Armchair Generals, Historical Narrative, and Revisionism (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

(This post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on September 26, 2006, in response to a series of posts Mark Grimsley had offered on the Bermuda Hundred campaign)

I’ve read Mark’s summary of a reassessment of the Bermuda Hundred campaign with some interest.  It’s based in part upon a book that I had heard about in dissertation form when I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia: I recall a major in ROTC repeatedly telling me how it would change our understanding of the campaign.  That book, of course, is William Glenn Robertson’s Back Door to Richmond.  Another book, also of interest, is Herbert M. Schiller’s The Bermuda Hundred Campaign(1988).

I’d agree with Mark that the “traditional” narrative of the campaign is sprinkled with stereotypes that have persisted over time, so much so that they at first defy challenge simply because of how ingrained they have become in accounts of the campaign that depend so heavily on secondary sources: yet I’d also contend that several other forces are at work here.  First, of course, is that the stereotype was so extreme, so unexamined, that one could have bet that it would fall apart under careful reexamination, although the extent to which that reexamination would influence subsequent accounts usually remains problematic.  I think of Gordon Rhea’s work on Cold Harbor, in which he has provided the most detailed reexamination of that battle available, especially the June 3 assault.  For years some of us had found the traditional story troublesome, precisely because the evidence did not fit the narrative, and a return to the sources often cited revealed that they had been misused over time to the point that to chip away at the story was to risk being called an apologist for Ulysses S. Grant.  Rhea’s work has done away rather decisively with the old “7,000 men in 30 minutes/an hour” account of Union losses during the main assault on June 3, but I’m sure the legend will persist, in part because it serves an agenda of criticizing Grant’s generalship.  Oddly enough, there are other ways to criticize Grant’s generalship in 1864, and Mark’s series has alluded to some possibilities, but for some people familiar tales are best because they are familiar.

Another force that is at work here is a combination of retrospective armchair generalship and the desire among some people to offer fresh perspectives that may in the end prove as distorting in their own ways as do the traditional narratives they challenge and hope to displace.  Since we know that the Bermuda Hundred campaign ended up being a disappointment, we wonder how it could have been more successful from the point of view of the Union.  Robertson, Schiller, and Mark seem to agree that a better knowledge of the command skills of Butler, Gillmore, and Smith, along with clearer orders from Grant, would have helped; there’s also a hint that once these operations began to unfold, difficulties in communication and Grant’s increasing absorption with Lee made it difficult to coordinate operations.  I agree.  Yet it is difficult to determine exactly what Grant knew and when he knew it.  What did he know of Butler’s skills?  Had not Smith shown himself to be an able subordinate during the Chattanooga campaign?  Why did Grant select Gillmore?  Are we to assume that the only communication between Grant and Butler is that for which we have a documentary record, or have we been unable to recapture conversations that might have clarified points of contention?

I think the planning of the campaign challenges two assumptions often made about Grant and argued in the literature.  First, contrary to myth, Grant’s orders were not always clear and direct.  Second, contrary to myth, Grant was not always a great judge of military talent.  That said, of course, some of the responsibility for what happened in May 1864 must be shouldered by others, including the personalities that made the command situation along the James so dysfunctional.  By mid-June, 1864, Grant had better grounds upon which to assess the generalship of several key subordinates, and it’s what he decided to do with that knowledge in hand that I think opens him to much more damaging criticism.