Last week, in expressing my initial thoughts about General Grant and the Rewriting of History by Frank Varney, I wrote “do not be surprised to find me writing multiple blog posts” about the book. And so here I am, at it again. In the comments section to the previous post there was some discussion of a missing telegram that Grant claimed was received by Secretary of War Stanton and which Varney says led to the removal of Rosecrans from command. Today I want to discuss three issues related to that telegram.
The first issue is the question of when Grant said he saw this telegram. Varney writes: “Grant said in his memoirs that he decided to change commanders of the Army of the Cumberland because of a message from Dana, shown to Grant by Stanton on the evening of October 18”. Regarding the date, Varney is wrong. In Chapter 40 of his memoirs, Grant did not write that this occurred on “the evening of October 18” (Varney’s words); what Grant did write is that he was shown the message “the evening of the day after our arrival”. He had left Cairo on the 17th by train to Indianapolis, switched to a train to Louisville and “We reached Louisville after night”. It is about 350 miles from Cairo to Indianapolis; another 150 to Louisville. Without even considering time spent at the station in Indianapolis, or at any other stop, the travel time would be in the range of 20 hours or more. So he would have arrived on the 18th. Thus “the evening of the day after our arrival” would be the 19th.
Correcting for Varney’s error with the date affects other things. Varney writes that “Dana later claimed that he had indeed sent the telegram Grant remembered — but he claimed that he sent it on the evening of the 19th, too late for it to play any part in Grant’s decision.” But using the correct date for when Grant said he saw the message, makes Dana’s claim about timing work, especially if one corrects the error Varney made in the statement about Dana. Varney doesn’t cite any source for his reference to what Dana later claimed, but if we look at Dana’s ‘Recollections of the Civil War’ we see that he wrote “On the morning of October 19th I received a dispatch from Mr. Stanton, sent from Washington on October 16th, asking me to meet him that day at the Galt House in Louisville. I wired him that, unless he ordered to the contrary, Rosecrans would retreat at once from Chattanooga, and then I started for Louisville.” Note that Dana does not say precisely when he sent the message but he definitely does not say “the evening of the 19th”, as Varney alleges.
The second issue is the question of what impact the message had. Varney writes: “Grant said in his memoirs that he decided to change commanders of the Army of the Cumberland because of a message from Dana”. But Grant does not say this in his memoirs; Varney misrepresents Grant in order to make his case. Grant wrote that during the train ride from Indianapolis to Louisville, Stanton “handed me two orders, saying that I might take my choice of them. … One order left the department commanders as they were, while the other relieved Rosecrans and assigned Thomas to his place. I accepted the latter”. This makes the issue of the telegram from Dana somewhat moot, as Grant had already decided to change commanders before he was shown it. Grant does write that when Stanton showed him the message from Dana he “immediately wrote an order assuming command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, and telegraphed it to General Rosecrans. I then telegraphed to him the order from Washington assigning Thomas to the command of the Army of the Cumberland; and to Thomas that he must hold Chattanooga at all hazards”. So according to Grant, the impact of Dana’s message was to prompt him to send messages; but the message changing commanders had already been written and already decided upon before this occurred.
The third issue is the question of whether the missing message even existed. In my view, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to support the existence of a telegram from Dana to Stanton on October 19th: Dana said he sent it; Grant said he saw it; Dana had been writing to Stanton ever day for over 2 weeks, so it is logical that he would do so on the 19th; Stanton had sent him a summons to Louisville and it was normal practice to send a reply acknowledging receipt; and Grant’s message to Thomas about holding at all hazards makes more sense if prompted by something. But Varney vehemently denies its existence. Why? Because it doesn’t match what Varney wants the reader to believe. He writes that there is “no basis for the claim that Rosecrans was about to abandon Chattanooga”. However, several of Dana’s messages during that time frame refer the possibility of retreat from Chattanooga; so in truth there is a basis for a claim that Rosecrans considered abandoning Chattanooga. Thus Varney’s rationale for denying the existence of the message rings hollow.
Dana’s message from the 16th stated that:
“Nothing can prevent the retreat of the army from this place within a fortnight, and with a vast loss of public property and possibly of life, except the opening of the river. General Hooker has been ordered to prepare for this, but Rosecrans thinks he cannot move till his transportation arrives from Nashville, from which place it marched on the 8th. It should have been in Bridgeport on the 14th, but is not yet reported. … In the midst of all these difficulties General Rosecrans seems to be insensible to the impending danger, and dawdles with trifles in a manner which can scarcely be imagined … all this precious time is lost because our dazed and mazy commander cannot perceive the catastrophe that is close upon us, nor fix his mind up on the means of preventing it. I never saw anything which seemed so lamentable and hopeless.
And a message written on the 18th reads:
” If the effort which Rosecrans intends to make to open the river should be futile, the immediate retreat of this army will follow. … Amid all this, the practical incapacity of the general commanding is astonishing, and it often seems difficult to believe him of sound mind. His imbecility appears to be contagious, and it is difficult for any one to get anything done.”
I included portions of these messages where Dana described Rosecrans. I think Dana’s comments are important because, whether we believe them to be accurate or not, this was the information that Stanton and Grant were getting and it would have been alarming to them. While both messages say that a retreat would be avoided by implementing Rosecrans’ plan to open the river, both messages also create doubt that Rosecrans is capable of implementing anything. In addition, these messages show that the missing message was not out of context: the meaning of these messages is consistent with what Grant and Dana said about the missing message. Varney tries to wave away Dana’s letters by saying they are “unsubstantiated opinion, not based on anything Rosecrans said”. How does he know?
Comments on my previous post claimed that I am not addressing the core issue of the book. I think I am. As I have shown in the previous post and in this one, Varney’s conclusions about Rosecrans and Grant are built on miscitation and misrepresentation. To present Rosecrans’ accomplishment at Iuka in a good light, Varney misrepresents what Maury wrote. To dismiss an anecdote about the battle of Corinth, Varney invents his own history of the 50th Illinois. To paint Grant as the villain for removing Rosecrans, Varney misrepresents what is in Grant’s memoirs and then accuses him of being the one to fabricate evidence. Rather than a few scattered mistakes or “small citation errors”, what I see is a pattern in how information is presented and how arguments are made. To me that is the core issue with this book.
Stay tuned for more…