U. S. Grant: The Making of a General, 1861-1863

This book by Professor Michael Ballard traces the rise of Ulysses S. Grant and his education as a general officer during the Civil War. According to Professor Ballard, “The most important Grant legacy is that he rarely complained, was unrelenting, and just kept on keeping on, even during times of extraordinary stress. His resilience, determination, humility, and refusal to accept anything short of victory are qualities that continue to make him an appealing historical figure. Sam Grant was the kind of human being that made people feel comfortable, in spite of his rise to fame and power.” [p. xii]

As with many of the West Point-trained officers, Grant learned much during the Mexican War, serving under both of the primary U.S. generals during that war. “Grant absorbed the styles and methods of two generals in particular, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. He liked Taylor’s efforts to prohibit plundering on the part of his soldiers, and admired the way he shouldered pressure and responsibility when leading the first American troops into combat with Mexican forces in battles at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma in the summer of 1846. Grant also endorsed Taylor’s rustic, frontier style: ‘General Taylor never made any great show or parade, either of uniform or retinue. In dress he was possibly too plain, rarely wearing anything in the field to indicate his rank, or even that he was an officer; but he was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all.’ Grant could relate to Taylor, noting further: ‘Taylor was not a conversationalist, but on paper he could put his meaning so plainly that there could be no mistaking it. He knew how to express what he wanted to say in the fewest well-chosen words, but would not sacrifice meaning to the construction of high-sounding sentences.’ General Grant wrote in a similar style. Though he was more comfortable with Taylor’s style, Grant also found Scott an effective leader. He criticized some of Scott’s tactics during the Mexico City campaign yet conceded that ‘General Scott’s successes are an answer to all criticism. He invaded a populous country, penetrating two hundred and sixty miles into the interior, with a force at no time equal to one-half of that opposed to him; he was without a base; the enemy was always intrenched [sic], always on the defensive; yet he won every battle, he captured the capital, and conquered the government. Credit is due to the troops engaged, it is true, but the plans and the strategy were the general’s.’ In effect, Grant observed that good generalship, no matter the style, made the difference. Results counted more than method, and General Grant believed that if going by the book did not work, then he would write his own when it came to managing campaigns and battles.” [pp. 5-6]

In his memoirs, Grant wrote of an incident early in the Civil War in which he was marching toward a confederate force’s camp, with his heart beating and Grant saying he didn’t have the courage to turn back, and when he crested a hill he saw the camp emptied and realized the confederate commander had been as scared of Grant as Grant was of him, with Grant writing that was a view he hadn’t taken before and something he never forgot. Professor Ballard tells us, “His observation showed that he was the kind of commander who looked for an edge over his opponents, which he had gained on this occasion by simply moving against them. Active armies and an active mind came to characterize Grant’s generalship. His propensity to do his job, despite misgivings, was obvious, as was his tendency to learn from experiences, even in operations that produced insignificant results.” [p. 12]

Grant soon took command of the District of Southeast Missouri. His first assignment was to go after the confederate partisan leader Jeff Thompson. According to Professor Ballard, “He experienced a brief brush with the politics of command when Benjamin Prentiss rebelled at being placed under Grant’s authority. Grant thought Prentiss’s behavior ill advised, for it cost the latter promotions he might otherwise have gained. The military hierarchy frowned on officers with mutinous reputations; several of lower grade bypassed Prentiss. Beyond the problems he created for himself, Prentiss’s action not only warned Grant to expect such aberrations when dealing with prideful men but also contributed to Thompson’s escape.” [p. 14]

As a commander in the West, Grant benefited from the distance to Washington. “The additional freedom that western commanders enjoyed both benefited Grant and caused him trouble, but overall, it facilitated his growing into the leader he became. Paducah gave him his first opportunity to act aggressively in the field without specific orders to do so, and he had gotten away with it. He o doubt concluded that his continual promotion upward into more responsible jobs meant that his superiors trusted him to take care of things, and with that growth of confidence came a belief in his ability to make the right decisions.” [p. 15]

Even at this early stage of the war, Professor Ballard tells us, “Grant revealed two basic strategic concepts that remained with him throughout the war. First, he tended to leave tactical decisions to his subordinates. Grant was a planner; he could look at maps and see what must be done, but he preferred to let his officers carry out operations with as little hindrance from him as possible. Second, though he gradually changed his views on foraging, he believed firmly that his armies should not alienate citizens by heavy-handed confiscation of supplies.” [p. 17]

On November 6, 1861 Grant embarked with a brigade on transports to move on the town of Belmont, Missouri. Professor Ballard writes, “Three points are striking. First, Grant realized the significance of the Union navy along the Mississippi. As his Civil War career progressed, he often relied on naval assistance and power to carry out his campaign goals. Second, Grant was acting on questionable intelligence about a Confederate presence at Belmont. Since the source, a man supposedly loyal to the Union, might or might not be reliable, the sound move would have been to send trusted scouts to validate this news. Third, if Grant indeed falsified his battle report with unfounded reasons for having attacked at Belmont, he undoubtedly did so to protect himself from potential criticism. Aggressiveness was one thing, but reckless aggressiveness could damage a career. Although he had done what he thought was right, he understood that damage control might be necessary, and he had no compunction about covering his tracks.” [pp. 18-19] Professor Ballard also reiterates Grant’s trusting his subordinates with the tactics of the battle. “Perhaps Grant understood that his greatest ability was as a strategist, not as a battlefield tactician. He could plan and direct, but once the shooting started, he seemed to believe that lower-level officers o the scene could make better decisions than one man who was trying to control the entirety of a battlefield. The danger of this approach could be a lack of coordination among troops scattered over a wide front, and Grant had not yet developed a staff who could assist him in keeping up with battlefield activities. As time passed, he became more comfortable issuing orders to subordinates during the fighting, but he did not dictate battlefield operations unless he saw the need to do so. As one of his biographers has noted, at Belmont he did little more than encourage his men, and his ‘staff officers functioned more as a headquarters escort than they did as instruments of command.’ ” [p. 21]

Although lost cause dopes think Grant was nothing more than a bull plowing straight ahead in frontal attacks his entire career, Professor Ballard shows us this viewpoint is ignorant. He writes, “flank attacks became one of the trademarks of his battle philosophy of misdirection. His troops carried out his strategic design and desire through their tactical maneuvers, indicating that Grant and his subordinates had talked and planned together. Grant appreciated the necessity of planning and teamwork in executing troop movements and no doubt promoted the concept among his lieutenants.” [p. 22]

In early 1862, Grant was ordered to make a diversionary demonstration against Columbus, Kentucky in support of a movement by Don Carlos Buell. Professor Ballard says Grant did so without complaint. “Assuming that his diversion would facilitate Buell’s campaign against [rebel commander Simon Bolivar] Buckner, and accepting that he must be a team player even when he did not have the major role, Grant uncomplainingly made plans. Whether intentional strategy or the nature of the man or both, Grant’s attitude served him well, for official Washington grew weary of generals who spent most of their time complaining. A officer such as Grant who quietly did his job as ordered, found favor in the White House and the War Department.” [p. 29]

Grant would soon move and capture Fort Henry, then move against Fort Donelson, whose garrison was commanded by the confederate general Gideon Pillow. “Throughout the war, Grant demonstrated his skill, honed at West Point, of evaluating others, especially Rebel commanders opposing him. He felt confident that General Gideon Pillow, with whom he had served in Mexico and who had always had more mouth than nerve, would not offer stiff opposition. As for Pillow’s fellow officers, John Floyd, commanding at Donelson, ‘was no soldier,’ and Buckner, though capable, was too far down the chain of command to have an impact on strategy and tactics. Grant’s surmises proved correct in this instance, though he showed the same tendency he had demonstrated at Belmont to underestimate enemy options.” [p. 34]

The book takes us through Grant’s actions up to and including the surrender of Vicksburg. Along the way, Professor Ballard gives us a balanced and cogent analysis of Grant’s generalship, including where he faltered and where his self-confidence was lacking as well as when he regained his self-confidence. Along the way we learn a great deal about Grant’s growth as a general.

This is an outstanding book for students of the Civil War and for students of leadership as well. I can highly recommend it.

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