(September 2013 Civil War News Book Review)
General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War. By Frank P. Varney. Photos, maps, notes, appendix, bibliography, index, 336 pp., 2013, Savas Beatie, www.savasbeatie.com, $32.95.
This superb book disproves the notion that there’s nothing new to learn about the Civil War. Frank Varney builds a convincing case that William Rosecrans has been treated unfairly by historians and, perhaps more significantly, that Ulysses S. Grant deliberately destroyed his reputation and the reputations of other Civil War generals.
Varney argues that too many historians have relied heavily or solely upon Grant’s Memoirs in overrating Grant and negatively criticizing other Union generals such as Rosecrans.
Among those he criticizes for this are Steven Woodworth, James B. McPherson, Peter Cozzens, Jean Edward Smith, Geoffrey Perret, John Mosier, Shelby Foote, J.F.C. Fuller and me.
While this book focuses on Grant’s and historians’ disparagement of Rosecrans, Varney promises a second book in which he will describe Grant’s allegedly unfair treatment of other generals, including Gouverneur Warren, Joe Hooker, Henry Halleck and George Thomas.
He indicates he will analyze Chattanooga and Five Forks, and that he will describe likely perjury by Grant. If Varney provides the same amount of detailed evidence he does in this book, he may have trouble getting it all into one volume.
In this study, Varney examines the battles of Belmont, Shiloh, Iuka, Corinth, Stones River and Chickamauga — as well as the Tullahoma Campaign, Grant’s removal of Rosecrans from command between the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and Grant’s removal of him from command in Missouri in December 1864.
Varney systematically sets forth the standard pro-Grant and anti-Rosecrans analyses of those events – both in Grant’s Memoirs and then in historians’ accounts.
After demonstrating historians’ reliance on Grant and few other reliable sources, Varney presents his own analysis of each event – more anti-Grant and pro-Rosecrans – but is careful not to claim that Rosecrans was a great general or was without fault. He relies heavily on primary sources, including the Official Records and Rosecrans’ papers.
He says that Grant disobeyed orders at Belmont, was unprepared and blamed others at Shiloh, unfairly criticized Rosecrans for Iuka and Corinth, and scoffed at Rosecrans’ Stones River victory despite Abraham Lincoln’s contrary view.
Varney presents a credible case that Grant may have lied and altered or destroyed documents to protect his own reputation.
Chickamauga is given an extensive analysis. Varney asserts that Rosecrans was undercut by Grant and Ambrose Burnside’s failure to reinforce his flanks before that battle, was betrayed when a subordinate carried out an obviously mistaken order, and retreated to Chattanooga in good order.
Also, Varney says, “Old Rosey” was victimized by Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana’s extremely negative initial report from Chattanooga to Washington – which was quickly followed by a much more positive report that has been ignored by Grant and historians ever since.
Varney asserts that Grant’s removal of Rosecrans reflects Stanton and Grant’s hatred of Rosecrans and was based on erroneous allegations.
He also provides evidence that Grant’s opening of the supply, or “cracker,” line into Chattanooga was merely the completion of actions already initiated by Rosecrans. His firing in Missouri followed the transfer away of most of his troops while he was seriously threatened by Confederates.
The book ends with some interesting and informative speculation about, and analysis of, the possible reasons for Grant’s apparent mistreatment and denigration of Rosecrans. Stanton’s anti-Rosecrans attitude is not explained.
All in all, this book is a “must” for anyone interested in Grant, Rosecrans, the Western Theater, Civil War historiography or the relationship among Union generals. It is a groundbreaking study that deserves attention.
Book Review Editor Ed Bonekemper is the author of five Civil War books, including Grant and Lee: Victorious American and Vanquished Virginian.