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How Long, Lord . . .

. . . . how long, if ever, does it take for historical opinion on an aspect of the Civil War to change? This question is on my mind, given 1) my past pursuit of a balanced look at McClellan; 2) a pre-publication reading I am currently doing of the next volume in Russel Beatie’s Army of the Potomac series for Savas Beatie; and 3) some thinking I have been doing recently on Grant. What, I ask the readers of Civil Warriors, are the prospects of the combined effect of Joe Harsh’s Maryland Campaign work, Thomas Rowland’s historiographic study, my own book, and Beatie’s books actually changing the popular perception of McClellan as a timid idiot frustrating an ever-wise Lincoln to the point that future historians no longer fall back on this gross oversimplification of events? Or will we just be used as foils for a future generation of scholars to dismiss without really addressing the points we raised? Will the questions that have been raised in these works, and Brooks’s gem in the Farnsworth monograph series, Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Campaign, and the War in the East, 1861–1863, regarding Lincoln’s military wisdom make a dent on the Lincolnphilia (soon to be presented in the a rock opera Lincophenia) that characterizes the works of a Doris Kearns Goodwin, Richard Norton Smith, or Ken Burns, whose work and facility at getting face time on TV really shape, for lack of a better word, “middlebrow” America’s thinking on Lincoln? Or can we expect the image of Lincoln as military genius (and according to Goodwin a “sexy” one) and “master of men” to continue to dominate literature. If so, should those of us he disagree with this interpretation just give up now?

The turnabout in the reputation of James Longstreet over the last forty years, thanks to Michael Sharra, Bill Piston, and Ted Turner offers hope that such a change in opinion is possible. Indeed, Longstreet revisionism has become so deeply ingrained among Civil War enthusiasts that I often find it necessary to point out to audiences who embrace the (no longer) “revisionist” take on Longstreet that he did lose a battle to Ambrose Burnside. At the same time, I feel a bit guilty in throwing out so flip a comment, as I think (and I can hear the hair on Professor Harsh’s neck rise as I write this) William Marvel made a very good case in 1991 that Burnside has not been studied with sufficient sympathy by historians. All I know is that everytime I have walked military officers through the options Burnside had in December 1862 and the situation he faced, they have found it difficult to find a better course of action than the one he pursued at Fredericksburg. And one can’t but wonder what would have happened had Meade and Grant not denied him his plan to spearhead the assault at the Crater with Ferrero’s division. Perhaps if financing could somehow get secured for a movie . . . George Clooney as Little Mac! Mel Gibson as Burnside! . . . (Actually, considering his recent remarks concerning certain religious groups, Mel would probably be more comfortable playing Grant.) And, of course, Sam Elliott playing . . . Sam Elliott (whatever character we give him that is what he ends up doing anyway)!

Then there is the matter of Ulysses S. Grant. Almost every one of the veritable army of writers who have published works on Grant in the past decade has proclaimed their work is necessary to help rescue Grant from his image as a drunk and a butcher. Who on earth still holds this view? I mean, even before I was born Thomas Connelly had already proclaimed Grant the most rediscovered general in history! Some will no doubt point to William McFeely, but a cursory consideration of Civil War historiography since World War II reveals his to be a fairly lone voice—albeit a Pulitzer Prize winning one—of criticism of Hiram Ulysses’s generalship in an otherwise Grantophilic world. Will there come a time when we can heap scorn on any future author who justifies a study of General Grant by raising up the strawman of a “popular image” of Grant as a butcher and drunk, on the grounds that it is clear that while they may know of the Simpsons re-enactment of the Battle of Springfield, in which Barney was cast as Grant, they do not possess the familiarity with previous scholarship to be taken seriously? After McFeely, I can see the rationale for such a proclamation, but after the appearance of Perret’s, Smith’s, and Brooks’s books . . . come on! “A Victor and Not a Butcher”? If there anyone whose reponse is anything but “well, duh”, please let me know and I will gladly rethink my take on this matter (as well as advise them to go to Amazon.com, type in Brooks Simpson, and purchase everything that comes up)!

Comments (11) to “How Long, Lord . . .”

  1. There was a similar thing on “Family Guy”, with the great retort to the odd Southern town’s history of the war… “he may have been a drunken idiot, but he kicked your ass” — or something like that. Always up to date history with cartoons..LOL.

  2. Ethan:

    For what’s it’s worth, my classroom lectures on Little Mac this last semester were very much different than just a few years ago, due to the combined effects of Joe Harsh’s work, your last book, and Dimitri Rotov’s blog. And years before that I abandoned the “Lincoln as military genius” trope, if I ever fully bought it. I hardly think I’m alone. Longstreet revisionism began at a certain point but then evolved. I wonder if that sort of evolution is in place now regarding McClellan.

    The academy is a different animal, however, than the wider ACW community. Comments I’ve heard over the last few years suggest that the old sterotypes of Grant, for example, as butcher and drunk survive well in the popular mind despite recent historiography, where they serve all sorts of political purposes. If that’s the case, Mac has an uphill climb. I suspect that you’re right in the end about needing a movie to change minds, sadly. I’m reminded of the young man I met in Inverness, Scotland, who told me he had become a Scottish nationalist while watching Braveheart. At the time he was re-enacting a British regular, of all things.

  3. Just the other day I was watching a CSPAN program featuring Gary Gallagher giving a battlefield tour to high school teachers at Antietam. As soon as he mentioned George McClellan, the audience (these are teachers, remember) began to laugh and snicker.

    I think the McClellan character created by Ken Burns is going to endure for a really long time, sadly. For most people, McClellan’s name conjures up the voice of that snotty-sounding voice actor that Burns employed to star as Little Mac.

    As regards Lincoln’s military insight, I did encounter an interesting exception to the prevailing adulation in John Mossier’s “Grant” — one of the newest additions to the plethora of Grant books. Mossier paints Lincoln as overly meddlesome and preoccupied with political objectives of little consequence.

    However, I for one am glad about the flood of Grant books. For one, what is wrong with more books? Books are good. Secondly, while it may be true that the “Grant as drunken butcher” theme is out of favor among Civil War scholars, I think it is most definitely not out of favor with the general public.

    Insofar as the general public has an image of Grant, it is that he was a drunk who won the war because of overwhelming numbers, and then went on to become one of the worst, most corrupt presidents we have ever had.

    My high school history teacher, Coach Blackburn, taught me (and all his other hundreds of students) every single tired Lost Cause myth about Grant.

    Once again, I blame Ken Burns. What was the wording he used? Something like, “The year 1862 introduced two new forces to the Civil War: unspeakable slaughter and Ulysses S. Grant,” as if the two were joined at the hip.

    He then lends credence to the charges of butchery by quoting that noted military analyist, Mary Todd Lincoln. And Shelby Foote chimes in with his usual dose of nonsense, giving even more credibility to the “butcher” label.

    Burns’s coverage of the Overland Campaign is basically a David and Goliath story, in which Lee’s “tiny” and ragged army continually outwits and outfights the Yankee hordes being sent into the meat grinder by Grant.

    Sadly, I think the traditional image of Grant will persist among the general public despite the army of fawning Grant biographers. I think the only thing that can save Grant at this point is a Hollywood movie.

    Lastly, I would also like to say that having read several of the Grant books that have come out in recent years, I think most of them are insightful and first-rate. In fact, I think some of the best work has been done by Edward Bonekemper III, despite the unfortunate titles he gives to his books.

  4. I see my tirade has sparked some discussion. But come on, no one is going to take a leap at my flip reference to General Orders No. 11?

    Drew:
    Regardless if whether its history is out of day, that crack from Family Guy was priceless, as is so much from that show. My daughter and I have been working through the first two seasons on DVD all week. Last night we watched the episode where Peter gets into a totally pointless but gloriously drawn out fist fight with a chicken that culminates in his holding the chicken’s head on a copier machine, while he repeatedly slammed it shut and copies pop out of the chicken’s increasingly bludgeoned and bleeding head. Now, THAT is entertainment.

    Ken:
    It sure would be interesting if T. Harry Williams were alive today. He did publish a pretty fiesty retort to Joe Harsh’s critique of his interpretation of Jomini and Clausewitz in Military Affairs. I can’t imagine what the response from “Lincolnand” would be to those who dare quibble with his view that Lincoln was a military genius, but there would no doubt be one.
    I know, of course, that there is a disconnect between the academic ACW world and the general public, but aren’t folks like Smith, Goodwin, McPherson etc. supposed to serve as sort of a bridge? That of course is a touchy place to be, trying to giving the public what they demand (and by extension publishers want) AND need to know about the past. The public wants a good story of America (one of the greatest quips I ever heard about Stephen Ambrose was that his success provided further evidence that no man ever went broke telling the American people how great they are), and especially everyman Lincoln. Europhile uberman McClellan’s crash and fall (he just thought he was so darn smart, when everyone knows a real American sojer don’t need ur go for none ob dat darn der book reading) just provides such a delicious counterpoint to the democracy affirming success of Lincoln and Grant.
    But as I said, the wider ACW community has come around on Longstreet (perhaps too far), but that is more due to a gifted novelist and movie than Piston’s scholarship. Unfortunately, after God and Generals crash and burned (how that could have happened given the inspiring performances of Sens. Gramm, Byrd, and Macaca is beyond me) so badly I can’t imagine anyone in Hollywood going anywhere near the Civil War as a subject for a long time. Of course, Goodwin’s book has been optioned with Liam Neeson as Lincoln (wonder if he’ll use some of the skills he taught Batman–if the real Lincoln had Richmond would undoubtedly have fallen a sooner), but then that is Lincoln.

    Justin:
    I am not saying let’s not have more books on Grant. By all means let’s, as there are aspects of the man’s life and public career that could still use more in depth study along the lines of Bill Feis’s terrific Grant’s Secret Service. What I was objecting to was writers raising up a strawman to justify their work. Although the book jacket for Feis’s book unfortunately raises briefly the drunken butcher strawman, his study commendably for the most part does operate from a premise that in not so many words “we know Grant was a great general and this book will help explain his success by looking at a particular aspect of his military endeavors and how they contributed to his success.”
    And I can’t say that the Lost Cause take on Lee v. Grant wasn’t instilled in me. How this happened, given the fact that I wasn’t really paying attention in school is beyond me, but I did grow up in northern Virginia so it probably entered through the skin at some point. Anyway, the book that got me hooked on the Civil War (no doubt warping me in the process) was Fuller’s Grant and Lee, precisely because of its exciting and persuasive revisionist take on Grant. And actually, I think Grant came off pretty well at Ken Burns’ hands. Finally, let’s be honest here, Grant did win because of superior resources. Had he faced Bobby Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862 . . .

  5. As long as Joe Rose is around, there’ll be anti-Grant folks not far behind. Part of the problem with people like Joe is that they leap to the defense of Little Mac in their efforts to denigrate Grant. And the Thomas supporters obviously have their own agenda.

    Interestingly, I found Harsh’s books good, but Rowland’s was far from convincing. My reflection on McClellan is something akin to a sin curve – I started in the Eckenrode camp years ago, moved with Sears and Burns, and now have started coming out of the trough with current discussion. I doubt you will ever see me as a huge Mac-supporter, but then again, he’s no Joe Johnston … :-)

    Ethan, we had a chance to drink a beer at the Drawbridge Inn in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky a few years ago when you presented to the Cincinnati CWRT.

    Dave

  6. The “Jew Order” does seem to be a popular subject on blogs nowadays. I’m not particularly interested in it, because it seems to me to have been an aberration.

    The Lost Cause take on Grant and the Civil War in general had a really strong hold on me too, despite my lack of interest in the Civil War up until a few years ago. I think it came from my high school teacher, the college professors who taught me the undergraduate survey courses, and I suppose being in the South (although I think the last factor was of neglibile importance). The thing that got me interested in the Civil War was reading McPherson. I remember when I initially read his positive portrayal of Grant, I thought it was really interesting, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. I felt like McPherson’s Union sympathies were clouding his judgment. I had basically the same reaction I got when reading those articles by Fred Barnes and other conservatives who try to convince us that George W. Bush is a misunderstood genius. Yeah, right.

    I disagree that Grant won “because of superior resources.” If you said that superior resources were a necessary but not a sufficient preresquisite for Grant’s winning (which is superficially true due to the fact that all prior generals had superior resources but didn’t win), then I might agree with you. But I don’t think we can say with certainty that superior resources were even a necessary preresquisite. If the disparity in resources were somehow different, the tactical and strategic picture would be so altered that I don’t think we can intelligently guess what would have happened, one way or the other.

    The primary reason Lee looks good in the Overland Campaign is because circumstances finally compelled him to remain on the tactical defensive most of the time (and circumstances likewise compelled Grant to constantly be on the attack). Supposing Grant did not have an overwhelming advantage in numbers or resources, perhaps Lee’s characteristic aggressiveness would have manifested itself again, and Grant would have been in a position to take up the tactical defensive or exploit the various risks and gambles that Lee was so fond of making.

    On the other hand, I think we can make a better educated guess with regards to your other counterfactual: what if Grant had faced Lee in 1862? I think in those circumstances, Grant probably would have won. If the Seven Days had been prosecuted with the aggressiveness and tenacity that Grant had displayed a few months earlier at Shiloh, is it not likely the case that Richmond would have fallen? I am not a McClellan hater, but I think his caution defeated him moreso than did Robert E. Lee on the Peninsula. The performance of Lee and his subordinates in the Seven Days was characterized by a blundering aggressiveness, as far as I can tell. I think Grant would have reciprocated that blundering aggressiveness and won (I don’t think the fall of Richmond would have ended the war though).

  7. Ethan,
    Speaking of priceless quotes, I loved the one from “The Office”‘s Michael Scott, “Abraham Lincoln once said that ‘If you’re a racist, I will attack you with the North’ and these are the principles I carry with me in the workplace. ”

    Drew

  8. Ethan, I think your book was one of the most interesting CW books I’ve read in a long time, but ultimately I found your thesis unconvincing. McClellan is seen as a flawed figure because, well, he was a flawed figure. He wanted to fight a war almost w/o making it a war, which has got to be one of the dumbest notions an otherwise intelligent man ever tried.

  9. On Grant: Clearly, within the Civil War history community, the “drunken butcher” stereotype is demolished. But I don’t think it is amongst the general public. Within my friends and family and colleagues at work, when my Civil War interest comes up, I am often asked what my specific interest is. And when I say that one of my interests is US Grant, back comes the inevitable question, “Was he really a drunk?” And I have seen supposedly knowledgeable folks on online discussion groups make claims about unlimited resources.

  10. I think the typical view of McClellan is starting to change but check out this upcoming book gag. http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?isbn=0-7864-2894-5

  11. all im gonna say is that grant would dominate lee in a fistfight