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General Grant and the Rewriting of History:…

General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General…

by Frank Varney

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A book that exposes Ulysses S. Grant's reliance on personal feelings instead of military concerns and his unreliability as a chronicler of the American Civil War. ( )
  JosephARose | Sep 25, 2015 |
This book supports my suspicion and that is U. S. Grant was predatory towards those generals under him that made him look bad. The author has shed new light on the truthfulness of Grant especially when writing his memoirs. This book address the relationship between Grant and Rosecrans. The author's research covers new materials that past historians have not used. Past historians have typically used Grant's Memoirs as the source of their research without checking other sources. The author proves that Grant was not the honorable man that we have been lead to believe. The author writes each chapter by explaining the event (battle) then provides Grant's version then proves that Grant was not honest about the situation by providing evidence from other sources. In doing so he provides very convincing cases that differ from the established history and beliefs. The author is in the process of writing a second volume addressing Grant's treatment of George H. Thomas, Grovernor Warren and W. J. (Baldy) Smith that will follow this same format. ( )
  dhughes | Oct 2, 2013 |
Professor Varney's premise is that the standard (negative)history of the war record of Civil War general William Rosecrans, who was fired by U.S. Grant and, later, highly criticized by Grant in his famous memoir, was adopted by historians' uncritical acceptance of Grant's views. Varney says that Grant's version was self-serving, motivated by animus against Rosecrans and factually wrong, even deceitful. Using the various battles in which Grant was Rosecran's superior Professor Varney provides highly detailed analysis of the lack of veracity in Grant's accounts. He relies strongly on sources like the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion containing Grant's written reports and personal letters of the participants. (Note: the book is densely detailed and a basic familiarity with the campaigns is helpful to the reader.)

This book is more than just an effort to present a different view of Rosecrans. It poses important questions about how history is written. Varney holds that historians have relied greatly too much on Grant's account, many completely on Grant's memoirs. By implication Grant was not, and should not be seen to be, an objective reporter not because he wasn't present at the events, but because he was. There were personal interactions between Grant and Rosecrans that came to bear and Grant's interpretation of events were naturally influenced by these. In other words, his recollections, whether influenced by benign subjectivity or overtly distorted to protect his reputation, are bound to be slanted. The over reliance of historians on Grant for the true story is also influenced by other factors: 1)Grant is regarded as the hero (among many incompetents) whose leadership traits won the war and 2) his memoirs are considered a masterpiece of expository writing.

While I might argue that characterizing Grant as deliberately deceitful is a bit too strong, there is merit to Varney's assertion that historians must look deeply critically beyond the conclusions of history as told by participants. Accepting Grant's views, without more analysis and synthesis from other sources, would seem to shortcut the responsibility that historians bear.

This book is especially interesting to me because of some work I did on Henry Halleck. Halleck was a native of the upstate New York village where I live and I wrote a paper on him for the local historical society. As I did my research I found an amazingly consistent view of Halleck -- to paraphrase Varney a "standard" repeated by most historians. These views were overwhelmingly critical and, often like those about Rosecrans, told in negative judgements of a few sentences. I wondered that there must be much more to this man. He served throughout the war in positions of increasing responsibility; he was valued enough by Lincoln to use him as a chief of staff and Grant retained him to good effect when he took over as general in chief. What I found was Halleck had many traits that made him valuable. He was highly effective as an administrator as opposed to as a field general or strategist, but he was in an exceedingly difficult position viz. the Washington political atmosphere, and he had personality aspects that did not endear. When you take the perspective that he was good, but flawed, demonstrably helpful but not utterly essential you have, I think, a fuller, fairer view of him. It seemed to me that historians have adopted a perspective on Civil War generals (the federal ones at least) that if you weren't a hero you were a failure. Moreover, in the popular histories Halleck is a minor character; he doesn't generate more than a superficial and reductive view of his contributions. Perhaps my bias was toward the "hometown" boy, but I do think I made a fairer, more balanced interpretation of Halleck's record. I look forward to Professor Varney's next book when he'll take on Grant's relationships with others including Halleck. ( )
  stevesmits | Jul 24, 2013 |
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