Ulysses S. Grant has never lacked for biographers and in their hands his historical reputation as a Civil War commander has been savaged, sanctified, and everything in-between. Ever since William McFeely brutalized him in 1984, other historians have taken a more balanced—if not more friendly—approach toward the Union commander. Many of these biographers—and even Grant himself—have wrestled with the Big Question: What made a man of seemingly average talents and intellect into the most successful soldier of the age? Put another way, how did a lackluster, down-on-his luck Galena store clerk become the architect of Union victory in the Civil War?
In A General Who Will Fight, Harry S. Laver finds the answer in Grant’s “analytical determination,” which he defines as the combination of “professional competence and unshakable resolve” (p. 7). This characteristic emanated not from West Point but from within Grant’s own temperament fine-tuned by later observations and experiences. [End Page 138] During the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor taught him to accept each situation as it was and find a way to extract victory, while Winfield Scott revealed that success rode with the general best able to press on despite the obstacles. Though Laver makes a fine case for the influence of Taylor and Scott, it seems just as likely that instead of revealing to him the value of these things, his heroes likely only confirmed what he already knew instinctively. When Grant took command during the Civil War, these ideas shaped his overall approach to military operations, especially the primacy of the initiative. From them he concluded that only striking hard and moving on would kill the rebellion and end the war. “Whoever assumed the offensive,” he stated bluntly, “was sure to win” (p. 47).
Laver details the evolution of Grant’s analytical determination from the first defining moment in 1861 in Missouri when he battled his inner doubts to his impressive triumphs in Tennessee, Mississippi, and finally against Robert E. Lee in Virginia. Throughout, Laver demonstrates how Grant employed—though not always skillfully or without difficulty—this concept to win the sort of stunning and strategically meaningful victories denied other Union generals who— both on paper and in their own minds—seemed far better suited to achieve that kind of glory. Laver also analyzes other arguments for Grant’s successes, including the contention that commanding in the distant and less politically charged Western theater afforded him a “grace period” to “grow into his job” and make mistakes that would have earned him a pink slip in the East. However, Laver believes that the men who headed the Army of the Potomac also had ample opportunities “to refine their leadership skills” before taking the helm but failed because they lacked analytical determination. As for the old “Grant the Butcher” argument, Laver examines the overall casualty rates of Lee and other principal Confederate generals and concludes that Grant’s casualties were lower than all of them, making him “far from the most accomplished of the ‘butchers’” in the war (p. 159).
Overall, this is a very insightful, thought-provoking, and exceptionally well-written book that deftly handles this weighty topic. Pinpointing and analyzing this critical quality that transformed the [End Page 139] Grant of Galena into the Victor of Vicksburg adds much to the ongoing debate on his generalship and lands another deserved blow on the “Grant the Butcher” crowd. Since 1865, the general has weathered more than his share of body blows to his reputation. But much like his Overland Campaign in 1864, just when you think he’s down and ready to retreat from the fight, he sidles to the left and moves on. This time, Harry Laver provided the assist.
William B. Feis is professor of history at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He is author of Grant’s Secret Service: The Intelligence War from Belmont to Appomattox (2002) and coauthor of For the Common Defense...