The Great Man of History … An Implied Counterfactual

Grant 1868Today is Ulysses S. Grant’s birthday. As H. W. Brands would have it, he was the man who saved the Union. Perhaps he was. Perhaps, in fact, he was indispensable to the suppression of the southern rebellion, which in turn was secured in part through the destruction of slavery. In other words, he’s kinda a big deal.

In the last several decades (some would say starting in earnest in 1991), historians have taken a new look at the life and times of the hero of Appomattox and the eighteenth president of the United Sates. Grant continues to get high marks as a general, but I’d add that since the 1980s we have a better and fuller understanding of what made him a successful American commander. Other historians have reassessed his presidency, with some arguing that he was not only a capable president but indeed a very good one (an estimate that I think goes too far). In fact during the past ten years we have seen book after book come out repeating basically the same message established by 2001, to the point that this swelling chorus of phase has become a little too familiar as several biographers assert that their task is to rehabilitate Grant. I don’t happen to think that’s a biographer’s task, and in such claims there’s a little too much of the first person singular, but to each his or her own.

I don’t happen to think that Grant was indispensable as president, although I am hard pressed to identify someone who could have done a better job (and was electable) in 1868. Nor has anyone else identified a better choice or in fact outlined how the outcome of the Grant presidency could have been, in the larger sense of things, much different. In short, the counterfactual of “what if another Republican had run and won in 1868?” leads to very little discussion, although it is true that if the Democrats had claimed victory in 1868 or 1872, much would have been different. I recall one poll of historians as to who they would have voted for in various presidential elections, and was amused to find that a majority would have voted for Horatio Seymour in 1868 or Horace Greeley in 1872, a sign that not all American historians are particularly well-read, especially when it comes to Reconstruction, or that perhaps the profession isn’t quite as “politically correct” as some would have it. I wonder what would happen if somebody embarked on that poll today (Crossroads did it some time ago, and Grant won both elections, which suggests that readers of this blog on the whole may know something the historians polled in that example did not).

Having said that I don’t believe that Grant was indispensable as president does not mean that I don’t think he was important or that he played a key role in shaping the politics of post-Johnson Reconstruction. He did. But one can say the same thing of many other notable individuals when it comes to assessing their impact on history. When it comes to Grant the general, however, the challenge is a little different. Simply put, could the United States have prevailed in the American Civil War without Ulysses S. Grant?

Exploring this question means understanding Grant’s place in history. It also implies a counterfactual speculation about what would have happened had Grant not existed or been removed (one way or another) from the number of generals who eventually rose to high command. It soon gives rise to other questions as well. Who else could have led the United States to victory? Without Grant, would William T. Sherman have made his way up the command ladder as he did, given his own testimony as to Grant’s importance in his career?

Some of these counterfactuals depend on a great deal of speculation. For example, would Nathaniel Lyon or Philip Kearny have eventually risen to high command? That counterfactual musing requires a good deal of speculation (next I’ll hear that if Elmer Ellsworth had lived, all would have been well). What about the oft-forgotten Samuel R. Curtis? What about George H. Thomas or William S. Rosecrans, both of whom enjoy followings characterized in some instances by a deeply-felt resentment of Grant? My opinion (and you should take it as that … my opinion) is that it is unlikely that any of these names had the right stuff for the top spot. Each of them possessed some ability (and one could argue that in the cases of Kearny and especially Thomas, a great deal of ability), but it’s my sense that they would have fallen short in other ways, including the ability to direct others and work within the existing framework of civil-military relations. Indeed, I’d say the only Union general who had a chance to win the war prior to Grant was George B. McClellan, and I think one can engage in a reasonable discussion about whether McClellan could have won the war. I doubt that other commanders of important field armies (McDowell, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade, Halleck, and Buell come to mind) could have won the war. There might well be a “General X” who would have proven equal to the task, but that would be true in any counterfactual: I prefer to stick with the people I know existed.

In short, Grant assumes the place he does not only because of the result he achieved but also because one is hard pressed to identify someone else who could have done as well. One would have to shuffle other variables (such as Lincoln) to achieve a different scenario … which may take one down the road of historical inevitability (and if something’s inevitable, then one does not see the need for a great man to achieve what would have happened in any case).  And, if we take the case of McClellan, we have a far different situation after the United States prevails.

Was Ulysses S. Grant an indispensable man? Maybe. What do you think?

26 thoughts on “The Great Man of History … An Implied Counterfactual

  1. James F. Epperson April 27, 2013 / 12:40 pm

    I’m inclined to agree with you. Kearney is an interesting figure to speculate on, but I think he was a potentially fine corps commander, no more than that. And his temper and fault-finding are unfortunately reminiscent of Baldy Smith. McClellan had the ability but not the character—he needed to grow up before taking command, frankly.

    • Lyle Smith April 27, 2013 / 3:09 pm

      If Baldy Smith and Phil Kearny had been subordinate to Grant, would they have been complaining as much you think?

      Grant was gifted and his rise to the top was just. His story is a nice example of the United States at its best.

      I like or don’t dislike all the other generals. Something can be said for all of them. I will say that I think Thomas probably didn’t want the highest level of responsibility. I think he knew his limitations.

      • Brooks D. Simpson April 27, 2013 / 3:11 pm

        Well, in the case of Baldy Smith, yes. That’s why Grant sent him home in 1864.

        • Lyle Smith April 27, 2013 / 4:07 pm

          You got me there. I need to read more. I was only thinking about his first go round in the Army of the Potomac.

    • John Foskett April 28, 2013 / 7:52 am

      I concur on Kearney. I’ve also long had the impression that he beat Harry Callahan to the punch with “a man’s got to know his limitations”. In other words, I’m not certain Phil really thought of himself as the strategizing, rear area CEO type. Given his style of leadership and his flair for the dramatic, Chantilly was probably inevitable anyway.

    • Joshism April 28, 2013 / 8:16 pm

      If Phil Kearney had managed to get command of the Army of the Potomac, he probably still would not have survived the war. That man just couldn’t keep himself away from the front and personally leading troops (and accidentally riding into the enemy’s troops).

  2. Noma April 27, 2013 / 1:49 pm

    Grant was probably indispensable.

    Nevertheless, since it’s a counterfactual, what if both C.F. Smith and James McPherson had remained alive? Maybe the two of them combined could have meshed emotionally with Sherman (as Grant did), and then Sherman could have won the war. Sherman had a lot of brains, and a lot of compassion, of his own “I will share with you my last cracker” variety. Possibly, he could have done it.

    As for the presidency, very difficult. After Andrew Johnson basically wrecked everything by handing all the land (which should have gone to the freedmen) back to the old plantation owners, it’s hard to see who could have done a better job at the presidency than Grant. Definitely not Horace Greeley, who was suffering from alzheimer’s and would soon be dead.

    And, as a bonus, here’s a song for anyone who wants to celebrate Grant’s birthday and the 150th anniversary of Grierson’s raid:

    • jfepperson April 27, 2013 / 5:11 pm

      I love it!

  3. rcocean April 27, 2013 / 2:05 pm

    I’ll go with the established opinion that prevailed for over 100 years that Grant was a failed president. When did we start giving Presidents grades based on good intentions? His administration was corrupt and Reconstruction was a failure that lead to segregation and 100 years of Jim Crow. Good Politicians deal with reality and do what they can given that reality. A perfect example, if you want a “safety value” for blacks why annex Santa Domingo? Why not just give Oklahoma to the blacks? Giving blacks the vote and basing congressional apportionment on the basis of all votes was an absurdity WITHOUT some mechanism to FORCE the Southerners to give blacks the vote. It would’ve have been much better to based congressional apportionment on White votes ONLY, and given the vote to Black Union Army vets.

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 27, 2013 / 2:57 pm

      Unfortunately for your analysis, most of the southern states had already been readmitted to full membership in the Union (including representation in Congress) before Grant became president, so he had to deal with that reality. Given that reality, what could he do?

  4. rcocean April 27, 2013 / 3:22 pm

    Grant should have pushed for a 14th Amendment that gave only black vets the vote, and restricted congressional apportionment to white people only. This would have severely reduced the electoral college and House of Representative votes of Deep South Racists. Or Grant could have pushed for actual land reform in the south. Black folks would’ve preferred actual land to some “paper” civil right. There’s no reason why the US Government couldn’t have purchased the former slave holders land and given it to the former slaves. This would’ve done more to achieve equality then anything else. It also would’ve avoided the Sharecropper system.

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 27, 2013 / 4:27 pm

      Grant became president in 1869. The Fourteenth Amendment was passed through Congress in 1866 and ratified in 1868.

  5. Michael Confoy April 27, 2013 / 8:56 pm

    I find it amazing the comments made on Grant as a president from people that clearly have not done any detailed research or reading on the subject. The other major issue Grant was tackling was the Plains Indians. One of the major benefits of Grant (and Sherman) is that he drives the lost causers crazy when you do anything to elevate him over Lee. That alone is worth the price of admission.

  6. TFSmith April 28, 2013 / 1:49 am

    My .2 cents:

    Essentially, the issue with “replace US Grant” breaks into two very distinct assignments; a) who can replace him as army and theater commander in the west in 1862-64 (and do as well), and who can replace him as GinC (and theater commander) in the east in 1864-65 (and do as well).

    If Grant had been killed at Belmont, presumably CF Smith gets the corps-level command for Henry-Donelson; if Smith then dies as historically, presumably Sherman (or McClernand?) gets command at Shiloh. After that it gets a little murky, but presumably Halleck would serve as theater commander in the West in 1862-63, before going east. I’d guess Thomas and/or WT Sherman takes over; there was a lot of talen in the West, actually. I’m not sure who else would be senior at that point. Canby?

    If Grant lives until 1864, but is killed before he can come east to serve as GinC, presumably Halleck continues as such, but with Meade given what amounts to the “eastern” theater command in 1864.

    I can still see the US prevailing in both cases, albeit presumably with some serious reverses along the way – Rosecrans at Chattanooga, for example.


    • Ned April 29, 2013 / 9:55 am

      Canby was comparatively very junior in rank and was in New Mexico early in the war than in the east until May 1864.

      In a scenario without Grant and with Smith dying at Shiloh, command of the AotT might have gone to Pope, since he would rank McClernand and Wallace, which I think would have been a critical factor for Halleck. Then again, Lincoln did get authority to assign as commander someone who was the junior officer of the same rank. He could also have tweaked the dates of commissions as he did for Rosecrans. So there are all sorts of possible command options.

      The first big test would have come in the spring of 1863. With efforts to get at Vicksburg stalled, Sherman wanted to return to Memphis and McClernand wanted to campaign in Arkansas. Without Grant, what would have happened? Would Vicksburg have even been captured in 1863?

      The next big test could come in May-June1864 — without Grant to take charge of the situation in Virginia, when would the Army of the Potomac ever get the Petersburg-Richmond? I don’t see Meade doing it.

      So I am inclined to see him as indispensable for his impact on those two campaigns.

      • TFSmith April 29, 2013 / 10:11 pm

        I dunno; Vicksburg is a pretty obvious target in 1862-63…if Smith dies as historically, I think WT Sherman is senior to any of the other Army of the Tennesee division commanders, and he is a West Pointer with a solid career behind him…seems like he’d be the likely choice, especially if Pope went east, as historically. Sherman seems like a good choice to work with the Navy, so I expect Vicksburg would fall at some point in 1863.

        The other possibility to replace CF Smith would be Thomas, who I’d guess would get the job done as well. Not with the sort of masterful maneuvers that Grant pulled off, but I’d think both could manager the siege.

        Tougher to figure out a replacement in the East in 1864-65; I think Meade could have served as the theater commander, with Halleck remaining as general-in-chief.


  7. Tony April 28, 2013 / 7:18 am

    I can see James B McPherson stepping in for Grant, but it is hard to see a path of succession to the top spot. How do you view McPherson’s histrionic stand against Grant at Raymond, forcing Grant to turn his entire army towards Jackson instead of maintaining communication with Grand Gulf?

    • TF Smith April 28, 2013 / 5:31 pm

      I don’t see how McPherson could have leapfrogged WT Sherman in the West (or DC Buell or George Thomas or John Pope or William Rosecrans, for that matter, depending on the time frame) if Grant is unavailable in the 1862-64 period.

      • Ned April 29, 2013 / 10:22 am

        Hypothetical Scenario to get McPherson to the top:
        1) have him be promoted to BG earlier; either in the mass promotions of 1861 or in the aftermath of Fort Donelson. His promotion after Shiloh would then be to MG instead of BG.

        2) have him transition from staff to troop command sooner. In the fall of 1862 there was talk by Grant and Rosecrans about how talented McPherson was and that he should be commanding troops instead of being a staff officer. I see no reason this couldn’t happen earlier.

        Either the date of his commission as MG could be a day earlier than Sherman or Thomas or Lincoln could exercise his authority to assign the junior in command. Either way McPherson would be in a position to rise to the top.

        • TFSmith April 29, 2013 / 10:13 pm

          If you’re going to allow for that many deltas, how about AJ Smith?

          Or Sheridan, for that matter…

  8. John Foskett April 28, 2013 / 7:55 am

    On a tangential note, Varney’s forthcming book is apparently out in “advance reader” form. It appears that he will attempt to make the case that Sam indulged in a good deal of fiction in his memoirs.

  9. Noma April 28, 2013 / 8:14 am

    It seems like one reason that Grant was indispensable is that there was really no one else as good as he was in building up new leadership. It’s notable that when Halleck was in the West he complained that there was no good leadership in the West. That was at a time when Halleck had Grant, Sherman, Thomas, McPherson and Sheridan under him.

    When you read Grant’s Memoirs or his conversations with John Russell Young on the South China Sea, it is clear that he’s always evaluating the leadership of other generals, and also seeing how he can push it to succeed. Sometimes he put too much confidence in people that he pushed, like Baldy Smith or even Warren. But he did build up some great leaders under him.

    Is there anyone else who was able to build leaders?

  10. Mark April 28, 2013 / 3:41 pm

    “… arguing that he was not only a capable president but indeed a very good one (an estimate that I think goes too far).”

    “I don’t happen to think that Grant was indispensable as president, although I am hard pressed to identify someone who could have done a better job (and was electable) in 1868. Nor has anyone else identified a better choice or in fact outlined how the outcome of the Grant presidency could have been, in the larger sense of things, much different.”

    I’m puzzled by the use of “good president” and “indispensable president” and some implied opposition between them. Then to have an openly acknowledged “best man for the job among the available candidates” position while adding a denial of “indispensable” (in addition to denying he was very good at it) only increases the cognitive dissonance. I can’t make sense of the denials of Grant as a very good or indispensable president given the context. There is either some serious idealization going on, or Brooks is messing with us with a clever Rorschach test that has the side benefit of stimulating us to give lots of content and creativity to our answers. 🙂

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 28, 2013 / 4:04 pm

      The long and the short of it is as follows:

      1. It is not clear to me that if another Republican (say John Sherman) was elected in 1868 that the United States in 1890, say, would have been substantially different when it came to the outcome of Reconstruction. Lots of other things might have been different had Sherman been elected president, but that’s due to Sherman’s role in other matters down the road.

      2. That said, it is even less clear to me that there was a better choice than Grant in 1868, or that other possible candidates could have done a better job as president between 1869 and 1877. Historians have struggled with posing meaningful counterfactuals for Reconstruction during Grant’s administration that would have led to a better result for all concerned by 1877. In part this is because Grant was already limited in what he could do by the decision to restore civil government as quickly as possible consistent with the establishment of loyal state regimes throughout the South.

      3. Most historians who are up-to-date with the literature no longer embrace the traditional “Grant was a failure as president” argument, although it is taking political scientists who write on the presidency a great deal of time to catch up to that understanding.

      Someone can be “good” without being “indispensable.” Meade was good at Gettysburg, but one suspects that Reynolds or Hancock might have performed well, too, so Meade’s not “indispensable.”

  11. Mark April 28, 2013 / 3:54 pm

    Just to be clear, denying Grant’s indispensability as president is clear enough. I assume that only means that there were others who could have done nearly as good, or if the country would have been about as well off in the end even if there weren’t. Understanding that is as easy as it is unprovable. I should have left that part out. I was only pointing out what we all know, that no ones knows what “very good” means in anything without a criteria. On my criteria of what was important at the time (along with those criteria that are timeless) I can say he was a pretty good one, but without stating what those are it doesn’t reveal much.

  12. Dave Gill May 1, 2013 / 5:04 am

    While talking about Grant… I am in the middle of reading your first Grant book. What are the prospects on the second?

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