I suppose I could have titled this one “New Book Challenges Honesty of Grant’s Memoirs,” but then some of you might not be here now. I’ll admit that my first two thoughts when I first heard of Frank P. Varney’s new book General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War were:
- Wow, that title length reminds me of books from the late 19th Century, and
- There is no way the book is going to deliver on the title
The title remains lengthy, and after receiving an advanced reader copy (ARC) of the book late last week, I immediately launched into it to see how well the author does with the ambitious title. So far, despite some migraine issues, I’ve managed to make it through to the chapter on Stones’ River, and my eyes have been opened. Varney not only backs up the title, he knocks it out of the park. The author provides page after page of well-known historians quoting only Grant’s Memoirs when discussing lesser known actions such as Belmont, Iuka, and Corinth, and then other well-known historians using those earlier well-known historians again as sources, essentially reusing Grant as their only source. Grant has succeeded in making his version of events the standard interpretation of Belmont, Iuka, and Corinth, though most of his assertions about Shiloh, a more popular battle, have been disproved over time.
In a little over 100 pages, Varney has already made the case that Grant or members of his staff falsified official records of the War Department, twice, and bases his claim on what seems to be a thorough study of the many volumes of Grant‘s Papers, the Official Records, and many of the secondary sources on Grant’s role in the war. (Editor’s Note: The following has been updated based on comments below.) Most amazing to me is that hardly anyone gives Rosecrans any credit for victories at Iuka and Corinth as the battlefield commander present and in charge at both. Making things worse, Rosecrans is often blamed by historians for ending the pursuit of Rebel forces after both battles, when in reality Grant’s orders ended both pursuits, with Rosecrans resisting Grant’s written orders to return to camp three times after Corinth. Varney’s assertions are all carefully footnoted, and he shows persuasively using the written record other than Grant to demonstrate that, as always, there is more than one side to the story.
To be fair to Varney, he never comes out and actually strongly declares that Grant was knowingly lying outright, as this blog post’s title might suggest. He simply shows the reader the evidence and invites you to draw your own conclusions. To be fair also to Grant, he was dying of cancer when he quickly finished his memoirs. That many scholars, professional and amateur alike, have chosen to uncritically accept his version of events is not his fault. However, like other writers of memoirs, it can be assumed this was what he was hoping for when he wrote it, in addition to the obvious goal of providing his family with financial stability.
Varney’s book is absolutely going to be controversial. His look at Grant’s Memoirs and how they have been used by historians since their publication over 100 years ago takes many Grant historians to task on major and minor assertions they have made in the intervening years regarding operations in which Grant and Rosecrans had a stake, and some in which Grant wasn’t even present. Upcoming chapters include looks at Stones’ River, Chickamauga, and Rosecrans’ tenure as commander of the Department of Missouri. On a recent page, Grant told Abraham Lincoln that Stones’ River was not a Union victory, an assertion with which Lincoln respectfully disagreed.
In a blurb on the back of the book, the late Grant historian John Y. Simon writes the following:
I dropped everything and plunged into this manuscript. Every page I read presented challenges to accepted views, including my own. General Grant and the Rewriting of History represents considerable ingenuity and independence of thought.
As interesting as this book will be to general readers, the book offers hints from time to time of a second volume to come, looking at Grant’s disputes with other officers, especially Gouverneur Warren late in the war. As I was reading the early chapters on Rosecrans, I was struck by the similarities between Rosecrans and Warren. Both were highly intelligent, both were very sure of their abilities, and both could be considered difficult subordinates. Both paid the price when they ran afoul of Grant while his subordinates. In the second volume, Varney will cover the Crater and Five Forks, among other battles, and the numerous controversies they spawned.
Keep an eye out for both volumes of Varney’s look at Grant’s Memoirs and their use by historians through the years. The first is due out in June 2013. I’ll be following the reviews and comments in the Civil War blogosphere closely on this one. As with any book which challenges commonly held beliefs, there is sure to be disagreement about its contents.