Diane Monroe Smith. Command Conflicts in Grant's Overland Campaign: Ambition and Animosity in the Army of the Potomac. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc., 2013. vii + 248 pp. paper ($39.95), ISBN 978-0-7864-6817-1.
Reviewed by Drew S. Bledsoe (Lee University)
Published on H-War (August, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Along with Robert E. Lee and William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant is certainly the most famous general to have emerged from the American Civil War. Grant’s stature among historians has waxed and waned in the 150 years since his military triumph over the Confederacy, and yet his reputation for determination, humility, and command acumen persists in both modern historiography and in public memory and perception. Diane Monroe Smith, in Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign: Ambition and Animosity in the Army of the Potomac, seeks to if not demolish then certainly to correct what she sees as deep misconceptions about Grant, his character, and his abilities as a military commander. The result is a provocative, though largely unconvincing, portrait of a grasping, manipulative, and incompetent Grant that is considerably at odds with more favorable, and widely accepted, interpretations.
The title of Smith’s book is somewhat misleading. Students of the Overland campaign of 1864 will likely be disappointed with the book, as the author devotes just over half of her study to his 1864 attempts to destroy Lee’s army near Richmond. Three of ten chapters are devoted to Grant’s early military career in the West. Grant’s involvement in the Overland campaign, the titular focus of Smith’s study, occupies just six chapters, with a final chapter devoted to the Siege of Petersburg.
One of Smith’s major themes is that Grant was an ambitious, even grasping officer propped up by political supporters in the army. This flies in the face of the common conception that one of Grant’s virtues, at least according to his advocates, was his apparent lack of political ambition. Smith strongly disagrees with this assessment. “Grant, trailed by a cloud of cronies, sycophants, and ardent advocates, would march in his own eccentric way through the war, ‘falling forward’ into the leading role of the country’s military hero and savior,” she declares (p. 2). It was Grant’s unwavering loyalty to these military “cronies,” as Smith puts it, that both made his reputation and protected him from the criticism he justly deserved. Crossing “Grant’s Men” could be dangerous to one’s military career and reputation (see George H. Thomas); being in the great man’s good graces, however, could ensure an officer’s ascent through the hierarchy of the army regardless of other connections or actual ability. Grant’s clique included his confidant and defender John Rawlins, Charles A. Dana of the War Department, “malicious” cavalry commander James H. Wilson, the controversial William “Baldy” Smith, Horatio Wright, and Horace Porter (pp. 79-80). These men, Smith maintains, each played key custodial roles in promoting, defending, or manipulating their boss and his reputation both during and after the war.
Another theme of the book is that Grant’s successes were anything but successful. Far from a military genius, in Smith’s estimation, Grant was barely competent to do his job. Grant’s Overland campaign was full of “dubious” victories, and the general bears the ultimate responsibility for the flawed management of this effort, particularly in his mishandling of the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The role of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, though noted by Smith, seems to be of secondary concern in her assessment. Smith peppers her study with example after example of what she sees as Grant’s incompetence, starting with his first battles and extending through the end of the war. Despite this sorry record, one of the reasons Grant emerged from the Overland campaign with a creditable record, Smith argues, is because he and his defenders excelled at shifting blame. Smith reserves particularly stinging criticisms of Grant for her account of the infamous June 3, 1864, assault at Cold Harbor, characterizing his involvement in the enterprise as a “bizarre” combination of apathy and “insanity” followed by “a mind-boggling attempt at face-saving and self-justification in the face of conspicuous defeat” (p. 185).
Given these qualities, Grant’s rise to military prominence is almost inexplicable to Smith. His is a “twisted version of the American success story,” and Smith attributes Grant’s success mainly to his friends and supporters who saw him as their golden ticket (p. 2). Though provocative, particularly to modern admirers of Grant, this is an unsatisfying interpretation. All military leaders have imperfect records; Grant was certainly no exception. Smith seems all too eager to overlook Grant’s determination to prosecute the war despite its horrendous cost, which was perhaps one of his most important attributes, and was exactly what President Abraham Lincoln had been desperately searching for in a commanding general.
Despite the partisan bent to her study, Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign raises interesting questions about Grant the leader and the hotbed of political conflict that surrounded him. Given Smith’s title, one might expect a more focused examination of the Overland campaign at the complex web of command relationships within the Army of the Potomac. Rather, the book stands as an interesting, if sharply one-sided, critique of the flaws in Grant’s military decision making, and an indictment of the general’s apparent refusal to tolerate criticism. In that sense, Smith’s work encourages us to complicate our understanding of one of the most famous military figures in American history.
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Drew S. Bledsoe. Review of Smith, Diane Monroe, Command Conflicts in Grant's Overland Campaign: Ambition and Animosity in the Army of the Potomac.
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