22 thoughts on “H.W. Brands on Ulysses S. Grant

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 10, 2012 / 11:08 am

      How am I either excited or worried (as some might think)? I just thought I’d share the talk. It is interesting to see all the people who have decided that Grant is now a subject of interest.

  1. John Foskett March 10, 2012 / 9:53 am

    The risks of covering this topic in 90 or so minutes are evident. Hopefully the book will provide a more nuanced view of Grant’s ACW experience than what comes across here. Some of it sounds eerily familiar to the good old Grant the Butcher Lee the Master Tactician junk which Fuller began picking apart 8 decades ago..I suppose that to some extent this approach is actually “new” because it’s been effectively rejected rfor some time. What goes around…..

  2. Carl Schenker March 10, 2012 / 10:25 am

    Brooks —
    Thanks for posting this. I enjoyed listening and look forward to the release of the book, which Amazon targets for Oct 2012.
    Around the 1:20 mark of his remarks, Brands rather seems to say that a key part of Grant’s military success was a unique willingness to pay the butcher’s bill (without using that phrase). He then moves on to other topics, in a fashion leaving me unclear whether that is actually his take.
    The idea of exploiting the Union’s superior resources (with Grant’s five-prong plan for the 1864 campaign season) and thereby overtaxing the South doesn’t necessarily imply a unique willingness to suffer casualties. But I guess I do feel that Sherman, for one, was more averse to casualties than Grant was during his eastern campaigns. (As I understand it, Grant’s Vicksburg campaign was a model of maneuver with great accomplishment for relatively small casualties, casualties that could have been reduced even more if Grant had avoided the two assaults on Vicksburg.)
    Carl Schenker
    P.S. At Chickasaw, Sherman supposedly said “Taking Vicksburg will cost us 5,000 casualties, and we may as well suffer them here.” Certainly every general has to make such calculaitons at some level before committing troops to battle.

    • John Foskett March 10, 2012 / 11:54 am


      These are good points. Obviously Grant was aware of generally greater Union manpower sources (although Lost Cause mythologists have distorted that factor in their quest to explain Southern defeat). Even at Vicksburg, after the brilliant campaign of maneuver Grant attempted costly headlong assaults at Vicksburg itself before settling into a seige. My objection is to the oversimplified analysis into which the Brands lecture seems to stumble. As has been well[-documented, Lee was at least as much a “butcher” as Grant. And an overarching feature of the unprecedented, constant bloodletting in the Overland Campaign was Grant’s repeated efforts to turn Lee’s flank, which were frustrated in part by ineffective execution at lower levels..

  3. Mark March 10, 2012 / 11:02 am

    That lecture was interesting, but I have some qualms about his brief explanation of how Grant was victorious. Brief as it was, he seemed to be saying the key was that Grant somehow uniquely decided on a war by attrition and accepted mass casualties in a way that others didn’t. Hmn. Where have I heard that before? The unique skills he did identify with Grant seemed to be details in comparison. I think there are problems with this line of thought that many of us are familiar with, but I’ll wait to hear what others think about Brands’ explanation to see what impression others get from it.

  4. Carl Schenker March 10, 2012 / 11:59 am


    I was left unclear about exactly what point Brands was making in this area.
    He says Grant was willing to pull the trigger when someone like McClellan was not. That much is true.
    He says Grant would go forward despite the foreknowledge that 25 percent of his force would be dead the next morning. Presumably that was hyperbolic. But it is true that various battles resulted in casualty rates of 20 percent or so.
    I don’t know what a close analysis of Grant v. other generals would show in willingness to risk casualties. The casualty rate for USG’s forces at Shiloh (exclusive of Buell’s forces) was, I believe, in excess of 20 percent (including 2,000 lost as prisoners). But that came while just sitting there, so to speak, in an unfortified forward position.
    My computer is misbeahving and I’ll stop here and post while I can. As I said above, I believe Grant did want to exploit the Union’s superior manpower (and Lincoln wanted it done) but that doesn’t mean that he was willing to suffer higher casualties. But I could certainly stand to be educated in this area.

    • John Foskett March 10, 2012 / 1:46 pm


      As i indicated, my concern is that I heard echoes of long-discredited stereotypes. Some of that is inevitable because of the format, of course. But it does cause one to form doubts that this book is going to add much. Grant would have been a military imbecile had he not recognized that (for the most part) the Union armies had to take the offebsive, which inevitably dictates casualties. But Lee’s casuialty rates were generally at least as high and the stereotype simply ignores the irrefeutable fact that Grant had a true appreciation for maneuver and its positive results. As for others, look at the casualty rates at Perryville, Stones River, and Chickamauga. Grant was nowhere in the neighborhood. The many bloody affairs in the Eastern Theater before he showed up speak for themselves.

      • Carl Schenker March 10, 2012 / 6:22 pm

        John —
        Yes, at least three of us (you, Mark, and I) all took alarm at the same passage in the talk, I think all for the same basic reason — that historians had moved beyond the caricature of Grant the Butcher and that Brands might be going back in that direction.
        I guess we will have to await publication to see more clearly what his take is. Also, I believe that his talk was given last May (2011), with the manuscript still in preparation, so maybe he sharpened up his thinking (“got his mind right”) after the presentation — maybe someone raised our objection during the Q&A.
        Presumably Brands came upon Ed Bonekemper’s “A Victor, Not a Butcher.”

      • Mark March 11, 2012 / 12:24 pm

        Carl, John’s response is pitch perfect for my concern. In the lecture there seem to be “echoes of long-discredited stereotypes.” We all know it was a fast-paced lecture, but it raises concerns.

        On the willingness to sustain casualties, the stereotypes of Grant on this are problematic on so many levels that obscure issues that should be discussed. I forget if it was Catton or Perret who made the *quite obvious* point that it was well-known that a standing army in those days would lose a fearful number of men to disease merely in virtue of the fact that they were in the field, regardless of whether they were engaged in battle or not. On this view, the steel to accept battle casualties for a quicker decision is more likely to save your soldiers’s lives, or at least not make their death a waste be losing the war. On this view the willingness to accept casualties we see in Grant isn’t a willingness to accept *more of them* than the others, it is a willingness to accept the political heat of losing them in battle as opposed to in other ways. That takes moral courage, but what it doesn’t take is the willingness to lose more men, and that is why comparative stats on commanders/casualties or battles/casualties is revealing. Now maybe there are holes in this way of thinking, and I’d like to hear what others think on this but the whole “acceptance of casualties” *stereotype* seemingly intimated by Brand in the lecture just isn’t a very informative point to make. There is no analysis, no nuance. There should be. I object to the stereotype because it is brain-dead and misleading, like most oversimplified stereotypes are. We all know Grant planned to exploit every advantage. But whatever truth there is in the stereotype, it conceals almost everything we should be thinking about and doesn’t reveal anything meaningful at all. Amateurs talk strategy and pros talk logistics? That is why I share John’s concern of “long-discredited stereotypes.” 90% of the time what comes with this stereotype is an insult to our intelligence.

        Also, didn’t Brand say Sherman was smarter than Grant? Again, what does that mean? He was a better student because of his class placement? Wasn’t Grant a better mathematician, artist, and horseman than Sherman? What is it that justifies his claim that Sherman was smarter? I assume they saw themselves as equal in that regard, but I think Sherman would say Grant had more of certain moral qualities than he did. But again, Brand is hinting at stereotypes in disappointing ways for a college professor. He obviously strives for clear expressions even in his brief lectures, so I think even or especially these brief lecture comments are revealing.

        • Mark March 11, 2012 / 12:51 pm

          Not to beat this to death, but the comparative stats on commanders/casualties or battles/casualties is revealing because the stereotypes cause people to lose their perspective.

          What does “accept casualties” even mean? Say you have two commanders of equal sized armies engage in battle, one because he thinks he can achieve his objective while losing no more than 2,000 soldiers (also thinking 4,000 would be unjustified), and the other because he thinks he’ll lose 5,000 (also thinking 8,000 unjustified). But after the battle the results were inconclusive and they both lost 10,000. Who “accepted” more casualties? The one who expected to lose 2,000 didn’t surrender or retreat after it became apparent casualties were going to be far higher. Does that constitute acceptance? What is the difference between acceptance in the abstract and acceptance in fact? If other commanders had similar casualty rates as Grant in fact, remind me why one is justified in saying Grant “accepted” higher casualties? Accepted how? I think Grant thought winning was the best way to respect and preserve his soldiers lives *all considered*, given a certain understanding of necessity, which implies beliefs about the morality of the cause.

          Like I said, the whole debate about “acceptance of casualties” made in the way Brand hints at lacks any nuance necessary for a meaningful discussion on the topic. Isn’t it common knowledge that commanders lose more men than they’d wished? So do the ones who don’t “accept” more casualties play a hide-and-seek mind game with themselves where they pretend they’ll lose far less than more dispassionate observers find reasonable to expect? Calling Sigmund Freud, or at least Doctor Phil?

        • Carl Schenker March 12, 2012 / 5:54 am

          Mark —
          By no means am I here to defend Brands. I question him on this butcher’s bill business, as you and John do. I just want to see what he puts down on paper as his final verdict.
          As to Sherman, I haven’t gone back to view the tape. But there is a famous Sherman quote saying “I was smarter than Grant, and more learned, but he had more moral courage than I did.” Whether Sherman really had a higher IQ than Grant, I don’t know. He did finish higher in his WP class than Grant did.
          Also, somewhat seriously, there seem to be fewer recorded instances of Sherman falling off his horse.
          P.S. I am finding it harder to compose posts here, computer stickiness. Are others having same problem?

        • Carl Schenker March 12, 2012 / 6:02 am

          Here is a link to the Sherman quote I mention above. Without having reviewed the tape, I think Brands may have been discussing this quote rather than ofering an indpt conclusion that Sherman was smarter than Grant. While we apparently have to rely on Wilson for this quote, I have little doubt that WTS in fact thought he was smarter than USG (and just about all the other boys and girls, too).

  5. Marc Ferguson March 10, 2012 / 6:01 pm

    In your opinion, does Brands bring anything new to the table when reassessing Grant?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 10, 2012 / 6:22 pm

      I didn’t see it in his remarks, but of course we’re some distance away from a book. So I wouldn’t want to judge a not yet released book by this talk.

  6. Al Mackey March 10, 2012 / 6:31 pm

    He’s throwing down the gauntlet, Brooks. He says he can write a better biography of Grant than anyone else. Fight’s on. 🙂

    Not sure I agree completely with his take on Grant’s generalship, though it’s very difficult to make a judgment on where he stands based on the few sentences he had regarding it.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 10, 2012 / 6:53 pm

      He may well indeed write the best single volume biography available. We’ll have to see.

  7. Carl Schenker March 12, 2012 / 8:16 am

    Mark stated above: “Wasn’t Grant a better mathematician, artist, and horseman than Sherman?” It was that passage that caused me to say above there seem to fewer recorded instances of Sherman falling off his horse than of Grant doing so. For those who might be interested:
    (1) Grant’s horse fell on his leg on the night of April 4, 1862, injuring his ankle pre-Shiloh.
    (2) Grant was severely injured in New Orleans on Sept 2, 1863, when his horse fell on him.
    (3) Grant may or may not have been further injured on Oct 23, 1863, when another horse fell on him on his way to Chattanooga. (PUSG 9:317-18.)
    So, three documented wartime falls for Grant. I know of no similar mishap to Sherman during the war, but would be very happy to hear of any. I draw no deep conclusions from this seeming discrepancy. Grant certainly is reputed a fine horseman and, I think, took pride in his accomplishments.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 12, 2012 / 10:35 am

      I’m not sure I follow the reasoning here. It reminds me of the baseball comparison of the outfielder with greater range who occasionally is charged with an error for going after a ball that tips off his glove versus an outfielder who plays it safe and thus limits his chance to commit an error. Who gets to more balls? Who saves his team more runs? Who’s the better outfielder?

      In examples one and three, we’re talking about very wet ground/mud. Horses slip. Riders fall. In example two, we are talking about being thrown from a horse, not a simple fall. So I’m not sure what the point is: I don’t recall Sherman riding a horse under fire the way Grant did during the battle of Monterrey, and I don’t recall Sherman setting any high jump records at West Point. If there’s evidence that Sherman the rider took risks (other than fleeing from Confederate fire on the morning of April 6, 1862), I’d like to see it.

      • Carl Schenker March 12, 2012 / 11:20 am

        Glad of your interest in this topic.
        (1) There is no reasoning to follow in my post. I specifically said that “I draw no deep conclusions.” In particular, I did not assert that Sherman was a better horseman than Grant, and would not do so based on that limited data. I dunno who was a better horseman. I don’t think we should assume it was USG just on the strength of USG’s reputation as a horseman and the feats you mention (WP, Monterrey).
        (2) It was Mark who asserted in a post that Grant was a better horseman than Sherman. I posted some data relevant to assessing that assertion. I was actually hoping that someone might post some specific data about Sherman and his horsemanship. (I do believe that Sherman was unhorsed once during a hunt in 1845 and also fell off a horse and scarred his cheek when about age 6.)
        (3) You point out that Grant’s horses fell on him twice in slippery conditions (Apr 1862, Oct 1863). I assume w/o knowing for sure that Sherman also frequently encountered slippery conditions while mounted. We have no reports that his horse ever fell on him in such conditions during the war. I would venture to say that Sherman probably spent more time in the saddle during the war, given his various marches and his “fleeing from Confederate fire on the morning of April 6, 1862” (to quote a distinguished scholar).
        (4) You point out that an unruly horse threw Grant in New Orleans in Sept 1863. As you know (and previously posted about), some believe there may have been drink involved on that occasion. I dunno about the drinking angle. But I assume w/o knowing that Sherman rode some unruly horses during the war and never seems to have been thrown.
        (6) You ask whether there’s evidence that Sherman the rider ever took risks. I know of none. If others do, I’d like to see it, too. But, I take it that you do not attribute the falls of April 1862, Sept 1863, and Oct 1863 to USG’s taking risks on those occasions (as opposed to wet conditions and an unruly horse).

        • Brooks D. Simpson March 12, 2012 / 1:53 pm

          In truth, I’m not interested in the topic. I know of no evidence to suggest that Sherman was an especially skilled horseman, while there are a good number of stories about Grant’s skill with horses. I didn’t think you posed a compelling case … and I think that it would be poor form, given your attention to detail, to “assume” that Sherman rode unruly horses and did so with skill. Nor do we have Sherman stories akin to Grant at West Point or Monterrey. As for the issue of Grant’s accidents, as you now remark they had nothing to do with skill or risk-taking, they are irrelevant to the issue of skilled horsemanship.

          I don’t know what a deep conclusion is. What shallow conclusions have you drawn? 🙂

  8. Carl Schenker March 12, 2012 / 9:18 am

    Mark —
    Your posts above raise interesting points about how to think about the subject of “willingness to accept casualties.”
    As shown by Sherman’s supposed remark at Chickasaw, every general has to make trade-off calculations when planning an offensive move (or even deciding merely to hold a threatened position). So, any general at some level has to be willing to accept casualties or he should resign his commission.
    During WWI, Allied generals chose to accept an awful lot of casualties in attacks on German trenches, and accomplished nothing worthwhile. As I understand it, people look at that nowadays and say it was stupid, not an exhibition of moral courage.
    I believe that Grant himself believed that the Grand Assault on Vicksburg was a mistake, that he should have avoided it and settled into siege mode after the first try. I believe he explains his deicsion to make a second assault by saying the troops wanted it. On that occasion, perhaps moral courage called for the general to say “siege mode,” rather than “attack.”
    I’m not in a position to say that Grant could have/should have achieved his goals in the east with fewer casualties. As John points out, Grant was usually attempting to flank Lee, so that seems to show a desire to maneuver rather than assault and thereby to limit casualties as opposed to what might occur under a different approach.
    Sherman takes a lot of flak for Kennesaw, and says in his memoirs that he had to prove to Johnston that he would fight rather than flank endlessly. But he chose a poor place to force the issue, just as Grant might have been better served to avoid the Grand Assault at Vicksburg.
    Overall, as stated above, I have the impression, that Sherman was more casualty averse than Grant was, at least in 1864-1865. But . . . all of this is probably above my paygrade.
    I certainly agree with you that these matters should be assessed thoughtfully, rather than with stereotypes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s