- Grant Under Fire: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War by Joseph A. Rose
Over the past 150 years, Civil War scholarship has influenced the way Americans understand the war’s events and key players. Perhaps the most [End Page 81] enigmatic figure who came out of the war was Ulysses S. Grant. Because Grant was the general who led the Union to victory, his opponents have singled him out over the years, and have successfully created a biased narrative that, as a general, he was allegedly a drunken, careless butcher. Joseph A. Rose’s book Grant Under Fire: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War continues this long line of anti-Grant scholarship.
In Grant Under Fire, Rose asserts that an overwhelming majority of historians have overstated the brilliance of Grant’s generalship. Although Rose insists on the importance of never overglorifying a historical figure, he uses that same device of exaggeration to demonize Grant. Rose portrays Grant as a completely incompetent, idle, lucky, impetuous, and vindictive general who never did anything correct, even in victory. Somehow, however, he was clever enough to rise from a lowly colonel of volunteers to the commanding general of the U.S. Army in less than three years. Rose exacerbates Grant’s faults without the slightest mention of the positive qualities he possessed and the growth he showed as a general. Such an unbalanced critique of Grant is reminiscent of a quote from Grant’s own memoirs pertaining to retrospective examinations of war. Grant wrote: “things are seen plainer after the events have occurred” (New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885, 1st ed., 1:165).
Although Rose incorporates many primary and secondary sources, his interpretation is highly subjective and charged. Not only does he question Grant’s military abilities, but he also portrays him as a pro-slavery drunk with low morals and a weak character. These accusations are far from original and have been proven over the years to be unfounded. They are in the same vein as Lost Cause historiography. There is a clear confirmation bias in this work, and it affects the overall validity of his argument. Rose uses evidence out of context in order to reinforce his interpretation, while concurrently ignoring evidence that goes against his thesis.
The cornerstone of Rose’s argument resides in The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. Rose claims that Grant’s memoirs are riddled with errors and have erroneously influenced the way people understand the Civil War. There are indeed some superficial errors in Grant’s memoirs, but Grant was on his deathbed battling throat and mouth cancer when he wrote the memoirs. Under such circumstances it is asking a great deal to demand that he remember every name and detail twenty years after the war. Furthermore, any objective historian understands that a memoir is one person’s perspective of an event, and the opinions found within should not be taken purely as fact. For [End Page 82] example, in the 1960 book Grant Moves South, acclaimed Civil War historian Bruce Catton praises Grant’s development as a general while simultaneously critiquing some of the assertions in his memoirs. It is also important to realize that the Ulysses S. Grant Association is currently working on a modern edition of Grant’s memoirs with explanatory notes that will address any superficial errors Grant might have made.
There is no doubt that Rose did exhaustive research while writing this book. He pulled from hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscripts, newspapers, government and official publications, unpublished dissertations, books, articles, and Internet resources; a daunting feat for any historian. However, it is clear that his research did not shape his conclusion; instead, his conclusion shaped his research.