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BonekemperUlysses S. Grant: A Victor Not a Butcher: The Military Genius of the Man Who Won the Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III

Edward H. Bonekemper III is moving rapidly to fill the role of Ulysses S. Grant’s chief academic defender, attempting to reverse what he views as decades of ill-treatment at the hands of “lost cause” revisionists and the apathetic historians that have accepted their version of Grant’s military acumen a priori. There is truth in this. There is no doubt Grant’s reputation has suffered since his death in 1885. Southern historians, needing to explain away the defeat of their hero and exemplar of Southern rectitude, Robert E. Lee in a way that did not signal an acceptance of the notion he was incompetent or out-generaled, began coordinated effort to cast aspersions on his military record. Thus was born the description of Grant as “butcher” and “drunk,” and the assertion his victories were only due to the application of brute force rather than tactical skill. Conversely, the man Grant defeated has been canonized, his victories celebrated as genius, his defeats blamed on subordinates or poor circumstances. An example of this bias until recently, was the way monuments to each were cared for by the National Park Service. Lee’s home at Arlington has been lovingly cared for, including a recently completed 6 year restoration. Ditto the hundreds of statues and historic sites related to Lee throughout the South, especially Virginia. By contrast, Grant’s tomb in New York City and his massive equestrian statue on the grounds of the United States Capital had, until recently, been allowed to deteriorate, with the former becoming a magnet for graffiti artists and the homeless looking for a place to sleep. It took a threat by Grant descendants to have his body moved to Ohio to get the Park Service to undertake a restoration. Other examples abound, including his treatment in popular culture and histories focusing on other topics in which Grant is a minor player. Rather than look at recent scholarship it is easier just to accept long held conventional wisdom.

It is not hard than, to sympathize with Bonekemper’s view that Grant has been given short shrift by historians and the public. And frankly, I share it.

On the other hand, by so specifically aligning himself with a specific version of history, Bonekemper runs the risk of criticism for lack of objectivity, and that those inclined to an opposite view of Grant will use it to dismiss his valid points. It’s why the word “hagiography” is often used disparagingly by historians. This book is hagiography. He also runs the risk of applying his bias to an interpretation of evidence that is not warranted. This is always a danger for historians, but for those more committed to arriving at a fair interpretation of the facts it is something that is more scrupulously guarded against. Having said all of that however, and having studied Grant’s career rather extensively, I didn’t see any glaringly obvious bias in the information presented.

The goal of this book is very simple, to refute the charge, first given voice by “lost cause” apologists and later incorporated into mainstream histories, that Ulysses S. Grant was a “butcher of men,” that his disregard for human life was such that he was willing to sacrifice his men in a series of incompetent attacks knowing he had an almost unlimited ability to replace them. This also implied that Grant’s abilities as a military tactician were limited at best, particularly when compared with those of Robert E. Lee. Here Bonekemper does a good job of marshaling statistics to refute that contention.

He argues, pretty convincingly, that Grant was far from being the butcher portrayed by detractors. Rather, he was actually a skilled tactician and strategist who deployed his troops wisely and judiciously. Grant always had in mind the dual goal of minimizing casualties while maximizing damage to the enemy. He recognized, as his predecessors did not, that winning the war was the fastest way to end the carnage, and that this would require relentless and nearly non-stop attacks against an often entrenched enemy. Previous opponents of Lee viewed defeat in battle as an opportunity to retreat and regroup. Grant viewed them as temporary setbacks and an opportunity to learn from hard experience.

Here the author highlights two data points to make his case. First, throughout the war Grant lost 37,000 fewer men than did Robert E. Lee. During the period when Grant and Lee were in direct competition Grant lost more men, but a smaller percentage of those engaged. He accomplished this while being on the offensive nearly the entire time. Second, during the period encompassing Grant’s appointment as General-in-Chief through to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox about a year later, the Union Army of the Potomac , fighting on the offensive for nearly that entire period, suffered fewer casualties than under all of its previous commanders combined, a statistic that, in Bonekemper’s view, not only vindicates Grant’s tactical and strategic skill, but also absolves him of the “butcher” sobriquet. I tend to agree with this. In fact, he argues by the standard applied to Grant by his detractors Lee deserves the butcher label  far more than Grant does. He does not apply that standard however, believing the well-being of the troops was a priority of both Lee and Grant. He just argues that Grant was the superior General. Another view I am persuaded best fits the evidence.

This in a nutshell is Bonekemper’s argument. The rest of the book is a largely perfunctory  and admiring biography of Grant.

This work is well written, and at times engrossing. The author’s admiration for Grant is clear, which in many ways is refreshing after so many decades of revisionist Grant bashing. His research and citation appears impeccable, although the reliability of casualty figures, particularly of Confederate forces, is often sketchy. Despite this however, he appears to be using up to date analysis on which he bases a very plausible interpretation. Where I had some trouble, as I mentioned earlier, was with the blatant hagiographic impulse he admitted to at the beginning of the book. Refreshing as this interpretation of Grant’s career is, for those whose bias is the opposite it gives a ready made reason to discount the solid analysis contained in it. He also takes great pains to assert the most charitable interpretation of some of Grants’s less admirable actions. This too provides an opening to discount the entire work.

For its direct refutation of misinformation regarding Grant’s military career this is well worth reading. As a biography of Grant it is perfunctory at best. There are numerous better options available.

 

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