within the chain of command. We also see a general who preached the swift and total destruction of opposing forces, and then ordered the protection of the Southern citizens. It seems that Grant was a man of many faces whose sole incentive was to win at all costs.
Ballard, who is a professor and coordinator of the Congressional and Political Research Center at Mississippi State University, takes a unique approach to this story. His book is different from previous studies of Grant, presenting the social, political and personal challenges that were faced by many up-and-coming commanders during the Civil War. These descriptions help to provide the reader with a broad view of the Union chain of command and the "red tape" that bound them on and off the battlefield.
One revelation I found startling was the constant back-stabbing that occurred among generals of the same army, who were jockeying for rank and reputation. Politics and egotism played a vital role in the lives of Civil War generals.
Ballard's research exposes Grant and his peers as being both brilliant and ignorant, as well as gracious and stubborn.
Ballard also recalls Grant's relentless frustration with difficult terrain, unpredictable weather and the spread of disease, while attempting to cross the Mississippi River.
We learn that due to many circumstances beyond his control, Grant was unfairly held responsible for multiple stalemates and defeats that left his service record tarnished in the eyes of the War Department. Eventually, the general became fair game for the Northern press, which was exceptionally critical of the loss of life under his command.
Only through his own tenacity and perseverance was Grant able to escape retribution from the leaders in Washington. Despite having a reputation for indecisiveness and erratic decision-making, Grant demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for the tactics of diversion. Clearly, he understood that a successful campaign depended on intelligent and constant maneuvers that not only produced superiority in numbers, but also forced the scattered Southern forces to maintain a defensive posture. By keeping up this initiative at all times, he was able to ultimately compensate for multiple disappointments.
In addition to his skillful narrative, Ballard personalizes his subject matter by quoting Grant's own diary entries and letters. A myriad of little-known facts, rare photographs and detailed battle maps of the general's most pivotal engagements further complement the book. Thanks to many of these gems, we can all fully appreciate the contributions of Ulysses S. Grant.
In an e-mail interview with me, Ballard discussed his personal view of Grant.
"I found him to be a sympathetic figure at times, especially in his life before the war when his marriage into a Missouri slave-holding family placed stress on his relationship with his own family. Also, the unfair charges of his being a drunkard haunted him, as did his repeated failures in business. The Civil War gave him a chance to prove himself, but his rise to fame was not easy. His performance at the Battle of Belmont was not particularly skillful, and he was fortunate at Fort Donelson to be up against incompetent Confederate leadership. His experience at Shiloh angered his immediate superior, Henry Halleck, and caused him much depression and embarrassment. Yet, with the encouragement of his friend, William T. Sherman, he stuck it out, and despite run-ins with other generals, he got the job done."
He added, "That is what I admire about him most, and why I think his admirers, then and ever since, find him so compelling. Grant refused to quit, no matter the problems, troubles, and tribulations he faced. Yes, he was fortunate in not having to fight competent generals in the West, but he still fought brilliantly, especially during the latter phases of the Vicksburg campaign. He had pride, but he was unpretentious, and he was a superior tactician during battles. Yet, he never stopped being old Sam Grant, the failure from Missouri; instead, he took advantage of opportunities to become Sam Grant, the best general in the Union army."
After reading "The Making Of A General," I too, have come to admire Ulysses S. Grant, and I thank Michael Ballard for re-introducing him to me.
MICHAEL AUBRECHT of Spotsylvania County is the author of "Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall" and "Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart." Visit his Web site at http://www.angelfire.com/ny5/pinstripepress