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Ulysses in His Tent: Halleck, Grant, Sherman, and "The Turning Point of the War"

From: Civil War History
Volume 56, Number 2, June 2010
pp. 175-221 | 10.1353/cwh.0.0148

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On April 6 and 7, 1862, the Battle of Shiloh raged at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. Ulysses S. Grant, "unintrenched, unexpectant and almost unprepared," first managed to stave off disaster and then, reinforced, to achieve a bloody victory. Cries arose for his dismissal. Thereafter, according to many accounts, an ill-motivated superior, Henry W. Halleck, peremptorily shelved Grant, leaving him with nothing to do during the ensuing Corinth campaign. Ironically, that charge against Halleck is rooted in an order—Special Field Order No. 35, dated April 30, 1862—designating Grant as second in command of Halleck's huge army. Unhappy in that role, whether justifiably or not, Grant considered various potentially self-defeating steps to get away from Halleck, steps that might have removed him irretrievably from history's stage. Just at the critical moment, William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant's friend and subordinate, urged him to stay in his post; Grant did so. This, Sherman thought, was "the turning point of the war" because it left Grant in position to become the conqueror of Vicksburg a year later and ultimately to rise to overall command of the Union's land forces.1

This article presents a detailed look at these important post-Shiloh events, one that challenges much existing scholarship and should change our understanding of three of the most important Civil War figures—Halleck, soon Lincoln's third general in chief; Grant, soon the most important Union officer in the western theater; and Sherman, always thereafter Grant's most trusted lieutenant. We begin by taking note of the prior literature and the significance of the issue.

During the war, one Julian K. Larke published a proto-biography of Grant that has won praise from the late Grant scholar John Y. Simon for its "careful and meticulous" research in newspapers and government documents. Larke asserted that after Shiloh Halleck recognized Grant's "worth," rejected the calls of the "Governors of the Western States" for his dismissal, and made him second in command as a badge of honor; he further reported that Grant played a significant role "in the field" during the Corinth campaign. In 1866, however, war correspondent William F. G. Shanks framed Grant's post-Shiloh experiences as a three-act drama of eclipse, despair, and salvation with an expanded cast and different script: Halleck's second-in-command order "shelved [Grant] in disgrace," rendering him "the fifth wheel to the coach"—"weeping with vexation," Grant planned his resignation—Sherman "compelled him, in a measure, to stay." Grant (1885) and Sherman (1875) perpetuated this storyline in their respective memoirs. In particular, Grant, by then nursing a grudge against Halleck, claimed that Halleck so mar-ginalized him that he might as well have been elsewhere, that he therefore secured "permission to leave the department," but that Sherman "urged me so strongly not to think of going, that I concluded to remain."2

Modern Civil War scholarship is replete with discussions of Grant's post-Shiloh experiences; and the Shanks-Grant-Sherman narrative of eclipse, despair, and salvation resounds strongly in the literature. Indeed, in a recent and well-crafted article, Grant biographer Brooks D. Simpson characterizes the story of Sherman's "sav[ing]" Grant, "humiliated by the sanctimonious Henry W. Halleck," as a key element in "the traditional Civil War narrative." Simpson further asserts that this story is "so oft-told that it seems all too familiar," but it would be nearer the truth to say that, like the classically subjective descriptions of a Rorschach pattern, the story of Grant's experiences after Shiloh differs very materially from narrator to narrator.3

On the subject of eclipse, for example, some authors see nothing but malice in Halleck's treatment of Grant; others opine that Halleck actually sought to protect Grant during this period. The result is that historians have offered at least five largely contradictory explanations for Special Field Order No. 35, none fully satisfactory. On the subject of despair, most historians accept uncritically Grant's contention that Halleck made his life "unbearable" by freezing him out of operations entirely. A few, however, perceive at least dimly the demonstrable fact that Grant played a larger role in the campaign than his...



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